Midwest Road Trips

9 Top Things to Do in Madison Wisconsin with Kids

Temple in the Olbrich Botanical Gardens
Thai Temple in the Olbrich Botanical Gardens. credit: Catherine Parker


Madison is also home to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and it’s the capital of Wisconsin. It’s a laid-back town that loves its festivals, bike lanes and Wisconsin food, like cheese curds and Wisconsin beer.  From its free zoo to free Capitol tours, Madison is a great destination for families. Also, it is a great town to use as a hub for exploring other areas like the Wisconsin Dells. Here are the top things to do in Madison, Wisconsin.

Top Things to Do in Madison Wisconsin

Visit Henry Vilas Zoo
Wander through Olbrich Botanical Gardens
Tour the Wisconsin State Capitol
Visit Capitol Square Farmers Market
Play at Madison Children’s Museum
Rent a Madison B-Cycle
Dine at the Old Fashioned Tavern and Restaurant
Order a Soft Serve at the Original Culver’s in Sauk City
Enjoy at Supper Club Experience at Tornado Steak House

Why Visit Madison

Madison is a vibrant city, state capital and a college town, home of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During my summertime visit, I enjoyed the warm Midwestern hospitality and mild weather in equal parts.

From the parks and free zoo to the farmers market to dinner at the supper club, Madison blends Midwest nice with youthful enthusiasm.

Henry Vilas Zoo

Zoos are great for families, and free zoos are amazing. One of 10 free zoos remaining in the U.S., Henry Vilas Zoo is supported by the community. In 1904, the Vilas Family donated a large tract of land to create a park. The zoo opened in 1911. 

With a collection of animals from five continents, visitors can find African lions, American Bison, a Bactrian Camel, a Gila Monster and more. The Henry Vilas Zoo has a children’s zoo, tropical rainforest aviary, big cat habitat and primate house. 

The Children’s Zoo has a train and a carousel (tickets are required). The rides are open from April until October. This is one of the Top Things to do in Madison, Wisconsin, with Kids.

Located at 702 S Randall Ave, Madison. Open daily from 9:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. 

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Thai Temple in Madison
The Thai Temple in the Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison. credit: Catherine Parker

Olbrich Botanical Gardens 

In the heart of Madison, Wisconsin, the Olbrich Botanical Gardens offers 16 acres of cultivated gardens, including the Bolz Conservatory. It also offers indoor tropical gardens with a waterfall and free-flying birds, which are favorites during the winter with locals and visitors alike. 

A standout of the outdoor gardens is the Olbrich Thai Pavilion, the only one in the U.S. Encrusted with gold leaf and featuring a reflecting pool, it is a stunning spot in Madison. Other gardens include a sunken garden, a season-to-season perennial garden and an herb garden. This is one of the top things to do in Madison, Wisconsin, with kids.

Located at 3300 Atwood Avenue. Open April through September from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., October through March from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Free to enter the outdoor gardens. For the conservatory, adult admission is $6, and kids (6 -12) enter for $3, with 5 and younger free. 

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Wisconsin Capitol in Madison
The Wisconsin Capitol in Madison. credit: Catherine Parker

Wisconsin State Capitol

Since Madison is the state capital of Wisconsin, tour the capitol building. The traditional Neo-Classical building houses both chambers of the Wisconsin legislature along with the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the Office of the Governor.

After the fire of 1904, this building replaced it, and the Wisconsin State Capitol opened in 1917. As the tallest building in Madison, it is made of 43 different types of stone and the dome is constructed of granite from Vermont. This is one of the Top Things to do in Madison, Wisconsin, with Kids.

Tours take less than an hour and start at the information desk Monday through Saturday at 9:00 a.m.,10:00 a.m.,11:00 a.m.,1:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m., and 3:00 p.m.; and Sundays at 1:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. A 4:00 p.m. tour is offered during the summer from Monday through Friday (Memorial Day through Labor Day). The sixth-floor museum and observation deck are also open during the summer. 

The streets around the Capitol found a square and host events like the farmers market.

Located at 2 E. Main St., It is free to attend, and reservations are not required. 

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Capitol Square Farmers Market

From mid-April to mid-November, the Wisconsin State Capitol grounds hosts a Saturday Farmers Market. 

Located on Pinckney Street, Main St. Carroll St. and Mifflin St. It is open from 6:15 a.m. – 1:45 p.m.

Madison Children’s Museum

Close to the Wisconsin State Capitol, the Madison Children’s Museum is one of the best places in Madison with kids. This facility used play to explore and most of its exhibits are hands-on. This is one of the Top Things to do in Madison, Wisconsin, with Kids.

Located at 100 N Hamilton St., Madison. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. (8 p.m. on Thursday). General admission (over 1) is $12, and babies are free. The Madison Children’s Museum is best for kids 12 and younger. 

BCycles are a great way to get around. credit: Catherine Parker

Rent a Madison B-Cycle

For bike-riding teens, rent a Madison BCylce and explore Madison. It offers many bike lanes across the downtown core. 

The Madison BCycles are electric for an easy ride. Riders need to download the BCycle app. Then, find a station—there are several located across downtown. Unlock the e-bike with the app and go. When finished, park the e-bike at a Madison BCycle Station.

The Old Fashioned
The Old Fashioned is the place for Wisconsin specialties. credit: Catherine Parker

Where to Eat in Madison

Colectivo Coffee

Three friends started Colectivo Coffee in 1992 with the idea of roasting their own beans. Now, it has coffee shops in Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago.

Colectivo Coffee offers a menu full of barista-made coffee drinks. Its bakery menu includes favorites like muffins and croissants. For those with a bigger appetite, find sandos and topped toasts. 

Madison offers three Colectivo Coffee Shops: On Capitol Square at 25 S. Pinckney St., at 583 State St. and at 2530 Monroe St. 

The Old Fashioned Tavern and Restaurant

For the uninitiated, the Midwest has a vibrant mid-century culinary culture. Visitors yearning to get a taste should snag a table at the Old Fashioned Tavern and Restaurant in the shadow of the State Capitol. 

Starting with its namesake, this place concocts its Old Fashioned with muddled cherries, orange and brown sugar cubes, topped with Korbel Brandy and a splash of bitters. Get one and see why it’s a classic.

The Old Fashioned serves all the Wisconsin favorites, like beer-battered Cheese Curds. The Lazy Susans are also fun favorites, with a selection of Wisconsin local specialties.

Another Midwest stable, the Friday Fish Fry, is available daily with cod, perch or walleye. Another Wisconsin stand-out, the Brat with Sheboygan’s Grand Champion Miesfeld Market double bratwurst on a hard roll. 

The Old Fashioned Tavern and Restaurant offers a long wood bar and serves an impressive 52 Wisconsin Beers on tap, with another 100 available by the bottle. Ciders and hard seltzers from Wisconsin are also available. 

Located at 23 North Pinckney Street, Madison. Open Monday to Thursday from 11 a.m. – 9 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. – 10 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. – 10 p.m. and closed Sunday. 

The Original Culver’s in Sauk City

The Wisconsin burger and frozen custard mainstay has a wide reach now with locations across the U.S. As a stand-by for me and the back-seaters, I pull through its drive-thru frequently. For those who don’t know, their kid’s meals include a dish of frozen custard, and its butter burger is my go-to for me.

I knew it was from Wisconsin, though when I found out the original was in nearby Sauk City, I had to visit. In 1984, the Culver Family opened their first restaurant in Sauk City, their hometown. Now rebuilt, it offers a sign inside the dining room.

Located at 716 Phillips Blvd., Sauk City. This location is open daily from 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.

The retro interior of the Tornado Room
The retro interior of the Tornado Room. credit: Catherine Parker

Tornado Steak House

For its retro vibes, the Tornado Steak House is a favorite with travelers and Wisconsinites out for a celebratory steak dinner. In a time-honored tradition, the allure of the darkened steak house still resonates, and the Tornado Steak House has preserved its MidCentury Lounge. Diners are advised to arrive early for a cocktail and look out for a seat and its curved banquette tables under the glow of a single light. 

The Experience

With an attentive waitstaff works the table, dinner feels festive at Tornado Steak House. Our table started with a round of off-menu Wisconsin Old Fashioned. Followed was a relish cup, spired with green onions, carrot sticks and a skewer with tomatoes, cucumbers and olives. The bread basket followed, always well received among foodies friends. The Shrimp Cocktail is another classic from the mid-century and is served with tails hanging out of the dish. 

Entrees come with a first course, and I chose the Spinach Salad with a hot bacon vinaigrette, a Midwest favorite. Though French Onion Soup is another must. Tornado Steak House might be a steak house, but I wanted Walleye, a tender white fish available across the Midwest. 

Traditional sides are available, though I wanted the traditional Midwest Steakhouse, Supper Club experience, so I opted for the hash browns, cooked with scallions and topped with cheese. This is superb for those who are cheese and potato lovers (that’s me). 

The Tornado Steak House desserts are home-spun in the best way possible, large enough for sharing and made to perfection. We split the Pineapple Upside Down Cake with a mountain of vanilla ice cream on the side. The chocolate cake with a side of fresh whipped cream was decadent. So save room for dessert. 

Located at 16 S Hamilton St. Madison. Open daily from 5 p.m. – 10 p.m. (11:45 p.m. on Friday and Saturday), and reservations are a must. 


For those in the mood for Italian, downtown Madison features Cento, or one hundred in Italian a nod to its location on the 100-block of Mifflin. Its menu blends old-world flavors with Wisconsin ingredients. 

Its modern interiors offer banquette seating, a favorite for intimate dinner conversations. Diners should start their menu with an Italian cocktail, like Aperol or Elderflower Spritz (as a lover of the spritz, the Elderflower Spritz was delightful). The wine list is extensive as well. 

During my visit, we started dinner with our dinner with a butcher board paired with the Sourdough. The house-made pastas are favorites. I opted for its pan-roasted Salmon, though the Fire-Roasted Flatiron tempted me. 

Dessert delights with Italian specialties, including Tiramisu, Chocolate Panna Cotta and Affogato.  

Located 122 W. Mifflin St. Open Monday to Friday from 4 p.m. – 10 p.m. with Happy Hour from 4- 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday served brunch from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Reservations recommended. 

Where to Stay in Madison

The Hotel Indigo Madison is steps from the Wisconsin Capitol in downtown. A historic renovation, it was the home of the Mautz Paint Company, and the property takes its design cues from industrial materials.

It is at 901 E Washington Ave, Madison.


This post was created after a press trip to Madison.

As Wisconsin's Capital, Madison is a vibrant city to explore, with a Free Zoo and a Free State Capitol Tour. Visitors will also find a botanical garden and more. Top Things to do in Madison Wisconsin | Where to go in Madison #Madiscon #Wisconsin

Catherine Parker has a passion for travel and seen all 50 U.S. States. As a former flight attendant with one of the largest airlines, there isn't a North American airport that she hasn't landed in at least once. Since clipping her professional wings after 9/11, she combines her love of the open road with visiting architectural and cultural icons. She is based out of Central Texas dividing her time between writing and restoring a pair of 100-year-old houses. She shares her life with her three kids and her husband.

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