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  • Chrissy Somers

Day Trippin' in Madison, WI

Two hours in the car, a full tank of gas, a picnic lunch, and three kids in the backseat means one thing… we’re DAY TRIPPIN’! Madison, Wisconsin, we’re coming for you!

I’m all about an adventure on a budget and this trip is JUST that! Our day started at 8AM when we left our house. Yes, this sounds early, but our sweet daughters never quite understood the concept of “sleeping in”, hence the reason our adventures tend to start at the buttcrack of dawn. We wanted to be home by dinnertime, so we gave ourselves six hours in the city of Madison.

I researched and dug around to make a list of ALL THINGS free and cheap in Madison. We only got to do three of those things, but I will still share the other things I discovered with you in case YOU have time for more or have already done the things we did.

TOTAL COST OF ADVENTURE: $46.80 (Seriously, I kid you not!!!)

Here we go!

A map of Henry Vilas Zoo and the surrounding lakes (and beaches)!

STOP 1 + 2: Henry Vilas Zoo + the beach of Lake Wingra

  • COST: FREE (though donations to the zoo are suggested and welcomed)!

  • HOURS: Daily, 9:30am - 5pm

  • ADDRESS: 702 South Randall Avenue, Madison, WI 53715

This zoo is one of the coolest and most diverse of the small zoos that I have had the pleasure of visiting. Your proximity to both the exotic and native animals is AMAZING! My daughters especially loved how close they got to the giraffes and rhino!

You can follow any path around the zoo to check out the wide array of animals and exhibits, but I would suggest saving the Children’s Zoo for LAST as your kids will likely burn through their energy like a gambler with a $20 bill in her pocket. We spent lots of time by the giraffe enclosure because the male giraffe was hanging out RIGHT in front of the girls; he probably could have reached his neck down and licked them if he wanted to.

Towards the center of the zoo, there are two covered pavilions with several metal picnic tables for eating. Two snack shops are there as well if you want snacks, drinks, slushies, or ice cream. We all could have gone for a slushy due to the oppressive heat, but because I was determined to leave the zoo without spending a dime (other than the $10 donation we made), I resorted to being a ‘mean mommy’ and gave my kids an orange from our picnic basket. #SorryNotSorry

Kudos to this zoo for providing a Mother’s Room for nursing mamas to have a private room to nurse! Unfortunately, though, it got really hot and muggy in there because of the high temps and I just as happily nursed my babe outside with a nursing cover!

Once you get to the Children’s Zoo area, there is a large, fully enclosed treehouse-themed play park that the kiddos could spend HOURS in! Because it was hotter than sin when we went, my girls hit their play limit about 30 minutes in.

Just behind the play park, you will find goats that you can pet and feed through the fence in their enclosure (goat feed can be purchased for a small fee). Gibbons sit outside the treehouse play park and provide musical entertainment with their alarm-like howling. It caused many of the kids to break out in laughter (there’s almost nothing sweeter than hearing 30+ kids crack up together). There is an enclosed building that houses a large carousel next to the play park entrance. The carousel will take you and your darlings on a 3-minute ride for $2 per rider. Adults need to pay $2 as well if you are accompanying your babes.

Don’t miss the slightly hidden exhibits in the Children’s Zoo area with the red panda, meerkats, South American porcupines, and tortoises!

When you decide to leave the Children’s Zoo area, head south (it will look like you are exiting the zoo, because, well, you are). This will take you to the FREE PUBLIC BEACH of Lake Wingra. There are two to four lifeguards on duty during the day. Because I was completely unaware of this beach’s (A) existence, and (B) proximity to the zoo, I did not bring swimsuits. It will be an ABSOLUTE MUST anytime we visit Madison in the future, though!

STOP 3: The Madison Children’s Museum

  • COST: $7.95 per person 2 years or older (1 and under are FREE), seniors & grandparents $6.95

  • HOURS: Daily, 9:30am - 5pm

  • ADDRESS: 100 North Hamilton Street, Madison, WI 53703

Children’s Museums are always easy entertainment spot for kiddos. Though small, the opportunity for kids to use their imagination was endless. We spent several hours here while the girls pretended to live on a farm, planting and harvesting crops on their land, moving bales of hay in a wheelbarrow, building stone walls, and milking a pretend cow.

There is a two-story play area with a water play room once you walk in, just past the ticket counter. Themed after a global village with two stick huts, kiddos can use their imagination as they climb, crawl, walk, or run through the “Wildernest”. The best part? It’s handicap accessible! It even features special times for visitors with Autism Spectrum Disorder and/or Sensory Challenges to enjoy the exhibits in a modified environment. Click HERE for those hours and more details.

Nursing bonus: The Madison Children’s Museum boasts that mothers can nurse or bottle-feed in any public area, but they also provide a Comfort Room if that makes you more comfortable.

Once you’ve explored the two floors of the museum, head to the rooftop, (A.K.A. the Rooftop Ramble) for MAGNIFICENT views of downtown Madison, the Capitol Building, and Lake Mendota. The gardens, little paths, and small patches of grass served as a tiny urban wonderland for the girls. There is even a small building that houses turtles, snakes, lizards, homing pigeons, and chickens (and sometimes their chicks) for more discovery.

BONUS: There is a parking garage directly across the street on Pinckney and Dayton that is only $5/day on the weekend, Monday - Friday before 3pm is $2/half hour ($18 max), and Monday - Friday after 3pm is a $3 flat rate.

DOUBLE BONUS: You can bring a lunch and eat here too! There is a cafe at the entrance of the museum that you can buy food from or eat your own!

STOP 4: The Capitol Building


  • HOURS: Weekdays 8am - 6pm, Weekends & Holidays, 8a - 4p Observation Deck Hours: Weekdays 9a - 5p, Saturdays 9a - 3:45p, and Sundays 12p - 3:45p

  • ADDRESS: 2 East Main Street, Madison, WI 53702

Just kitty corner from the museum’s entrance is the Capitol Building. We left the museum and walked the grounds of the Capitol before heading in one of its many entrances (handicap accessible entrances are clearly marked). If you would like to take a tour, you can schedule that ahead of time HERE, or you can ask to tag along with the next scheduled tour at the guest assistance desk (tours are given daily on the hour). We got to the building just before 4pm, so we raced to the observation deck before getting the boot at closing time.

There is an observation deck on the 6th floor of the Capitol Building that is open only between Memorial Day and Labor Day, accessed only by the west or northwest stairwells on the 4th floor. Again, gorgeous 360 degree views of the city from here! You can see how Madison is flanked by two large lakes on either side: Lake Mendota and Lake Monona.

We bribed our girls with fruit snacks to leave the Observation Deck and head back down to the main floor. The altitude change in our descent must have been serious as it drastically impacted their mood and we KNEW it was time to go home.

Kids + a fun-filled day of adventuring in a new town = silent car ride home. #ParentingWin

Here are some places that were on our list but we didn’t get a chance to visit.

Governor’s Mansion Tour


  • HOURS: May 17 - August 31 Thursdays ONLY, 1p - 3p

  • ADDRESS: 99 Cambridge Road, Madison, WI 53704

  • Built in 1921, this Classical Revival home came into Wisconsin State possession in 1949 where it soon after became the Executive Residence of the Governor. The home is 16,000 square feet and has 7 bedrooms and a whopping 13 bathrooms! Free private tours are available by appointment only during the holiday season.

UW-Madison Arboretum


  • HOURS: Trails: Daily 7a- 10p Visitor Center: Weekdays 9:30a - 4p, Weekends 12:30p - 4p

  • ADDRESS: 1207 Seminole Highway, Madison, WI 53711

  • Four miles of paved trail and 10+ miles of trails are a runner’s dream! In addition to the scenic trails, the arboretum offers guided walks and family walks and tours. On the second Sunday of every month from 1p - 2p, Family Walks are offered to pique your kiddo’s interest in nature.

Olbrich Botanical Garden

  • COST: FREE (though donations are gratefully accepted)! Bolz Conservatory (an indoor tropical garden): $2, children 5 and under are free

  • HOURS: April - August 9a - 8p, September - October 9a - 6p, November - March 9a - 4p

  • ADDRESS: 3330 Atwood Avenue, Madison, WI 53704

  • 16 acres of nature’s beauty await you at this free urban oasis. Be sure to visit the ONLY Thai Pavillion in the continental US surrounded by a garden. There are loads of specialty gardens and even an indoor tropical garden at the Bolz Conservatory.

Was this article helpful for your planning? Is there something I missed that you think other readers need to know? I’d love to hear about it! If you go to Madison and visit any of these spots, shoot me a message!

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