Here’s a bit of Madison insider info, from tucked-away trails to drinks in a train car.
Take the trail less traveled
It might feel like you’re trespassing, but the 4 miles of nature trails on Holy Wisdom Monastery’s 130-acre property in Middleton are open to the public. They’re not listed on many of the Madison trail guides you’ll come across, so this has true hidden gem status. Enjoy the native prairie and views of Lake Mendota in the North Mendota Wildlife Area. For a more immersive experience, book a stay in one of Holy Wisdom’s two hermitages. These cozy cabins are available to anyone for a personal retreat. Each hermitage includes a living room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and deck. You can also book one of 19 rooms (or do a group outing) at the Retreat and Guest House, which feel spare and meditative. A continental breakfast is included with any overnight stay, but for an extra cost, guests can add chef-prepared lunch and dinner buffets made with fresh, local ingredients. Stay for as little as two days, or as long as three months. Find solitude in a peaceful wooded area that’s off the beaten path. Though unfamiliar to newcomers, the hermitages have a strong base of retreaters — so book in advance to make sure you get a spot. 4200 County Road M, Middleton
There’s a pingpong den in town
Imaginary Factory is a distillery and cocktail bar hidden in an industrial-looking building on the eastside. Blink and you’ll miss the entrance, but once inside, you’ll be captivated by the striking, all-white space (is “sterile industrial” an interior design concept?). And in the back, breaking up the monochrome scene, a blue pingpong table lures bargoers into friendly but competitive matches. Owner Hastings Cameron says the pingpong table brings some spirited fun without affecting the rest of the bar’s feel. “We’re not trying to be some pretentious, academic bar,” Cameron says. 1401 Northern Court
Concerts at the Katz and Wallner house
If you hear music around a red bungalow in the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood, it’s likely owners Anne Katz and David Wallner hosting one of their house concerts. The music lovers started inviting artists and small bands into their home 12 years ago for Our House Concerts, which usually presents acoustic shows about 10 times a year in their living room and in their neighbors' conjoined backyard. Word has spread over the years, and Katz and Wallner get more requests from artists to perform than they’re able to accommodate. “We believe in the power of music and we appreciate musicians,” Katz says. “We’ve gained a whole new set of friends, both in audience members and the musicians themselves.” The next show is set for 6:30 p.m. on June 17, featuring “folk troubadour” Rupert Wates. The London-born New Yorker has put out 12 solo albums. “David spends a lot of time listening to CDs and researching musicians,” Katz says. “We both have to really like it. If we both say, ‘Ooo! That’s good,’ at the beginning of the music, then it’s a yes.”
The museum everyone overlooks
Despite holding one of the most fascinating collections in town, UW’s Geology Museum often gets overlooked. Since 1848, the museum has accumulated geological specimens for educational and research purposes. One notable feature: a skeleton created from the bones of two mastodons collected in the late 19th century. Stop by for a free visit to uncover Wisconsin geological history, including glowing minerals, a model cave, dinosaurs and meteorites. 1215 W. Dayton St.
Inside the last train car
Past the Motorless Motion bike shop, past the two restaurants beyond that — Bandit and The Harvey House — you’ll find yourself at the very last train car in the former Madison train depot. Neon light and music spill from its windows. Two small sconces hanging from the side of the yellow train car trimmed with red stripes cast golden orbs of light over a sign that tells you where you’ve arrived: the Local Motive Lounge Car. This special event space becomes an art gallery and bar on Fridays and Saturdays when there isn’t an event. After climbing the steps into the train car, you’ll pass through an open gangway before likely needing to shimmy behind the folks at the bar in the narrow space. Art hangs on the walls above several little sitting areas all the way to the back. No need to worry about the assorted lamps or frames getting jostled, because this locomotive isn’t going anywhere. The passenger train built in 1903 used to take people from Chicago to Minneapolis, cutting through Madison. Now it’s one of Madison’s most unique and cozy spots to enjoy local art and a few cocktails. 646 W. Washington Ave.
Scenic Cheat Codes
Some of these events and destinations are well known, but here’s how to experience them like a local.
Walk within a rare ecosystem
A trip to the UW Arboretum is a Madison 101 activity, but The Grady Tract is a lesser-known section located within. This area includes the Grady Oak Savanna and Greene Prairie. The Grady Tract is a 2.8-mile loop through prairie, forest and marsh landscapes — great for running, hiking, walking or viewing wildlife. Both ecosystems are rare not only in the Arboretum, but globally as well. Park in the Grady Tract lot just off the beltline for best access. SE corner of Seminole Highway at Beltline Frontage Road
Will bike for pancakes and pizza
Hop on the Military Ridge State Trail at The Velo UnderRound (a regional trail hub) in Fitchburg for a 10-mile bike ride to Riley Tavern in Verona. If you’re in the mood for pancakes or French toast, make the trip on the weekend and try the Sunday breakfast menu. Or bike over on a Tuesday for the popular pizza night offerings, including featured pies and unlimited toppings. Pro tip: Order your pizza online the night before so it’s ready for you the minute you take your bike helmet off at your picnic table. 8205 Klevenville-Riley Road, Verona
Locals know the rules
It’s the most fun “reservation” you’ll make in Madison: claiming a grassy patch of the Capitol lawn ahead of Concerts on the Square. Securing a good spot to see and hear the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra is all about timing. Get to Capitol Square right at 3 p.m. (which is the earliest the city allows you to set your blanket up for the Wednesday summer concerts) to nab your seating area for later that evening. Once the corners of your quilt or throw are flattened into place, other blanket-wielding attendees know that the spot is off limits. 2 E. Main St.
Early bird gets the spot
Just once a year, there’s another free event in town for which all you need to do is lay down a blanket to reserve your spot — but this one you can arrive at first thing in the morning. People set up their blankets for Opera in the Park (July 22) hours before the evening concert event. The early birds who make it to Garner Park first thing claim the best spots for the annual show, which ends with a mesmerizing glow-stick finale. 333 S. Rosa Road
A picturesque park
Every city has parks, but the lakeside James Madison Park feels as Madison as it gets. The strip of green space is often dotted with park-goers taking in sunsets, playing basketball, throwing Frisbees or picnicking on the lawn. 614 E. Gorham St.
Your next evening walk
Explore the Eagle Heights Community Gardens and Biocore Prairie to enjoy some beautiful prairie views and catch a glimpse of what gardeners are growing. It connects to the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, which you can take to Frautschi Point, a secluded lake lookout where you can dip your feet in the water and watch boats go by. Park in lots 130 or 131
Huddle around the fire
Recall that dreamy picture you saw in some random Madison brochure of folks sitting around a fire by a lake? That’s probably Picnic Point, and you can easily re-create that stock photo in real life. Reserve a fire circle at Picnic Point for your next summer gathering. Wood is available for free on-site. Park at 2000 University Bay Drive
Field of dreams
Many people know about the community gardens at Troy Farm, but there is also a working, 5-acre farm behind it — Madison’s original urban farm. Community members can sign up to volunteer in the field. 502 Troy Drive
Meet me at the waterfall
Add the Pewits Nest hike to the itinerary for your next Devil’s Lake trip. The short hike takes you through small streams in a deep gorge to a waterfall at the end. The hike is easy, but be sure to wear shoes that you don’t mind getting wet. Then drive to Merrimac Ferry for a quick ride across the Wisconsin River. Grab some ice cream at The Merrimac Scoop on the other side. Start at Pewits Nest: County Road W, Baraboo
Holiday weekend idea
Take a scenic July 4 drive north on Highway 12 and County Road P to Lodi for one of the best dinnertime fireworks shows. Make a reservation on the patio at Fitz’s on the Lake after sunset on Independence Day to watch fireworks over the hills surrounding Lake Wisconsin. W11602 County Road V, Lodi
Go see the goats
At The Matz Farmstead, first homesteaded in 1852, you’ll see the stone ruins of a farmhouse that burned down in 1949. It’s a picturesque stop in Cross Plains ahead of a hike through Indian Lake County Park across the street. If you’re there this summer, you might spot a couple goats helping clear out invasive species around the ruins.
Sneaky Capitol Views
Walk to the end of Clarence Court by Lakeside St. Coffee House for a Capitol view with John Nolen Drive in the foreground.
Visit the eastside Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co., specifically the second floor, for a sweeping view of downtown from a hill east of I-90.
For a view of the Capitol with a prairie in the foreground, visit Owen Conservation Park off Old Sauk Road. The cityscape is especially beautiful after dark.
Drive down O’Sheridan Street toward the Capitol to see an optical illusion created by the surrounding foliage. The Capitol appears to be moving away as the foliage framing it becomes wider.
Visit Bascom Hill for an unobstructed Capitol view from one of the highest points on campus. Fun fact: A state capitol view preservation ordinance regulates development within a mile of the Capitol to prevent losing the view of the landmark.
When you take the Southwest Commuter Path heading east from Odana Road, the Capitol will come into view as you approach Camp Randall, and stays visible until you cross Orchard Street.
The Wisconsin Historical Society on campus offers a great Capitol view from its fourth floor.
The Capitol will seemingly eavesdrop on you from wherever you stand at Eno Vino Downtown.
Celia Hiorns is a former editorial intern at Madison Magazine. Andrea Behling is editor at Madison Magazine.
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