There are a lot of great cities in the U.S. that go unseen because they’re either too far off the beaten path or maybe they’re just not “sexy” enough to plan a vacation around. I get it, we only have so much time off and there are a lot of great places to see.
But it’s possible—in fact likely—that we’re missing out on some great experiences. It’s also possible that with a little advance planning, you might hit some of these destinations on your way somewhere else.
While it’s not home anymore, one of those places is where I grew up: Western New York and the Finger Lakes region around Rochester. The area not only offers beautiful landscapes and fun family activities, but it’s very gay friendly. The Rochester Visitors Bureau even has a web page geared toward LGBT parents and their families. And that’s pretty rare.
Set along the shores of Lake Ontario (one of the Great Lakes), Rochester and the surrounding area is one of the overlooked gems of New York State. Just north of the stunning Finger Lakes, Rochester is also only about 80 miles east—an easy side trip—of Niagara Falls.
There’s plenty to do, from visiting critically acclaimed local wineries (get a sitter… or bring grandma!) to hiking the lush landscape of state parks that will take your breath away, especially in autumn.
Timing is critical, of course, because western New York can get bombarded with cold and snow during the winter months. And although summers can be humid, it’s also when the city and surrounding small towns throw open their doors to the warm sunshine and vibrant rolling hills around the Genesee Valley. Spring can be lovely as well, but it’s a bit of a crapshoot with the weather.
Some visitors may be surprised to find an abundance of activities around Rochester including cultural experiences, museums, amusement parks and active adventures. And kids are almost always welcome. I’ve pulled together a handful of our favorites that are appropriate for the whole family.
Museums and Culture
If you have young children I urge you to visit Rochester if for no other reason than to spend a day at the Strong National Museum of Play.
Repeatedly ranked one of the best children’s museums in the country (or the world), this interactive museum includes recreations of Sesame Street’s New York set (including Elmo’s house) as well as The Berenstain Bears’ Bear Country.
The museum is also home to the Dancing Wings Butterfly Garden, interactive superhero and wizardry exhibits, a fairy tale land and much more. The mini Wegman’s (the Rochester area’s rock-star grocery store) has been my daughter’s favorite for many years running. We just can’t get enough of this place.
We have, however, discovered other fun and educational things to do downtown, including a visit to the Rochester Museum and Science Center (check out a show at the neighboring Strasenburgh Planetarium) and the amazing George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, the world’s oldest photography museum, and the home of the late George Eastman, founder of Kodak.
If you visit the Science Center, don’t miss the Electricity Theater show where zaps of lightening (a safe distance away) from Tesla coils are dramatically synchronized to music.
These three museums are all on or near Rochester’s upscale East Avenue and it’s easy to venture from one to another if you have time. But the reality is that you could easily spend a day at each.
Although my daughter loves the Museum of Play, it has to vie for her affection now that she’s discovered the Genesee Country Village & Museum. It’s worth the drive into the country (about 30 minutes, depending on where you’re staying, to the tiny town of Mumford) to visit this recreated 19th century village. (Check the website before you plan a visit as there are limited hours during the winter months.)
The village and museum are comprised of over 40 restored buildings, including homes, a blacksmith shop, printing shop, pottery shop and working farmhouse. There are also live demonstrations by the staff who dress in attire from the era.
My daughter could’ve spent all day pretending to be Laura Ingalls, sitting in what was once a small private girl’s school. She may have thought it fun to imagine, but reading through the original schoolhouse rules posted on the wall brought her back to reality, particularly the fact that “All boisterous talking and laughing, and all unbecoming conduct in the school, in the yard or in the street are forbidden.” Is whining considered unbecoming? (Yes!)
If you’re a music lover, check out performances by students from the world-renowned Eastman School of Music, which was recently named “the hottest music school in America” by Newsweek magazine. It’s also the alma mater of one of the world’s most famous sopranos, Renée Fleming.
The Finger Lakes
If the weather is agreeable—and it often is in the summer and fall—get out and see the unbelievably stunning countryside that is the Finger Lakes. The Native Americans who lived in the area believed the Finger Lakes were the fingerprints of the Great Spirit, who reached down and touched the earth, transforming the land into sacred ground, blessed by nature. Once you see it, you’ll likely agree.
While some of the lakes (particularly the larger ones) are located nearer to the Syracuse area, there are a few just south of Rochester that are worth a visit including Conesus, Hemlock, Honeoye and Canandaigua.
Locals and visitors alike rent cottages along Conesus Lake in the summer months to swim or go boating and water skiing. And they literally flock there on July 3rd to see some amazing fireworks and the infamous “Ring of Fire” when flares are lit (10 p.m.) along the entire lake, creating a magical glow along its perimeter.
All of the lakes offer spectacular autumn foliage, but perhaps none more than tiny Hemlock Lake, which has been left more or less undeveloped. Honeoye and Canandaigua Lakes are also within driving distance and Seneca, Keuka and Cayuga Lakes (further to the east) have ideal microclimates for wine production. If you’re interested in checking them out, you can find resources on “wine trail” maps at fingerlakeswinecountry.com.
Active and Outdoor Adventures
Western New York’s state parks offer some of the best opportunities to explore the beauty of the region in a natural environment. With dense, lush forests and deep gorges, two of the most gasp worthy are Letchworth State Park (known as the Grand Canyon of the east) and Stony Brook State Park.
Letchworth State Park spans 14,000 acres along the Genesee River. In addition to a multitude of hiking trails, there’s also a recreation area with a pool and you can camp in the park or rent cabins via Reserve America. You can also camp and explore the babbling brooks and waterfalls of Stony Brook, located south of Rochester near the town of Dansville. You may even want to take a dip in the (very cold!) stream-fed swimming pool.
Although Seabreeze is the fourth oldest amusement park in the country, you wouldn’t know it. It’s been revamped and updated over the years and is now home to four roller coasters, including the 1920 “Jack Rabbit,” the oldest continuously operated coaster in America. It was here that my daughter finally agreed to go on a “big coaster”—so big, in fact, that she burst into tears after exiting.
Despite this, she loved some of the massive water slides at Seabreeze’s waterpark, particularly the Helix, which she and her friend endearingly dubbed the “toilet bowl” since it drops them down a vertical slide (in the dark) then circles around a gigantic “bowl.”
On days when the weather takes a turn for the worse, we either hit one of the many movie theaters or head to SkyZone, an indoor trampoline park in the suburb of Greece.
Finally, I’d be disowned from my family if I didn’t mention a trip to see minor league baseball’s Rochester Red Wings at the stadium where my grandfather Ken O’Dea (a catcher in the major leagues way back when) was inducted into the area’s Hall of Fame a few years ago.
There aren’t a lot of destination properties in Rochester—no high-end resorts with spas and kids clubs. That said, there are plenty of options around the area, just be strategic in picking a place that will be convenient for you depending on your itinerary.
If you’re spending most of your time at attractions around the city, stay in Rochester. To soak up the beauty of the Finger Lakes, there are a few chain hotels, B&Bs and motels scattered throughout the region. A popular option is to rent a cottage or home along one of the lakes like many locals do. You can do this via various websites, including conesuslakerentals.com and fingerlakespremierproperties.com, to name a few.
We stayed in Rochester at the Strathallen, a mainstay in the city for many years and set on gorgeous East Avenue. The property recently underwent a total renovation and offers suites with kitchenettes—convenient for families—as well as a heated indoors pool (a nice amenity for bad weather days) and an upscale restaurant.
Another nice property is The Del Monte Lodge (part of Marriott’s Renaissance properties) in the upscale suburb of Pittsford, along the historic Erie Canal. You can stroll into the village to Starbucks or local restaurants and boutiques. Right across the street you can also catch the Sam Patch boat tour along the Erie Canal.
If you’re venturing further out to the Finger Lakes, you could stay at Belhurst Castle on the shores of Seneca Lake in Geneva. Although dated, it has a fascinating history. There’s also the Bristol Harbour Resort in Canandaigua, an Adirondack-style hotel with an 18-hole golf course and a number of activities for the entire family.
Given the proximity to Buffalo, it’s not surprising that traditional Buffalo wings are all the rage in Western New York. I prefer to get them at The Distillery (multiple locations), a restaurant and sports bar where other family members can also find something they like from the expansive menu, including pizza (naturally).
When we’re downtown, near East Avenue and the museums, we usually opt for restaurants along trendy Park Avenue, such as Jines—a nice diner—or the “upscale casual” Park Avenue Pub just two doors down. In between the two is The Frog Pond, offering food and entertainment in a gay-friendly environment (the rainbow flag flies proudly in the front window).
One of our favorite stops is at Simply Crepes, nestled in the old buildings along the Erie Canal in Pittsford (there’s also a location in Canandaigua). You’ll find a menu with crepes to please everyone from the savory, like the pizza crepe, smoked salmon crepe and the buffalo chicken crepe, to the sweet… Nutella Grand Marnier crepe, anyone?
For casual burgers and fries, stop by Tom Wahl’s and make sure you order a frosty mug of homemade root beer. And finally, don’t miss the AMAZING frozen custard at Abbott’s. Although available in many locations now, it’s a worth a trip to the original near Charlotte Beach. You can take a walk along the sandy beach or ride the lovely antique carousel in the park for a mere $1 afterwards.