Sparkling sun, soft grass, the whisper of wind through the leaves. Who doesn’t love a picnic? Madison has 284 parks, five beautiful lakes, and the sprawling University of Wisconsin campus. While there are hidden gems to discover, here are some favorite spots locals like to drop a blanket and revel in the sunshine.
Vilas Park, home to Henry Vilas Zoo and Vilas Beach, is one of Madison’s largest and busiest parks. But if you’re looking for something quieter, enter off Erin Street. This hilltop area known to locals as Dinosaur Park (for the stegosaurus-shaped jungle gym), was the original zoo entrance and provides a peaceful retreat. See Lake Wingra peeking through the trees, a Native American Effigy Mound and the Annie Stewart Memorial Fountain.
Wisconsin State Capitol Lawn
Want to see and be seen? The Capitol lawn is the place to be. On Wednesday nights in summer, the city comes out for Concerts on the Square with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. Dedicated picnickers set blankets out at 3 p.m., and return with elaborate snack spreads. Spend Saturdays lounging beneath 100-year-old trees, snacking on fresh produce from the Dane County Farmers’ Market.
Shore, sand, sun and sailboats breezing across sparkling waves set the mood for lounging lakeside. On Lake Monona, Brittingham Boats offers a beach to picnic, as well as kayak, canoe and SUP rentals, while Olin Park is home to the best skyline views of Madison. Lake Mendota’s Picnic Point has a great peninsula path to walk and fire pits to enjoy. If your vibe is more refined, Maple Bluff’s Beach Park feels like a summer resort.
Allen Centennial Garden
You’d never expect to find a lush garden tucked between UW-Madison buildings, but Allen Centennial Garden is just that. The educational garden is known for its many flowers and plants, and has a small pond and path to walk along. On select nights in summer, you can enjoy programming like live music, crafting and yoga.
Period Garden Park
Step back in time at Period Garden Park. Preserving the 19th Century character and charm of historic Mansion Hill, this tiny park has secret garden vibes, as it’s tucked between houses on one of Madison’s busiest streets. Find calmness among the lush flowers and foliage, and watch birds flutter around the vintage fountain and feeders.
American Players Theatre
Shakespeare and charcuterie? You bet. One of the nation’s most popular outdoor classical theaters boasts some of the best picnicking around. With nearly nightly performances from May through October, theater American Players Theatre attendees arrive hours before the show to share food, drink and good company at dozens of tables and covered shelters scattered throughout the woods.