Madison, WI + Lake Mendota

"70 square miles surrounded by reality..."

From Katherine: As I worked through the college application process, I had my hopes set on leaving Wisconsin behind. It may have been to prove to everyone that I could actually leave “home,” or maybe it was an attempt to gain some uniqueness to my story in comparison to so many of my high school classmates and my sister who also had attended UW-Madison and was loving it. When my mom and I left for my “tour” of schools that were actually of consideration, I thought without a doubt, that I’d know Notre Dame was for me. The hard part was over, I’d already gotten in, bless my church’s Catechism class going heavy on the service work. When we arrived, I was confused. The campus on a sunny October day was actually heaven with perfectly golden leaves, sun bright as ever, students looking classy and well-coordinated in their navy & gold. But I could not get over a few facts: no water and no immediately available bar scene. Call it what you want, but each school had a host of red flags that could not be ignored by my Madison-spoiled-soul. I’d visited Madison many times over the course of my childhood and teen years, visiting with family, and later visiting siblings of friends for a taste of college. And once you have the best, you can’t do better. And that tour of Midwestern schools solidified one thing for me, I needed UW-Madison in my story.

My four years at UW-Madison were undeniably important and fun. Obviously the college experience is a turning point in many lives, and for me that was no different. Between friends, football, and living big, it’s one of the times of my life that I’d actually be HAPPILY willing to experience one more time. And then again. And again. And again. And I know with certainty that a huge part of that is due to the magic of Madison, WI.

Speaking of undeniable fun, I’ve recruited a few of my best college girlfriends to write this story with me, so without further ado, here is our story of Madison + Lake Mendota.

Favorite lake?

As an isthmus, Madison is nestled between two large and beautiful lakes: Monona and Mendota. Campus, and a few more of our favorite spots are located along Mendota, which is 9781 acres. Mendota is by far the largest of all 45 lakes in the county, and is rich in history extending back to 12,000 years ago in the glacial age, and then to just a few hundred years ago when these lands were inhabited by numerous Native Americans tribes.

A portion of campus includes the Lakeshore Preserve, which is home to Picnic Point and the Lakeshore Trail, popular for walking, hiking, and biking and home to multiple residence halls. There are numerous Indian effigy mounds just inland from the lake, in the heart of campus. UW boasts a proud, rich Native American Studies program, ever popular to students. As someone fascinated with Native American culture (I’m less than 2% Mohawk, but as a child I often asserted that it was much more than that), I loved my Native American studies coursework, which gave me a chance to understand the culture and conflict that has taken place in the Midwest, and beyond, throughout history and even recently, as experienced firsthand in Northern Wisc during the Walleye War of the 80s & 90s.

Closest major city & airport?

The closest cities, if Madison’s size of 250,000 isn’t cutting it, are Milwaukee, WI (80 miles) or Chicago, IL (150 miles). The Dane County Regional airport, MSN, is just a short drive from downtown Madison, and flies to many major hubs across the country, connecting you to wherever you need to go!  If that is not an option for you, Mitchell International airport in Milwaukee is only about an hour and a half drive away.

Distance to nearest grocery store?

While campus lacked a downtown grocer during our college years, unless you considered the Triangle Mart, Riley’s Liquor, Walgreens, or the Willy St. Co-op your go-to, there were quite a few options within a short drive from campus. My roommates and I considered a trip to nearby Whole Foods or Metcalfe’s Sentry (Hilldale Mall) to be a total splurge, which we’d make a bit too frequently, and especially during times of high stress. Campus now has multiple grocery options, including a Fresh Market in the heart of campus, but most students likely enjoy the upgraded dining hall options that are sprinkled throughout university buildings. Every visit since we’ve graduated, we’ve been a bit envious of the new amenities, but there’s a certain sense of pride knowing that we “roughed it” in comparison to the new generations.

Reason lake is important to us?

From Erin: There’s a spot on John Nolan drive that starts to curve north over Lake Monona and the Capital building comes into view. It is this exact moment that the stress of the world melts away, my surroundings go quiet, and I feel peace. I know I'm home. Madison holds such a special place in my heart (it is the namesake of my dog, after all). I am forever grateful for the four years I spent there. For the education I received, the immeasurable experience working at Memorial Union (right on the water), and most importantly for my sweet girlfriends and the irreplaceable bond that that magical town imprinted on our hearts.

From Annette:  I spent my childhood visiting Madison to attend those crisp, fall Saturday Badgers games with the best college football team in the country, but never spent much time near its lakes. And like Katherine, I had my heart and mind set on attending college somewhere else. But there is something about Madison that felt remarkably approachable, and yet still boasted over 40,000 undergraduate students. Surrounded on either side by two beautiful lakes, you can’t help but think they are embracing Madison in a hug. I have a special place in my heart for Lake Mendota. There is something about it that takes your breath away because of its unassuming beauty. Strangely, I remember one particularly ordinary day when we walked down to the crew docks, sat in the shade, and watched a duck sleep peacefully on top of the water while chatting away the afternoon. But it had meaning for me. For as crazy, fun, and hectic as Madison can be, the lake brought us escape, and brought us closer together. Lake Mendota is about memories with friends, but also a pitcher (or more) of beer, the occasional late-night skinny-dipping (not an admission), and more laughs than I can count. It also brought me sanity when everything else seemed stressful. I spent many months at the Terrace or in the quiet room in College Library that overlooked the lake, studying for the LSAT. It was the perfect antidote to whatever anxiety or ailment I had. A needed, if only brief, respite from the daily grind. Spend the time to enjoy Madison’s lakes. Use it as a backdrop for your life as often as you can. The one thing I learned is that life can get in the way of enjoying the beauty of a place, especially when you think it will always be there for you. But as I’ve learned firsthand, when you move away from a place and you no longer have the ability to appreciate it whenever you want, you long for it that much more.

From Katherine: Lake Mendota is one of the most beautiful parts of campus, and that’s saying something when this campus is beyond stunning. The sheer size of this body of water is pretty mesmerizing, and whether  enjoying time at the Terrace or walking the Lakeshore Trail, it offers a chance to step away from the everyday life, if only for a few moments.  It’s a chance to disconnect from stressful times in schoolwork, social lives, all forms, really. At the Terrace especially, you find yourself among a community of people seeking the same relief that comes from the water. When you’re among a community of 40,000+ students, you can definitely feel like a small fish, but that feelings dissolves at the Terrace. What also dissolves are the boundaries between students, faculty, and visitors - regardless of major, beliefs, backgrounds, etc., you’re enjoying the same magic of the lakeside atmosphere.

Favorite activities/foods/traditions?

  • From Beth: Football Saturdays. Madison is known for its love of the Badgers. My dad has had season tickets for Badgers games since before I was born (I played with Barbie dolls at my first game as a child).  However, once I got to college, my dad used football Saturdays as a way to see me and my friends, and he began to develop his famous tailgates. These tailgates are some of the highlights of my time in Madison. For an 11 AM game, there’d be an 8 AM warning, a call about his arrival. Minutes later, we’d be in the parking lot as he set up the bar & food theme for the day. This was not something to be taken lightly, and it continues to be an annual tradition that draws a regular crew.  Tailgates are just another reason to get together with old friends, easily make new ones, and enjoy great food, drink, and company while celebrating our love for the Wisconsin Badgers.  When you have it down to a science like my dad, you have every tailgate theme influenced by either the time of day, combination of foods, or special request of VIP guests. These include chili cook-offs, breakfast, and the traditional burgers & brats. Even if you’re not hosting a tailgate, just walking around and people watching at all of the different tailgates is quite the sight. But one common thread across all tailgates is the Wisconsin friendliness - including a welcoming atmosphere to opponents’ fans as well.  Honestly, I dare you to find a more fun and entertaining way to spend a fall Saturday in Madison. The tailgate scene is THAT good.
  • Walk or run to Picnic Point.
  • Beers & live music at the Terrace
  • Shopping the unique and quirky options along State St.
  • Browsing the Dane County Farmer’s market, which takes place around the Capitol Square. Enjoy hot spicy cheese bread, an interesting array of local products, and of course cheese curds (the squeakier the better).
  • Concerts on the Capitol Sq.
  • Sunbathing & swimming on piers along the lake. (From Katherine). Some of our favorite lake stories also include long days at the Terrace that ended in one or more of us launching ourselves off the Union piers.  One particularly sunny Friday afternoon in late April had me parked at the Terrace all day. It was my senior year, and my course load was light. After alerting quite a few friends that I was staking out at a big table by the water for the day, people came and went all day across multiple of friend groups. Some decided to make a day of it with me, and after a few pitchers and some early-spring sunburn, I had begun to think it was time to take a dip. Keep in mind that lake water doesn’t quite get swimmably warm until at least June, but if I could get someone to make it worth my while, I was up for it. The idea came up that if someone picked up my bar tab for the summer, I’d be game. I found a taker, who obviously wasn’t aware of my affinity for dares like these, and attention in general. I mentioned to a girlfriend we needed to do this to up our cool factor, and after no convincing at all (thank you, multiple pitchers) and we were off. I’ve never been colder or happier. Those who stood on the pier with us said the Terrace went silent when we hit the water. One of my proudest Badger moments.

    And there were more times like that. A post-muddy football game mid-thunderstorm on the Kohl Center lawn called for a rinse in the lake. Another time, a friend decided the only way in which to ensure he could clean off all of the mud that he had managed to accumulate all over his body was to take a dip into Lake Mendota. Mind you, this was fall in Wisconsin and neither the air temperature nor the water temperature were anywhere close to feeling ‘warm’ - but hey, when in Madison. And don’t worry, he was able to get all of that mud off without having to drag this through his apartment. This was actually a very practical approach to getting rid of that mud, and not ‘crazy’ like many outside of Madison may think due to the weather. Wisconsinites are known for ignoring intense or less than ideal weather conditions when there is fun to be had

Summers Activities (From Beth, who spent multiple summers in Madison)

Madison, WI is well-known as a great college town; however, while many students go home during the summer, many students stay to enjoy everything Madison has to offer - and there really is so much to do!  Every night of the week you can find something different, with activities appealing to a wide spectrum of interests. For starters, the Memorial Union Terrace themes multiple nights of the week:

  • Mondays: Lakeside Cinema at sundown May 30-September 5. A great place to gather a group of friends and family to enjoy a movie by the lake. The movies are generally kid-friendly as well
  • Wednesdays: Open mic night
  • Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays: Live music at the Terrace. There’s nothing quite like getting a group together to catch up, play card games, or just enjoy the beautiful sunset over Lake Mendota. Click here for a list of all updated Memorial Union Terrace activities.
  • Wednesday nights are probably best spent up on the Capitol Square enjoying the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra! It’s best to set out your picnic blankets in the early afternoon to reserve your spot, and then meet your group of friends up on the square after work.  This can be treated as a BYOB with appetizers, or you can enjoy any of the food trucks, local wines/brews that are sold on the square.
  • A lesser known concert series, but one that offers you the opportunity to dance the night away, is the Monona Terrace Concert series (Thursday nights).  From mid-June to mid-August you can head to the Monona Terrace, partake in the local wine, beer, and food available for purchase, and enjoy local cover bands who theme the nights to different genres or bands.  
  • In addition, don't forget about the Farmer’s Market around the Capitol Square every Saturday morning from the first weekend in May through the first weekend in November - sample and buy various types of cheeses, local in-season fresh fruits and vegetables, local meats, honey, fresh flowers...and so, so much more!  There is also a smaller Farmer’s Market on Wednesday mornings from 9:00A.M. to noon off of MLK Dr. that offers many of the same stands as Saturday mornings.

More fun summer activities:

  • Bike share and explore the city on the numerous bike trails
  • Henry Vilas Zoo (it’s free!)
  • Rent sailboats, paddleboards, wind surf or take lessons through Hoofers at Memorial Union on Lake Mendota
  • Lay out at Vilas beach (at Lake Wingra), James Madison Park (at Lake Mendota), or just jump off the pier into Lake Mendota from Memorial Union Terrace
  • Explore State Street’s shops and eclectic dining in addition to various local coffee shops

Some other local favorite traditions:

What do you do when it rains?

  • Study or find a quiet place to read a book or get some work done. Visit Helen C. White Library, numerous rooms in the Memorial Union room overlooking Lake Mendota, Memorial Library, and the Wisconsin Historical Society.
  • Eat & drink. Mickie’s Dairy Bar is a Madison institution, and it’s one of Erin’s favorites. Pancakes + milk shake. No excuses.
  • Museums: It’s no surprise that Madison boasts a list of great options for almost any interest. Most are within walking distance from the Capitol Square and quite low cost to visit.
  • Coffee shops! No shortage of coffee options around the Capitol and campus. Katherine’s favorite is Michelangelo’s (dirty chai). Beth loves Barriques.
  • Concerts/plays: the Majestic Theatre, Orpheum Theater, and Overture Center host popular names year-round.  
  • Tour the Capital

Local joints to check out?

  • The Old Fashioned: Named after Wisconsin’s famous Brandy drink.  Located on the Capitol Square. Swing by for brunch, lunch, dinner, or just a drink and an appetizer.  Try their deep fried cheese curds, grab a sandwich or burger with a fried egg, or swing by for their Friday night Fish Fry.
  • Dottie Dumpling's Dowry: Burger heaven. It’s located just steps from the Kohl Center, making it a great stop before heading over for a game!
  • Nitty Gritty: Known for free bottomless beer mugs on your birthday, delicious burgers, and a totally unnecessary $1.50 rails power-hour from 10-11.
  • Wandos: Fishbowls + Tuesday bacon night.
  • State Street Brats: Ride the cow or enjoy the beer stock exchange where demand influences the tap beer pricing.
  • Marigold Kitchen: Always worth the brunch wait - outdoor seating offers views of the Capitol Square, which is quite perfect on a warm day. Creative & delicious omelettes. Annette says the roasted potatoes are the best thing on the menu and are not to be missed.
  • Ian’s Pizza Quirky pizza place popular for creative & delicious options such as everyone’s favorite - mac n’ cheese. Avoid at bar-time unless you’re interested in chatting through the long line with a very hungry, often impatient, always talkative crowd.

Where to get a fish fry?

Have a sweet tooth?

  • Babcock Ice Cream:  UW-Madison produces it’s own homemade ice cream with tons of delicious flavors!  You can snag a bowl or a cone at Babcock Dairy Hall, Union South, or Memorial Union (Side note: They produce their own cheeses as well- be sure to sample a few of those!)
  • Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream: Located on State Street.  They make their own Wisconsin-made ice cream.
  • Kilwin’s Madison: Located on State Street close to the Capitol.  Treat yourself to toffee, caramel, caramel apples, brittles, ice cream, and more!
  • La Coppa Gelato: Located on State Street.  Numerous different flavors of gelato to sample and enjoy!

Lessons learned at the lake, and at UW.

  • Be yourself. You’ll find the right crew by rocking your best and weirdest self.
  • Take time to unwind. There is so much to gain in the slow moments. And sometimes unwinding means just letting loose - this method of unwinding may hurt a little more in the morning, but it’s generally equally important as the slow moments.
  • JUMP IN, it’s always worth it.
Katherine GramannWisconsin