Madison for all ages

Famous for collegians, Wisconsin's capital also fascinates children.

Bucky the Badger at the State Capitol.
Bucky the Badger is the beloved mascot of the University of Wisconsin and Madison.

If it wasn't for the climate, Peter Pan would feel right at home in Madison, Wis.

It's the NeverNeverland of the Midwest, a town whose zany exuberance is appreciated by everyone but Republicans, whose outnumbered governor once called it "57 square miles surrounded by reality."

Inhabited largely by college students whose political zealotry is matched only by their zeal for a party, downtown Madison is a place where it's easy to get in touch with your inner child.

My teen-agers grasped that right away. "I'm so sorry we had to grow up," said my daughter Madeleine, watching a clutch of adorable preschoolers dancing and shaking maracas at the annual International Festival.

With my son Peter, we'd gone to Madison one February, when the city offers Hotel Week deals, and we found a city completely geared to children.

At the Overture Center for the Arts, we saw a play about Harriet Tubman, heard Caribbean and klezmer concerts, watched Greek and Irish dancers and marveled at limber Chinese teen-agers who could toss ceramic bowls onto their heads with one foot while pedaling a unicycle with the other.

Across the street, at the Veterans Museum, we looked through a submarine periscope at the gleaming dome of the Capitol, which, we learned on a tour, could hold more ice cream if upturned than any other capitol in the nation.

And we got a civics lesson, watching state contract workers protest budget cuts in the Capitol's rotunda and talking with students who had set up a "refugee camp" to protest the treatment of homeless people in Madison and Iraq.

The children were even more fascinated by the bohemian trinkets in State Street shops and by glimpses of the slacker life they, too, could lead someday.

"Why didn't you tell me to bring my skateboard?" Peter demanded when he saw the rolling University of Wisconsin campus. "This place is awesome — I am so going to college here."

The first night, we walked from our room at the Hilton to the Overture Center on State Street, where we saw a children's play about the Underground Railroad.

Veterans Museum in Madison.
The Veterans Museum on Capitol Square has plenty for children.

The next day, crowds arrived for the free International Festival. In the main theater, we watched students from the Trinity Academy of Irish Dance, legs flicking and kicking in uncanny precision.

At the rotunda, where free children's concerts are given every Saturday, we listened to the irresistible beat of the Goongoo Peas, later followed by the rollicking Yid Vicious and his klezmer band.

After shopping on State Street, we returned to the hotel, where we watched the late-afternoon light making patterns on the ice of Lake Monona.

Then we returned to State Street for a quick dinner at Noodles and a performance of the New Shanghai Circus, a troupe of young contortionists, jugglers and gymnasts whose feats made children all around us gurgle with delight.

The next day was a holiday, and after breakfast at sunny Ancora Coffee on Capitol Square, we walked over to the Wisconsin Historical Museum. It was closed, so we went into the Veterans Museum, where Peter was impressed by the life-size soldiers in a real Vietnam-era helicopter and a WWII tank.

"I sure saw a lot of awesome guns here," he said as we walked across the street to the Capitol.

Its shimmering white granite dome is the city's beacon, high on the ¾-mile-wide isthmus between lakes Monona and Mendota.

The 15-foot golden damsel on top, who has corncobs tucked behind each ear and wears a miner's helmet with a badger sitting on top, is the city's highest point and a favorite mascot; inside, we passed a little girl who kept looking for "the gopher."

The Capitol, with its imposing marble pillars, statues and murals, sent children's imaginations into high gear.

"I bet I'm sitting in a chair a murderer has sat in," Peter said, and no doubt he was — the gleaming leather chairs of the court room have been there since 1906, said our tour guide, Kate.

Madison's State Capitol.
Children love the free tours of the State Capitol.

In the Senate Room, under a gorgeous stained-glass dome, we sat in the Democrat chairs, which made Kate smile. "Most people want to sit in the Republican chairs," she told us.

After the tour, we hung over the rails of the rotunda, listening to the protesters chant, "Honor my service."

It was a classic Madison moment, the kind often found around the town. For big kids as well as little kids, a visit there will be anything but boring.

Trip Tips: Madison for families

Getting around: Walk when possible; the Overture Center, museums and Capitol are two blocks from each other.

Driving on the one-ways of the isthmus can be frustrating, and parking is strictly enforced; read meters and signs or you may be ticketed and even towed.

Festivals: International Festival at the Overture Center.

Events for kids: On Saturdays at 9:30 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. during the school year, there are free Kids in the Rotunda concerts at the Overture Center.

In summer, it's fun to bicycle on the many trails, which are a good way to get to beaches, the free Henry Vilas Zoo and the Sunday water-ski shows on Lake Monona.

For more, see Summer in Madison.

Capitol tours: Guided, free tours are given at 9, 10 and 11 a.m. and 1, 2 and 3 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and 1, 2 and 3 p.m. Sundays, 608-266-0382.

Museums: There are three around Capitol Square: the Wisconsin Historical Museum, the Wisconsin Veterans Museum (free admission) and the Madison Children's Museum, which includes the Wonderground outside play area.

Children at the Henry Vilas Zoo.
It's always free to visit the Henry Vilas Zoo in Wingra Park.

Accommodations: In late winter, watch for hotel deals at Destination Madison.

We liked the Hilton Monona Terrace, three blocks from Capitol Square. It's on the shore of Lake Monona and has a pool,.

Madison Concourse Hotel and Governor's Club right on Capitol Square is best-located and has a pool.

Hotel Ruby Marie B&B may be a good choice for a parent with an older child. It's four blocks from Capitol Square at the point where U.S. 151 (East Washington Avenue) comes out onto Lake Monona, and its attractive rooms have mini-fridges. The Essen Haus German restaurant and Come Back In are in the same building.

Dining: State Street is lined with interesting, inexpensive cafes that serve cuisines of many countries.

Information: Get the Official Kid's Guide to Greater Madison, which includes games and Fun Facts as well as information, at Madison tourism, 800-373-6376.

Last updated on October 5, 2021

Your browser does not support our events calendar page. Please consider an update.