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Tag Archive: Frugal Road Trip

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!

East Coast Road Trip: A Day in Pittsburgh

Welcome to my 14-day series on our East Coast Road Trip where I share our adventures along the way, how we’re doing this on a budget, honest reviews of attractions & restaurants we visit, and money-saving tips and ideas. If you missed it, read Day 1 here, Day 2 hereDay 3 hereDay 4 hereDay 5 here, Day 6 hereDay 7 hereDay 8 hereDay 9 hereDay 10 here, and Day 11 here.

I learned a lot of things on our 14-day road trip, but one thing I’ve definitely learned is that you all have the BEST recommendations! Case in point: we had an amazing day in Pittsburgh and every single bit of it was because of your recommendations.

The day started with doing laundry… in the hotel parking lot! Well, not totally. We washed and dried it in the machines at the hotel, but we had to check out of the hotel before we could get it folded.

So we folded it in the parking lot/back of our car. Which I wouldn’t really recommend as ideal, but it got the job done! 😉

Oh and as an update: The 5-day packing system worked SO well on this trip and I think we’ll definitely be doing some sort of rendition on it for most of our trips from here on out.


We had a blast going up the Duquesne Incline and seeing the incredible view of Pittsburgh. We loved reading more about the history of the inclines in the Pittsburgh area and we all thought it was a pretty cool experience.

The views from the top of the incline were really cool!

Note: I thought the fares were on the expensive side: It was $20 for round trip tickets for all of us + $5 for parking, but it was a unique experience and memorable experience.

Then we headed to the Strip District. And I’m just not sure how to even describe it.

There were all of these incredibly unique restaurants and grocers that covered a plethora of cultures and ethnicities — and almost every store was really, really inexpensive (at least compared to most of the prices we’ve been seeing on this trip!)

We were bummed that the Peace, Love, and Little Donuts Shop was already closed for the day when we got there. (We discovered that a number of restaurants and shops close around 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., so we wished we had gotten there a little earlier.)

Our favorite store was probably the Allegheny Coffee & Tea Exchange. They had a huge selection of coffees and coffee beans and teas and their prices were very reasonable! We bought loose leaf tea and coffee beans at Allegheny Coffee & Tea to take home, plus some coffee for Jesse, drinks for the kids, and tea for me.

The Pennsylvania Macaroni Company was such an interesting store. You felt like you were in a different country when you were in it — especially because the foods were all Italian!


We loved finding South African candy at the chocolate shop + various products made with Schweschwe fabric (very traditional South African) in another little shop. We split a delicious chicken quesadilla from this basement Mexican restaurant.

And we oohed and aahed over the produce prices at the open air “farmer’s markets” — a bunch of roses for $4-$5 and tubs of strawberries for $1!!!


Oh and we ate at Primanti Bros. like you all said we must. (I got a salad which is probably not what you’re supposed to order there, but it was delicious!!)


Then we hopped in the car and hit West Virginia for a little bit (our first time in the state) and then headed to Cincinnati for the last two days of our 14-day road trip.

Any suggestions on other inexpensive things to do in Pittsburgh? I’d love to hear!

East Coast Road Trip: Hershey, Pennsylvania

Welcome to my 14-day series on our East Coast Road Trip where I share our adventures along the way, how we’re doing this on a budget, honest reviews of attractions & restaurants we visit, and money-saving tips and ideas. If you missed it, read Day 1 here, Day 2 hereDay 3 hereDay 4 hereDay 5 here, Day 6 hereDay 7 hereDay 8 hereDay 9 here, and Day 10 here.

Okay, I’m going to get real and tell you that Day 11 of our trip was a little rough. I just wasn’t feeling all adventuresome or like a fun mom.

Honestly, I was wishing we were home and I could plop the kids in front of a movie, shut my bedroom door, and read a book in quiet.

Yeah. I felt on edge. I felt people-d out. I felt tired of the close quarters and long car rides. And I was frustrated with two kids who were being extra whiny.

And of course, this was the day I was wearing my Love Your Life shirt. 😉 Well, I needed the reminder. Because vacations with kids aren’t always fun or amazing. Sometimes, they are just plain hard.

However, despite what I was feeling inside, despite the fact that I did snap at the kids a few times, it was a good day. I’m truly grateful for this trip and the memories we made together on it. Also, close quarters are a great way to recognize character issues we need to work on and are fantastic ways to realize where we need to work on communicating better.

We spent the morning at The Hershey Story where I was so inspired by Milton Hershey’s life and legacy. What an incredible man! I was especially inspired by his business principles and by how generous he was with his employees.

It was cool to see some of the original recipes for caramels (the candy that Milton Hershey initially started making in his business, before he switched to chocolate).

It was also fascinating to read about creative ideas they had implemented to make their factories run more smoothly — like transporting chocolates via bathtubs!

The kids especially loved the Chocolate Workers Wanted exhibit, getting to try chocolates from different countries at their Tastings bar, and then getting to learn more how chocolate is made (it’s a pretty incredible process!) and make our own chocolate bar in the Chocolate Lab.

A few things to note:

  • The Museum Admission is $12.50 for adults and $9 for kids. The Tastings bar and the Chocolate Lab are an additional fee. Teachers, veterans and families of active duty military personnel receive $3 off admission to the Museum Experience. Valid school/military identification required. (They were so generous to give us free admission plus free tickets to the Tastings bar and to their Chocolate Lab since I am a blogger and was blogging/posting on social media about our trip.)
  • There is currently a Groupon available that gives a combo package for the Museum Admission + the Tastings Bar that would save you quite a bit off the price if you were wanting to do both.
  • The Tastings Bar experience was fun, but honestly, I would recommend the Chocolate Lab over it in a heartbeat. If you do decide to do the Tastings Bar, you only need to purchase one for every 3-4 people as that’s enough to go around and for everyone to get to taste the chocolate.
  • We really enjoyed the Chocolate Lab. Not only did our kids have so much fun making their own chocolate bars, but we thought that the information shared about where chocolate comes from, how it’s made, how they use every single part of the cacao bean, and the history of chocolate was really insightful and we learned a LOT while there.
  • You can’t purchase tickets for the Chocolate Lab ahead of time so if you are wanting to do that, just know that tickets are sold on a first-come, first-served basis the day of.
  • I thought that the upstairs was geared a little more toward adults, but it was interactive enough for our kids to enjoy it. I think the price is on the high side for what the museum offers. If you’re just looking for a little fun adventure related to chocolate and how chocolate is made, I’d recommend just doing the free Hershey World tour (see below).

Next, we went to Hershey’s Chocolate World to do the free tour — which was a fun experience! Here are more details on this free tour:

Follow cocoa beans on a delicious journey in this immersive & FREE chocolate making tour. See, feel, hear and smell the transformation of cocoa beans to HERSHEY’S famous chocolate on this fun tour. Then, enjoy a FREE Hershey’s product sample on us!

A few things to note:

  • There was almost no waiting time, but based upon the HUGE area they had set up for a line, I’m guessing that they sometimes do have a very long line.
  • The tour is 30 minutes long and it’s a “ride” that you’re sitting in and just going through the tour.
  • The admission is free, no tickets are required. The tours run continuously until closing.
  • If you have a child who tends to get over-stimulated by a lot of noise and color and lights and sounds, this might not be an attraction for you because there is a lot of that going on during this tour.

(And yes, near the end of the day, being around all that sugar kind of made me feel like I should go eat a kale salad after I left! ?)


We had planned to visit the Flight 93 Memorial, but there was a big thunderstorm on our way there, so we ended up having to skip it & hang out at a gas station until the storm had cleared.


We made it to Pittsburgh around 9 pm and I enjoyed some quiet (see my book stack photo) while the kids watched a show.

Tomorrow: exploring Pittsburgh and then driving to Cincinnati!

To be continued…

P.S. I hesitate to share so honestly because I know that we’re so blessed to get to go on this trip & many, many people would love to be in my shoes. But at the same time, I want to be honest that traveling is not always roses & rainbows.

East Coast Road Trip: Traveling to Pennsylvania

Welcome to my 14-day series on our East Coast Road Trip where I share our adventures along the way, how we’re doing this on a budget, honest reviews of attractions & restaurants we visit, and money-saving tips and ideas. If you missed it, read Day 1 here, Day 2 hereDay 3 hereDay 4 hereDay 5 here, Day 6 hereDay 7 hereDay 8 here, and Day 9 here.

Day 10 on our road trip was a laid-back, quiet travel day. And after a few go-go-go days, it was just what we all needed, especially the 4 of us who are introverts! (Yes, can you believe that it appears Silas is the only extrovert in our family??!!)

The morning began with swimming and hanging out at the hotel and then we packed up and headed for Pennsylvania.

We made a pit stop at two different travel centers along the way. One had a farmer’s market stand where I found fresh whole wheat bread (it was $7/loaf, which is almost 5 times what I usually pay!! But I was out of the bread I had brought and I usually eat 3-4 slices of whole wheat bread every day, so I coughed up the money and bought it.)

We also got $0.50 frosty’s for the kids at the Wendy’s at the other travel center (that’s much more my kind of price range!)

We started reading the sequel to The Upstairs Room aloud today called The Journey Back, which we’re all excited to dive into as we loved the first book! (Note: Just like the first book, I’m editing it as there is some crass language.)

And I finished reading Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? (I really enjoyed this book and the fascinating look that it gives at what it’s like to work for the President, but it comes with a huge crass language warning.) and started reading What Falls From the Sky (I think it’s going to be an inspiring read!)


We made it to Harrisburg around 7 pm and enjoyed a completely laid-back evening at the hotel! Basically, today fed my introverted soul and I’m ready to hit the ground running again for the last five days of our trip!

Tomorrow: exploring Harrisburg, PA and then driving to Pittsburgh in the late afternoon/early evening.

…To be continued

East Coast Road Trip: A Day in Boston!

Welcome to my 14-day series on our East Coast Road Trip where I share our adventures along the way, how we’re doing this on a budget, honest reviews of attractions & restaurants we visit, and money-saving tips and ideas. If you missed it, read Day 1 here, Day 2 hereDay 3 hereDay 4 hereDay 5 here, Day 6 hereDay 7 here, and Day 8 here.

Okay. It’s official. I have fallen madly in love with Boston.

As in, I think I want to move to Boston. Or at least rent an apartment in the North End and visit for a week every month. (Hey, a girl can dream, right?? ;))

The coffee shops. The open air restaurants. The quaint streets. The scenery. The smells. I almost felt like I was back in Rome!

On Day 9 of our trip, we slept in and the drove to downtown Boston where we got all-day parking a block from Boston Common for just $15.

A few notes about parking and traffic:

  • Since we were visiting on Sunday, a local hotel offered all-day valet parking for just $15! From what I could tell — and what I heard — visiting on the weekends means that parking is much less expensive than it is on weekdays.
  • You can read more about parking in Boston here. (Locals: is that list accurate? I wasn’t sure.)
  • We also found that the roads were easy to drive and navigate (however, keep in mind that we are used to Nashville traffic!), traffic wasn’t really heavy like we expected, and was nothing like NYC. So it was no problem for us to drive into the city instead of taking the subway into the city. However, we were there on a Sunday, so I think that made traffic a lot lighter.

After visiting the Boston Common, we headed out to walk the Freedom Trail. We LOVED how there was such an eclectic mix of modern and historical.

We were pleasantly surprised to notice how much cheaper the prices were in Boston compared to the prices we’d been seeing in NYC and DC! (For instance, tourist-y t-shirts were $10 and water bottles were $1.)

We loved getting to spend time at the Old South Meeting House, the site of the Boston Massacre, and Faneuil Hall.

We went to the Rose Kennedy Greenway halfway through our day and then came back to it near the end of the day because our kids loved it so much!

One of the things my followers on Facebook had told me that we had to do was to check out Mike’s Pastry’s and Modern Pastry. It seems like there might be a sort of friendly disagreement between locals as to which shop is the best.

Some locals said we HAD to go to Mike’s and others said we HAD to go to Modern. And most of the locals had a strong opinion as to which one we should go to! So we decided to go to both. 😉

We went to Modern first. The line was out the door and they had quite a huge selection of options but they line moved so fast that we had barely made our decisions of what we wanted to get by the time we got up to purchase. Note: They only accept cash.

Mike’s was PACKED. As in, there were 6 (?) long lines out the door, you couldn’t really see what they offered (though it was clear there was a LOT of cannoli options!) because there were so many people in front of the display cases.

While Jesse waited in line, the kids ate what some of we bought at Modern Pastry… which was probably completely against the “rules”, but they were hungry and the wait was long! 🙂

We got a cannoli and a scone at Mike’s and they were both so yummy!

We also walked to see Old North Church and Park Street Church.

 

And then we walked over the bridge to the USS Constitution. We LOVED getting to go on board this ship and couldn’t believe how they let people just walk around and touch almost everything!

A few things I wish had known ahead of time:

  • It’s a long walk to get to the USS Constitution from Boston Common — especially if you do it at the end of walking the Freedom Trail. Silas was pretty worn out, but he loved the ship.
  • It’s free to go on the ship. The museum (which we didn’t go to) is a suggested donation of $5-$10 for adults, $3-$5 for children, or $20-$25 for families.
  • The ship is not open all the time. Sometimes it is closed for repairs. You’ll want to check before going to it. (I’d hate for you to make that long trek for nothing!)
  • You have to show your ID to get on the ship and your bags are searched.
  • They allow you to bring sealed food and water bottles on the ship. (Or at least they let ours through without mentioning that it would be a problem!)

We walked back to Boston Common from the USS Constitution and saw Paul Revere’s house on the way.

We stopped by a SweetGreen to grab some salads to split for dinner and then had a picnic at Boston Public Garden where we fed the ducks and marveled at how perfect the weather was and how beautiful the evening was. This park is very worth visiting!

We hadn’t expected to stay in Boston until after dinner time, so my phone died for the last hour of the day so I wasn’t able to get all the pictures I would have liked to of the park, but we would highly recommend it.

We then headed back to our car around 7:30 p.m. and drove to New Hampshire (our first time there!) to be able to say that we’d visited the state and then headed to Albany, NY for the night and then it’s onto to PA!

To be continued…

Have you been to Boston before? Any suggestions for the best free or inexpensive places to visit there?

East Coast Road Trip: Headed to Boston (Connecticut, Rhode Island, Cape Cod, Plymouth)

Welcome to my 14-day series on our East Coast Road Trip where I share our adventures along the way, how we’re doing this on a budget, honest reviews of attractions & restaurants we visit, and money-saving tips and ideas. If you missed it, read Day 1 here, Day 2 hereDay 3 hereDay 4 hereDay 5 here, Day 6 here, and Day 7 here.

Well, we had planned to get to Boston by late afternoon, but the day didn’t quite pan out like that…

We were just going to drive through Connecticut (our first time to visit the state!), but we stopped to buy a case of water (it’s SO much cheaper to buy water by the case than to buy individual bottles!) and 2 $6 footlongs to split at the Subway in Madison.

(Need an inexpensive but somewhat healthy meal option? We love to split footlongs — especially whatever is the special of the day priced at just $6 per footlong.)

We wanted to eat outside, but there was no place to eat outside at the rest stop. So we drove to the sign that said Hammonasset State Park and were going to pull in and eat at a picnic table there. Only it was $22 to park in the park — which we didn’t want to pay (of course!) since we were just planning to make it a quick 20-minute stop to eat our lunch!!

We found a nearby (free!) parking spot at the Shoreline Trail. There were signs about the beach and I just couldn’t really bear the thought that we were so close to a beach and couldn’t see it because of the trees. (If you know me well, you know that the beach is my happy place!)

I figured the beach must be super close so I asked Jesse if I could take the Shoreline Trail for a bit and go find it. Kaitlynn wanted to come with me. So off we went!

And I’m so glad we did — even if it ended up being a much longer walk than we had anticipated, because the beach was absolutely gorgeous!!! And the weather was perfect.

I called Jesse (who was still back at the trail head with Kathrynne and Silas) and was like, “I know we were only planning to stay here for 20 minutes, but this beach is AMAZING! Is there any way that you could walk here and meet us? I don’t think you’ll regret it!”

 

Always one for adventure, he walked to meet us at the beach and we all had fun playing in the water (well, as much as the kids could since they didn’t want to get completely drenched!) and just enjoying the beautiful view!

So much for the 20 minute pit stop! We were probably there at least an hour and half! But it was worth it!

We then drove on through Rhode Island (our first time to be there!) and made it to Massachusetts (another new state for us!) We stopped at Cape Cod for a short while (it was beautiful!) and then headed to Plymouth.

Plymouth was quite the hopping place, which somewhat surprised us — especially since it was past 8 pm on a Saturday evening. We got dinner at a total tourist-y place (Pebbles Restaurant) because it was the only place close and we were so hungry! But it ended up being great food and I got to try Fried Dough for the first time (yum!!)

We pulled into our hotel in Boston only to discover Jesse had booked it for the wrong night on accident and they were sold out. So 11 pm found us sitting in our car searching online for a hotel in a good area that was a good rate that didn’t charge $40 for parking! We finally found one and crashed there around midnight!

Have you been to Connecticut or Rhode Island before? Any suggestions for the best free or inexpensive places to visit there?