What to Do in Ithaca, NY?
Taking our youngest off to college is a bittersweet moment. You’re all at once pleased, proud & saddened by how quickly time is moving along… How can he be in college already? How can I possibly be 60?? Thankfully, the boy did a stint in boarding school, so it wasn’t quite the emotional gut punch we experienced when our oldest left for school. Consequently, it’s a little easier to focus on all the positives; like new travel opportunities! And, since we’ll make more than a few visits to this region in the coming years, the big question is: What to do in Ithaca, NY?
From our oldest’s college experience, we’ve learned to really take advantage of dropping a kid off at school. To explore the heck out of your kids school’s hometown and campus. Depending on the location, there’s usually more than a few nuggets to enjoy over the next four years!
Today’s article focuses on what to do in Ithaca, NY. Future articles will look at the surrounding regional cities we hope to piggyback on top of, for future school visits.
All Things Ithaca
Ithaca, New York is located in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. In terms of getting there, Ithaca is 15 minutes from Ithaca/Tompkins Regional airport, one hour from Syracuse’s Hancock Intl airport, 2.5 hours from Buffalo Intl. It’s also about a 4.5 hour drive from NYC.
Ithaca sits on the southern tip of Cayuga Lake. Of the 11 Finger Lakes, Cayuga is one of the biggest. It’s 40 miles of shoreline & 400 foot depth make Cayuga a boater and fisherman’s mecca (more on that later).
The Weather Sweet Spot
April through October is really Ithaca’s weather sweet spot. While it can be a little muggy in the heart of Summer, there are plenty of water related activities to offset the heat. The Winter months are… well… solidly wintery, with plenty of snow and temps that can dip into the teens. Pack a few layers if you’re visiting in the 1st quarter of the year!
Waterfalls, Gorges & Hiking
There are a number of shops in town where you can pick up a T-shirt adorned with the witty town slogan “Ithaca is Gorges.” Within Ithaca and the surrounding area are over 150 gorges. These steep, rocky canyon walls host spectacular waterfalls & streams.
While some are more challenging to hike, many are a short, gentle path away. Ithaca Falls & Cascadilla Falls are both accessible from downtown Ithaca. The paths are easy to traverse, clearly marked and even include stone stairs, as the elevation rises over longer hikes.
Visiting the gorges is a great way to connect with some spectacular natural beauty. There are few things as captivating as a waterfall! Also, depending on your level of motivation, a hike to one of the many gorges is a perfect opportunity for a little or a LOT of exercise while communing with nature!
A word of Caution – Depending on the time of year you visit, the volume of water can vary from relatively low to big and powerful. As you can see from our pictures, the waterfalls and streams were swollen from rainfall. The streams below the falls may seem inviting but be very cautious of the currents & depth.
Here’s a link to explore more about the Gorges/Falls…
Touring Cornell University
Situated on 2300 acres, the beautiful campus of Cornell University is certainly worthy of exploration. Dating back to 1865, Cornell’s unique blend of historic buildings, exhibits and natural beauty can easily consume a day.
Here’s a link to a map of Cornell’s campus…
The campus bridges that cross over the Cascadilla & Fall Creek gorges offer spectacular vistas of the falls that carve their way through main campus. One of the bridges is open to car and foot traffic, while the other is a foot bridge only. If you’re feeling energetic, you can hike up from Ithaca downtown! There is parking on campus, near both bridges, if driving works better.
If you visit for only one reason, the Botanic gardens on and around Cornell’s campus are incredible! Cornell acts as steward for 3600 acres of local natural beauty. The gardens also serve as a learning tool for the school of agriculture & life sciences. On our first trip we barely scratched the surface of all the botanic gardens have to offer. Between the 150 acre arboretum area, gardens & hundreds of acres of on campus natural areas, there’s a lot of beauty to take in!
Cornell sums it up best…
“Cornell Botanic Gardens is a living museum with a mature botanic garden and arboretum—part of what makes Cornell one of the most beautiful campuses anywhere…”
The Nevin Welcome center is located in the middle of campus and is a great place to start your botanic garden visit. You can check out the artwork, wander through the exhibits inside and pick up a map of the surrounding gardens. Nevin Center parking provides immediate access to the gardens and trails that lead to much more. Be sure to ask which areas of the gardens are in-season; they vary with the weather.
Here’s a link to a map of the gardens…
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Johnson Museum of Art
The Johnson Museum of Art was established at Cornell in 1953. The museum now hosts a collection of some 35,000 pieces of art. In 1973, a new building, designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei was built to house the collection. The museum also hosts about 20 special exhibits a year.
Make sure to go to the 6th floor gallery, which provides a panoramic view of Ithaca and Cayuga Lake.
Cocktails at the Statler Hotel?
Operating since 1950, the Statler Hotel is nestled into Cornell’s campus, overlooking the town of Ithaca and lake Cayuga. The Four Diamond Award winning property is, under the guidance of instructors, and is student operated. Cornell’s world renowned school of Hotel Administration uses the Statler as a teaching hotel, training the next generation of hospitality managers.
Staying at the hotel is a very popular option. Book early if you’d like to enjoy a couple of nights on campus. The Taverna Banfi restaurant serves up gourmet Italian food. We haven’t yet had the pleasure of staying at the Statler or dining at the Taverna. We’re looking forward to it!
That said, we did stop in for drinks and dinner at the Regent Lounge. The Regent is a contemporary pub with fine wines, speciality cocktails & craft beer. With indoor & outdoor seating, a lovely view of the campus & gourmet-esque pub fare, the Regent might be the perfect wind down after touring Cornell’s campus.
Be sure to wander the halls off the lobby & take in the historical pictures of the hotel and it’s “Hotelie” students from years past.
Boating and Fishing on the Lake
As I mentioned in the intro, 40 miles of Cayuga Lake offers a variety of water activities. The season runs from May through October. After that it gets a little nippy to be out on the water!
Here’s a link to some of the companies that offer the equipment & expertise to get your lake experience underway.
Eco tours, Pontoon/Bow rider rentals, dinner cruises are all wonderful ways to take in the beauty of Cayuga (or most other Finger Lakes) from the perspective of the water. There are several marinas around the lake to choose from.
With fresh tributaries and streams feeding Lake Cayuga, the Finger Lakes is a Fisherman’s paradise. There are plenty of guides available to take you up stream or to that certain corner of the lake. Also, if you’re new to fishing or fly fishing there are several options for beginners to experiment. A variety of fish including Trout & even the elusive Musky are up for grabs.
Finally, swimming, standup Paddle, and kayaking are also options to consider during the warm Summer months
Arts, Culture & Festivals
Here’s a link to Ithaca Arts & Cultural activities
As small towns go, Ithaca serves up more than its fair share or Arts & Culture options. Whether it’s the Hangar Theatre Company, Shakespeare Theatre Company or the Cider Week, NY (Oct 2nd to 17th), there’s a thriving cultural scene in Ithaca.
Shopping – MEHHH 🙁
If you’re in the market for a Cornell sweatshirt or an “Ithaca is Gorges” T-shirt Ithaca easily fulfills that need. In terms of other shopping opportunities… there’s not a lot to choose from. The Ithaca Commons & Dewitt Mall are the shopping options we explored. We head back to Ithaca next month and I will look further. I’ll report back if my impression changes! Email us if you discover some hidden treasures.
For a small town, Ithaca is blessed with an abundance of great eateries, bars, wineries, breweries & pubs. Vegan, Steak houses, Ethiopian, Mexican, Northern Italian… The options seem endless. Another theme you see at several of the restaurants in town is Farm to Fork. Many Ithaca establishments build their delectable meals around locally grown and caught food sources!
On our trip we tried…
Moosewood Restaurant – This vegan restaurant is nationally known for it’s sublime vegan options. Moosewood’s cookbooks and tee’s are available for sale in the lobby. The low key indoor and outdoor dining, coupled with signature cocktails is worthy of a visit, whether your vegan or not. Book early as it does fill up.
Down in the heart of the Ithaca Commons, Simeons serves upscale Americana food & drink.
Fresh Oysters on the half shell, Lobster Mac & Cheese, Maine Lobster headline the seafood lineup. Steaks, Sausage Rigatoni or Chicken Parm if the seafood’s not your thing.
Waffle Frolic, located in the middle of Ithaca Commons, whips up all forms of battery goodness. The Waffle bar coffee house offers tasty espresso and coffee drinks, along with sandwiches to complement it’s unique egg and waffle combinations.
Waffle creations vary from hearty breakfast sandwiches to decadent dessert options. I enjoyed the hearty hemp & buckwheat waffle, which encased my eggs florentine… quite good!
The Coltivare Restaurant is run by Thompkins Community College culinary students and specializes in delicious farm to table dining. The Coltivare’s creative and healthy menu choices are served up in a contemporary indoor dining space, about three blocks off Ithaca Commons.
Where to Stay
There are several good options when staying in and around Ithaca. While the Statler Hotel, Ithaca Hotel (Holiday Inn property) and Marriott are all quality choices, there are numerous Boutique hotels & Bed & Breakfasts that look terrific. There’s also glamping, Yurts for the summer months. We stayed at the Ithaca Hotel on our last trip and will be at the Marriott downtown for our next visit.
Ithaca is a small town that’s more than worthy of your time and tourism dollars. Boundless natural beauty, tons of recreational activities, great restaurants, festivals, arts and a vibrant college town feel are all part of the experience. Yep, Ithaca is Gorges!
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