During the summer, we try to find a new way to save money and entertain our kids every day. We also try to do this on a budget. While we don’t find something new every day, we do have a list of favorite things to do with the kids for free in Madison. While these may not be the most exciting things to do, they are all outdoor activities that mostly involve fresh air and a little exercise. If you have other fun things that you can do for free here please let us know by leaving us a comment below. Here is our list. You’ll notice that it is somewhat similar to our article about free things to do with kids, but this list is more specific to Madison, Wisconsin.
Free Things to Do in Madison
Explore the University of Wisconsin Arboreteum. The UW arboretuem is a huge nature preserve that can be used year round. If you want to walk through a tree garden, visit the main arboretuem and you can spend hours walking around looking at all of the native Wisconsin trees. They are clearly marked with a tag, so you can use the walk to help you learn more about native trees. If you prefer to walk in the woods, you can also visit the main park area, or you can go south of the beltline and walk the miles of trails there. Either way, you’re bound to see dozens of wild turkeys and maybe even some deer. Tell your kids that you are going “exploring” and they’ll have even more fun.
Visit Olbrich Gardens. Olbrich Gardens is a really well taken care of garden that spans several acres and includes rock, herb, water, rose, thai and other unique types of gardens. You can visit and walk around for free. There is also an indoor garden that has birds and fish and is more tropical themed, however it will cost you a dollar per person. Both places are a great way to entertain the young and the old.
Go to Henry Vilas Zoo. One of the best free things in the country is Henry Vilas Zoo. The zoo was donated by Henry Vilas years ago with the stipulation that it would always be a free zoo. I think it gets more popular each year, especially since they’ve built on an entire section that is just for children. Last week I was there and was surprised to see dozens of school buses from central Illinois. Apparently, it’s one of the best zoos around for hundreds of miles.
Walk on State Street. State Street is a road that goes from the State Capitol to the UW campus. It is closed to traffic, except for buses and bikes. It is filled with hundreds of small shops and restaurants. The best part about walking down State Street is the people watching. It is full of students, street musicians, hippies and every other type of person you can think of. You can spend an afternoon just walking up and down the street.
Visit a Beach. There are several free beaches in Madison. We’ve been to the beach across from Vilas Zoo a few times. It’s not too bad when the algae level isn’t too high. Besides that beach, I know there are a couple beaches on Lake Mendota that are also free. I can’t remember their names.
Go For a Bike Ride. We live on the Capitol City Bike Trail. Although you are required to buy a trail pass to bike on it, I’ve never seen anyone that actually has a trail pass. We bought them our first year here and haven’t since. Anyway, what makes Madison a great place to ride a bike is that there are trails EVERYWHERE. You can literally get to almost any town within 50 miles by following the system of trails. The city of Madison has set up a bike trail map that is marked with planets throughout the city. You can also ride your bike on John Nolen Drive, which is along the lake and goes all the way downtown.
Farmer’s Market. Supposedly, the Madison farmers market is the largest one in the world. I don’t know if that’s true, but it is a big and entertaining place to go. The market is open every Saturday morning and is located around the State Capitol. It has more than just fresh vegetables. You can find flowers, breads, jerkies, art and lots of other local goodies. You may want to bring a stroller for your kids because it’s so busy that its hard for them to stay out of people’s way.
Attend a Free Concert. Each summer the city has free concerts at the Capitol square. People gather around the square and sit on blankets, drink wine and listen to music. Besides teh concerts on the square, McKee Farms park in Fitchburg and a few other areas also have similar concerts. In addition, you can usually find free live music at the Memorial Union during the summer.
Play at McKee Farms Park. McKee Farms park is one of several really cool kid’s play structure parks. It is an elaborate and creatively designed park with lots of fun things for the kids to stay entertained. There is a similar park in Monona and another cool park in McFarland that our kids love to play at. Bring a lunch and you can have a picnic.
Hang Out at the Memorial Union. The Memorial Union is part of the University of Wisconsin. It is located right on the shore of Lake Mendota and has a large area with seating and tables that you can visit and hang out any day or night. There is often live music and lots of boats and sail boats for the kids to watch.
Visit the State Capitol. You can always visit the State Capitol if you’re looking for something fun and free to do. I believe you can sign up for one of their free tours, but if you’re not interested, the Capitol is open to visitors and you don’t need to make an appointment.
Almost Free Things to Do
Visit a State Park. If you’re looking for great hiking trails and nicer beaches, you can check out one of the many state and county parks in the area. Everyone’s favorite is Devils Lake, which is about 45 minutes from Madison. It has beautiful beaches and hiking trails that span the bluffs around the lake. You can also camp there. There are dozens of other state parks worth checking out. I suggest you check out the DNR’s website to help you find a park.
Go Fishing. Fishing is free for children, but adults need to have a license. Oh, and it also costs to buy equipment and bait, although not very much. There are hundreds of spots that you can fish for free with a license around the city. Our favorite spot is an out of the way pond that is located behind an industrial park. It is stocked with trout that are easy to catch. The park is intended for children and disabled people only. I don’t think too many people know about this park because I’ve never seen another person there.
Anyway, these are some of the free (and almost free) things that our family does in Madison. If you have more ideas for us and for other visitors, please feel free to add them to the comments below.