You don’t have to head overseas to have a blast on your family vacation. The 50 states are full of fantastic locations to explore. While each of the coasts has beautiful beaches and large cities to explore, and the South entertains with its colorful culture and delicious cuisine, the Midwest should not be overlooked for the perfect family getaway. From exceptional outdoor adventures to museums, theater and more; Madison, Wisconsin and its surrounding areas make for the perfect base camp as you explore one of the friendliest places in the US. Read on to find out more.
You may know it as America’s Dairyland, but while Wisconsin certainly delivers when it comes to creating amazing artisanal cheeses and other dairy products, the state has plenty more to offer visiting families. Madison—often referred to as the Portland of the Midwest—is located in south-central Wisconsin and packed with fantastic options for entertainment and food. This cool city makes for the perfect base camp for all of your Midwest adventures. Grab a pen and paper and find out where to book your stay and how to fill your itinerary below!
Hilton Monona Terrace
Located in the heart of downtown Madison, this sweet hotel has well-appointed rooms that instantly feel like a home away from home. You can enjoy stunning views of Lake Monona or the State Capitol and there is onsite dining too! The Capitol Chophouse offers a breakfast buffet, lunch and you can fuel up on seafood and steak at dinnertime. The Olive— Monona’s lounge—is perfect for a quick date night stop after the kids have gone down for the night.
This family-friendly hotel is also equipped with a fitness center as well as an indoor pool and whirlpool. And if your crew likes to bike, rentals are just across the street and you’ll find most of the best attractions are just a short ride away. When it’s time to head home, the Hilton offers complimentary transportation to and from the Dane County Airport.
The array of activities available in and near Madison is so extensive that your family will be hard pressed to fit everything they want to do in. If your crew loves learning about science, history and nature through hands-on activities and interactive exhibits then it’s off to the museum you go: Madison has plenty.
Madison Children’s Museum is the place to begin. Located just a short walk from Madison’s Capitol Square, this three-story wonderland is jam-packed full of awesome exhibits and home to a rooftop garden. It will easily keep your younger set busy for hours with its authentic log cabin—much like the ones from Madison’s earliest days—and the wildernest which is a global village designed to give kids plenty of opportunities to climb, crawl, slide and play. The rooftop garden is home to a snake, baby chicks and so much more, and kids get the opportunity to feed and hold them all.
Additional exhibits include Stair Trek: Core to Cosmos; Coops to Cathedrals: Nature, Childhood, and the Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and others. New Exhibits open regularly. Insider tip: before you go check the website for special events your kids might enjoy.
Additional museums worth a stop include the Wisconsin Science Museum and the Wisconsin Historical Museum where you can learn all about the area’s history. At the history museum, your kids can venture into a lead mine, climb into a tractor cab and track immigration paths. There’s so much to do and learn.
The Overture Center of the Arts
Get a taste for the area’s culture at the Overture Center for the Arts. This incredible building is home to seven performance spaces including the Capitol Theater, which is restored to its original 1920’s decor complete with chandeliers, ornate wall sconces, and a 1927 Grand Barton Organ.
You can catch a variety of fun shows year-round, and Kids in the Rotunda (a free community program) offers family-friendly shows that promise to keep kids and parents alike enthralled. Insider tip: keep your eye on the Kids in the Rotund Facebook page for upcoming events.
The Overture also has a little something for the art lovers in your family. With five galleries that regularly display the works of international, national and local artists, there’s plenty to look at.
Who doesn’t love catching a glimpse of live animals while on vacation? Madison has its very own zoo and it is free! The Henry Vilas Zoo is an admission-free, community-supported zoo that is a leader in sustainability and conservation education. During your visit you can wander from the tropical rainforest aviary to the big cat exhibit to the North American prairie—and there is even a children’s zoo! You can see bison, anacondas, giraffes and more; all without leaving the city.
Olbrich Botanical Gardens
With 16 acres of landscaped gardens to explore, you and your kids will enjoy getting lost for hours at Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Wander through the Thai Pavilion (the only one in the US) and its garden. Get lost in color in the Rose garden or take in the scents of the Herb Garden. There’s so much to explore. Check the website ahead of time so you don’t miss out on the special events, exhibits and concerts like the recent Blooming Butterflies exhibit!
Outdoor enthusiasts might be surprised to find out that Wisconsin is packed with plenty to do. Devil’s Lake State Park is the Perfect location for a family adventure. Less than an hour’s drive from Madison, this state gem is located in Baraboo Wisconsin. It offers up 29 miles of hiking trails with options that accommodate all skill levels. Depending on what your family is up for, you can explore the Steinke Basin Loop, which consists of wooded trails that wander through an extinct glacial lake bed and includes bridges along its 2.5 miles path.
If you want a little climb, there are a variety of trails that take your family to stunning lookouts that provide gorgeous views of the lake from above.
Devils Lake is also a great spot for water play. If you feel like hopping in a rowboat or kayak, you can rent one or two through concessions during the summer season. During the hot months, the water is warm: kids and adults alike can jump in the water and enjoy a swim.
All of the exploring, hiking and paddling is sure to work up big appetites. Madison has a vibrant food and beverage scene and plenty of scrumptious options for everyone in your family. To start your days, hit Madison Sour Dough for some of the city’s best pastries or freshly baked bread.
DLUX is the perfect place to grab a burger and shake. The kids will love The Standard made with lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, cheese and house aioli. If you are feeling adventurous try the Farmhouse with bacon, Monterey jack, fried green tomato, baby greens and a side of jam. Shakes come in a variety of flavors including red velvet, salted caramel pecan and toasted marshmallow. And there are boozy options that mom and dad are sure to enjoy.
Feel like a slice of pizza, hot wings or baked pasta? Try The Roman Candle Pizza where you can get a custom pizza made just the way you like and sip craft beverages. If you have a vegetarian in the family, or you just want to try some amazing meat-free bites, make your way to The Green Owl Café. Try the crab-less crabby cakes, deluxe nachos or the pesto Alfredo. The food tastes so good it may just change the way you eat.
For an elevated dining experience that’s appropriate for the whole family head to the Graft where you can enjoy sharing a variety of Midwest-inspired small plates. You and your kids will go wild for the Graft mac & cheese and the Pasta alla chitarra. The scallops and the beef tartare are will make everyone smile and don’t forget to finish with dessert.
However you decide spend your time in Madison, don’t forget to check out the State Capitol where the community often puts on concerts in the park, a farmers market or other events that bring people together from near and far to enjoy the best the Midwest has to offer. You are sure to go home with fond memories, stunning photos…and most likely a bag filled with the best cheeses on earth.
—photos and story by Annette Benedetti
This trip was paid for by Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, but all opinions expressed here belong to the writer.