free in Madision

Lake Mendota

One of my favorite cities to visit for work has always been Madison, WI. As time has gone on I’ve realized that it is also a great vacation destination. Madison rolls components of Burlington VT, Boston, MA, and Austin, TX into one location .

Recently, I had the opportunity to fly my husband and six year old out to Wisconsin for a long weekend. While in the Madison area we found some great sites and educational attractions to visit for free. Some of my favorites include the seven below:

# 1- The Henry Vilas Zoo 


I was slightly skeptical of the idea of a free zoo. Of the low cost zoos I’ve been to I always feel like the animals look slightly miserable. Not so at the Henry Vilas Zoo. The zoo has some great exhibits and the animals seem happy and well cared for. Most exhibits have areas for the animals to go to when they need alone time and while this can make for some empty exhibits from time to time the animals are choosing to come out and see everyone when they do so.

Once you arrive inside the gates of the zoo the pathways are very easy to follow. Grab a map and go; it is easy to wind your way along the paths without missing any sights. We started to the left as my son is a huge penguin fan. There is a petting area with goats. Generally, these areas can be very overwhelming as the goats tend to be very aggressive. Not so with these ones who tolerated being lightly patted without us even having treats. The tiger was impressive, the chimps had some great toys to play with and there were some great indoor exhibits as well. There are several free parking lots nearby and on street parking is also available. Stroller parking was easy and abundant and strollers and wagons were available for rent.

There were several areas to sit down and eat and you can bring picnic lunches. But the concession stand prices are so affordable I highly encourage purchasing food to help support keeping the zoo free. Ice cream treats were under $2 and I fulfilled a pregnant craving with a huge root beer float for $4.49. To top it all off the float came in a reusable zoo cup that my son got to keep as a souvenir. If your child is “animaled” out there is a fantastic play area in the back corner of the zoo near the flamingos.

There is a bonus freebie in the zoo. Between the seals and the lions exhibits look for a Sonic poster on the rock wall. If you take your child’s picture in front of this poster they are eligible for a free sundae at the Sonic in Middleton, WI.

All in all the zoo is a phenomenal value and is better and more family friendly than many pay zoos that I’ve visited.

#2 The National Mustard Museum

The National Mustard Museum is one of those sites that you go to to say you went. You enter into the gift shop and the museum itself is downstairs.

You can try any mustard in the shop at the tasting counter. Mini hot dogs and pretzels are $1 each and can be topped with any mustard. This was a great lunch stop for us as we were satisfied with a few mini dogs each. I highly recommend the Delicae Key Lime Macadamia Mustard (strange sounding- great tasting!). My son’s recommendation was the Inglehoffer Organic Honey Mustard and my husband’s vote went to the very spicy Galena 911 Spicy Hot Mustard. Buy some mustard to take home and pick up a “Poupon U” t-shirt for the lucky folks at home.

To top off our hotdogs we stopped at the Sonic Drive In  on our way back into Madison. We showed our zoo photo of my son (See #1) and he got his free candy sundae while my husband and I sprang for our own treats. The carhops here still skate to the cars which my son thought was “Awesome!”.

#3 Wisconsin Veterans Museum  The Veterans Museum was a big hit with my son and husband. It consists of dioramas, life size figures, and painted murals over 10,000 feet of exhibit space. There are three main areas: the 20th Century Exhibit, the 19th Century Exhibit and a rotating area.

#4 University of Wisconsin Madison Geology Museum
The Geology Museum is located in the heart of downtown Madison in Weeks Hall on UW Campus. One of the things that I appreciated the most about the Geology Museum was the opportunity to pre-print the self guided tour book. This a great educational tool for slightly older children. The museum has many neat attractions, including the Boaz Mastodon which was found by children in Wisconsin. Our family favorites tended towards the meteorites, fossils, and dinosaurs.

#5 Visit Olbrich Botanical Gardens

Just a quick drive from downtown Olbrich Botanical Gardens offers free parking and sixteen acres of outdoor gardens. Conservatory admission is $1; free to under age 5, on Wednesdays, and Saturday mornings.

The gardens are very stroller friendly and are handicap accessible. There is also a tram that circles the property and drops up and picks off along the way. The outdoor gardens are divided into 14 separate and distinct gardens including the Serenity Garden, the Herb Garden, and the Rose Garden.

Pick a beautiful day, slather the kids in sunscreen, pack some books and a snack and take the kids on a fun and beautiful stroll!

#6 Go swimming at one of Madison’s ten lifeguard serviced beaches. The Vilas Park Beach is adjacent to the Henry Vilas Zoo. With three playgrounds, a swimming area, two fishing areas, and a large grassy open area, this park has something for everyone.

Olbrich Park, next to Olbrich Botanical Gardens, is one of Madison’s largest and in the winter boasts a skating rink. Along the shores of Lake Monona this beautiful park also has play areas.

#7 Visit the Madison Children’s Museum 

The museum charges admission, however, Thursdays after 5pm, admission is free for Twilight Thursdays.