A guide to summer fun in Madison, Wisc.

By Monica Nigon on July 12, 2013

Madison, Wisc. is a vibrant and beautiful place throughout the entire year, but longer days, sunshine, and homework-free weekends make it a truly magical place during the summer months. The population of the campus decreases substantially leading to a less hectic downtown and more pleasant strolls around the city. If you find yourself sick of summer reruns on television and could use a break from your summer reading list, here is a list of the top ten summer activities to get you off your lazy summer bum.

1. Dane County Farmer’s Market: Every Saturday morning countless residents of Dane County and beyond flock to the Capitol Square for produce, baked goods, public and political information, art, crafts and music. Over 300 unique vendors serve the shoppers every season. Some staples at the the Farmer’s Market are Stella’s Spicy Cheese Bread, squeaky cheese curds and fresh summer fruits. Bring some comfortable shoes and a pocketful of cash; you’ll need to navigate the square at least twice before narrowing down your selections.


2. Biking around the lakes: The city of Madison lies on a narrow isthmus that runs between Lake Monona and Lake Mendota. Both lakes have great bike paths that wind around them offering views across the lake to the Baraboo Hills beyond and a unique perspective of the city from the other side of the lakes. Put on your helmet and your sunscreen before looping Lake Monona with some pals and a picnic. Lake Mendota offers a longer ride with less defined trails, but it’s quite easy to find pre-determined routes from fellow cyclists.

3. Memorial Union Terrace: If you haven’t yet sat lazily on the terrace with sunshine, a light breeze and a crew of friends, you’re missing out on one of the most splendid places in the world. The Terrace is an absolutely iconic place with its orange, yellow and green chairs and fantastic view past sailboats across Lake Mendota. Treat yourself to some Babcock Ice Cream at the Daily Scoop inside the Union or, if you’ve finally achieved the age of 21, drop the cash for a pitcher of Spotted Cow or Angry Orchard Hard Cider.  Stick around for some of the Terrace events held all summer long including movies, open mic night and live music at least five days a week. Have a whole day off? Consider renting a canoe to paddle down the shoreline or invest in some sailing lessons from Hoofers, UW’s outdoors club.

4. Concerts on the Square: Every Wednesday night the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra gathers around the Capitol Square to give a themed concert of classical music. This year’s schedule ranges from patriotic songs around the fourth of July to hits from Elton John arranged for the orchestra. Pack along a picnic and set out a blanket earlier in the day to guarantee a good spot.

5. Take a hike in the UW Arboretum: The lovely ecological masterpiece of the Arboretum is beautiful all year round, but summertime brings beautiful blooming trees, quiet dirt hiking paths and a visitor center with informative displays and events. Loop the winding road with your bicycle, lock it up near a trailhead and explore the boggy boardwalks and quiet woods. Bring along a birding book and try to name as many species as you can.

6. Henry Vilas Zoo: This zoo isn’t just for kids. The free-to-the-public zoo features animals like lions, tropical birds and the adorable and very popular red pandas while serving as a home base for countless events throughout the summertime. These events include a run to sustain the zoo’s legacy and a celebration for African Penguin’s Awareness Day. The Vilas park and the Lake Wingra swimming beach sit adjacent to the Zoo so bring a swimsuit and a frisbee.

7. Attend a Madison Mallards game: Grab a group of buddies, some cash and your sunblock to watch Madison’s own baseball team. You’ll find yourself in a low key environment with fans ranging from casual beer drinkers to die-hard regulars. The Mallards boast a packed summer-long schedule, so there’s no need to plan very far ahead. Look up some weekday ticket specials that may include some discounted hotdogs and brats or free gift packages for the first 50 fans at the game.

8. Have a bonfire on Picnic Point: Perhaps only second to the Terrace, Picnic Point is one of the most iconic destinations in Madison. The point juts out at about half of a mile into Lake Mendota offering nice views of the entire lake. Stay until dark to witness the glow of the capitol building across the lake. Picnic Point offers free supplies of firewood for s’mores, and reservations for the fire pits are only necessary on busy weekend evenings.

9. Take a day trip to Devil’s Lake State Park: If you have a car and some friends willing to split the gas money, drive about 40 minutes out of Madison on Highway 12 toward the Baraboo Range. Devil’s Lake is the most visited state park in the Midwest and the largest in Wisconsin. There is plenty to do here, from hiking the countless trails surrounding the lake to renting kayaks to cruise from one shoreline to the other. If you’re a more intense adventurer, bring your rock-climbing gear and set your ropes on the granite cliffs surrounding the lakes. The area is a hub for Midwestern climbers who revel in the 1,000+ routes.

10. Check out Willy Street and Atwood Avenue: Many students never venture far enough off campus to explore the numerous funky neighborhoods throughout the city. Willy Street (officially “Williamson Street), located just a five-minute bike ride from downtown, boasts some distinct international restaurants as well as Willy Street Co-op, a small grocery store that sells local produce and goods. Venturing further down Willy Street and you’ll soon run into the Atwood neighborhood, which is known for its vibrant art and music scene. You’ll find plenty of fun shops and cafes with outdoor patios. Check out the Barrymore Theatre for some hip music, and keep your eyes peeled for signs of the numerous music festivals that take place in this neighborhood such as La Fete de Marquette, a festival that showcases French music and culture.

One could write an entire book about summer events in Madison, but the most important thing about summer is to just get out there. We are lucky to live in such a beautiful place with such a diverse array of activities for any person to enjoy. So what are you waiting for? Stop reading this, get off the computer and go outside!



Monica is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison majoring in Journalism with minors in Environmental Studies and Gender and Women's Studies. She is from a small town in south-eastern Minnesota called Zumbrota, the only one in the world. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling, backpacking, running, rock-climbing, and playing Irish fiddle. One day Monica would like to be a contributor to the magazine Outside and get paid to travel and write about adventurous people.

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