by Mira Kolodkin

Madison: A lovely city with a perfect combination of urbanity and nature, wine and beer, brats and vegan soup.  The only place I’ve ever been where you can tell after 20 minutes that this is a blue smidgeon on a very red state map.  Liberal idealism stemming from angry memories of lives spent in more conservative outskirts.  People who want to get away, but not so far away that cheese curds are no longer readily available.  Welcome to Madison!!! Let us get started on your tour.

Photo by Boulevard Bikes

In the summer, people bike.  In the winter, it’s very cold, but people bike anyway.  If you’re not in Portland, the next best place to bike is Madison, Wisconsin.  Every place that I mention on this tour is located within a block of either easily traversable bike paths, or well-defined bike paths on major streets.  The drivers hate you, but you don’t care, because you’re on a bike and hitting you would be very expensive for them. Linked is the website with both the Madison bike path map and the google option for planning your own route.

As stated before, there are also lanes for cars in case you would like to drive to these locations.  No one will judge you, except everyone biking. Perhaps some pedestrians, as well.  This isn’t Chicago, slow down at crosswalks like they do in the tiny rural villages south of 80.  The two areas that will be highlighted are the East Side and Downtown.  There is also a West Side, but only old people and married graduate students live there.  If you want to hang out there, you might as well go to Arlington Heights, for it will be cheaper.  Let’s move on.

Photo from Olbrich Botanical Gardens


1) Olbrich Gardens 3330 Atwood Ave. Visit website as hours change per season. In the summer, the outdoor areas allow for hours of garden-viewing.  In the winter, the same paths are converted into areas for cross-country skiing.  In my opinion, this is nowhere near the best part about Olbrich Gardens.  Within the walls of Olbrich is the Bolz Conservatory, which varies in temperature from 65oF to 95oF.  It’s the humidity and heat found within the beautiful, domed conservatory that allows for the 650 plants and 475 animal species to exist when the snow would otherwise suck the life out of them (much like myself mid-February).  Beautiful fish and exotic plants are absolutely gorgeous and a rare find in the Midwest.  It can also sometimes be the only reprieve from the dry, cold, and bitter winter (someone writing this doesn’t like winter).  This place is a haven for those of us that are anti-cold, and is highly suggested.

ALTERNATIVE OPTION: There isn’t one.  Go here.

Photo by Adam Powell

2) Green Owl Café 1970 Winnebago Street Tues-Thurs from 11am-9pm, Fri-Sat from 11am-10pm, Sun from 11am-3pm, and closed on Mondays Madison is known for its Friday fish fry.  Cod smells delicious, and leaves vegetarians a combination of jealous and disgusted.  Welcome to the Green Owl Café, a Chicago Diner-esque restaurant with vegan and vegetarian substitutes for foods normally known for their meatiness.  Crab cakes, meatball subs, and Italian beef are just some of the options on the menu.  Unlike most places where you’re lucky to get a tofu option, here one can find jackfruit, tempeh, seitan, and various other non-meat options.  The décor is calming earth tones and a nice break from the log cabin feel of many of the bars and restaurants in Madison.  The best part of this place is the vegan deserts.  They change daily and every single one that I have tried has tasted better than their non-vegan alternatives.

ALTERNATIVE OPTION:  Nope, sorry.  This is currently the only strictly vegetarian/vegan restaurant in the city.

Photo from Small Dish's Blog

3) Mickey’s Tavern 1524 Williamson Street Mon-Fri from 4pm-2am , Sat-Sun from 10am to bartime, Kitchen until 10pm This is my favorite place in the Willy Street Area, if not Madison.   If you arrive at it via the bike path behind it, it resembles a speakeasy from the 1920s.  And it has a matching personality.  Most of Willy Street is a haven for hipsters.  This is where hipsters go to die, or pretend they’re not hipsters.  In the summer when the outdoor area is open, conversations I eavesdrop on are better than those I’ve heard in most other bars.  Unlike most people, whether these drunkards are talking about politics or art, they actually seem to know what they’re talking about.

The indoor area is pretty fantastic, too.  If my hypothetical eccentric grandmother spent one day every decade decorating each room of this bar starting in the 1950s, you would begin to understand how versatile the ambiance of this place is.  The front area has seating for dinner, and a small stage area for acts ranging from metal to pop to bluegrass.  If the music is annoying, and it often is, you can go to the Red Room.  Sofa couches to sit on, and as I’ve observed, excessively PDAing your loved one is required.  Move one room back to the 70s pool room, where everyone is happy to have you put your quarter down and challenge them while an audience observes.  The final room is where you can go to escape the music and drunkenness and have a peaceful conversation.   This room is often empty.  How I love this place.

Hands down, Mickey’s has the best vegan burger in town.  There are places that specialize in burgers and they don’t compare.  You may have to wait around dinner time as the place fills up quickly, but it’s worth it.  Beer is cheap and has a selection ranging from hipster crap like PBR to local brews like Spotted Cow.

There are a few negatives.  The first is that it is a cash-only bar.  Second is that there is a fine line between being awesome and horrible. Some people are fantastic, while some are hideous.  Finally, as the place fills up, you can wait a while for a drink.  The bartenders do not care what you think about them, and it shows.  But truly one of the best places to eat, drink, and watch.


Photo by Audrey Krull

The Weary Traveler (1201 Williamson St) is a classy alternative.  It is the opposite of Mickey’s, if that’s what you’re into. Music ranges from jazz to chill indie.  Board games abound.  The service staff is attentive.  There is very little inter-table travel.  You’re stuck with who you came with.  For such a hipsterific place, there are few vegetarian options.  People pretend they really like the food, but the truth is it’s not that good.  The desserts are incredible, though.  Importantly, unlike Mickey’s, this place serves a variety of non-alcoholic options including tea and pineapple juice (my drink of choice).

4) Lazy Jane’s Café and Bakery 1358 Williamson St. Mon-Fri from 7am-3pm,  Sat-Sun from 8am-2pm Lazy Jane’s has been voted Madison’s Favorite Breakfast in local newspapers for years.  It’s so good that you’ll wait outside for at least a half hour just to get in on the weekends.  I personally have never woken up and ventured outside early enough to experience this breakfast.  Word on the street (people who do wake up early enough to experience breakfast) is that the scones are unbelievable.  It has been said people would kill for them.  The rest of the breakfast is whatever, but it tastes better because you’ve waited in a long line on a cold Wisconsin morning and have earned it.

For me the magic of this place comes at lunch.  Lunch is only served on weekdays.  Around 11:30am, there are less than 20 people in there who aren’t getting paid to hang out.  As opposed to waiting an hour to eat a lemon scone, the wait time at lunch is nonexistent.  The lunch food is damn good.  Although there aren’t a lot of vegan options, it is one of the few places in Madison who offer seitan vegan options as opposed to tofu or portabella.  I eat here weekly, usually on Tuesdays, if you want to come and hang out.

As someone whose family lives in another country, I have strong emotional ties to places that feel like they are owned by eccentric grandmothers.  This is that place.  There is nowhere you can look that can free you from all the crap that has been amassed.  Chandelier art, Christmasish decorations, and bright, clashing paintings give this place a personality seen in few other locations.  They scream out your name when your food is ready, as I imagine my Russian grandmother would have if circumstances were different.  When I’m really tired, their yelling scares me. The couches for relaxing, and board games abound for passing time.  Oh, it feels good in that place.

ALTERNATIVE OPTION: If you want to wait in an even bigger line to earn your breakfast stripes, mosey on over to Sophia’s (831 E. Johnson).  There are basically 6 places to sit, and is not known for its vegetarian options.  Some people like it.  Again, I don’t wake up for breakfast.

Photo by Fara Baugh

5) Mother Fool’s Coffee House 1101 Williamson Street Madison Weekdays from 6:30am-11pm, Sat-Sun from 8am-11pm If you were to look at the outside of all the building on Willy St., none would challenge Mother Fool’s in its appearance as a haven for hipsters.  Your suspicions are substantiated upon entering.  I’ve sat in the back room and eavesdropped on group meetings ranging in topics from managerial responsibilities for Roller Derby to contemporary lesbian perspectives on Kerouac. I’ve sat in front and noticed I’m the only one not wearing one of those knitted hats that can’t possibly present anything resembling warmth.  Nonetheless, I go here often.  The combination of small space and earth tones makes it the closest a public place has come to feeling like I’m laying in bed in my pajamas.  Soothing live music of violin and fiddle fare can occasionally be heard, and adds to the ambiance.  Vegan pastries and soups are known around town for their great taste, and are not obscenely expensive.   People, including the employees, generally look happy there.  Often coffee shop employees give off an air of being too fantastic to bother giving you anymore of their time unless absolutely necessary.  I had a lovely 10 minute conversation with one of the employees about the hardships of getting napkins out of napkin containers, and whether the reward warrants the challenge.  I spend all day in a windowless laboratory, and these types of conversations can make someone’s day.  There are some problems with the place.  I can’t speak for their coffee, but their tea is below par.  The taste is okay, but the loose-leaf tea holder does not do a great job of releasing flavor.  Their cups are tiny and boring.   The place is so small that sometimes you occasionally have to share space at a table with a stranger.  That can be nice when you’re alone, but may not be conducive to intimate conversations.  Additionally, internet can be iffy.  Fortunately, there are board games to fill up your time, perhaps with the stranger you may be forced to sit with.

ALTERNATIVE OPTION:  If you’re willing to sacrifice everything else for the sake of space and better-tasting tea, I suggest In The Company of Thieves (908 E. Johnson).


Photo by Neil Takemoto

Willy Street Co-op 1221 Willy Street We all know how co-ops work.  People can’t get enough out of this place.  There are unique foods that you can’t find anywhere else, but there’s a 10% surcharge if you’re not a member.

St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store 1309 Willy Street Clothes, shoes, jewelry, toys, and assorted crap.  Nice place to go and make fun of stuff with your friends.  Unlike some thrift stores, you won’t leave with the perfect outfit.  But you will leave in awe of how obese Wisconsinites are.

Broom Street Theater 1119 Willy St Local plays on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for cheap.  Intimate place, but the plays are hit or miss.

Photo by Jim Brozek


6) The Terrace 800 Langdon Street Drinks until midnight. This is the jewel of Madison.  I have never sat outdoors in a more beautiful place, not even Rome.  There’s something about how happy the people look there, a conglomerate of students and working families enjoying the outdoors while doing what Wisconsinites do best, drinking copious amounts of good beer.  Tables outside the University Union overlook the lake giving a perfect view of the sailing club’s massive vessels (not a euphemism), and the city at large.  If it’s winter, sit indoors and watch idiots fall on the ice while being dragged on skis by wind-blown kites.  Projected movies are played on Mondays, and canoes can be rented all week.  Live music is played Tuesday-Sunday, and the music is usually incredible.  Big names have played at the Terrace stage, and while outdoor sound quality isn’t extraordinary, it is forgiven for the atmosphere.  Although rules state that you must be a student to purchase alcohol, guest passes can be readily filled out.  If beer is not your focus, grab a brat or some of the food sold at various stands. Additionally, ice cream sold inside the Union is made at the University itself.  Fresh and delicious, lines for this unique ice cream can last for over an hour on a hot Saturday.  Best bet is to get food or ice cream at the food stands or stores on State St., and carry it over to the Terrace.  The point is get to the Terrace, or you’ll be missing out.

ALTERNATIVE OPTION:  Look at the terrace, appreciate its quaintness, and then walk the bike path starting near the canoe rentals.  It runs westward for 2 miles just a few feet from the lake.  It takes walkers and riders to Picnic Point, a park/forest overlooking the lake.  Rent out a firepit and have a private bonfire while appreciating the natural beauty of which Madison has been built around.  Warning:  It can get pretty buggy mid-summer.

Photo from A World of Flavor's Blog

7) Barriques 127 W. Washington Mon-Wed from 6am-10pm, Thurs-Fri from 6am-11pm, Sat from 6:30am-11pm, Sun from 7am-9pm. Dark wood makes this coffee shop feel homey, and service is usually good.  Food is nothing to write home about, but not terrible either.  Though, that is not the point of this particular coffee shop.  The charm of this place comes from its duality in acting as both a bar and a coffee shop.  Wine and whiskey tastings occur often in Barriques, and cheap, well-respected wine is on sale until 9pm every evening.  On Thursdays in the summer, classical music is played at the capital during Concerts in the Square.  Grabbing some wine from Barrique’s and picnicking near the capital, while listening to pretentious music, is a favorite for many in Madison.  The ideal place for a date, two can start with coffee, and end with some sex-inducing wine.

Photo by Linda Falkenstein

ALTERNATIVE OPTION: If you don’t feel like fighting with a bunch of English majors for a seat, walk two blocks west to Electric Earth Café.  The drinks there are just as good as the ones at Barrique, except you will never have trouble finding seating as no one is ever there.  Maybe it’s the lack of wine (they do sell beer).  There is an outdoor area overlooking the capital, and much like the inside, the outdoor seating is copious.  The indoor is brightly colored and really positive.  I always wonder why people don’t go in here.  Additionally, feel free to walk a block South on Bedford and visit my favorite bar that you won’t like, the Echo Tap.  It’s got more personality than any other bar in downtown Madison, hands down.  Whether that’s good or bad is something to be debated.

Photo from A World of Flavor's Blog


Babcock Ice Cream Tour 1605 Linden Dr. Want to see the ice cream get made?  Day tours are available if groups are already going with a minimum of 10 people.  These are only available during the week.

Bars: They are everywhere.  Most of them suck.  If you’re over 21, your best bet is near the capital.  Some suggestions include Paul’s Club (212 State St.), and Genna’s (105 W. Main St.).

State Street: This street bridges the capital and the university.  There are copious stores, restaurants, and bars to choose from.  Make sure you dedicate at least 2 hours to this street, and explore on your own.  Don’t forget to look up; some of the most interesting shops are found on the 2ndfloor.

Vilas Zoo 702 S. Randall Avenue It’s a zoo.  It’s free.  It’s fun.  The mascot for the University of Wisconsin is Bucky the badger.  I didn’t know what a badger looked like, so I went to the zoo and waited.  Two hours later, the bastard still didn’t show.  I’m still angry at the zoo, but perhaps you will have better luck.

This concludes the Madison vacation guide.  That being said, it doesn’t do the place justice.  There’s a strange beauty to this place.  It’s the healthiest combination of nature and urban living that I’ve ever seen.  People just look really happy here, and at first I found it unnerving.  After a couple years of drinking the Kool-Aid, I now also randomly smile at people for no reason.  It looks stupid in Chicago, but makes people say nice things to me here.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Final notes: If you’re driving in from the highway, I highly suggest you take the John Nolen exit.  The view coming off the highway was what made me initially fall in love with this place.  Also, jump into a coffee shop and pick up an Isthmus or Onion.  Inside you’ll find the events around town for the week, something I can’t offer in advance.   Thank you for your time.  Enjoy your voyage.