The steam whistle blows, calling in the sailboats. The sun sinks behind Picnic Point. Above the round tables scattered along the lakefront behind the Memorial Union, the hum of happy voices rises on the warm air. A paper cup of Rathskeller ale (or a drippy Babcock cone) in your hand, a friend by your side. Now this is living.
There are moments when ordinary life in Madison feels suspiciously akin to a fantastic vacation. If you took a few days off work and took your fun straight up, you might find yourself more rejuvenated than if you drove or flew halfway across the country. One thing's for sure: You'd find yourself with a lot more cash in your wallet.
For those planning to curtail fuel consumption this summer, we've compiled an itinerary for a four-day holiday right here in your own hometown. Our list is merely a sampling, and includes no golf or spa treatments - the idea is simply to inspire you to toss your cares aside and wallow in the kind of quintessential Madison fun you deserve after shoveling 100 inches of snow this winter.
From raucous baseball games to contemplative paddling, from modern art to people-watching on State Street, summer in the Capitol City is simply too good to miss. And the best part? No whining from the back seat: "Are we there yet?" You betcha we're here, kids! Now get out and enjoy it.
Wednesday evening: A little wine, a little music
Music feeds the soul, and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, led by maestro Andrew Sewell, offers sumptuous fare as it celebrates the 25th anniversary season of Concerts on the Square. Pack a picnic basket - or pick up dinner from one of the dozens of vendors ringing the Square - and join the happy throng for one of our city's most civilized traditions: classical music under the trees on the Capitol lawn. The season begins on Wednesday, June 28, with "Gershwin and Friends," and winds up six weeks later with "Our Town," an eclectic hometown elegy featuring Purdy's "On Wisconsin," as well as works by Saint-Saens and Aaron Copland. Concerts begin at 7 p.m., but staking out your spot on the grass with a blanket is permitted any time after 3 p.m.
Thursday: Unplug on the north side
Abandon weekday routine with a morning hike at Cherokee Marsh, one of the city's 14 conservation parks. With 1,210 acres of prairie, oak savannah and woodland, a marsh and a lake, the park has no playgrounds or soccer fields, but plenty of frogs, fish, turtles and garter snakes, not to mention an imperiled wetland system. Recently, the Madison Parks Division received a $10,000 Lake Protection Grant to fund experimental wetland restoration techniques at Cherokee Marsh.
The park is at the northernmost end of Sherman Avenue, down a long gravel drive. Hike till you're hungry, then hop back in the car and take Northport Drive to Packers Avenue. If anything smacks of vacation, it's lunch at a roadside joint, and Smoky Jon's #1 BBQ at 2310 Packers Ave. will make you feel like you've pulled over outside Memphis and gotten real lucky. Unassuming and cozy, with red-and-white-checked tablecloths and pine walls, Smoky Jon's serves spareribs, chicken dinners, barbecue pulled-pork sandwiches and more, and has won more awards than you can shake a rib at, most recently first place at the 2008 National Barbecue Convention in Austin.
After exploring a wetland during the day, explore a duck pond in the evening. There's no livelier summer sporting event than a Mallards game at Warner Park's "Duck Pond." The Northwoods League really heats up in June, and whether they're playing the Mankato Moon Dogs or the St. Cloud River Bats, the Mallards' energy and the fans' enthusiasm is hard to beat. Box seats are $8; cheap seats are $6 ($5 for kids 14 and under).
Food options include the Great Dane Duck Blind (an all-you-can-eat party deck in right field) as well as this year's new "Maynard's Slide In," billed as a "100% locally sourced" burger stand featuring fresh (never frozen) burgers as well as hot dogs, fried cheese curds and Schoep's ice cream. Plus, there are plenty of kid-friendly contests and T-shirt giveaways, and anyone who catches a foul ball gets a free wiener. Mascots Maynard and Minnie Mallard also get into the act, with Maynard zinging into the Duck Pond on a 250-foot zip line and later leading the crowd in a rousing rendition of that old ballpark favorite, "YMCA."
Friday: Downtown arts and culture
Since you're a tourist, take a tour of the State Capitol Building. Tours begin at 9 a.m. Monday through Saturday at the information desk and are held hourly, with a break at noon, throughout the day. You'll learn about the gilded bronze statue "Wisconsin" (not to be confused with the bronze replica of "Lady Forward" at the State Street entrance), as well as the inspiration for the mural "Resources of Wisconsin" that decorates the rotunda. Did you know that the governor's conference room was styled after the Doge's Palace in Venice? The tour docent will even let you sit in the legislators' big, cushy chairs, where you can enjoy a fleeting sense of power (without the pressure of special interests).
You'll have worked up an appetite trying to imagine how state government works, so amble down State Street for lunch at whatever ethnic restaurant you've been meaning to try. There's Pelmeni for Russian dumplings, Buraka for African dishes, King of Falafel or Mediterranean Café for falafel sandwiches, Himal Chuli for momochas. Take a sidewalk table, have an iced coffee, and read, or people-watch.
Next, back to the Square, to soak up more history and culture. The Wisconsin Historical Museum on North Carroll Street explores Wisconsin's distinctive heritage through artifacts, photographs, dioramas and interactive multimedia programs. New exhibitions include "That's the Ticket! A Parade of Presidential Elections," featuring photos and other artifacts from past races for the White House, from 1856 through 2004. Also of interest: "Chris Farley Remembered," celebrating the life of the Madison-born comedian, featuring clothing, props and photographs from his years in Wisconsin and from his later career. And you're on vacation, so you need a T-shirt. The museum features pro-butter and pro-bubbler designs.
Stroll across the street to the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, where permanent exhibits show Wisconsin's role in conflicts from the Civil War to today.
Wind up at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on State Street, where "TL Solien: Myths & Monsters" runs through Aug. 17. Solien has been an influential painter in the Midwest for decades - don't miss this retrospective of his mysterious images from the 1980s and '90s. Also of interest: "Girls and Company: Feminist Works from MMoCA's Permanent Collection" (through July 20). The exhibit showcases paintings, photographs, and prints from the 1960s through the '90s by ground-breaking artists such as Cindy Sherman.
After perusing exhibits on the first and second floors, ascend three floors to Fresco, where you can have dinner outside in the rooftop sculpture garden or inside the airy, glassy restaurant, where the panoramic views of the Capitol and State Street inspire a heady sense of having made it to the top. Which, in a way, you have.
Saturday: Bike the east side
Bike around Lake Monona on the Madison segments of the Capital City Trail, which takes pedalers close to the shore on John Nolan Drive and off busy streets through the isthmus and on the near east side. At the Yahara River, take the side spur down the Yahara Parkway Path to Lake Mendota, Tenney Park and the locks.
Time for a break? Fuel up on scones at Lazy Jane's Café on Williamson Street (just a block off the path) or muffins at Café Zoma on Atwood Avenue (right on the bike path). Or explore Bungalow 1227, a 600-square-foot house turned art gallery on East Wilson Street, also right on the path. Cycle all around the lake (a full tour is about 11.5 miles), or linger on the near east side with a rest stop at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, which also abuts the path. The outdoor gardens, with a variety of plant communities, are beautiful in summer, and the indoor conservatory will again feature its Blooming Butterflies exhibit (July 16Aug. 10).
Saturday night: Memorial Union Terrace
How long has it been since you've been to the Union? If the evening is warm and clear and still, drop everything and head for the lakefront. The bands rev up around 9:30 p.m. There's a yellow sunburst chair with your name on it.
Sunday: Explore Lake Wingra on the west side
Don sunscreen and water shorts and spend Sunday along the shores of lovely Lake Wingra on Madison's near west side. BYOB or rent a canoe, kayak, paddleboat or rowboat from the Wingra Canoe and Sailing Center (which also offers windsurfing and sailing lessons).
Lake Wingra is a spring-fed lake with a statewide reputation for excellent musky fishing. Also plentiful: bluegills, perch, and bass. Paddle across the lake to the marshes and woodlands of the UW Arboretum, where you will likely spot turtles and great blue herons and possibly a muskrat or beaver.
For lunch, head to the Laurel Tavern, Bluephie's or Pasqual's or try the lunch buffet at Taste of India in Knickerbocker shopping center. They're all within walking distance of the park. Dessert is - what else? - Michael's Frozen Custard, next door to the Laurel Tavern.
Afternoon should find you strolling through Henry Vilas Zoo, one of the nation's few no-admission, free- parking, AZA-accredited zoos. Ride the Conservation Carousel, open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily throughout the summer. The $1 admission goes toward upgrading animal habitats at the zoo. And this will be the first full summer that the new Children's Zoo will be open, with porcupines, wallabies, red pandas and meerkats as well as a cool play tree house and adventure playground. And if you haven't been to the zoo for a while, look for the new North American Prairie exhibit, with bison and prairie dogs. It's a lot easier than making a trip to the Badlands.