Believe it or not, Franklin Elementary School, 305 W. Lakeside St., houses one of Madison's artistic treasures: a dreamy, painterly mural in which peacocks surround a fruitful apple tree as the sun shines, birds chirp and flowers grow. The work was created by Laura Dronzek, the renowned painter and illustrator whose kids attended Franklin. Dronzek painted an equally stunning mural with husband Kevin Henkes, the famous children's author-illustrator, at Randall Elementary School. The two have just completed another one for the new Madison Children's Museum on the Square.
There's a lovely mom-and-pop vibe at El Pastor, the taquería that has long served a diverse clientele at 2010 S. Park St. The food is simple, good and inexpensive, the servers are quick with friendly greetings and extra salsa, and on the stereo, Norteño artists sing with great emotion. Sip a sweet horchata and order pork tacos all around.
South Park Street is home to multiple Asian grocery stores, big and small. But don't overlook the diminutive Oriental Shop in a little house at 1029 S. Park St. It's Japanese-centered, selling good rice and udon noodles, bento box supplies, and lots of Japanese candy, including the exquisitely soft, very fruity Kasugai gummy candies.
Kids beat the summer heat at the Cypress Spray Park, located on the corner of Cypress Way and Magnolia Lane. The park includes misting and low spraying for the little ones, along with rain showers and cascades for splash-happy adolescents. A public artwork completes the cheerful scene.
Those newfangled evangelical Christian bookstores can be off-putting, which is why it's good knowing Madison Church Supply endures at 820 S. Park St. The emphasis is churching of the old school, especially Lutheran and Roman Catholic. Ornate rosaries? Convenient portable Mass kits? Stickers of the saints? No problem. This is an inspired place.
The Arbor Hills neighborhood on Madison's south side is already one of the city's best-kept secrets, but within it lies a hidden jewel known as Knollwood Conservation Park. This long linear stretch of woodlands, nestled between a railroad track and Arbor Hills homes, is the perfect place for a stroll - assuming you can find it. We recommend entering from the 3000 block of Irvington Way via a wooden stairway.
Where is there a coffeehouse that serves locally sourced, sustainable, organic treats; hosts live music Saturday nights; has free parking; and features an unobstructed view of the lake and the downtown skyline? Stumped? Tucked away behind Lakeside Fibers at 402 W. Lakeside Street is the Washington Hotel Coffee Room (somewhat confusingly, it's not attached to any structure called the Washington Hotel). Out the window, there's a grassy lawn, the tiny city park called Bernie's Beach, Monona Bay and the Capitol looming large.
Not every city has its own optical illusion. Try this, or you won't believe it. If you drive down O'Sheridan Street, off Lakeside Street, toward Monona Bay, the Capitol building - to which you are actually getting closer - appears to be receding.
Sometimes overgrown and difficult to discern, a wee notch along the UW Arboretum side of Wingra Creek - opposite North Wingra Drive near its Spruce Street intersection - affords paddlers access to a wondrous pocket of urban wetland habitat. Depending on water levels, foliage density, your flexibility and the draught of your canoe or kayak, it is often possible to maneuver through this portal, called Gardner Marsh, into a short, narrow channel that brings you to a meandering network of brooks and tributaries in a marshy sanctuary populated with the occasional crane and heron as well as ducks and other waterfowl. Your navigational savvy and/or luck may also lead you to proximity with Arboretum trails and/or Harvey Schmidt Park and the Carver Street neighborhood.
It may look peaceful now, but the marshy area near the Department of Revenue Building, 2135 Rimrock Rd., was crawling with police and national media in March 2004, when missing UW college student Audrey Seiler turned up there after a four-day search. Seiler claimed that an armed man had held her amid the trees, and that he was still at large. He wasn't - in fact, he didn't exist. Seiler had faked her abduction, giving the marsh an unlikely 15 minutes of fame.