I’ll level with you; weekend getaway to Madison never really crossed my mind. I mean, it’s the capital of Dairyland USA; could it really be vegan-friendly?
But my curiosity was piqued while exploring one of England’s vegan behemoths, Brighton. As I chatted with a local (and former Madisonian) about ethical and vegan clothing, she shared, “Well, if you love Brighton, I think you should check out Madison.”
“Really?” I asked. “You know that’s the land of milk, and well, more milk — and not the plant-based kind?” But she was adamant Madison needed to make it onto my travel radar.
After a few Google searches, it became clear why this progressive, Earth Day-loving college town was right up my alley. Back in the 70s, former Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson started the grassroots Earth Day movement in Madison to draw national attention to the growing environmental crisis facing our land, water, and air.
It is evident sustainability and eco-friendly initiatives continue to shape business decisions throughout the city. Whether you’re looking for ethically made clothing or sourced coffee beans, you’ll find it and more in Madison. To be honest, finding a business that isn’t touting its eco ways in Madison is a proverbial needle in a haystack scenario — it just won’t fly in this community.
So, with a long-standing love for Mother Nature, it’s no surprise that local businesses have embraced the power of plants. After all, animal agriculture generates approximately 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions and has devastating effects on biodiversity, land use, pollution, and more awful environmental atrocities.
Now with a lead-in like that, I know your interest is piqued! So, if Madison wasn’t on your radar or you were mulling over a weekend getaway to this hip city, you need to get planning! But, don’t worry, it won’t be a heavy lift; I’ve planned your entire weekend itinerary from fluffy vegan banana pancakes to peanut-fried tofu-topped sushi and everything in between.
Some of the links in the guide might be affiliate links. At no cost to you, I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase — this helps keep Veggies Abroad churning out free content!
How to Spend One Perfect Weekend in Madison: Day 1 Itinerary
Morning Itinerary: Up and At-‘Em with Fluffy Pancakes
Even if you’re not a breakfast person (which I’ll never understand), you can’t miss the special vegan hack breakfast menu at the popular (popular might be an understatement, especially on the weekend) Short Stack Eatery in downtown Madison.
The smell of rich maple syrup will lead your nose down State Street to this charming community-focused diner, but you’ll inevitably be met with a line of hungry breakfast goers. Even if you are met with the line, I promise it’s worth the wait. But, if you want the best chance to forego waiting, arrive early — there’s a good chance you can just waltz right in before 8 AM.
Whether you’re craving something sweet or savory, they are ready to please your vegan tastebuds with bowls of house-made granola, golden stacks of vegan and gluten-free banana pancakes, or loaded breakfast burritos.
One more bonus: all of their dishes are created with locally or regionally sourced ingredients and from farmers that prioritize the planet’s health.
Morning Activity: Visit the largest producers-only farmers’ market in the US
From late April – early November (Saturdays on the square and a smaller version on Wednesdays nearby), over 200 vendors from around the state set up shop surrounding the city’s iconic capitol to sell seasonal fruits and veggies, flowers, baked goods, and more. To give you a sense of scale, it’s the country’s largest producer-only farmers’ market — definitely, a sight to see when in Madison for the weekend!
As you’re perusing the vendors, keep your eyes peeled for Farm Pride Bakery, East Side Ovens, Cress Spring Bakery, and Paleo Mama Bakery — from vegan Twix Bars to blueberry scones, they all have a variety of vegan options!
After stocking up on all of the treats that you can stuff in your suitcase, it’s time to head east to the Willy Street neighborhood for lunch and a little shopping!
Lunch Break: The City’s Oldest Veggie Restaurant
You can’t visit Madison without stopping for a bite to eat at the city’s oldest vegetarian restaurant, Green Owl Café! This casual spot is dishing out some of Madison’s best vegan comfort eats (just about everything on the menu can be made vegan).
No matter what you’re in the mood for, you can’t skip over their cashew cheese-covered Owl fries. These irresistible fries are covered in caramelized onions, seitan, and a special house-made Owl sauce. If you’re gluten-free, don’t worry; they can sub the seitan for zesty walnut chorizo — even the most carnivorous can’t resist these!
Afternoon Itinerary: Sustainably Shop Till You Drop
After lunch, you’ve got to check out all the independent boutiques that line this 10-block neighborhood. You’ll find everything from trendy resale shops to handmade chocolates, and you must explore every inch of it!
If you’re looking for a cute summer dress or chic earrings, head to the woman-owned, eco-shop Change Boutique. Fashion’s environmental and ethical implications have been under fire for years, but this boutique offers an alternative to fast fashion. Everything is created ethically and free from sweatshop labor— you can even ask the shop where the garment was made, and they can easily find out.
That’s just the start of our afternoon shopping adventure.
Down the street from the Change Boutique are even more stores you can’t miss. A few of my favorites include the low-waste shop Green Life Trading Co., locally made art from the Hatch Art House, and unique vintage home goods at Rewind Décor (if it’s still there, ask about the story behind the John Lennon poster in the back).
I don’t know about you, but all that walking and shopping works up an appetite! Lucky for you, you’re in the perfect spot to sample two of Madison’s iconic treats!
Afternoon Snack Time: Iconic Madison Sweets
Our first snack stop is for the can’t-stop-eating sweet and savory pecan creations at Nutkrack. These addictive snacks were actually created by accident by a local chef, who, in the beginning, just handed them out to friends and family. But with one bite, you’ll immediately understand why this happy accident needed to expand to delight local taste buds. No matter if you choose the Sweet & Salty Nutkrack or Chili-Spiked Firecracker variety, they’re all vegan and gluten-free.
Just across the street is one more Madison heavyweight who holds the prize for some of the most decadent, melt-in-your-mouth chocolates and truffles, Gail Ambrosius Chocolates. Depending on the day, you’ll find a selection of delectable and creative vegan truffles and bars like passionfruit (my favorite), sweet curry, coconut matcha, lemongrass with ginger, and more.
Good luck leaving here without a box of sweets!
For a special veggie night out, there’s no better place in Madison than chic Jardin. Once you set your eyes on their creative, globally-inspired fare, it will probably come as a surprise that this spot wasn’t always vegan! But, like many, the pandemic helped the owners re-evaluate their priorities and allowed space to imagine “what if” and find the right team to pull off their dream vegan restaurant.
The seasonally inspired menu roams the Earth for inspiration, from the slightly spicy Patatas Azules and Quesabirria to the rich Lobster Casarecce (together, Lion’s Mane and Lobster Mushrooms create the meaty fish-free dish).
While you will inevitably want to try absolutely everything, try and save a little room for a sweet finale — coffee lovers can’t resist the creative Affogato made with Candy Cap mushrooms, lavender ice cream, and blueberry reduction.
Weekend in Madison: Day 2 Itinerary
Morning Agenda: Get Movin’ with Breakfast Sammies
To get this day started on the right foot, you’ve got to pop into the veggie café, Sookie’s! This casual vegan burger joint originally started as a food truck in Milwaukee, but its veggie goodness grew and allowed them to open up shop in Madison (hooray)!
Their breakfast menu is small, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in flavor! Choose between their savory or sweet breakfast sammie, but to make it extra special, swap out those buns for two hashbrowns! For a caffeine boost, you also can’t skip their pour-over coffee lineup — the Bella Carmona from Guatemala has delicious notes of fruit and chocolate; I give it two thumbs up!
Morning Activity: Stroll State Street
This is the thriving artery of the city that stretches for seven blocks from Capitol Square to the University of Wisconsin and is filled with tons of great independent boutiques, cafes, and restaurants. A couple of shops you might be interested in checking out include Little Luxuries, a vintage toy shop, and Anthology, a quirky small gift and paper shop.
Once you get to the University of Madison, continue your stroll over to the Alumni Park to enjoy views of Lake Mendota and outdoor art exhibits.
Lunchtime: Traditional Nepalese Cuisine
For over 35 years, Himal Chuli has been nourishing the Madison community with authentic Nepali cuisine that’s mostly vegetarian (with many vegan options). The healthy dishes are all house-made and created with locally sourced ingredients and special spices that you most likely won’t find anywhere else in town.
Their menu is well-marked for vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options — you don’t have to play guessing games! If you like spice, check out their Tuk-Pa, a special Tibetan header’s soup filled with a mix of veggies and a powerhouse of herbs.
Afternoon Activity: Beautiful Blooms & Lake Views
After your veggie-packed lunch, you’ll be properly fueled to explore the stunning gardens at Olbrich Botanical Gardens and enjoy a choose-your-own outdoor adventure!
Year-round, the Olbrich Botanical Gardens is a beautiful place to visit. In the spring and summer, the 16 acres are carpeted in a vibrant display of colorful blooms, and while things might not be as vibrant in the winter, you won’t want to miss the tropical garden inside the Bolz Conservatory. One of the most beautiful spots here is the Thai Garden — this beautiful pavilion was a gift to Madison from the king of Thailand — it’s the only one of its kind in the US.
You might also notice there isn’t a lot of grass spread throughout the garden, which was done purposefully to help conserve water. In addition, the gardens have increased the number of native plants, which are hardier and better for the environment, utilize organic material like leaves to improve the soil quality, and you’ll find two colonies of bees that help keep the gardens blooming bright.
Before you head to your choose your own outdoor adventure, you have an optional snack time stop!
Afternoon Donut Break
Right behind Olbrich is the Garver Feed Mill (you can easily get over to it by taking a back exit; ask staff for help). This former feed mill is a neat example of adaptive reuse and has been renovated into one of the coolest hangouts in Madison. You’ll find a little bit of everything — a pizza shop (they have a special vegan night on Tuesdays), a craft cocktail spot, a yoga studio, a spa, and more!
While you’re checking out this unique spot, stop into Ledger Coffee Roasters for an ethically sourced cup of joe (if they have the Las Lajas from Costa Rica, grab it) and a vegan donut made by Level 5 Donuts.
Madison Lake Life
Once you’re finished, head back to Lake Monona (just outside the botanical gardens).
Here’s your quintessential Madison adventure if you choose to accept it — hop in a kayak and go for a spin around the lake or grab a bike and explore the 13-mile paved path around Lake Monona.
You can easily rent a bike from Machinery Row Bicycles or grab an electric bike from one of the Madison Bcycle stations — there are also guided e-bike tours. For the kayak, visit Olbrich Park Boat Rentals. No matter which option you choose, you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous views of the Madison skyline — definitely Insta-worthy.
Dinner & Drinks Finale
Let’s wrap up your epic weekend in Madison with creative Japanese fare from RED Sushi. Now, deciding what to get is a challenge! There are multiple mouthwatering sushi rolls that you’ll want to get your chopsticks on — Nutty Vegan (grilled zucchini and avocado, topped with fried tofu, sweet chili sauce, roasted peanuts, and micro cilantro) or just the regular Vegan (mixed greens, avocado, cucumber, pickled radish, marinated squash, wild carrot, and unagi sauce) — and those are just two of the options!
If you just can’t decide, let the chef do it for you with their special vegan sushi dinner, which features eight of the chef’s favorites. In addition to a tantalizing food lineup, you might want to cap your adventure off with one of their specialty cocktails. If you like something slightly sweet and refreshing, check out the Grapevine Fires, made with a unique coconut cashew orgeat to give it a sweet, nutty flavor!
Where Should I Stay for a Weekend in Madison?
To be steps away from downtown Madison’s action, consider checking out this Hyatt location. In addition to a great location, the morning breakfast spread does include a couple of vegan options (in case you need an early morning snack) and oat milk (perfect if you want a coffee first thing).
The hotel brand also has initiatives that focus on limiting its carbon footprint through energy and water conservation and waste reduction.
333 W Washington Ave, Madison, WI 53703Book Your Stay | Booking.com Book Your Stay | Expedia
Is Madison Walkable? Do I need a Car for a Weekend Visit?
Yes, Madison is very walkable; you can very easily get by without a car for the weekend. If you decide that your feet need a break, hop on one of the city buses for $2 or grab one of the city’s electric bikes. There are over 45 Madison BCycle electric bike rental stations throughout the city and over 200 miles of paved trails, making it super easy to explore the city by bike (even in the winter! The city plows all of the bike lanes).
When is the Best Time to Visit Madison?
Unless you love snow and blistering cold, spring, summer, or fall (May – September) are the best times to visit Madison. During these seasons, the city is alive with events, festivals, outdoor dining, and more. The warmer seasons also make it much easier to enjoy Madison’s prized lake life and explore hiking and biking trails (fun fact: biking is so popular in Madison that in the winter, the bike paths are plowed before the roads!).
This article was produced in partnership with Destination Madison.
More Vegan Travel Help!
If your weekend eating adventure doesn’t end in Madison or you’re just looking for more travel inspiration, you’re in luck! Check out these other tasty and helpful articles.
The Ultimate Chicago Vegan Guide: Restaurants, Sights, & More
10 Chicago Vegan Pizza Spots You Must Try
Vegan Foodie’s Guide to Ann Arbor, Michigan
The Best Vegan Restaurants & Bakeries in Brooklyn, NYC
Complete Vegan Guide to Toronto
The Best Vegan Travel Snacks to Pack