As the capitol of Wisconsin, Madison is also home to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It’s a laid-back town that loves its festivals, bike lanes and Wisconsin food, like cheese curds and Wisconsin beer. It’s a great town to use as a hub for exploring other areas like the Wisconsin Dells. From its free zoo to Capitol tours, Madison is great destination for families. Here are the top things to do in Madison Wisconsin with kids.
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 for the creation of a park. The zoo opened in 1911.
With a collection of animals from five continents, visitors can find African lions to American Bison along with Bactrian Camel and a Gila Monster and more. The Henry Vilas Zoo has a children’s zoo, tropical rainforest aviary, a big cats habitat and a primate house.
The Children’s Zoo has a train and a carousel (tickets required). 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.
Olbrich Botanical Gardens
In the heart of Madison, Wisconsin, the Olbrich Botanical Gardens offers 16 acres of cultivated gardens including the Bolz Conservatory. It offers an indoor tropical gardens with a waterfall and free-flying birds that is a favorite during the winter with locals and visitors alike.
A stand-out of the outdoor gardens is the Olbrich Thai Pavilion, the only one in the U.S. Encrusted with gold leaf and features a reflecting pool, it is a stunning spot in Madison. Other gardens include a sunken garden, a season-to-season perennial garden and a 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.
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 used 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.
Taking less than an hour, tours 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., 2:00p.m., 3:00 p.m,; and Sundays at 1:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m. A 4:00 p.m. tour is offered during the summer from Monday to Friday (Memorial Day through Labor Day). The sixth floor museum and observation deck is 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.
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, babies are free. The Madison Children’s Museum is best for kids 12 and younger.
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 and 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.
Where to Eat in Madison
Starting in 1992, three friends started Colectivo Coffee 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 their Old Fashioned with muddled cherries, orange and brown sugar cubes, topped with Korbel Brandy and a splash of bitters. Get one and see why its a classic.
For the menu, the Old Fashioned serves up all the Wisconsin favorites, like beer-battered Cheese Curds. The Lazy Susans are also a fun favorites with a selection of Wisconsin local specialities.
Another midwest stable, the Friday Fish Fry is available every day 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 kids meals include a dish of frozen custard and its butter burger is my go-to for myself.
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 restuarant 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.
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 keep a look-out for a seat and its curved banquette tables under the glow of a single light.
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’s. 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 served in with their 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, 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. 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 at 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 interiors are modern and offer banquette seating, a favorite for intimate dinner conversations. Diners should start their menu with a Italian cocktail, like Aperol or Elderflower Spritz (as a lover off 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.
Dessert delights with Italian specialities, ranging from Tiramisu, Chocolate Panna Cotta and Afffogato.
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
In downtown, the Hotel Indigo Madison is steps from the Wisconsin Capitol. 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.