Essential Downtown Madison: Visiting the Capitol City with Children

downtown madison capital building

Downtown Madison is not only home to the state’s Capitol building, governing bodies, and the world-class University of Wisconsin-Madison, but it is truly a Wisconsin destination unlike any other. The downtown Madison isthmus, a small strip of land nestled between Lakes Mendota and Monona, is home to various crowd-pleasing sights, one-of-a-kind restaurants, and unique local events that have put Madison on the map for many a Wisconsin traveler. 

Feeling overwhelmed by the idea of parading around metro Madison with children? Fear not—we’ve done the leg work for you! This guide narrows it down to the top destinations for families with children so that you can maximize your visit to the Capital City. We’ll start with must-see spots at the heart of downtown in Madison’s Capitol Square and then move westward toward the Henry Vilas Zoo on Madison’s near-west side. 

Before we jump in, one more practical note: parking can be a real headache in downtown Madison. Several parking ramps are available, but they can be closed periodically for downtown and campus events, not to mention the maze of one-way streets. Consider hopping on one of the many Madison Metro city bus routes further out of the heart of downtown and simply using your foot power to get around the Isthmus. Be sure to bring a stroller, layers (it tends to be windier/cooler downtown with the lakes), and cash, especially for the special events around the square. There are also options to rent bicycles and e-bicycles throughout downtown.

The Wisconsin State Capitol 

Wisconsin’s State Capitol building, re-built in 1917, sits at the epicenter of Madison’s downtown Isthmus area. A walk through this spectacularly mammoth structure with floor-to-ceiling marble and a 184 ft dome is sure to make a lasting impression on any curious youngster. Capitol tours are available on both weekdays and weekends for groups of under 10 without prior reservation.

Visiting the Capitol during the holiday season is a special treat. Each year a gigantic evergreen Christmas tree is harvested from a Wisconsin farm and becomes the focal point of the Capitol rotunda. Traditionally, the tree is decorated with ornaments crafted by school children from throughout the state.

Another noteworthy holiday event is the TubaChristmas Concert held annually in the rotunda. This free concert highlights a volunteer band of tuba, sousaphone, euphonium, and baritone musicians whose bold and echoey renditions of Christmas favorites reverberate throughout the building for an unparalleled musical and sensory experience. Those with auditory sensitivities may want to pack a pair of headphones for a more controlled and calm experience.

The Capitol Square

The Capitol Square is home to many lively events throughout the more seasonable months. Most notably, the Dane County Farmers’ Market which is the country’s largest producer-only farm market. This Madison favorite runs every Saturday morning from April to November and moves indoors to the Monona Terrace during the winter months. Squeaky fresh cheese curds, Stella’s Bakery’s hot and spicy cheese bread, and a variety of seasonal vegetables, local honey, organic meats, vibrant flowers, and a plethora of other treats and treasures are available to buy. You’ll likely want to have cash on hand for ease of purchasing, but many stands do accept plastic too.

Another favorite Capitol Square activity is the Concerts on the Square. The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra holds these weekly concerts on Wednesday evenings at 7 pm throughout the summer. Grab a picnic dinner (or purchase one from one of the many street vendors surrounding the Square) and join the crowd of nearly 5,000 others for a relaxing evening of enchanting music on the Capitol lawn. Check out the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra’s website for specific accommodations available for the summer of 2021.

Another big-ticket event, The Madison Art Fair on the Square, is one of the Midwest’s most highly regarded outdoor art, music, and food festivals, and it attracts upwards of 200,000 to the Capitol Square each summer. This Madison Museum of Contemporary Art event is traditionally held on the second weekend in July but has been tentatively scheduled for September 25 – 26 in 2021. The festival features photographs, prints, jewelry, paintings, and other beautifully handmade goods fashioned by nearly 500 artists.

One last essential visit to the Square is the annual Taste of Madison, which attracts around 250,000 participants each Labor Day weekend. Enjoy the culinary specialties of nearly 80 restaurants and 20+ beverage vendors amidst the beats from three live music stages. A food taster’s paradise, this Madison favorite is scheduled to be held at Breese Stevens Field in 2021 with ticket entry. However, the event coordinators plan to return the Taste to its historical home on Capitol Square in 2022. Who has the best taste in Madison? That’s up for debate, but if you stop by the Old Fashioned’s stand to sample their award-winning deep-fried Wisconsin cheese curds, we know you won’t be disappointed.

Madison Children's Museum

Madison Children’s Museum

The Madison Children’s Museum is a long-time favorite of local families and those visiting the Madison area. This action-packed, hands-on children’s experience is generally open year-round but will begin welcoming the general public back on June 24, 2021. The museum is open weekly, Tuesday – Sunday, and offers various admission deals and membership options throughout the year. New and exciting exhibits regularly rotate in and out, so this is a stop that is worth repeat visits for every trip you take to the Capital City!

State Street

Madison’s downtown State Street is as iconic as any stop in the Capital City, and it is definitely worth a stroll up and down to take in all of the many sights, sounds, shopping opportunities, and treats. Reserved for mainly bicycle, city bus, or pedestrian traffic, State Street paves the way from Capitol Square toward the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Some must-stop family food spots along the way include Ian’s Pizza, known for its non-traditional pizzas including mac n’ cheese, State Street Brats, a Badger favorite, and home of the world-famous red brat, or Teddywedgers, offering a variety of hand pies suited for any meal.

For those with a more adventurous palette, State Street offers a wealth of options. Consider a stop at any one of these foodie havens:

  • The Mediterranean Cafe
    • Delicious specials and family style meals
    • 625 State Street, Madison
    • 608-251-8510
  • Himal Chuli
    • Neapalese Cuisuine with seasonal specials
    • 318 State Street, Madison
    • 608-251-9225
  • Parthenon Gyros
    • Home of Wisconsin’s first gyros!
    • 316 State Street, Madison
    • 608-251-6311
  • Taiwan Little Eats
    • Traditional Taiwanese cusine including small snacks, sharables, and milk teas with outdoor dining available
    • 320 State Street, Madison and you might find their food truck around
  • Yume Sushi
    • Modern interpretation of classic dishes
    • 449 State Street, Madison
    • 608-255-5020
  • The Icon Restaurant
    • Spanish tapas, paellas, and more all featuring housemade sauces and local ingredients
    • 206 State Street, Madison
    • 608-665-3020

Looking for a sweet treat? Check out The Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream Co for some irresistibly unique ice cream flavors or Sencha Tea Bar for a refreshingly fun bubble tea.

University of Madison – Wisconsin Campus

No visit to the Badger State Capital City is complete without perusing the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Nestled near the bottom of State Street along Lake Mendota is the University’s timeless treasure, the Memorial Union and the Union Terrace. The Union Terrace is an absolute must experience for every family wanting to enjoy a good, old Wisconsin brat (and a beer for the grown-ups!), the iconic terrace chairs, and the lakeside beauty of this outdoor patio venue. If you visit in warm weather, you’ll want to hit up The Daily Scoop for a taste of the campus’s very own ice cream.

Finding yourself at the Union in less favorable weather? Not to worry—Der Rathskeller, with its cozy and dim German dining hall vibe, is another great spot to stop for a burger and a beer on a chilly or rainy Wisconsin evening.

As you further adventure into Badgerland, make sure to stop by Camp Randall Stadium, home of the University of Wisconsin- Madison Badgers. Adjacent to the Stadium, you’ll find Bucky’s Locker Room, where you can stock up on all of your favorite Badger gear.

If you want to learn more about UW-Madison’s homemade ice creams, make the trip further west into campus to visit the home of the campus’s very own dairy, UW Babcock Hall. Here at the dairy store, you’ll find 22 flavors of ice cream and 23 varieties of cheese. The store is open weekdays 8 am – 5:30 pm, and Saturdays from 11 am – 4 pm. 

Looking for a bit of a downtown hiking adventure? We’ve got you covered! You can follow the 4.3 mile Howard Temin Lakeshore Path along the southern shoreline of Lake Mendota from the Limnology Lab near the Memorial Union toward the University Hospital and Wally Bauman Woods, situated next to the Village of Shorewood Hills. Along the path, you’ll see various campfire rings for first come, first served use that has been a favorite student gathering spot for decades. Once you reach the woods, be sure to continue hiking toward Picnic Point, a peninsula that juts almost a mile into Lake Mendota.

Henry Vilas Zoo

As you head just west of the UW-Madison Campus, you’ll find the Henry Vilas Zoo, one of Madison’s finest gems for families! This is one of the few admission-free zoos available in the country, and their operations rely on donations from the local community and beyond. The Henry Vilas Zoo is open daily from 9:30-5:00 pm, and they even have limited hours on major holidays throughout the year.

The zoo offers many animal exhibits and habitats, from buffalo in the North American Prairie exhibit, to African lions and Amur tigers in the Big Cat exhibit, to grizzlies and polar bears in the newer Arctic Passage exhibit, and much, much more!

Pro tip: visit the zoo around lunchtime! Many of the animals are up and active, hungrily awaiting their lunches. Stop by the Artic Passage exhibit for a special treat of watching the polar bear swim while waiting for a mealtime.

Speaking of grub, if you’re hungry, there are three great options for you while at the zoo: you can pack in a picnic lunch to enjoy inside the zoo or in the surrounding Vilas Park, stop by the zoo’s very own Glacier Grille, or check out ZuZu Cafe located directly across the street from the zoo. This is a great stop to grab some delicious Mediterranean or American fare in a family-friendly cafe that offers both indoor and outdoor seating options. 

Need to change it up a little? Stop by the Conservation Carousel in the Children’s Zoo for a $3 spin. The carousel runs 10 am – 4 pm daily from April to October. Be sure to plan some time to play at the giant treehouse playground just across from the carousel for an extra opportunity to burn some steam. A charming electric Zoo Train is also a favorite attraction for youngsters. (It is currently closed for the summer of 2021.) You’ll want to spend some time perusing the zoo’s website for other covid19 updates and parking guidelines before heading out on this adventure.

Are you a downtown Madison connoisseur? Let us know your must-stop destinations with children in the Capital City!

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