Gay Nightlife in Madison, Wisconsin: Best LGBTQ Bars, Clubs, & More

Madison has an abundance of gay-friendly nightlife for a small city

Plan B in Madison Wisconsin

Emily Mills / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

Unassuming as it may be, Madison, Wisconsin, is a mecca for the LGBTQ crowd. It probably has something to do with the youthful demographic that University of Wisconsin-Madison attracts and the city's reputation as a "liberal bubble," often having different political opinions than the rest of the state. The outdoorsy, progressive, and well-educated settlement that straddles Lake Mendota and Lake Monona ​offers a small-town alternative to big city living for gays and lesbians. It isn't often that a city this size—with a population of about 250,000—has so much pride. In fact, Madison was celebrating pride before pride was even a thing. The LGBTQ community here would gather at what was called MAGIC picnics, de facto Pride fests, during the '80s or perhaps even before. This is where the name of its annual OutReach Magic Festival, now held every August, came from. In addition to having a bustling gay-friendly nightlife scene, even bigger gay bar hubs are just down the road (Milwaukee is a 75-minute drive and Chicago—boasting one of the country's largest gay scenes—is a two-hour drive away).

Bars

The University of Wisconsin-Madison crowd is partially to thank for this city's abundance of gay bars, most of which are within walking distance to campus. Gay nightclubs are even more bountiful, but there are plenty of haunts in which to have a casual beer and sit-down at the bar. Don't miss:

  • Shamrock Bar & Grille: Located a block from the Wisconsin Capitol grounds, "The Sham," as locals call it, opened in 1985 and draws a mostly male bunch—although it is female-friendly—of all ages, from students to longtime locals.
  • WOOF'S: This sports-themed hangout in the same area cultivates more of an older, sports-loving LGBTQ crowd, as well as bears, leather daddies, and the like. When the big game isn't on, you can expect the screens in this dungeon-esque, cash-only bar to be displaying slideshows of nude men.

Nightclubs

LGBTQ club crawlers will be satiated by the pulsing stages and dance floors in this Midwestern city. The legendary Club 5–now called FIVE Nightclub—has been a staple of the city and surrounding areas for years. The LGBTQ crowd has grown so substantially lately, though, that even more have cropped up around Madison. If you're looking for a high-energy night of dancing, drag, and boozy karaoke, then you won't want to miss:

  • Prizm: A 15-minute walk northeast of the Wisconsin Capitol grounds, along the hip and trendy Williamson Street, this slick dance bar and video bar (formerly called Plan B) has garnered a massive following of gay men, lesbians, and more than a few allies. A variety of events keep the place interesting, including 18-and-over dance parties on Thursdays, ladies' nights, karaoke on Wednesdays, and plenty of other themed parties.
  • FIVE Nightclub: Prior to Prizm, there was FIVE Nightclub (known as Club 5 back in the day). This place has a large disco, lounge, and patio for summer evenings. The drawback to FIVE is its distance (4.5 miles) from downtown. The neighborhood it's in, sandwiched between fast-food restaurants and strip malls, isn't especially inviting, either. In any case, this longtime Madison staple is deserving of its party place reputation.
  • Sotto: While not branded as a gay club like the others, Sotto's downstairs dance floor is known to attract an LGBTQ crowd. For a cover charge, you can join the throng of sweaty bodies bouncing to EDM in the basement of this Henry Street bar.

Festivals

The OutReach Magic Festival is one of the city's biggest events of the year and one of the most robust pride celebrations in the Midwest. Put on by OutReach LGBT Community Center, this block party brings food, music, and more rainbow flags than you could count to the streets of Madison every summer. Before there was ever an official pride celebration, Madisonites held an annual MAGIC picnic in Brittingham Park. MAGIC was an acronym for Madison Area Gay Interim Committee. The picnic was held in conjunction with a volleyball tournament played by the national gay volleyball league on the same weekend. This is how the current pride event got its name.

Today, the OutReach Magic Festival is held on the 600th block of State Street each August. It's comprised of rallies, food stalls, entertainment, information tables, and more, but as of 2018, no parade.

Tips for Going Out in Madison

  • Most bars and clubs are within walking distance of the city center, save FIVE Nightclub, which is 4.5 miles away.
  • Expect to pay a cover charge at nightclubs. Sotto's is known to be particularly strange and arbitrary (example: $3 if you enter after midnight).
  • Madison bars typically close at 2 a.m. on weekdays and 2:30 a.m. on weekends.
  • Michelangelo's Coffee House and A Room of One's Own Feminist Bookstore and Coffeehouse offer gay-friendly atmospheres and a caffeine fix for when you wake up with a hangover the morning after.
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