Madison, Wisconsin: Family and Budget Friendly

Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison.  Victoria Hart photos.

By Victoria Hart

Learning to become a savvy traveler takes skill and practice.  So, the earlier parents teach children to be curious, adventurous, and low maintenance travelers, the better prepared the entire family will be later in life, when opportunities for those big, exciting, “once in a lifetime” (and often expensive) trips come along.

Vilas Zoo Madison.
Vilas Zoo Madison.

Take the stress out of a family adventure. Relax and just go with the flow.  Madison, Wisconsin is a perfect place to start.

Madison Wisconsin Rooftop view
Madison Wisconsin Rooftop view of Lake Monona.

Choose Lodging First

Check hotel availability before you plan your dates.  Pricing is driven by demand, and Madison is an event-oriented city.

The area is home to the corporate offices of Trek Bicycle, Epic Systems, and other large employers who often hold events that sell out hotel rooms.

The finals of the International CrossFit games are held in Madison each August. Booking during a home Wisconsin Badgers football game will have you elbow to elbow with Big Ten football fans.

You may find yourself in Madison because of a major event or business trip. If so, enjoy your event and supplement your visit with the suggested activities.

If not, choose some dates between these events and you will find reasonable prices, no crowds, and an easy atmosphere to spend time with children.  The more flexible you can be with dates, the better value you will find.

Top Ten Places for a
Date in Milwaukee

The Hilton Madison Monona Terrace at 9 East Wilson Street is the perfect spot for a city vacation.  It’s just a 12 minute Uber ride in from the airport, and a five-minute walk to the Capitol and other downtown attractions.  The rooms are clean and recently renovated. An indoor pool and hot tub make for a nice way to relax and refresh after a long sightseeing day.

The newer AC Marriott Madison at One North Webster Street will have a higher price point for Madison, but the spectacular views from the rooftop terrace may be enough to make you feel it is worth the splurge.  Yes, it is a splurge for Madison, but the pricing is modest compared to staying in a similar property in a larger city.  Visiting a city like Madison just might be the place to indulge.

If It’s Free, It’s for Me!

Madison Museum of Contemporary Art Sculpture Garden
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art Sculpture Garden

I like to start trip planning by challenging myself to find all the free things there are to do with a family.  After all, admissions on vacation start to add up, especially if you travel with a family of four or more.

Wisconsin values the family.  This is evident in the number of things there are to do with children that cost nothing or almost nothing. If you do all these activities thoroughly, you won’t be able to get to them in just a few days.

Another side benefit of free admission is the ability to take a “survey” visit.  If the kids aren’t engaged at a particular location, move on.

You can always go back and try again when they are older.  If they are finding more to hold their attention than expected, savor the moment and enjoy. Don’t feel pressure to see it all.

State Capitol- 2 East Main Street

A great way to appreciate state government in the United States is to visit State Capitol buildings.  In Madison, Wisconsin, the Capitol is spectacular.  The dome is the same size as the U.S. Capitol dome.

No building in Madison can be built taller than the statehouse.  The art and architecture are majestic. Stone sourced from all over the world is used.  A replica of the Liberty Bell, minus the crack, presents a memorable story and photo op.  Paintings depict moments in time with historic significance.

A tour of the capital rotunda in Madison, Wisconsin.
A tour of the capital rotunda in Madison, Wisconsin.

A free docent-led 45-minute tour is offered seven days a week on the top of the hour, except for a few holidays.  Check the website at www.tours.wisconsin.gov to be sure there is one offered during your visit.  No reservations are needed for parties of 10 or less.

Veteran’s Museum- 30 W Mifflin Street

Located adjacent to the state capitol, this free museum explores the history of Wisconsin Veterans from the Civil War to the present day.  Even if you are not from Wisconsin, the story of veterans is a national story, and children will benefit from learning about American history. www.wisconsinhistory.org.

Kids check out a reptile at the zoo in Madison.
Kids check out a reptile at the zoo in Madison.

Madison Museum of Contemporary Art- 227 State Street

Stroll down State Street from the Capitol, and you will find the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.  With three main exhibit galleries and an outdoor rooftop sculpture garden, you can tour this museum in less than an hour or use it as a respite to relax and sketch in one of the galleries.  There is a MMoCA Kids art guide and a MMoCA Teens art guide to encourage all age levels to engage with the museum at appropriate levels.

Kids in the Rotunda Program at the Overture Center – 201 State Street

Just across the street from MMoCA, The Overture Center for the Arts offers free performances for children and their families.  Geared toward children 9 and under, this is a great way to enhance a family trip, while also getting children acclimated to being respectful audience members during performances.

Performance schedules are seasonal and vary, so check the schedule at www.overture.org, and see if you can work one into your visit.  Once again, no need for tickets or reservations.  Just walk into an open admission situation and enjoy.

Henry Vilas Zoo – 702 South Randall Avenue

There is nothing like a zoo to engage kids, burn some energy and learn a few things. Even the zoo is free in Madison.  Located just a couple of miles outside of downtown, the Henry Vilas Zoo is free 365 days a year.  The 28-acre property is open to the public from 9:30 am – 5:00 pm seven days a week.  Parking is free. If you fly into town, it is an easy uber ride.

View of the New Orpheum theater from the top of the museum.
View of the New Orpheum theater from the top of the museum.

Well, Almost Free

Wisconsin Historical Museum- 30 N. Carroll Street

Exhibits on Native Americans, Early Explorers and Wisconsin Politics are all part of the Wisconsin Historical Museum.  There is a $5 admission for adults and a $3 admission for children 5 and older, but a free tour is offered for everyone at 1 p.m. each day.  www.wisconsinhistory.org is the place for more information.

Madison Children’s Museum-100 N. Hamilton Street

This one might cost you, but not much and it is so worth it!  No need to say, “don’t touch!”  There are two floors and a rooftop garden filled with exhibits designed for kids to climb, crawl, touch, create and explore.  It is worth the better part of a day. Take some time to let the kids deeply engage in activities.

Personally, I could spend a day here without kids. The museum periodically offers “Adult Swim,” a night where admission is limited to those 21 and older, beer and pizza are involved, and no kids are allowed.

What will this cost you?  Admission is $7.95 for adults and children, and $6.95 for seniors and grandparents.  Active duty military families get in free through the Blue Star Museum program.  If you have a membership at your local museum, you are in luck.  Members of the Association of Science and Technology Museums (ASTC) get free admission for up to six people, and members of the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) get 50% off admission for up to six people.

Notable Characteristics of Madison and Wisconsin

Madison is an Isthmus.  Did you learn what an Isthmus is in elementary school?  It is a narrow piece of land connecting two larger areas across an expanse of water by which they are otherwise separated.  There are only 5 Isthmuses in the United States.  The others are Catalina Island, California; Seattle, Washington; Point Peninsula, New York and San Francisco, California.

I’m guessing there aren’t too many families who create a “bucket list” to visit every Isthmus in the United States or the world, but perhaps we should all start a new list.  This one seems doable.  If it doesn’t help your kids with their geography lessons to know what an Isthmus is, it might at least be a Jeopardy question or come up in a bar trivia contest one day when they become of age.

Wisconsin Veteran's Museum in Madison.
Wisconsin Veteran’s Museum in Madison.

All joking aside, you might be planting the seeds of inspiration for a future geographer by visiting this Isthmus with your child.  No interest in geography?  The views across Lake Mendota and Lake Monona are simply breathtaking.  That’s enough for me. There are over 200 miles of hiking and biking trails surround Madison, with plenty of access to nature without even leaving downtown.  This might be the time to rent a kayak, take a standup paddleboard lesson or rent bikes for a day for a long lakeside ride.

Wisconsin makes cheese.  Wisconsin is the #1 cheese state, producing 25% of the cheese consumed in the United States.  There are more than 1200 licensed cheesemakers in Wisconsin making over 600 varieties of cheese.  You won’t have to work too hard to teach the kids the importance of the dairy industry and cheesemaking in Wisconsin.  Cheese is served on or with everything.

Try a family challenge to see who can taste the most different kinds of cheese during your trip. Whose cheese curds squeak the loudest?  The experts tell me the squeakier the cheese curds, the fresher they are.  If nothing else, this knowledge starts a conversation and creates curiosity about what is produced in different states and regions, or even what products are important to the economy of other countries.

All Good Vacations Involve Ice Cream

The Memorial Union- 800 Langdon Street  

Ice Cream at the University of Wisconsin Memorial Union is a must.  Stop into the Daily Scoop for a delicious celebration of the best the dairy world has to offer, then head out back to the Union Terrace, where you experience Lake Mendota while enjoying your cone or sundae. Spending an evening on the Union Terrace made me want to go back to school.  Oh, but that would involve studying.  Perhaps being a visitor has its merits.

Are you still up for another free tour?  You don’t have to be a prospective student to get a free campus tour at U of W.   Just ask at the information desk.  It’s never too early to get those kids thinking about college.

Victoria Hart

Victoria Hart loves to share her travel tips, bargains, strategies, and stories, inspiring others to create their own adventures. She is the Chief Adventure Officer at www.JourneysJauntsandJunkets.com. When Victoria unpacks her suitcase, she calls Powell, Ohio home.

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