Free and Low-Cost Activities around Madison

For anyone raising children in the Madison area, it’s always great to have a go-to list of places to visit and things to do that are free, or at least low cost. We’ve raised our kids their entire lives in and around the Madison area and here are the things that we enjoy the most. Given how the Half-Pint community loves sharing #thrifty nuggets of knowledge, we thought it would be fun to collect and share ideas across Madison-area families. So, please scroll down or see our map of our favorite local, affordable ways to spend time with kiddos (if you want to see just the best winter activities, go here instead).

Activities that Lean Towards Learning

UW Geology Museum: Dinosaurs!? Rocks!? Things that glow in the dark!?! A hidden gem (couldn’t help it) – go check out the UW Geology Museum. My kids love to spend time in the glow room pressing the button to see the rocks under different lights, and I still remember the first time we turned the corner into the fossil room and they saw that mammoth. Free access and a fun way to spend an hour educating the kids (and yourself!). We always walk to Greenbush afterwards – not free, but hard to pass up when you’re so close!

Henry Vilas Zoo: This has been an invaluable resource over the years. It has served as a favorite destination to see and learn about their animals and attend so many different special events. This is an amazing, free facility that provides hours of family fun.

MacKenzie Center: OK, I can’t lie, I’ve never been here. My parents take our kids pretty frequently though, and they enjoy it so much that one of my son’s favorite stuffies is named MacKenzie. And that’s saying something because all his other stuffies are Foxy, Snaky, Prairie (it’s a prairie dog)… Besides nice walking trails, there is an 80-foot observation tower, logging museum, a sawmill and sugar house, and exhibit of native Wisconsin animals whom they care for because injuries prevent them from going back into the wild.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens: Although the gardens certainly appeal to adults, they are a wonderful place to spend with the kids, teaching them about a variety of different types of plants. Between the plants, sculptures, and ponds, this is a wonderfully peaceful place. We like to go in December and see their Christmas Holiday Express, and walk the gardens in the snow, which is particularly peaceful. The conservatory is worth it, and free on Saturdays from 10am to noon. We always stop at Crema Café afterwards, because… yum.

UW Arboretum: The UW Arboretum is such an amazing place to spend anywhere from an hour to a day. Stroll through the gardens, take your family pictures, walk on a night hike, gaze at the stars…. The list goes on and on. This is a treasured resource for families with kids of all ages.

Wisconsin State Capitol: We have one of the coolest capitol buildings in the US. Probably the coolest. There are fossils in the stone steps, and museum in the dome, stories behind every painting and a ghost in one, a taxidermized bald eagle (there’s a story there), and even a connection to the Titanic. You can take organized tours (my 5 and 7 year olds strongly recommended one!) or just simply get lost in the beauty of the architecture and art, all for free. Easily a place to spend 1-2 hours.

Governor’s Mansion: Officially known as the Wisconsin Executive Residence, the governor’s mansion is a really inspiring place to see and offers free tours.

Parks – because sometimes you just need to breathe

Indian Lake County Park: If you’ve never spent time at this wonderful little park, you’re missing out. We love all seasons at this park. Come out, breathe the fresh air, get in your miles, and have picnic. Parking and entry are completely free.

Olin Park: This is a great little park right on the shore of Lake Monona. Nothing is better in the summertime than to spend an afternoon playing with the kids in this wonderful little park.

Olbrich Park: Whether playing in the sun on a summer day or sledding down the magnificent sledding hill, Olbrich park is a hit! And, it’s directly across the street from Olbrich gardens. In the winter, we love to check out the Olbrich Bolz Conservatory (entry fee required except on Saturday mornings) and then head over to Olbrich park for a couple of hours of sledding. We’ve also spent afternoons building sand castles on the beach, and put in kayaks (bring your own or rent them here) for a trip up Starkweather Creek.

Vilas Park: Adjacent to Vilas Zoo and on the shores of Lake Wingra, this is a great place to find a full day of fun activities. We often go to enjoy all of these things simply for free, but sometimes splurge and rent kayaks at the park’s rental shop.

Devil’s Lake State Park: There is an entrance fee here, so we debated adding it to the list. But it was this summer’s all-time favorite activity; we went several times. The geology of the place is amazing, and the hikes on the south end are must-dos. Paddleboarding, swimming, chasing minnows, and sandcastle building easily eat through a beautiful summer day. And we can never leave without a scoop of ice cream, and then a bag of French fries for the drive home (those French fries are so good!).

Sledding: We are working on building out this list – where is your favorite sledding hill?

General Fun – hang out or go for a hike, anything goes

Dane County Farmers’ Market: Is there anything more iconic to Madison than the Madison Farmers’ Market? Being the country’s largest producer-only farmers’ market, Madison-area families have a truly unique opportunity nearly every Saturday of the Spring/Summer/Fall months. Aside from parking and anything you buy, this is a great free way to spend a Saturday morning.

Memorial Union Terrace: If the Dane County Farmers’ Market is iconic to Madison, then the Memorial Union Terrace is the iconic UW spot for our family. How many wonderful afternoons have we spent out on the Terrace? Well, we haven’t tried counting, but it’s a lot and we can’t seem to get enough.

Kids in the Rotunda: Located at the Overture Center off of State Street, what could be better way to get out and about on a Saturday morning than to take in a free kids-oriented show? We love taking advantage of the wide array of entertainers that the Overture brings in for their Kids in the Rotunda program, as well as the yearly (sadly not free) Children’s Theater of Madison seasons.

Picnic Point: Need a walk in the woods in a nearby Madison treasure? Check out picnic point! Got a wagon? – reserve a fire ring, bring some wood, and spend the evening roasting marshmallows along the lake front. Our family loves using the network of trails in the Picnic Point area to get in some exercise while taking in all the wonder of this beautiful area.

Governor’s Island: This one doesn’t seem to have a dedicated website, but don’t let that prevent you from checking out this neat little loop that juts out into Lake Mendota. This is where our kids first went fishing and it has areas perfect for launching a kayak. Located on the grounds of the Mendota Mental Health Institute, this is an often-overlooked spot for a quiet family walk.

Have fun out there and be sure to send us all the cool, affordable things that your family has found!