It’s an important question for someone who has been in this quirky little town long enough to know that there’s so much more to it than frat parties and midtown. If that was never your style, I suppose I don’t blame you – and instead offer some local recommendations where a 20-something-year-old can enjoy the post-grad life in a college town.
For a night out
1. Madrina’s: Tucked beside a Kava bar (we’ll get into that later) and an affordable mom-and-pop brunch restaurant, a fog-stained door and twinkling window beckon the older locals inside. With a name that is Spanish for godmother, Madrina’s offers a little slice of Cuba, complete with arguably the best cocktails in town, a small section of cigars, and talented bartenders who make frequent trips to the island for “research.” I’ve learned they have another location in Miami, which explains the pricier menu — be prepared to drop about $12 on a drink with tip. It’s well worth it for the quality (I recommend my all-time favorite, the Missionary Repositioned!). Madrina’s has that speakeasy complexion: it’s a small, cozy space that gets packed to the brim with good conversation, the hum of music and tinkling glass above the din.
Come early and see what all the fuss is about!
2. The Top: It’s a lot spacier and casual than Madrina’s, and embodies the quirkiness of Gainesville: The Top doubles as a quality restaurant by day and bustling venue by night. Shoot a game of pool in the large back patio or challenge the bartender to a game of foosball inside. Loser has to buy the other one drinks. The Top reminds me of a vintage thrift store, complete with funky art and multicolored, dim lighting. If you’re deciding on a day to go, might I suggest Tuesdays, where you can partake in the debauchery known as Token Tuesdays. Buy a drink, get a token, and use that token to get another drink. Save up and get an even better drink, or pass it off to a friend if you’re feeling generous. Trust me. Token Tuesdays.
Honorable mention: Arcade Bar/The Alley: If you’re like me and just want to shake that tail feather, the above spots leave something to be desired. Enter Barcade and its towering side alley (The Alley) to save the day. As the name implies, this venue has a vintage arcade game in every nook and cranny, including pinball and skeeball! They offer a wide range of music genres that vary by night and location (the third floor would be blasting top 40 hits while the alley bumps techno, etc.) and they even host emo punk nights for your inner 13-year-old self. If you love music, dancing, and video games, this place is for you.
To get stuff done (alternatives to the fluorescent lighting of the library)
- Mai Kai: Looking for a healthy alternative to your caffeine addiction? Mai Kai is a kava bar that serves up various blends of the plant, which has stress-reducing and relaxing properties. Certain strains energize you while others act as more of a sedative, and a range is offered at Mai Kai. The bar also serves kratom, another tea made of crushed leaves that reduces pain, enhances mood and calms. Mai Kai’s Buddha-statue, inspirational quote-laden atmosphere oozes peace and quiet (except for on open mic nights) and there’s plenty of board and video games if you want that 15-minute study break. This tea lounge with a polished coffee shop vibe has become my prime spot for buckling down and getting productive. The owners are two sweethearts, and kava-tenders Nick and Jimmy have become real friends of mine. Come in and say hello! Tell them Melissa sent you, and she recommends the Mai Tai – a perfect mix of kava and kratom.
- Swamp City Gallery Lounge: Did you know the first CBD bar in Gainesville is located right in our backyard? This green-and-white facility once functioned as a hostel downtown, and it still retains that homey feel when you walk up the porch steps and through its jingling door. Swamp City offers a quiet, laid back atmosphere: sit in one of the three separate rooms and do some work or play a board game. Marvel at the talented local art hung up on the walls, as well as custom-made encased glass-blown rigs. Head out to the back patio and listen to a talented local artist perform — any genre welcome! Have some wine or beer served up by the friendly bartender McLaine. Swamp City boasts various CBD-infused products, including beer, ice cream, bath bombs, chocolates, eye creams, and lotions. You can even pay five bucks to hit the dab rig! CBD has many health benefits and doesn’t produce the psychoactive effect marijuana does. If you’re feeling stressed, CBD helps with anxiety, inflammation, arthritis, and sleep apnea. Stop by to learn more!
For a date:
1. Leonardo’s 706: Not to be confused with the pizza place, this artsy dining establishment is located on University Ave right before you hit downtown. Founded in 1973, Leonardo’s is your classic family-owned upscale restaurant, boasting a Mediterranean and Californian menu, a warm maroon-stained atmosphere, and the option to dine inside or outside. Head to the back room for some privacy and romantic live jazz music if you’re there on a Monday or Thursday. Aside from the delicious food and lovely tunes, my favorite part about Leonardo’s 706 is how it seamlessly combines fancy with casual — and doesn’t break the bank while doing it.
2. Alpin Bistro: Chances are you’ve walked right past this little gem of a place while downtown. You’ll know it by the hanging Christmas lights that shroud the dimly lit atmosphere from its large glass window. This French restaurant represents its native country through and through, offering wide selections of wines, cheeses, and other imported dishes. The charming interior oozes romance, with flowers and candles on every little nook and table. Alpin’s backyard is just as cozy for those looking to dine beneath the stars. Come in on Tuesdays for happy hour all night and $12 croques and salad. On Wednesdays, catch a live performance featuring French sounds for that extra kick of romance. Don’t forget to order the tapas with your wine; ask one of their lovely French waitresses for pairing recommendations. Bon appetit!
To enjoy some fresh air
1. Depot Park: It’s more than just a park; it’s a bustling social hub for Gainesville locals of all age groups. I’ve ridden my bike through here and onto a connecting trail, I’ve watched the birds splash on the wide lake while the children did the same on the playground’s water spouts. I’ve witnessed the sun set to the savory sounds of reggae on Sunday evenings and gotten a bite at the neighboring Pop-a-Top convenience store and restaurant. Depot Park is your one-stop-shop for all things outdoors, and the park does a great job of hosting events that keep locals engaged and interested, such as food truck rallies and flea markets. If you’re in the mood for an educational getaway, take a break from lounging on the grass beneath the sun and check out the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention. Ever wondered where Gatorade came from? This is your place!