Hint: Unless you snow-mobile, cross-country ski, or ice-fish, the best times to visit Madison are in the 6 months that are not winter–May through November. Fun Fact: Sometimes it snows in May and in November. Here are my top ten tips for enjoying Madison with your kids…
1. Henry Vilas Zoo. Free. Open all year long. $1 carousel and train rides in the spring/summer. Incredible treehouse playground. Surrounded by Vilas Park (two more playgrounds!) lake Wingra beachfront, and the arboretum. Bonus: Combine with Zuzu cafe across the street and your family is occupied for an entire morning or afternoon–healthy food, ice cream, coffee, wine and a train table. Booyah. 2. Olbrich Gardens. Free outdoor gardens with walking paths (don’t miss the ornate Thai Palace covered in gold-leaf paint). The indoor gardens boast a multi-level walking path, lush tropical foliage, birds and coy ponds. Olbrich provides a welcome escape in the winter, and kids seem to like throwing your hard-earned money away in the coy ponds, despite the fact that the coy resemble Micky Rooney as a freakishly-large goldfish. Olbrich charges a nominal $2/person and kids under 5 get in free.
3. Michael’s Frozen Custard. Best Turtle Sundae known to humankind. Their vanilla is so good it defies the label vanilla. You simply cannot miss it. 4. Eat at Ella’s Deli. While it gives even those who don’t have it ADD of the kitschy decor and overly-huge menu variety, consider it a kid-centric museum where you can sit and eat french-fries and “kosher-style” food instead of get glared at by docents. Dudes? They have an entirely separate menu dedicated just to ice cream sundaes. Welcome to the dairy state.”The animations include jugglers, flying supermen, castles, and decorations that are either moving back and forth on wires overheard or popping out of trap doors in the ceiling. Many tables have glass tops with detailed scenes or moveable parts inside. Tables have landscapes, old baseball cards, old candies, origami, one is a medieval scene constructed out of legos with moveable parts, and others have trains that actually go round. A favorite of most children is a maze with billiard balls rolling right over your head. There is a Beatles diorama, and of course there are tables highlighting the Green Bay Packers and the University of Wisconsin Badgers.
5. Visit the state capitol. Free! Educational! Plenty of stairs for wearing out or time-outs! Lay down on the floor of the rotunda and stare up at the frescoes on the dome. Disclaimer: If there are 200,000 protestors do not lay down on the floor of the rotunda. If you visit on a Saturday morning in summer/fall you can pair your visit with the epic farmer’s market around the capitol square. Wear your baby or toddler–it gets really crowded and strollers are a pain to deal with among the throngs of Madisonians. No pets..
6. Mallard’s Game. Even if you aren’t sportin’ folk, your family will love the Madison Mallards games. Equal part spectacle/sporting event–okay possibly more spectacle than sporting event–the Mallards is part of the Northwoods League, a summer league that attracts top college players from around the country. Every inning features audience-participation shenanigans like adult tricycle races, air band contests, kids racing each other around the bases dressed as enormous fruit, diaper derbies and more. In true Wisconsin style they offer plenty of beer, brats and burgers, but in true Madison style they include a gluten-free menu.
7. Madison Children’s Museum. Madison has a world-class Children’s museum that appeals to kids up to age 12. Spanning three floors–including a rooftop terrace and gardens with gorgeous views of Lake Mendota and the capitol square your kids brains and bodies will have a blast. Other family-friendly features include on-site parking (as well as a city lot one block away), Roman-Candle pizza, family bathrooms and “plenty of stroller parking.” $7.95, adults and children, $6.95, seniors and grandparents, $1 per person, Family Access admission (for adults and children utilizing WIC, Head Start, free or reduced school lunch, Birth to 3, SSDI, foster care, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Unemployment Insurance, or most other public assistance programs). FREE for museum members and children under 1 year old.
8. Concerts in the Rotunda. Downtown’s modernist jewel, the Overature Center, offers free family concerts on Saturdays Sept-April at 9:30 am, 11 am, and 1:00pm. FREE to the public, these kid-friendly shows introduce your children to live performance (musicians, storytellers, jugglers, theater troupes, magicians and dancers) in a relaxed environment without demanding stillness and silence. The 1 PM performances are sign language interpreted.
9. Pheasant Branch Conservatory offers stroller-friendly biking or walking trails plus a creek with stepping-stones and bridges–lots of fun to explore when everyone needs fresh air and to exercise their “outside voices.”
10. Memorial Union Terrace. Ask anyone who’s ever visited Madison where the best place is to sit lake-side and watch live music, eat a brat and drink a beer, people-watch (aka mourn your early 20s), or hoover Wisconsin ice cream made right on campus, and they’ll tell you the Memorial Union Terrace–or simply “The Terrace.” Locals will add “The Terrace…in the summer when the students are gone.” Note: Madison’s also features the Frank Lloyd Wright Terrace– another gorgeous view on Lake Menona vs. The Memorial Terrace on Lake Mendota. We do that just to confuse you. Bring your kids and bring a UW Alum to buy the beer (you have to be a union member)– or just befriend one of the 40,000 students at the table next to you. Park in a nearby city lot and walk–parking at The Terrace is tricky. The Terrace is free and no table manners are required.
Enjoy your stay in Madison. Prepare to spend your journey home figuring out how you can move here, explaining to your kids they will no longer get ice cream after every meal, and figuring out how to pronounce the word “Isthmus.”