The art of urban idyll

Looking for places in town that feel a bit removed from the crowds of the metro area, but are well within city limits? When you’ve hit your limit on trips to apple orchards, pumpkin patches and corn mazes, check out these local gems.

Go off road at Cedar Lake 

If you’ve walked the paved paths around Cedar Lake — or created a loop bike by exploring the Cedar Lake Regional Trail and Kenilworth Trail — you know the charms of this easier-going cousin to Lake Calhoun. 

But did you know there’s a not-so-secret wooded path that starts at the northern-most point of the lake?

Here — a short walk east of the parkway-trail junction — you can stroll alongside boggy expanses and through tall stands of trees while you enjoy peek-a-boo views of the blue lake, all away from the cyclists swarming the main trail. 

Make a day of it: Bring a picnic lunch and sit by the water’s edge. It may no longer be summer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play in the sand of this lake’s many beaches, including the formerly nudist Hidden Beach of the eastern shore. 

Locate all the lake’s attractions and the northern trail’s features — known among locals as the Mound, Big Woods and Memorial Cedar Grove — at

Hungry? Hit Rustica or Punch Pizza at Calhoun Village (3200 W Lake St.), a half-mile walk from Cedar Lake’s South Beach.

Venture out at the Bird Sanctuary

With its wooden boardwalk and heavily wooded terrain, Robert’s Bird Sanctuary near Lake Harriet’s Rose Garden (4124 Roseway Road, Minneapolis) feels truly removed from the hustle bustle. 

This 33-acre preserve is big enough to keep you from running into too many other visitors, except possibly of the woodland variety. The throngs of dog walkers and cyclists just across the way at Lake Harriet feel miles away. 

On our visit, a deer and its fawn appeared as if by magic munching away at the abundant vegetation. Of course, it’s a great place to spot birds as well or construct an imaginary adventure that takes you and your little ones deep into an enchanted forest to rescue a unicorn.

Make a day of it: From the bird sanctuary, you can check out through the adjacent gardens and many shaded bridges and trails. Or explore the shore of Lake Harriet. Hit Wild Rumpus Books in Linden Hills, named Bookstore of the Year by Publisher’s Weekly for its atmosphere, selection and live animals, too! Warm up with coffee and carbs at Dunn Brothers or Great Harvest before heading home! 

Explore the woods at St. Kate’s

Don’t let the tall, wrought-iron fence enclosing St. Catherine University (2004 Randolph Ave., St Paul) put you off. The campus is the perfect destination for wandering the woods, meandering through an English garden and encountering ducks, geese and even an occasional heron. The grounds are wide open and contain enough corners to explore to keep the kids busy for hours. 

Follow one of the paths through the mini-woods just south of the pond. Bring along a bird book and identify the avian visitors that waddle and float past, or make a foray to the mini-island in the middle of the pond and devise a make-believe scenario. 

There’s even a playground nearby that’s nearly always deserted on weekends if you want the best of both worlds.

Make a day of it: St. Kate’s is Highland Park adjacent, so finding good options for lunch won’t be hard. And the neighborhood theater (760 Cleveland Ave. S., just two block away) often has a kid-friendly film on view. But if you ask us, the best bookend to a day outside is a little time with a good book — or three. Make your way, just down the street, to the Highland Park Community Center (1978 Ford Parkway) for a little quality time in the stacks.

Find the other side of Nicollet Island

Nicollet Island Park (40 Power St., Minneapolis) and its overlook of St. Anthony Falls — with its torrents of rushing water — is an iconic Minneapolis park that bustles with elaborate tented wedding parties at the pavilion year round and Music in the Park performances in summer. 

But have you ever ventured to the north side of the island?

It’s a decidedly different, more serene world, crisscrossed by walking paths and soaring shade trees. 

This little slice of the city is best approached from the adjacent — and easily accessible — Boom Island Park (724 Sibley St. NE) or B.F. Nelson Park (434 Main St. NE, Minneapolis), which includes paved trails, a playground, views of the skyline, river access and a picturesque bridge that leads to a steep, stable access trail carved into the hillside. 

Once you reach the top, you’ll find quiet residential streets lined with enchanting historic homes, surrounded by overgrown gardens and picket fences. It’s the perfect location for an extended game of I Spy! 

Make a day of it: Afterward, stop by Kramarzuk’s Sausage Co., a cafeteria-style Polish restaurant and market, (about six blocks away at 215 E. Hennepin Ave.) Complete your tour with coffee for you and house-made gelato for the kids at Wilde Roast (65 SE Main St.), three blocks away on St. Anthony Main.

See open sky at Open Book

Not all urban idylls involve nature. Before temperatures plummet, head to Open Book (1011 S. Washington Ave, Minneapolis). This nonprofit literary arts center is home to The Loft Literary Center, the Minnesota Center for Book Arts and Milkweed Editions.

Even seasoned visitors might not be familiar with one of the more beguiling features of this urban literary outpost — the outdoor deck on the third floor. 

The deck is lined with sailcloth tarps that create a sense of drama on a windy day, perhaps just the thing to excite the imagination of bold young adventurers. 

Bring a game or a book and enjoy the outdoors in the middle of the hustle-bustle of urban life.

If it rains, you can retreat indoors to one of several spaces on the first or second floor for reading and hanging out.

Make a day of it: Just a few blocks to the north, a trifecta of kid-friendly fun awaits. Indulge your collective sweet tooth at Izzy’s Ice Cream (1100 S. Second St.), challenge your children to run up and down the spiral hill at Gold Medal Park to burn off excess energy then venture up to the top of the Guthrie for a panoramic view of the river.

Stephanie Xenos is a freelance writer and mother based in St. Paul.