Secrets of Madison: An insider’s guide to fun things you probably haven’t tried

So … don’t get me wrong. I thoroughly appreciate the richness of mom life in Madison.
I mean, come on: There’s a zoo! And it’s freakin’ free!
And yet.
My kids and I have been to the zoo … the splash pads … children’s museums (Madison and Black Earth) … and of course Olbrich Gardens (where we’ve seen the trains and the butterflies and even the corpse flower that blooms once every six years).
As for date nights:
Overture Center? Check. Dueling pianos? Check. Badgers game? Yep, that, too.
I’m kind of done with standard dates and family nights.
But if the downside of living in one place for eight years is that it can feel like you’ve seen and done everything, then the big upside is this: The longer you stay, the more “secret” haunts, events and activities you discover.
So, if you — like me — are just a little bored with dream parks and dinner-and-a-movie dates, here are some “Madison insider” alternatives. (BONUS: Like the zoo, many of these are free. Seriously, we are just ridiculously blessed.)
Splash pad
Geeks Mania:   I think this is my new favorite place. You know how arcade games typically cost about a zillion dollars per play? And when trying a new game, you’re never good, so your “turn” lasts about 20 seconds? Fast forward a minute and a half, and you’ve “played” five times and blown through 10 bucks. Yikes. At this Odana Road arcade, however, you pay a $15 flat fee that lets you play (almost) all the games, as much as you want, for the entire day. (You can even leave and come back later.) Even better? For every paying adult, one child gets in free. So, for just $15, you can spend an afternoon teaching your child how to play Paperboy, Super Mario Bros., Donkey Kong and pinball games. Or, for $30, you and your significant other can go and relive your childhoods. 
“Adult Swim” at the Madison Children’s Museum: OK, so clearly, I’m just feeling done with adulthood. Two girlfriends and I just attended one of the children’s museum’s adults-only nights (cheekily dubbed “adult swim” for the adults-only time at local pools). We crafted unicorn horns. We made Shrinky Dinks. We got temporary glitter tattoos. And we really just giggled, a lot, the whole night. Adult swims are held about every two months and, as of this posting, cost $12.75 in advance or $15 at the door. So it’s a pretty cheap date!
Governor Nelson State Park: We’ve been to about 15 of Wisconsin’s state parks and have loved each one. But Governor Nelson is a personal favorite. For one thing, it’s so close — just on the north side of Lake Mendota — and has a great beach! Plus, Governor Nelson somehow manages to feel like a country lake retreat, but with city views. LOVE. Bonus: If you’ve purchased your annual state park registration sticker ($28 in 2019), you get in free!

Reserve a Picnic Point fire circle: Reserve any of the six fire pits along the Picnic Point trail (on the south shore of Lake Mendota). They hold between 15 and 80 people, wood is provided and you’re allowed to cook a picnic meal. This is a nice option if you’re getting together with a few other couples or families. You can’t stay past 10 p.m., though, so don’t plan on an all-nighter.

Stargazing (On your own or with the experts):
Borrow a telescope The Madison school district planetarium, located at Memorial High School on the west side, has large telescopes you can borrow (free for City of Madison residents) or rent for $5 (for non-city residents). They show you how to use the telescopes, which you then get to keep for up to two weeks; or
Let astronomers be your guide — The UW-Madison Astronomy Department offers free, educational Universe In the Park events at state parks around Wisconsin every year. Just after sunset, presenters give a 30-40 minute talk on the astrological topic of their choosing, and then if weather permits, they set up a medium-aperture telescope and allow participants to use it to get a closer peek at the night sky. There are about 50 of these events between now and October, so you have a lot of options. 
Sail into the sunset with a Hoofer captain and crew: The good news — Renting a sailboat, captained for you by a skilled sailor, and setting off across Lake Mendota for a sunset picnic (of your own making), may be the best date night/Girls Night Out of your life. The bad news — Although you used to be able to reserve a sailboat and hire a captain through the Hoofers Sailing Club office (I’ve done it), I was told this week that’s not an option. So you’ll have to find a Hoofers member willing to take you and your group out. They often hang out around the Hoofers office if you want to make the effort. The Hoofers office is located at the Memorial Union terrace. Just look for all the sailboats.
Children’s museum
Outdoor movies — “Where to watch movies outdoors in Madison” could be its own post. But suffice it to say, check these out: Henry Vilas Zoo zoovies; Madison Museum of Contemporary Art Rooftop Cinema Arts and Literature Laboratory Off the Wall, Movie Night At Camp Randall (TBD), Food Cart Cinema in MononaLakeside Cinema/Sunday Lakeside Cinema at Memorial Union, Movies on the Water at the Edgewater Hotel, and the City of Madison Parks.  Drive-ins also are a solid option if you’re willing to travel a bit: Highway 18 in Jefferson, the Sky-Vu in Monroe, and the Big Sky Drive-In in the Wisconsin Dells.
UW SWAP shop sales: SWAP (Surplus With A Purpose) is the university’s way of trying to get rid of stuff it doesn’t need in an environmentally friendly way by selling it for cheap to people who might be able to use it. It’s truly random: A recent sale included vinyl records, glass votive-candle jars, carpet squares and office equipment. It could be a different, fun and cheap date! Tuesdays, Fridays and second Saturday of the month. (There’s an online sale, too.)
Dream park


Boat rentals: What’s the point of living in a city with lakes if you never get out on the water? Rent everything from stand-up paddle boards to pontoons, through Madison Boats and Madison School & Community Recreation.
Lodi swimming pool: Just north of Madison, about 25 minutes from the Far West side, is the charming town of Lodi, which has a city swimming pool that’s free for anyone to use. The hours are limited — probably because the pool relies on donations to stay afloat (no pun intended). But it’s a lovely pool, and it’s located in a park right next to a great playground. MAKE A DAY OF IT: As long as you’re driving to Lodi, stop at the Prairie Valley Resale Store (which my kids love), and/or drive five minutes further up the road, take a free ride on the Merrimac ferry and buy ice cream from the shops on either side of the river.
Community dance: Every Friday in August, the Monona Terrace brings in a musician or band to perform. (The event is moved to an inside location if there’s bad weather). People come, dance, listen to some music, bring a picnic or buy food from local vendors.
I’m Board back room: I’m Board Games & Family Fun in Middleton has a game-center room set up — a bunch of tables and chairs where you can come and play board games with friends or family. Bring your own game or borrow one of their demo games (for free). The game center is typically open whenever the store is, but you might want to check the events calendar before going, in case the room is reserved.
Arboretum events: Yes, the UW Arboretum is a lovely place for a wander. But their organized events and tours are extra special. And free. (There’s that word again!) They offer guided walks every Sunday at 1 p.m., and then an evening walk once a month. Picture it: It’s calm and serene, you’re holding your significant other’s hand as you walk, the quiet only broken occasionally by the tour guide pointing out something of interest — a native flower or perhaps the hoot of an owl. Ahhh, bliss.
Slow Food UW-Madison meals: This is an academic year-only series, so you’ll have to wait for fall. But the Slow Food group offers fresh-and-tasty meals for Wednesday lunches and Monday night family dinners. The menu changes weekly. (The final family dinner of the year included a spring spinach salad with pepitas and vinaigrette with seasonal vegetables; curry with spinach and fried chickpea balls, rice and pickled and tempered vegetables; and a gluten free chocolate brownie.) The cost is nominal and supports their mission: “to promote and model an alternative food system where food is good, clean, and fair for all.”
Kirsten is a native Wisconsinite who married a Brit, moved to England and happily ended up in Madison in 2010. She and her husband, Adrian, are parents to Sophie, Charlie and Susannah, who fascinate and exhaust their parents pretty much every day. A former newspaper reporter, Kirsten now supports mompreneurs through her website, She's also a mini-expert on traveling with kids. (Always answer "Should we go to ... " with "yes." Bring toys, snacks and an excess of patience.) She and her family camp every summer, usually in state parks, because they love outdoor living. And s'mores.


  1. FYI, the state park on the north side of Lake Mendoza is Gov. Nelson, not Gov. Dodge. Great suggestions otherwise!

    • Kristen clearly states Governor Nelson SP twice to the one slip in here article. Do you always look for a glass half empty?

  2. There is also an awesome little bakery downtown Lodi, Buttercream Bakery. They serve Sassy Cow ice cream! So yummy!!! Its right next to the creek and the kids can feed the ducks (they have a little vending machine full of corn… you can get a handful for 25 cents!)


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