Ithaca, a Quiet Gem in Upstate New York

In New York, Travel Guides
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Might be Just a Bit Enamored

But Prepare Yourself

The first time I saw Ithaca, New York, it was through the backseat of my Mom’s Ford at the start my senior year of high school, desperately seeking out a college option somewhere in the vastness of the United States because as our family always tends to do, we’d procrastinated on the search until it was basically time for me to start packing my bags.  The four-hour drive from South-Central Pennsylvania had taken its toll on me, who was tired of listening to the same cycle of eight sixties songs on the radio, and my parents, who were tired of talking about how much work they had to do once we returned home the next day.  If I could tell you in detail my first impressions of the more Northern portion of I-81, I would, but that would be a stone-cold lie because cars put me to sleep (there’s not much to tell, though, to be honest–it’s a nice highway as highways go, I guess, but a road is a road, you know?), but I woke up in time for the car to start gasping up the series of massive hills that make up Ithaca.  If you have an old car, a halfway-there bike, or legs that don’t see much action, definitely still come to visit but be warned that you might leave with some battle scars making your way up there.  Those of us who attend Ithaca College and Cornell University (perhaps the two most well-known institutions to visitors, but neighbors to other schools such as TC3) refer to our newly developing muscles as “Ithacalves” or “Cornell Calves” after a semester of trudging up those hills to and from class.  We do it…lovingly.  The landscape is breathtaking in both senses of the word, especially when snow and ice are snuggled up against all of the walkways in the area.  Unless you’ve lived in a place with four seasons, I’d recommend you visit sometime between June and October, as Ithaca’s winter is real and really long.  Although people will tell you it’s unbearable you’ll be fine with a good jacket, a hat, gloves, warm socks and shoes, and a scarf, but all the same it’s good to understand that -17 degrees Fahrenheit with windchill is a very likely occurrence around January and February…and snow showers in April and May are also definitely a thing.  You won’t be bored by any means though–Ithaca has a tendency to oscillate wildly between temperatures and hours of sunshine, keeping you on your toes and probably always wearing the wrong thing for the day’s weather.  In spite of the wicked nature of Ithaca’s climate, I stop daily just to look around the place I get to live and see what the light is touching with a little breath of wonder, because, in all honesty, that landscape is beautiful from almost any angle, in almost any weather.  And strong calf muscles never hurt anybody.

Ithaca isn't just home to some of the best sights I've seen, but also some of the best people I've had the pleasure of meeting.

Ithaca isn’t just home to some of the best sights I’ve seen (this particular one is part of a trail that runs along Cascadilla Falls), but also some of the best people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.

Ithaca is Gorges!

Well, if you’re not sick of hearing that phrase then you probably haven’t lived there yet.  As mentioned before, Ithaca is undeniably known for its landscape, which is spotted with waterfalls, gorges, and sprawling fields.  Anyone who enjoys casual day hikes can live there happily for years without having found all of the best spots, and with a car the possibilities sprawl out exponentially, with national treasures like Watkins Glen less than an hour’s ride away.  Nevertheless, it’s incredibly tedious to listen to every one of your relatives tell you that worn-down pun and then pretend that you still think it’s funny.  Cornell’s campus includes Beebe Lake, equally stunning in any season of the year, but my favorite puddle of water is probably the Ithaca Reservoir.  Also known as–better known as–3rd Dam, the reservoir is technically illegal to visit because it’s not public property but I dare you to find an Ithacan who hasn’t gone there at least once.  Flat Rock is another popular place for the summer.  Normally parents bring their kids there to swim because unlike the majority of Ithaca’s moving waters the spot is very shallow and doesn’t pose a danger to people who feel like shimmying with the current on moss-coated rocks.  A word of warning to anyone looking to swim in the area–it doesn’t matter how strong of a swimmer you are, if you see a sign saying that you shouldn’t be in the water at a certain spot, it’s because you shouldn’t be in the water there.  Most of those signs were put in place after one or more people drowned in the area.  Don’t be alarmed, there’s no giant squid, just a very dangerous combination of underwater caves and strong undercurrents which can trap swimmers if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Not Just a College Town, Kids

While it’s true that during the school year Ithaca’s population just about doubles, it would be a disservice to dismiss it as being a bare-boned “college town.”  I’ve lived in Ithaca during the summer when most of the non-local students dissipate into the mist of their jobs or vacations and what’s left is a vibrant, intimate community that has more than enough life left over after finals are over and the dorms are emptied out.  Ithaca is home to a lot of attractions besides its incredibly strong educational institutions (Between Cornell and Ithaca, a prospective student can find the strongest programs in the nation for just about any major, and TC3 is a community college with an incredible reputation.  Beyond that, all three schools have a partnership system and students can apply to take classes they need in the other universities for credit as well). Local breweries produce impressive varieties of craft beer–don’t miss out trying Ithaca Beer Co.’s Flower Power IPA, and downtown Ithaca is littered with restaurants serving both ethnic and fusion dishes.  Hugging the side of Cayuga Lake, casual adventurers can find opportunities to kayak, row, or sail if they don’t need to be in crystal-clear waters.  The Ithaca State Theater has long been a watering hole for huge artists (last year we had B. B. King–readers under thirty please tell me you recognize that name I beg you) and there’s a plethora of local bands who really enrich the musical and artistic scene.  If any of you have heard of X Ambassadors, I’ll give you three guesses for where they hail from.  Throughout the year, downtown Ithaca also hosts a huge variety of (family-friendly) festivals, from the delicious Chili and Apple Fests to Winter Fest, which features university students dressed up as Rudolph through our service fraternity Alpha Phi Omega to hand out candy to kids.  And of course there’s a lot to be said about the people who actually live in Ithaca for real, year-round.  Nicknamed “townies” (it’s unclear whether the name was self-assigned or assigned by university students, and depending on who you ask it may be perceived as being offensive, so be mindful), the population of Ithaca and Tompkins County at large is, well, a population.  And aside from being a fountain of artistic culture and small-town business, I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t in some way inspire me and make me feel at home in my surrogate city.

Wrapping Up

I won’t pretend that I’ve covered even close to everything Ithaca has to offer in this article, but if it’s sparked your interest at all I’d highly recommend taking some time to visit it so you can add your own twist to your understanding of the area.  Whether you’re chowing down on CTB (College Town Bagels, otherwise known as CTBae) or Purity Ice Cream, jumping off the cliffs of 2nd Dam, or looking at one of almost 40,000 pieces of original artwork from around the world in the Johnson Museum, I can guarantee that this area has something to offer you that will leave you wanting more.  And that says a lot about Ithaca because…well, I don’t even know you.  When you do decide to visit, send me a note–if I haven’t graduated and flown the coop, I’ll be happy to help you find your way around or carry you up the hills!

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