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Free Things To Do in Madison, Wisconsin

Looking for free things to do in Madison, Wisconsin? Here are some places our family visited and did on a recent road trip there.

Want more free and cheap road trip ideas? Check out my 14-day series on our East Coast Road Trip.

An Impromptu Road Trip to 3 States

A few weeks ago, we took a sort of impromptu road trip to Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa. If you’ve been following along here, you know our family goal to visit all 50 states and 7 continents by the time Kathrynne is 18 (she’s currently 14 and before this trip, we had 16 states and 5 continents to go).

We only had 5 days to hit the 3 states, so we decided to just pick one city to focus on in each state. After looking at the map, we looked at routes, and we ended up picking Madison, WI, Minneapolis, MN, and Des Moines, IA.

We had such a fun time in Madison and Minneapolis that I wanted to devote an entire post to each city to share photos and some of free and cheap things we did in Madison, WI and Minneapolis, MN. (Note: It was pouring rain and cold the whole time we were in Iowa so we didn’t end up getting to do much there. We’ll have to go back!)

Free Things to Do In Madison, Wisconsin

Jesse and I had both been to Wisconsin before many years ago, but the kids had never been. And none of us had ever been to Madison.

I did what I often do when we visit a new area and asked on Facebook and Instagram for your best suggestions of free and frugal things to do. You all give the best recommendations! I went through all of them and picked the top places that were suggested over and over again.

And here’s what we ended up doing…

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

First off, we went to the Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Many of you had suggested this and you were so right.

The gardens were gorgeous! (It was also a completely beautiful day, which made the experience that much better!)

Admission to the outdoor gardens is completely FREE! There are 16 acres of gardens to walk through including:

  • A Thai Pavilion and Garden (This Thai Pavilion is the only one in the continental United States and the only one outside of Thailand surrounded by a garden.)
  • Rose Garden
  • Perennial Garden
  • Sunken Garden
  • Herb Garden

We loved the Rose Garden and the Herb Garden the best. They had a sundial in the Rose Garden that the kids had fun trying to read.

We also found a nest of baby birds! They seemed crazy hungry (aren’t baby birds always hungry, though??) and we waited awhile to see if the mama bird would come back.

We were afraid that she might dive bomb us if we got too close so we had someone watch out for her while I took a picture and video. 🙂

There is also an indoor Tropical Conservatory that costs $2 per person for admission. It is probably fantastic, but we were happy to just visit the free gardens!

Ian’s Pizza

I asked for restaurant recommendations and this Ian’s Pizza was one you all recommended over and over again. And you were again correct — it was delicious and had such a fun vibe!

Ian’s Pizza sells a variety of unique pizzas — by the slice. Or, you can order a full pizza and customize it.

We ordered a large pizza that was half Mac & Cheese (it was delicious!) and half Macadilla Killa. Plus, we ordered a side of 9 breadsticks. Our total was around $25 and this was more than enough to fill us all up (plus we took some leftovers back to the hotel!)

Excitement Outside the Capitol Building

We had parked close to the capitol building (parking was free on the weekends), so after a very late afternoon lunch, we went to explore the capitol. It’s free and open to the public, too.

We were detoured from visiting the capitol building by two ambulances and a lot of police cars with sirens blaring. They all pulled up up at a bus stop right outside the capitol building. We weren’t sure what happened, but it appeared maybe two guys had gotten into a fight and gotten hurt.

I’ve never seen something like that up so close and I felt a little weird just watching the whole thing, but it was also kind of fascinating to see it all go down, too.

(I don’t know that fascinating is the right word because these were people’s lives we are talking about. However, it felt like a scene from a movie or something! Gratefully, it appeared like both men were going to be okay and they both were conscious and breathing on their own when they were put on the ambulances and taken to the hospital.)

Wisconsin State Capitol Building

After that commotion outside the capitol, we finally made it inside. It was pretty incredible — as most capitol buildings seem to be! We had heard that there was a cool observation deck on the 6th floor so we went about figuring out how to get to that.

We walked up a bunch of stairs and tried multiple elevators (some only went to certain floors, etc.) I couldn’t believe they just let you explore like this!

We finally asked the security guard at the front desk how to get up to the top. It was then that we found out that they don’t let anyone up through the special elevator 30 minutes before closing! We had literally walked in the door 29 minutes before the building closes.

Oh well! At least we had quite a fun time trying to find it! 🙂

Henry Vilas Zoo

We then headed to the Henry Vilas Zoo — a FREE zoo in Madison, Wisconsin. I honestly couldn’t believe it.

It’s small and it was pretty crowded, but you can’t beat the price point of free! And it far exceeded my expectations of what a free zoo would be!

To my knowledge, I don’t ever recall actually seeing a real badger. So that was cool to see!

Our favorite exhibit, by far, was the Polar Bear exhibit. Not only cannot ever remember seeing a Polar Bear, this guy was in rare form and showing off for us!

Vilas Park

Right outside the zoo was the Vilas Park beach. It would be a fun place to take a picnic or to swim in. It was also free and open to the public.

We didn’t have bathing suits on, but Silas and Kathrynne still got into the water for a bit!

The Cheese Chalet

Many people had told me we couldn’t come to Wisconsin without getting cheese curds. So we stopped at The Cheese Chalet on the way out of Madison to pick some up.

They had so many different kinds of cheese!

I wasn’t sure of the best kind of cheese curds to get (I forgot to ask you all about that!), so I just played it safe and went with marbled!

Culver’s

I had no idea the “cult following” that Culver’s has until I asked where we should eat in Madison. I learned that there will be one answer and one answer only for that question: Culver’s!

We actually have a Culver’s in our area, but I think Jesse has only taken the kids one time and that was a few years ago. I thought it was just a typical fast food place, but I was actually pretty impressed with it!

We each got to pick one treat (mine was the flavor of the day with double whipped cream — yum!). Needless to say, I’m pretty sure we will be back to Culver’s soon!

What other suggestions do you have for free or cheap things to do in Madison, Wisconsin? Tell us in the comments!

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27 Comments

  • Tracy says:

    Looks like you had a great time. The Farmers’ Market at Capitol Square on Saturday mornings is fun (mid-April through mid-November).

    • Oh! Some people told us it was really cool… we weren’t there on Saturday or we definitely would have checked it out!

      • Leah M. says:

        I’ve enjoyed reading your blog! I’ve been to Wisconsin before…this is when i lived in Minnesota and decided to go watch a Movie with friends in another State! It took us just 30mins to get there. But i didn’t get a chance to travel to all these beautiful places you’ve mentioned! So thnks for sharing…atleast now i have a reference for next time i end up there.

  • Anita Barnthson says:

    I love that K-State shirt. My husband and I graduated in 1970. We went to Manhattan over Memorial Day for a half marathon. It was so fun to be home.

  • Mary says:

    I’m glad you had a great time in our amazing city. The polar bears are always a treat at the zoo. They were originally a brother and sister until they got to be too old. The brother was transferred to another zoo and then a second female was brought to Vilas. My kids and I can spend hours watching their antics. While many of the activities are “free” they do rely heavily on donations so I hope any of your readers who visit consider a goodwill donation to keep our amazing city up and running. We visit these attractions weekly all summer longer and are happy to donate to our awesome town!

  • ANDREA says:

    So close to me. So glad you enjoyed the quick trip. The zoo & gardens are great. If you were at the zoo at the end of May to early June, they get bombarded by school field trip groups. A worker once told me how many groups come in a 3-4 week span & my jaw dropped.

  • Jennifer says:

    Rhythm and Booms music and fireworks show takes place each July and is free.

  • Carmen says:

    White cheese curds are better (in my opinion). If they are fresh and you let them come to room temp, they will “squeak” as you eat them!
    It’s been years since we lived near Madison but I think you hit all my favorite places (except the yarn shops LOL).

  • Stephanie says:

    We have lived in Wisconsin in a suburb of Madison for 3 years. This state is gorgeous even in the long winters (which it continues to amaze me how much people embrace the cold and go with it). There is so much to do here that is free or very inexpensive. Our best $28 purchase every year is the annual state park pass. With it we can get into any state park for free. It’s so fun to explore some of the beautiful state parks here-Devils Lake is our favorite. We center our weekend and summer activities around which new state park we want to visit! We pack our food and drinks, and take off for a day of hiking and sometimes swimming or kayaking. It’s an amazing state to explore!

  • Darcy says:

    Aww, so close! I’ve been following you for years, and would so love to meet you sometime when you make it up to Iowa! I understand this was a family trip vs a professional one, but if you ever consider making another one up here please post about it! 🙂 I’m in Cedar Rapids, but would totally drive to Des Moines (about 2 hours away)!

  • Kelia says:

    Just curious…I’m a stars fanatic ( God told Abraham about his descendants being more than the stars in the sky) and I live in Upstate SC too much ambient light to really see any. Have you traveled anywhere in the US and were able to see a lot of starts?

    • Meg says:

      Hi, Kelia! I travel to a lot of really remote places. My top 3 favorite places for star gazing so far are: Joshua Tree National Park, Yosemite National Park (up on Glacier Point), and Valley of the Gods in Utah. Hope that helps some! You just really have to get somewhere with as little light pollution as possible. -Meg, MSM Team

      • Gina says:

        Yes! Our National Parks are one of the best places for star gazing.

        Check out https://www.darksky.org/our-work/conservation/idsp/parks/ for more info or just Google “dark sky park near me”.

        • Meg says:

          I agree!! I’ve been to about half of the national parks so far (I’m trying to see them all), but so far Yosemite and Joshua Tree have had the best star gazing! But Valley of the Gods was beyond measure the BEST star gazing I’ve ever experienced. There was zero light pollution. It was incredible! I just got back from Bryce Canyon and was hoping for some amazing star gazing, but the moon was really full so it drowned out a lot of the stars. Bummer! Thanks for sharing that link! -Meg, MSM Team

    • Becca says:

      Pretty far from you but one of the darkest places in the US is in Fort Davis, Texas. There’s an observatory there because it is so dark. On a good clear night you can see them so clearly from the State Park in the area.

  • Mar says:

    I lived near Madison while in college. There’s a great children’s museum there (for those with littler kids). They have a free night once a month. https://madisonchildrensmuseum.org/

  • Amy says:

    So glad you and your family visited Wisconsin! I have a lot of family there and love that state! May I ask where your daughter found her striped bag in the first picture? It’s super cute!

  • Lynn says:

    We live in Madison and love how many free and easily accessible things there are to do! You did the best! I’m glad you had a good time!

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