“Ithaca is gorges.” It is not a typo. If you have been to this haven of culture in the middle of cow country, you will have seen this logo on the back of at least a dozen cars within the first ten minutes of entering the city limits. Or on countless t-shirts. A popular saying that reflects the local geography–there are over 150 waterfalls falling through the gorges within a ten-mile radius of the city–it is a badge of pride to the locals. And as one of them, pardon me while I gush about this remarkable region for a moment.
Water, Water, Everywhere
Let us talk about those waterfalls. Though not technically, in Ithaca, the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi River is just a short drive away from town. Taughannock Falls (which after 25 years I still have to look up how to spell, and good luck to all of you trying to pronounce it right) is a 215-foot waterfall in Trumansburg, New York. You can either drive to the overlook or hike up to the base, or if you do not like waterfalls, you can sit in Taughannock State Park instead, watching the boats on Cayuga Lake or taking in a free concert if you time it right to make one of the Summer Concert Series. And for wine lovers, you can watch the show with a glass from one of the many local wineries.
Fall Creek cascading through Hemlock Gorge
Other major waterfalls in the region include Buttermilk Falls just south of the city, and Robert H. Treman State Park’s Lower Falls and Lucifer Falls a little bit farther along Route 13. For swimming, Treman is a good bet. You will usually find quite a crowd swimming under the cascades in the summer months. But personally, I would suggest visiting the Finger Lakes (and indeed most of Central and Upstate New York) in the fall, when you can see the leaves changing and the waterfalls are surrounded with brilliant reds and golds.
If you are a fan of wine, the Finger Lakes is a must-see destination. With numerous award-winning wineries along the lakes, it is definitely worth a visit. The unique climate around the lakes makes it ideal for wine making, and offers a picturesque view no matter which lake you tour. Located at the southern tip of Cayuga Lake, Ithaca offers a perfect starting point on which to depart for either the Cayuga Wine Trail or the Seneca Wine trail if you want to venture a little further afield. Whether you are a fan of whites, reds, ice wines, or you are a snob like me and prefer mead and other unique wines, you can find them here. My advice: do some research ahead of time. There are too many wineries along the lakes to see them all, so pick a wine trail carefully. There are also a number of shuttle and limo services that will take you around so you don’t have to have a DD!
Not a fan of wine? No worries! Ithaca is also a hub for local craft breweries, and you can pick up all sorts of regional beers. Or stop at Ithaca Beer Co. and try a flight of craft beer with a delicious lunch or dinner. You will not be disappointed!
If you look at certain parts of Ithaca, you may think that Woodstock never really ended, it just moved. And that is a fair assessment if you visit in the summer during the Grassroots Festival. Properly titled The Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance if you want to Google it (or just follow this link), it attracts visitors from all along the East Coast. It is a week of live music, food, and a very colorful atmosphere. Be warned though; it is not for the faint of heart. If you are looking for a wild time, you will find it here. It is common to see people smoking and drinking until they pass out. If you want less sex, drugs, and rock and roll, check out one of Ithaca’s lighter festivals. And if you miss these, chances are there is a concert or two somewhere in the area that you can catch a local band rocking out.
The Ithaca Commons
The Ithaca Commons are another must-see. A walking street lined with locally owned and operated shops, you can find some truly unique gifts in Ithaca. Ithaca also boasts more restaurants per capita than New York City (it’s true!), so you will find no shortage of options, both local and international. With the large international population from the university, the city is lucky to have a plethora of ethnic foods to choose from. Whatever you are hungry for, you can find it in Ithaca.
As home to two prominent institution of higher education–Cornell University and Ithaca College–the city of Ithaca has the odd habit of doubling in size every year when the students arrive in late August. Interestingly, Tompkins County (where Ithaca is located), is one of only a handful of counties in the United States with Chinese as the second most popular language. Cornell University boasts one of the best Veterinary Science schools in the world, and Bill Gates recently built a new state-of-the-art building (aptly named Gates Hall) for students of Computing and Information Science.
Cornell has a lot of interesting architecture apart from Gates Hall. Tour McGraw Clock Tower on the edge of the Arts Quad and over looking Libe Slope (check out Slope Day if you are brave and/or a college student looking for a party) is visible from much of campus and is an enduring symbol for Cornell and Ithaca alike. Check out one of the free tours where you can climb up to the top and look over campus. It is only open when the chimes are playing, so check out the schedule and you can catch one of the chimesmasters playing anything from classical music to The Beatles to today’s pop hits.
If you are not up for an Ivy League education (or want to avoid the throngs of college students), check out one of the other museums in the area. For families, two popular options are the Sciencenter downtown and the Museum of the Earth a short drive out of the city. The former is a hands-on exploration of science, geared mostly towards children, while the Museum of the Earth is a part of the Paleontological Research Institute, with both activities for kids and exhibits for adults.
In 2015, some industrious Ithacans decided to bring the Wizarding World of Harry Potter downtown. Halloween day saw the streets filled with people dressed as witches, wizards, magical creatures, and some other rather interesting oddities (see video below). Over 2,000 people attended the event, visiting their Hogwarts Houses, buying wands, playing Wizard Chess or Quidditch…It was a geek-fest that highlight the spirit of Ithaca like little else can. As a huge fan of fantasy and Halloween, I had to participate.
Because of the success of the first event, 2016 will boast a three day event! Check it out here.
Still not satisfied?
Boy are you fussy. But Ithaca offers a lot more to see.
With the two universities in Ithaca, you will find no shortage of sporting events to see. Cornell has some top-tier teams, from polo to basketball, but if you want a truly memorable experience, check out one of the Men’s Ice Hockey games. Lynah Rink has made several lists as one of the worst venues for an opposing team, and you can see why when you visit. Though some of the cursing has been removed in the last few decades, the constant chants and insults to the players make the fans almost more entertaining than the game. The Cornell Pep Band keeps them pumped up for three periods of organized chaos. If you can, catch a game against Harvard. You will not be disappointed.
Let it Snow
For those who loves snow and snow sports, Ithaca is a perfect stop. There are slopes nearby for skiing and snowboarding, trails for cross-country skiing if you want, and when the lake freezes, the opportunity to go ice fishing. Winter of 2014-2015 was a rough year for Ithaca, but it made international headlines. Ithaca’s tourism board decided it was fed up with the long winter, and posted on its website links to Key West in Florida instead. While it upset some of the local ski slopes, it certainly got the word out about Ithaca’s winter wonderland!
Whether you are a fan of snow or not, Ithaca also hosts a remarkable Ice Festival each year with ice carvers and other winter fun events. It is worth a visit. Also on your itinerary should be a stop at the Ithaca Chili Cook-Off, which promises to warm you up with a variety of chili dishes, usually with vegetarian and vegan options. A few years back I even got chili sprinkled with M&Ms. Surprisingly delicious.
I know, I keep coming back to Cornell. But since it takes up half of Ithaca, I think it is fair to keep talking about it. The Cornell Plantations boasts a remarkable variety of flowers and trees that you can enjoy either on a leisurely hike or by car. I would suggest grabbing some lunch and enjoying a nice spring day on the edge of Beebe Lake. Also, if you are in Ithaca in autumn, check out the Cornell Orchard just down the road. Not only does Cornell develop its own unique apple varieties, but it also grows kiwis, pears, grapes, peaches, plums, and even pawpaws! Time it right and you might even be able to pick up some pawpaw ice cream from Cornell Dairy.
But wait, there’s more!
If you still are skeptical about a visit to Ithaca, then I guess you are not a lover of fun. Some other popular attractions in the area include Wegmans (for some reason, this grocery store is fascinating to visitors), the Hangar Theater, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Sapsucker Woods, Ithaca Farmers Market, and so much more! Seriously, just Google Ithaca. I guarantee you will find something worth seeing in this crazy town.