Affordable Things to do with kids in Madison


The capital city of Wisconsin, Madison offers plenty of family-friendly excitement and adventure that doesn’t need to hit you too hard in the pocket.

(Photo: Madison Children’s Museum)

Lying west of Milwaukee, the city has a rich immigrant and farming history that helped create the wealth that built the bustling metropolis we see today. Indeed, bolstered by a lively university population and steady stream of tourists, Madison is widely considered one of the midwestern region’s biggest draws. If you’re travelling here with children, we’ve come up with 12 of the best affordable things for families to see and do here.

Madison Children’s Museum

Situated across the street from the Wisconsin State Capital building, the award-winning Madison Children’s Museum is full to the brim with immersive, hands-on STEM exhibits and displays spanning three entire floors. Designed for kids 12 and under, among the perpetual museum highlights are the Rooftop Ramble complete with animals and gardens, and the Wildernest, a global village made with natural, local materials. Entrance for both adults and children starts at $11.

100 North Hamilton Street / Fri-Sun & Weds 9am-4pm Thurs 9am-8pm Closed Mon-Tues

Henry Vilas Zoo

(Photo: Amy Bayer via Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0)

A perennially popular option for a family day out, Henry Villas Zoo is one of only a few free-to-enter public zoos anywhere in America. Spread across some 28 acres, it’s home to over 650 animals from all over the world spanning 115 species, many of which are considered endangered and vulnerable. Highlights includes camels, tigers, flamingos and penguins, along with various zoo exhibits, including a rainforest aviary, a big cats enclosure, and the Arctic Passage, home to grizzly bears, polar bears and harbor seals. For smaller kids, there’s also a dedicated children’s area with a herd of goats, a zoo train and a carousel.

702 South Randall Avenue / Mon-Sun 9.30am-5pm 

Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

(Photo: Franco Folini via Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Located in an architecturally eye-catching building in the heart of downtown Madison, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is home to almost 6,000 contemporary works of art displayed across a number of rotating permanent collections, as well as regular special exhibitions, film series, and educational programming. For kids, there are hands-on discovery kits packed full of activities for exploring art with the family. Admission to the museum is completely free of charge.

227 State Street / Thurs-Sun 12pm-6pm Closed Mon-Weds

Wisconsin Film Festival

Created with the duel purpose of showcasing smaller, under-the-radar works that illustrate a variety of cinematic styles while presenting the best films available from around the globe, the Wisconsin Film Festival is considered an important platform for budding Wisconsin film-makers to make their big break. A major part of the festival is a dedicated children’s series featuring curated full-length and short films curated specially for young people, with tickets $12 per person.

Venues across Madison / April each year

Wisconsin State Capitol

(Photo: Basharat Alam Shah via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Standing over 265 feet high, the Wisconsin State Capitol is a beacon on the Madison landscape and one of the city’s most visited attractions. Its dome is one of the largest in the world and visitors can explore the architecturally notable building by joining free-of-charge daily tours, which introduce you to eye-catching mosaics, towering marble columns and exquisite art. During the warmer months, there’s also an observation deck offering stunning panoramic views of downtown and the surrounding lakes.

 2 East Main Street / Sat-Sun 8am-4pm Mon-Fri 8am-6pm

International Festival 

Madison celebrates its rich cultural diversity each April at the hugely popular International Festival, featuring music as eclectic as traditional Bolivian folkloric dances, Japanese drumming, Greek Gypsy dances, Afro-Brazilian martial-art dance, and Filipino protest songs. Held over a full action-packed weekend, there’s also lashings of food from all around the world, and tons for kids to enjoy. In total, more than 40 cultures are represented through dozens of free performances, as well as free hands-on art workshops and an international marketplace selling crafts and global cuisine.

Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State Street / April each year

University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum

An American Goldfinch at University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum (Photo: John Benson via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Bordering the southern shore of Lake Wingra, the 1,200-acre UW-Madison Arboretum is one of the city’s finest outdoor attractions – and completely free to explore. Featuring distinct ecological communities, horticultural collections, effigy mounds, more than 17 miles of trails, and a Visitor Center, there’s enough here to comfortably keep families occupied for a full day or more. There are guided nature walks that pass through woodlands, wetlands, and prairie, or those of a more active disposition can traverse the trails by running or cycling, or even skiing and snowshoeing along designated sections.

Mon-Fri 9.30am-4pm Sat-Sun 12.30pm-4pm

Children’s Theater of Madison

Central to the city’s cultural scene is the Children’s Theater of Madison, an intimate 350-seat playhouse which puts on regular productions designed to entertain, spark imaginations and build community ties to the arts. Programming includes fresh adaptations of literary classics as well as new works by contemporary playwrights, popular musicals & dramas, all created with kids and family audiences in mind. Ticket pricing varies depending on the performance and seating choices, but starts at around $15.

1055 East Mifflin Street 

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

(Photo: Jessica Fiess-Hill via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

A veritable oasis of green, the Olbrich Botanical Gardens is a haven of tranquility with its sprawling gardens and hidden treasures. Visitors can stroll around an impressive 14 outdoor gardens, including the Rose Garden, Herb Garden and Serenity Garden. Kids in particular love the tropical environment of the Bolz Conservatory, complete with a waterfall, birds and fish, as well as the free tram rides around the site that offer respite for little legs. There are also regular classes put on for all ages including younger visitors. Admission to the outdoor gardens is completely free.

3330 Atwood Avenue / Mon-Sun 10am-6pm

B.B. Clarke Beach Park

Nestled on the shores of Lake Monona, just over ten minutes by road from downtown Madison, B.B. Clarke Beach Park is a magnet for visitors during sunny Wisconsin days. Whether it’s taking a cooling dip in the lake, reclining on the sandy beach, or trying something more active like kayaking, canoeing, or launching yourself off the diving board perched on the man-made raft, there’s something for every recreational desire at this idyllic shoreline hang-out. The beach park can be accessed free of charge.

835 Spaight Street / Mon-Sun 4am-10pm