A budget-friendly road trip to Madison, WI!

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If you are planning your regional summer road trips, you should consider a road trip to Madison!

Admittedly, I am biased… until we moved up here 5 years ago, it’s where I was born and raised and lived in the area late into my 30s.  Here are some of our family’s favorite options for a kid-friendly day trip.

After making the drive down 151 from our part of the state, head to the Windsor Sports Complex on Muller Rd in the Windsor/DeForest area to let the kids burn off some energy.  They have great playground equipment for kids of varying ages and they even have what my kids refer to as a zipline.  We can usually get 45-60 minutes worth of play here before my kids ask to leave.

Next on your road trip to Madison, head into the city for a visit to Olbrich Botanical Gardens.  You can visit the outdoor gardens for no cost of admission (donations are always welcome), or you can check out the indoor gardens for a modest cost.  Many gardens are themed.  There’s plenty of room to explore, and one of their most beautiful attractions is a stunning Thai Pavilion in the Asian Gardens, which is one of only 3 such pavilions outside of Thailand.  Olbrich is located across from Lake Monona with stunning views of the Monona Terrace, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. 


After all of this play, you (and the kiddos) are sure to be hungry.  Head downtown to State Street for a stop at Ian’s Pizza, where they serve up some amazing pizza, including such flavors as Drunken Ravioli, Maui-Wowie, Spinach Feta Pesto, and their world-famous Mac & Cheese Pizza.  (Sorry, no pictures because we were too hungry!)

A kid visit to Madison wouldn’t be complete without mentioning their fantastic Children’s Museum which is located on the Capitol Square, but due to Covid-19 restrictions, I strongly suggest checking their website out before planning your visit.

You could also visit the WI State Capitol while you are downtown – it’s open to the public, and would be a great stop on a hot day.  The architecture inside is beautiful and there are often exhibits in the Rotunda highlighting different parts of WI history.

One of my favorite places to take our girls to is the Memorial Union Terrace at UW-Madison.  There are usually cool breezes coming off the lake, and you can get scrumptious ice cream inside at Daily Scoop, as well as options from the bar nearby for snacks, wine, and many local beers.  Grab something refreshing and have a seat at the outdoor tables with the iconic Sunburst chairs.  There’s even a huge chair where you can pile on for a fun photo op.  Otherwise, you can watch the sailboats, kayaks & canoes go by and enjoy live music outdoors (when available).

My final suggestion is one of the “families with kids” Crown Jewels of Madison – the Henry Vilas Zoo.  The zoo is one of the last and largest free zoos in the country (donations are always welcome!).  The zoo is home to over 650 animals from all over the world, including over 115 species, 20 of which are considered endangered or vulnerable.  You are welcome to bring along a picnic, which you can enjoy in the zoo or at the playground just outside of the zoo. 

There are loads of other options for things to do while on your road trip to Madison, including shopping, dining, parks, splash pads, and many other outdoor activities, including the Famous Farmer’s Market on the Square on Saturday mornings.  (Oh, and most of the options I mentioned above are also beautiful spots for a spring or summer family selfie!)  Visit our sister site, MadisonMom.com, for more things to do!

After a day filled with yummy food, outdoor play, and fun, your family will be ready to head back home.  If you make the visit, please share your favorite part of the trip, or if you have visited Madison before, please mention any must-stops I may have missed. 

Looking for more travel ideas? Check out these great resources:

The 5 things my family went “wild” for at The Wilderness Resort

Guide to Family Fun at Mall of America

Roller Coaster Road Trip: Planning a visit to Six Flags Great America

Family-Friendly Ideas For Visiting Door County This Summer

Family-Fun Day Trips to Two Rivers and Manitowoc

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