Family Vacations to Madison, Wisconsin

Biking Madison, Wisconsin
Biking Madison (courtesy, GMCVB-Scot Weidemann)

Madison Family Travel Tips

  • Kayak, canoe, and fish Madison's lakes.
  • Nibble the fresh food at the country's largest farmers' market.
  • Stroll through the Olbrich Botanical Gardens and the Henry Vilas Zoo.
  • Learn about Wisconsin history at the State Capitol.
  • Treat your family to homemade ice cream from the famous Babcock Hill Dairy Store.

Surrounded by water, Madison is situated on an isthmus between lakes Mendota and Monona. The city combines shore scenery and state-capital culture with the liveliness that comes from being home to the University of Wisconsin. And not far from town you can enjoy a scenic drive through farmland rich in wheat fields and dairy cows.

The city's numerous lakeside parks, including Warner, Tenney, and Spring Harbor, feature piers for launching off on watery escapades. If you don't have your own boat, paddle off in a canoe or kayak from Watertrail Adventures Paddling Center or Wingra Canoe and Sailing Center. Sign-up with a local guide or head out on your own to catch perch, blue gill, walleye, northern pike, or bass.

Young kids enjoy the Madison Children's Museum, where they can don overalls and milk "cows" Gertrude and Melba Sue and play with puzzles and soft foam blocks at the Toddler Barnyard. More mature travelers can take in an unforgettable performance at the Overture Center for the Arts, a multi-stage venue for orchestra and theater performances. Every Saturday morning, fall through spring, the Kids in the Rotunda program hosts jugglers, magicians, puppeteers, theater troupes, and multicultural artists. Performances are free. On summer Saturdays start at the Capitol and stroll down State Street, browsing the booths of the Dane County Farmers' Market, the largest in the nation. While nibbling cheeses, breads, and other delights, enjoy a variety of folk and gospel singers, Andean musicians, and balloon-animal artists.

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, also part of the Overture Center, re-opened in April, 2006. The collection includes work by American artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. To fully immerse yourself in all the art on display, use the puzzles and fun facts contained in the Family Activity Kit.

The Olbrich Botanical Gardens' 16 acres are great for leisurely strolls. Highlights include the rose garden, Thai pavilion, and the Bolz Conservatory, a glass pyramid filled with colorful flowers, a waterfall, fragrant orchids, free-flying birds, and in July and August, hundreds of butterflies. The free Henry Vilas Zoo features giraffes, bears, rhinos, penguins, and otters, as well as a new Tropical Rainforest Aviary.

For local history, tour the State Capitol and the Wisconsin Historical Museum, where you can walk into a mock lead mine and study a cross-section of the trash of a Wisconsin farm family to learn about their lives.

Who can refuse homemade ice cream? For generations of students, the University of Wisconsin's Babcock Hall Dairy Store has been the place to go for special flavors such as Chocolate Turtle, Badger Brownie Blast, or Cherries Jubilee.

Twenty miles west of the city, Cave of the Mounds sparkles with crystallized rock formations and shimmering pools of water. Treinen Farm, about 40 minutes away, in Lodi, is a real family farm with a corn maze, pumpkin patch, hayrides, and farm animals. Bring a picnic!

Tip: Check with the Campus Information & Visitor Center ( to find out about the University of Wisconsin's activities and programs.

Recommended Side Trips: Milwaukee, Lake Geneva (Wisconsin), Chicago's resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from

Published: 3 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 6 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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