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Staycation Ideas in Madison, Wisconsin: Travel on a Budget

Updated on February 19, 2016
Jaynie2000 profile image

Jaynie is from Madison, WI but has traveled extensively. Her family speaks 4 languages, making the world very accessible.

Henry the Lion at Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, WI
Henry the Lion at Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, WI

Henry Vilas Zoo

For many families, taking a vacation is not very affordable. The Staycation is becoming an increasingly popular alternative, with people opting to save money on airfare and lodging in order to stretch their recreation dollar. If you happen to live in beautiful Wisconsin, there are plenty of free and low cost options that may appeal to the entire family. Here are a few great ideas.

William and Anna Vilas donated 50 acres of land in memory of their son, Henry, in 1904 for the expressed purposes of creating a “public park and pleasure ground.” The donation stipulated that the ensuing development must always be free to the public. The area now is home to a gorgeous, 28 acre zoo that is constantly evolving. With expansive habitats, a diverse list of species and an interactive children’s zoo, this is a favorite destination among locals and tourists alike. The primate house boasts indoor and outdoor habitats. The new Artic Passage exhibit is home to two frisky polar bears. The water feature in their enclosure can be viewed from ground level as well as through a large, thick window that enables guests to see the bears from underwater. The tropical rainforest aviary, which opened in 2003, is home to a healthy array of avian life, tropical plants and amphibians. The stars here are the gorgeous blue and gold macaws. Playful penguins, proud lions, mischievous orangutans, and frisky harbor seals are just a few of the species that are sure to delight on your next trip to this amazing, FREE, attraction. If you have a few dollars to spend you can always visit one of the gift shops, ice cream carts or concession stands, though carry in picnics are allowed on the grounds or in the neighboring park, through which the zoo is accessible. Street and lot parking are readily available and always free.

Henry Vilas Zoo and Vilas Beach

702 S Randall Ave, Madison, WI 53715:
702 South Randall Avenue, Madison, WI 53715, USA

get directions

Free public zoo and beach

Vilas Beach, Madison, WI
Vilas Beach, Madison, WI

Vilas Beach

Across from the zoo is Lake Wingra, featuring a free beach with a concessions stand and a restroom with attached changing facilities. The water is clean and shallow and the swim area is clearly marked with roped buoys. There are lifeguards on duty during peak hours. The clean, well-groomed sandy beach is surrounded by grassy areas with picnic tables shaded by mature trees. Though there is a concessions stand, families are welcomed to bring their own picnics. Vilas beach is but one of about 12 public in Madison, most of which are staffed by city employees who ensure visitor safety and cleanliness of the beaches.

Day Trip Necessities

Things to Pack
...for day
...for night
Comfortable shoes
for walking/ beach
for dancing
Skin care products
lotion/ aloe/ bugspray
swimsuit/ towel/ sunglasses
cover up/ shorts & t-shirt
Chairs/ blankets
for beach/ picnic
for outdoor concert
swimsuit, shorts, t-shirt
sweater or windbreaker
hat or visor, ponytail holder
hat or visor, ponytail holder
If you have an opportunity to shower between activities, don't forget clean clothing, soap, shampoo, a brush or comb and other travel sized grooming products of your preference.
Farmer's Market on the Capital Square
Farmer's Market on the Capital Square

Dane County Farmer's Market

Dane County’s largest farmer’s market takes place around the Capitol Square every Saturday between April and October, from 6:00am until 2:00pm. Farmers from around Dane County sell fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers and homemade items such as cheese, honey, sausages, and bakery. Guests enjoy the beautiful Wisconsin weather, walk their dogs, and sprawl out on the lawn of the Capitol building beneath the shade of countless mature trees. Many vendors offer free samples of such items as cheese, bread and dipping oils. Small music combos can often be heard from a variety of locations and after you’ve made the circuit, feel free to amble down State Street for a peek into one of the many eclectic shops or sidewalk cafes.

Children's Museum
Children's Museum

Madison Children's Museum

This is one of the most innovative, interactive and downright fun Children’s Museums around. Best of all, through their Access to Everyone program, the museum offers free admission on Wednesday nights from 5:00 – 8:00pm. This program also enables families who qualify for public benefits such as FoodShare or WIC, admission for only $1.00. Favorite features include an enclosed rooftop featuring gardens and a homing pigeon station, an art studio, interactive water feature, small climbing wall and slides fashioned from hollowed out tree trunks, and so much more! In fact, there is so much to see and do it’s almost impossible to do it justice by putting it into words. Needless to say the children will love it and adults have a lot of fun too.

Madison Children's Museum

100 N Hamilton St, Madison, WI 53703:
100 North Hamilton Street, Madison, WI 53703, USA

get directions

Fantastic interactive museum provides hours of fun for all ages.

Olbrich Gardens
Olbrich Gardens

Olbrich Botanical Gardens

These botanical gardens are stunningly gorgeous and always free! Stroll through 16 acres of well-manicured grounds, enjoying a variety of annuals, perennials and herbs that delight your sense of sight, sound and smell. There are plenty of benches under vine-covered trellises on which to find relief from the sun and watch people stroll by or just enjoy the multicolored landscape and sounds of birds chirping nearby. The park has several water features including lilly ponds, brooks with small waterfalls, and a large reflecting pool. There is also an observation tower and a large Thai pavilion that is the only one of its kind in the continental United States and the only one outside of Thailand that is surrounded by gardens. The gardens surrounding the pavilion include several statues, a reflecting pool and several species of colorful blooms. There is a tram that drives visitors around the gardens and is ideal for those that may not be able to walk the entire way of those seeking relief from the heat on hot days. The Bolz Conservancy is a 50 foot tall glass pyramid that houses a magnificent tropical garden. In July and August it is home to the Blooming Butterflies exhibit. It features a Koi pond, waterfall, free-flying birds, and vast array of tropical plants. Admission is free on Wednesday and Saturday mornings from 10:00 – Noon and a very nominal $2.00 per person during other hours. They are open from 10:00 – 4:00 Monday – Saturday and 10:00 – 5:00 on Sundays. Olbrich’s also has an art gallery and community room that offers several lectures and special events, many of which are free to the public and a small gift shop. They feature a free summer concert series from late June through July on Tuesday evenings. On this one night of the week, guests may bring blankets, chairs and picnic suppers and enjoy free music while spread across the main lawn. For more information about special events, visit them on the web at

Olbrich Gardens

Olbrich Botanical Gardens:
3330 Atwood Avenue, Madison, WI 53704, USA

get directions

Lovely 4 season gardens and indoor Conservancy, featuring a variety of blooms, water features, wildlife and the only Thai Pavilion in North America.

Monona Terrace Convention Center and Rooftop

Monona Terrace, the stunning Frank Lloyd Wright convention center overlooking Lake Monona is the perfect spot to spend summer evenings or enjoying picnic lunches during the week. With views of the state capital building as seen through the beautiful water fountain to one side and lake to the other, it’s a must see for any guest of the city.

Free rooftop concerts on the Monona Terrace Rooftop begin on Fridays in mid-June and carry into Thursday nights in July, featuring a variety of genres and good fun for the whole family. Best of all, they’re free!

If you like dancing to great music, you’ve got to check out Dane Dances on the rooftop of Monona Terrace every Friday in August from 5:30 – 9:30. Reggae, hip-hip, salsa and pop music are a few of genres featured. The event is free and encourages families and friends to socialize, sip cocktails, enjoy a picnic supper and best of all – DANCE!

Monona Terrace and Convention Center

Monona Terrace:
1 John Nolen Drive, Madison, WI 53703, USA

get directions

Monona Terrace and Convention Center, overlooking Lake Monona and the state Capital.

View of Capital from Monona Terrace
View of Capital from Monona Terrace
Dane Dances on Monona Terrace Rooftop
Dane Dances on Monona Terrace Rooftop

Tenney Beach and Pontoon Boat Rides

Spend the day at another free Madison beach and follow it up with a 90 minute pontoon boat ride across Lake Monona, enjoying soft lake breezes and stunning views of the Monona Terrace Convention Center and coastline. Drop in rides are available and rides are only $5.00 per person! The rides are offered through Madison School and Community Recreation Center's (MCSR) summer programs.

Tenney Park

Tenney Park:
1414 East Johnson Street, Madison, WI 53703, USA

get directions

Enjoy the free beach (life guards on duty) and a ride across Lake Monona on a pontoon boat.

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© 2015 Jaynie2000


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