A Family Travel Guide to Madison, Wisconsin

A Family Travel Guide to Madison, Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s free-spirited college town provides affordable fun for all ages By: Mary Bergin
<p>The Plastic pink flamingo is Madison’s official bird. // © 2017 Getty Images</p><p>Feature image (above): Wisconsin’s state capitol was built in...

The Plastic pink flamingo is Madison’s official bird. // © 2017 Getty Images

Feature image (above): Wisconsin’s state capitol was built in 1917. // © 2017 Getty Images

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Sports lovers know Madison, Wis., as the home of the University of Wisconsin’s (UW) flagship campus and sports powerhouse in the Big Ten. But here’s the complete score: The winning, playful and progressive vibe of Wisconsin’s capital city extends well beyond UW’s borders.

Madison routinely earns national acclaim for its high standard of living. That all began in 1948, when “The Good Life in Madison, Wisconsin” was the featured cover story in Life magazine. The city of approximately 250,000 people is youthful (more than one-half of residents are under 30); bike-friendly (with 200 miles of trails); and good for water lovers (with 15,000 acres of lakes).

It’s quirky, too. The plastic pink flamingo became Madison’s official bird in 2009. Brat Fest, held during Memorial Day weekend, is the world’s largest festival of its kind. Two UW students started The Onion in 1988, and the then-weekly newspaper’s biting satire is now known all over the U.S.

Capitol Square — comprised of the streets that circle the 1917 domed building, which serves the state’s government — is the heart of Madison. It’s rich with local-centric restaurants and events that stop traffic during summer weekends. That includes the Dane County Farmers’ Market. It’s the largest producer-operated market in the nation, which means that what visitors buy is grown, raised or produced by the market’s more than 275 vendors. 

A prime view of the city can be found atop the five-story Madison Children’s Museum. The rooftop houses chickens, gardens and a two-headed, 3,400-pound bird sculpted from reclaimed materials. Inside, the museum is just as offbeat: A human-size gerbil wheel is sturdy enough for adults to take a spin.

Hourlong tours of the State Capitol, which was constructed with 43 kinds of stone from six countries, are free and include the sixth-floor observation deck during summer. The structure, softly lit at night, is Madison’s beacon; by city ordinance, nothing can be built taller.

Don’t miss the funky shops, watering holes and cafes of State Street, a pedestrian-only thoroughfare that spans 1 mile from the Capitol to the UW campus. Here, Memorial Union Terrace is a favorite landing spot for free music, and Lake Mendota is perfect for families looking for some waterfront lounging.

At UW Geology Museum, which offers free admission, peruse the stash of fossils, gems and minerals that include dinosaur remains (including a Boaz mastodon), or take an hourlong guided tour for $2 per person. Watch ice cream production at Babcock Hall Dairy Plant, which opened in 1951, and scoop up a cone from the dairy’s store.

When it rains, The Sett at Union South will entertain families with three levels of fun activities, from bowling to indoor rock climbing. When weather is glorious, rent a bike from Madison BCycle and pedal around Lake Monona, or head to Wingra Park for a gander at the UW Arboretum and Lake Wingra, Madison’s smallest and quietest lake. The park is near Monroe Street, which is filled with several locally owned shops, saloons and restaurants.

Special at the 16-acre Olbrich Botanical Gardens is a glimmering, golden pavilion from Thailand, a gift from the country’s royal family and only one of four outside Thailand. Two-humped camels from Asia, Arctic polar bears, African lions and more species live at Henry Vilas Zoo, one of the rare accredited zoos in the nation that features free admission.

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