Madison is a city with something for every child, and every season. Whether your child is a toddler or heading off to college, there’s lots to see and do, and many activities are affordable or free! Here are my top five places I’d recommend you visit. Keep in mind that while my kids are six and three, I’m a kid at heart, and have lived in Madison my entire life.
The zoo is one of Madison’s greatest treasures. First of all, it is FREE, which makes it accessible for anyone, and is open year-round. The indoor and outdoor exhibits mean it’s a great option on those cold February days when you can’t do one more craft project. The variety and number of animals is incredible for being a 100 percent donation-based zoo, and they offer a ton of programs and camps for kids, as well as special events (like trick-or-treating at Halloween). Their new Arctic Passage exhibit opened last year, which hosts both Polar and Grizzly Bears, and they’re bringing back a White Rhino in 2017.
Open from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily
The Madison Children’s Museum is located on the Capitol Square, making it a great destination for a trip to the “downtown” area. They are constantly rotating displays, but have some perennial favorites, like the farm animals, shadow room, and water experimentation stations. They do a great job separating the areas for kids of different ages, so your toddler won’t be trampled by older kids. They also have special events for teens and even adults, so it’s truly the one-stop-shop for kids of ALL ages.
Open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Ages: ALL, best for elementary and younger
This HUGE park in Fitchburg is ideal in the summer months when you can explore their splash pad (a big hit with our kids), but they also have a giant Dream Park just yards away. The park is a large castle with bridges, swings, poles, and endless areas to climb and run. Not feeling the playground scene? There are nearly two miles of walking paths and trails in peaceful prairie scenery, fields for playing soccer, baseball, and both tennis and basketball courts. There’s something for everyone here.
4: Memorial Union & Lakeshore Path
Two words: ice cream. It’s not hard to sell a trip to the Union Terrace when ice cream is promised. Once you have your cone in hand, you can head out to the terrace and relax in the signature sun burst chairs, play cards, listen to music, or just watch the activity on Lake Mendota. There are often music or movie nights, and the nearby Lakeshore Path makes walking and taking in campus a great way to spend an afternoon. I took my 16-year-old niece here last summer, and it was her favorite part of her visit. This is a great spot year-round, as you are close enough to meander State Street, peruse the food carts on Library Mall, or take an official campus tour.
Ages: Elementary and up
The Capitol Square is home to the largest producer-only Farmer’s Market in the country, and April-November, it’s THE place to be if you’re in town on a Saturday. I listed this for kids in Elementary school on up, but adventurous families can do this with kids of any age. We are now at an age where my six-year-old daughter can make it on foot (and with enough listening skills to stay near us, pick samples with a toothpick vs. her hands, and not meltdown when we say no to a second donut). The market can get crowded from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., so if you’re coming with a stroller, do your best to avoid those “peak” hours. Regardless of the time you arrive, you’ll enjoy this uniquely Madison experience, with a side of cheese curds.