What to do Your First Weekend in Madison, WI

If you’re looking for a smaller city to visit in the Midwest, than you need to consider spending a weekend in Madison, Wisconsin. The city is easy to get around and has a lot of fun family attractions.  There’s also great shopping, restaurants, outdoor trails and other family friendly activities.

Madison is the second largest city in Wisconsin, and is consistently ranked as one of the best small towns in America. All that you need to do is spend one weekend there and you’ll see why.

Here’s how your family can have one fun-filled weekend during your first visit to Madison.


Saturday starts at the Dane County Farmer’s Market located on the Square.  The Square is the sidewalk that surrounds the State Capitol building downtown Madison.  This is one of the top farmer’s markets in the Midwest (or even the Country) with over 150 vendors each Saturday, and usually a lot of people.  Go early for fewer crowds and best selection.  The market starts at 6:15 and ends after lunch at 1:45.

Besides vendors selling the freshest produce, there are food vendors that serve up a lot of local treats.  Our favorites are the cheese popcorn, cheese bread, and cinnamon rolls.  There is a listing on their website that tells what is fresh for sale each week.

You can take a break and enjoy your treats while sitting on the grass in the interior of the square.  This is also a great spot to do some people watching from!

After making the rounds at the farmer’s market it’s time to cool off inside the Capitol building.  The building is open from 8-4:00 on the weekends, and free tours start at 9:00 and start on the hour (except at noon).  The last tour leaves at 3:00. The tour lasts just under an hour, but you can also tour the building on your own.

The highlight of the architecture is the ceiling of the rotunda and the dome.  The Capitol building has the only granite dome in the United States and is over 200 feet high.

Capitol Building

The capitol building in Madison. Stop in for a tour or just take a look around.

Your family will have a fun and educational afternoon at the Madison Children’s Museum.  The museum is a short walk from the Capitol building and the farmer’s market.  The museum is open from 9:30 to 5:00 on Saturdays.

There are indoor and outdoor exhibits.  Our favorite is the outdoor garden that you can even see the Capitol building from.  Also fun, is the art studio and the log cabin.  Plan to spend a couple of hours here.

Madison Children's museum

A rooftop garden with a view of the Capitol Building.

Of course, you’ll have to do some swimming at the hotel pool and grab a bite to eat to end your busy first day in Madison.


After breakfast, you’ll want to go to the Henry Vilas Zoo.  The zoo is about 2 miles southwest of the Capitol Building. The zoo opens at 9:30 and closes at 5. This is a really nice zoo with many exhibits, and the best part is that its free.  It is one of the few free zoos in the whole country.  Donations are accepted, but really, it’s free!

The top exhibits for our family were the giraffes, grizzly bears and polar bears.  Plan to spend a few hours here.

After lunch, head to the Olbrich Botanical Gardens.  The garden’s are about 5 miles away from the zoo, and on the edge of Lake Monona.  The hours are 10:00-4:00.

The outdoor gardens cover 16 acres and there is no charge to view them.  Free is good, especially for families!  The Thai Pavilion and garden is the most peaceful spot in the gardens.  The structure is beautiful and not to be missed.

Thai Pavilion

The Thai Pavilion in the outdoor gardens.

We did cheat a little bit on our visit and took a tour of the gardens on a golf cart.  It was super hot the day we visited and the golf cart and driver just appeared, so we hopped on.  No extra charge.  I should mention that we also visited the zoo, children’s museum, Capitol building and farmer’s market before we arrived at the gardens.  We were exhausted!

There is a beautiful tropical garden inside the Bolz Conservatory and there is a $2 admission fee to visit.

Later in the summer brings the Blooming Butterfly’s to the Conservatory and there is a $7 adult and $3 per kid admission fee.  It’s a fun exhibit because you are walking among the butterflies and have to find each species.  Some may even land on you!

End your Sunday with some ice cream or a quick meal out.  You have seen the best that Madison has to offer families and are already looking forward to your next visit.


Madison, Wisconsin is a great city for your family's vacation in the Midwest.
How your family can spend a weekend in Madison Wisconsin.

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