30 Fun Things To Do in Madison with Kids
There’s a lot more to Madison than just being the capital of Wisconsin. Situated on two beautiful lakes sits the home of the University of Wisconsin, an epicenter of culture, great food, and (most importantly) so much family fun. From the children’s museum to the zoo and all the fun and festivities the university has to offer, you’ll find something for everyone in Madison. Whether you're planning a weekend getaway from Chicago or visiting the city as part of a Midwest tour that includes stops in Milwaukee and Minneapolis, here are our favorite things to do, places to eat, and outdoor activities in Madison.
Best Things to Do in Madison with Kids: Museums and Culture
1. Madison Children’s Museum
The Madison Children’s Museum is located in the heart of downtown Madison. There are play spaces, interactive exhibits, art stations, splash zones, and a new outdoor area located on the rooftop garden. Bring play clothes because this museum holds a serious tree-fort play and climbing area. It's so great, it made our list of the Best Children's Museum in Every State.
2. Overture Center for the Arts
The beautiful Overture Center for the Arts hosts a special event program just for kids. This free theater program is known as Kids in the Rotunda and it takes place every Saturday from October through April. Check the website for programs and performances all year round.
3. Children’s Theater of Madison
The Children’s Theater of Madison holds live theater shows for kids throughout the year. These shows are designed for kids (but are really enjoyable for the whole family) and highlight both great life lessons and fantastic music.
Visit the free Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo courtesy of the museum
4. Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is free to the public (you read that right, it’s always free!). Kids can explore multiple learning centers and hands-on areas to foster their own creativity. There are art guides available for older kids and teens to use while exploring the museum. The museum also holds free outdoor programs at local Madison parks featuring ArtKits for families to take home.
5. Wisconsin Historical Museum
The Wisconsin Historical Museum is located right near Capitol Square and packs four floors with Wisconsin history. With areas on early settlers, pioneers, agricultural history, and politics, kids can learn a little history in a fun and hands-on way. There’s also a great gift shop featuring fun Wisconsin-themed gifts and keepsakes.
6. Wisconsin State Capitol
The Wisconsin State Capitol building is located in the center of downtown Madison. Walk around outside the impressive grounds through Capitol Square or take a guided State Capitol tour. Check out the sixth-floor observation deck for the best views of Madison in town. And make sure to rub the Badger statue on the nose for good luck before you go.
7. Historic State Street
State Street in downtown Madison is open to pedestrian traffic only. This street is great for strolling with kids and is packed with fun stores, gift shops, and restaurants connecting Capitol Square down to the UW-Madison campus.
Go hiking and swimming in the summer, and ice skating or snowshoeing in the winter.
Best Things to Do in Madison with Kids: Outdoor Activities
8. Hit the Beach
The city of Madison has 12 beaches to swim and splash in during the summer months. Many beaches offer lifeguards, concessions, swim piers, and incredible views of the city and surrounding nature. Check the City of Madison website for locations and a list of beach amenities. Ice skating and snowshoeing are available in the winter.
9. UW-Madison Arboretum
The UW-Madison Arboretum boasts more than 20-miles of trails for hiking, biking, and even snowshoeing in the winter months. Or just wander through stunning gardens and prairies featuring beautiful wildflowers, plants, and nature areas.
10. Olbrich Botanical Gardens
The Olbrich Botanical Gardens features a 10,000 square-foot indoor conservatory. This is a great place to visit on a hot, cold, or rainy day. On sunny days, stroll through the 16-acre botanical garden filled with butterflies and miles of wildflowers.
Pick a lake, any lake! (Ok, pick either Lake Mendota or Lake Monona.)
11. Explore the Lakes
Madison is situated between two beautiful natural lakes. Lake Mendota and Lake Monona provide breathtaking views and plenty of ways to have fun on the water. Rent a boat, kayak, canoe, or paddle boat for some waterfront adventure.
12. Madison Fishing Charter
If your kids are up for a fun lakeside adventure, try booking a fishing charter on the Madison chain of lakes. Catch walleye, bass, muskie, and more. Half-day trips are available for kids.
13. Vitense Golfland
With three mini golf courses, a climbing wall, and batting cages, Vitense Golfland has it all. Come for just one game or stay and play all day.
Take a break from sightseeing to play in a local park.
14. Visit a Local Park
Madison has some great local parks and playgrounds. Sprinkled across the city and surrounding areas you’ll find well-maintained parks filled with fun activities. From playgrounds to pickleball, check out the city’s interactive amenity map to find the adventure you’re looking for.
15. Go for a Hike
There are roughly 6,000 acres of parkland surrounding the city of Madison. Whether your family is looking for a simple stroll on the lake path or hike in a national forest, there’s something for every activity level and nature lover.
16. Henry Vilas Zoo
Henry Vilas Zoo is a 28-acre public zoo. Admission and parking at the zoo are always free (another free gem!). Henry Vilas is home to over 650 animals from all over the world and is a highlight of the trip for kids of all ages.
17. Take a Bike Ride
The Badger State Trail stretches from Madison down to the Wisconsin-Illinois border. From this spectacular trail, kids can see glacial areas, ravines, hills, prairies, woods, and farmlands. You can also bike along the water on the lakeside trails. Downtown Madison is extremely bike-friendly with bike lanes throughout the city center.
18. Visit the Dane County Farmers Market
From April to November the Capitol Square in Madison turns into the largest producer-only farmers market in the country. On Saturday mornings you can sample fresh fruits and veggies, homemade pastries, desserts, bread, jams, and even fresh flowers. Don't leave without some squeaky cheese curds and a cheese bread or empanada from Stella’s.
Go Badgers! The whole city gets behind the University of Wisconsin football team.
Best Things to Do in Madison with Kids at the University of Wisconsin
19. Tailgate and See a University of Wisconsin Football Game
There’s something magical about the excitement in the air in Madison on Saturdays during football season. Whether you want to take your kids to a game or just walk through the tailgating and kid zones, your kids will have a blast seeing the iconic marching band and football players soldier through the gates of Camp Randall Stadium.
20. Visit Camp Randall
Camp Randall Stadium is the oldest stadium in the Big Ten Conference. This majestic field is truly amazing to see up close. Groups of 10 or more can schedule a tour to see the field and even visit the locker room. Feel like a Badger as you step foot on this historic turf. Please note, no walk-in tours are allowed.
21. Get Tickets for More UW-Athletics
If you're not here for football season, don't worry. Catch a hockey game, basketball game, or volleyball game—there’s something for every sports lover, no matter the season. Go Bucky!
22. Check Out the Union Terrace and UW-Union South
UW-Union South on the UW-Madison campus is a great place to grab a bite to eat, snack, sweet treat, or a much-needed coffee before or after a game. Sett Recreation in Union South is home to a climbing wall, bowling alley, and billiards. For a meal by the water, walk down to the Union Terrace which boasts a large food court with everything from pizza to mac and cheese to gourmet small bites, drinks, and desserts. Sit outside on the famous sunburst chairs and soak up the incredible lake views.
23. Grab a Scoop of Homemade UW Ice Cream
The UW-Wisconsin Agricultural Department runs the Babcock Hall Dairy Store featuring unique ice cream flavors such as the Blue Moon and Badger Blast for chocolate lovers. Sandwiches, cheese, and other sweet treats are also sold at Babcock to help support the university.
You'll heart Wisconsin when you eat in Madison. Yum!
Great Eats With Kids in Madison
24. Pat O’Malley’s Jet Room
If you have any plane lovers in your family, check out Pat O’Malley’s Jet Room in the Wisconsin Aviation building. There are model planes, plane photos, and real-life planes just outside to look at while you eat.
26. ZuZu Café
For a bite to eat after the Henry Vilas Zoo, head to ZuZu Café. Kids love the tasty sandwiches, breakfast until 11am, and the fun drink menu featuring homemade sodas and root beer floats.
27. Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry
Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry is the place to go for burgers (not dumplings!) in Madison. This downtown staple has a huge selection of burgers and casual bites and a kids' menu where everything is under $5.
We donut know why you'd ever skip a visit to Greenbush Bakery. Photo courtesy of the bakery
25. Greenbush Bakery
Greenbush Bakery is a Madison icon. It is famous for the sour cream old-fashioned donut, but you can’t go wrong with anything here. In addition to the signature donuts, there are also fritters, donut holes, and breakfast pastries.
28. The Old Fashioned
All the Wisconsin staples can be found at the Old Fashioned. From cheese curds to fish fry, there are classic, pub, and kid-friendly eats here. The Old Fashioned is located steps from the Madison Children’s Museum, making it an easy stop before or after a visit.
29. The Great Dane
The Great Dane has a convenient downtown location with cheese curds (gotta try 'em), giant pretzels, burgers, and other kid-friendly bites.
30. Ian’s Pizza
Ian’s Pizza doesn't make the average slice of cheese, pepperoni, or sausage. At Ian’s, kids can sample giant slices with unique toppings such as the signature mac and cheese pizza.
Unless noted, photos by the author