Ithaca, NY is arguably the heart of the Finger Lakes. Ithaca is located at the southern end of Cayuga Lake and is about 5 hours from NYC, and 3 hours from Buffalo, NY and the Canadian border. Ithaca is a shining example of a “little big city”. Though the population sits at about 30,000 (without the college students),it still host a vibrate culinary display, a flourishing arts community and is a nature lovers paradise. Ithaca is famous for being the home of Cornell University, Ithaca College, Carl Sagan, and the two of the X Ambassadors, just to name a few. Throughout the year the city host multiple festival and events such as the Ithaca Festival, Apple Festival and Wizarding Weekend.
On top of the incredible culture and people, Ithaca is geographically beautiful as well. Ithaca sits at the southern end of Cayuga Lake, which is part of the Finger Lakes. The Finger Lakes are made up of 11 lakes, with the 5 largest looking like finger, hence the name. The Finger Lakes were carved out by retreating glaciers over 10,000 years ago. The slow regression of the glaciers resulted in gorgeous lakes, gorges and waterfalls. Today we are left with beautiful sights, and great hiking.
Now, why should you listen to my opinion about this obscure town in Upstate New York?
Because I am lucky enough to call myself an Ithacan. I grew up in this incredible “little” city and know it like the back of my own hand. So these tips aren’t just a bloggers tips, but a real insiders tips and recommendations. Enjoy!
Below are some of my favorite sights, and more importantly favorite places to eat:
Type A Tips for the Best Things to Do:
- Buttermilk Falls
Falls is located in Ithaca, NY, on Buttermilk Falls State Park. Buttermilk Falls State Park offers great hiking, gorgeous waterfalls, and awesome gorge swimming. The park has a total of 11 waterfalls. To loop around most of these waterfalls you can hike the approximately 1.5 miles of the Gorge Trail, and Rim Trail (These two trails make a loop around the waterfalls).During the summer months there is also public swimming in the water below Buttermilk falls (see sign at the parking lot entrance about dates and times). Buttermilk Falls offers one of the few safe and protected natural public swim areas.
There is a $7 parking fee. However during the winter and on weekdays (excluding the summer), parking is often free. Camping is also available at Buttermilk Falls State Park.
You could easily make a day of Buttermilk Falls! Stop by Ithaca Bakery or Wegmans to make a picnic. Then enjoy the day swimming and hiking at Buttermilk!
- Flat Rock
I have many fond memories at Flat Rock, from hanging out with friends to hiking with my dog and enjoys a spontaneous swim. Best enjoyed in the summer, when you can join other Ithacans at this popular swimming spot. Well, swimming is a bit of an over statement. What makes Flat Rock so great is that fact that it is a natural water slide. Flat Rock is located on part of Fall Creek. In this area the large flat rocks combined with the shallow-ish water makes a natural, slow move water slide. Just sit down in the water and enjoy a relaxing ride for a couple of feet! The rocks also provide great spots to catch some sun and enjoy a picnic.
Just a few feet north of Flat Rock is some great, easy hiking. Paths are well maintained and easy to follow. If you take the paths along the creek you can find spots to jump into the water where it is a little deeper and enjoy a swim*.
Parking is free. There are two gravel lots that most people park at. Just follow the well used path to the water and enjoy!
* Swimming here is technically not permitted. However the cops can easily see people swimming when they drive by and I have never heard of anyone getting in trouble. Also no one has ever drowned at Flat Rock making it one of the “safer” places to swim illegally.
**Swimming is not permitted in any of the gorges where a lifeguard is not on duty. However this is often ignored by many locals. Our gorges can be dangerous, so if you choose to swim in one of the gorges use extreme caution- people die swimming in these gorges every year.
Ithaca is the home of hundreds of miles of hiking trails. In fact there are too many to list! Some of my favorites include Buttermilk Falls (listed above), Flat Rock (listed above), Monkey Run, and the South Hill trails going through Ithaca College Natural Lands. All the trails are well maintained and well marked.
- Cass Park
Cass Park is a large green space at the Inlet to Cayuga Lake. It hosts an ice skating rick, pool, playgrounds, sport fields, the Hangar Theater, and Shakespeare in the Park. There is also a place to rent kayaks near by. Walking through Cass Park you will see Ithacans for a walk or run, and might even see some recreational teams playing soccer or rugby. During the summer the ice skating rink becomes the battlegrounds for roller skating derbies. Grab food for a picnic and enjoy the weather and views of the lake.
- Explore the Commons
The Commons are the heart of Ithaca, and one of the last few remaining pedestrian malls in America. You can also find some eclectic local shops, art and clothing stores, and great restaurants. Any of the restaurant’s found on the Commons are a good choice, but some of my favorites are listed below. You will see many locals and tourists on the Commons, it is a popular spot for everyone! Throughout the year the Commons also host most of Ithaca’s popular events.
- Cornell University
You could easily spend an afternoon or even a whole day explore the massive grounds that Cornell University takes up. Cornell was founded in 1865 by Ezra Cornell. Much of the breathtaking architecture dates back to its founding. Wander the Arts Quad and you can catch some of this architecture and see the famous clock tower chimes. The chimes are played every hour most of the year, with a range of songs from the Cornell alma mater to the theme song for Pirate of the Caribbean. A few steps behind some of the buildings of the Arts Quad and you get a gorgeous view of Ithaca and Cayuga Lake. Beebe Lake on Cornell’s campus is also a favorite of mine. Located on North campus, this lake is a natural oasis in from the bustling campus.
- Cayuga Wine Trail
The Finger Lakes are best known for their sweeter, white wines, however there whole selection is good. The Cayuga Wine Trail even has its own grape: Cayuga grape. The Cayuga Wine Trail is also America’s first wine trail- making it a well established and fun trail to explore. The Cayuga Wine Trail goes all around Cayuga Lake, making it over 50 miles to get all the way around the lake. This means that you will either have to drive yourself (and limit your drinking) or get someone to drive you. However there are many options to help you do this: you can travel by car, limo, bus, bike or even boat! Along the wine trail you can also find cider mills and local breweries. The wine trail is a must when visiting Ithaca!
- Attend one of our fabulous Festivals
Typically occurs during the first weekend of June. This local festival highlights the many local artists and food. At this festival you will see all Ithacans gathering and celebrating what makes Ithaca special! The festival always starts with a bang: the Parade! Various local organizations create floats, and costumes which they wear as they walk through Ithaca. The most popular part of the parade is the dancing volvos: Literally volvos wearing tutus and dancing around each other while people wearing tutus dances around. So much fun!
- Apple Festival
Typically held during the end of September and early October. This festival celebrates the start of fall. Here you will find all things apple! There are some really incredible apple cider mills. You will drink and eat yourself fat at this event!
- Wizarding Weekend
This incredible event is the definitions of ground work! This event, typically held the last weekend of October was started to provide some fun Halloween activities for Ithacans. It has since grown to become a larger event attracting tourist from all over. The whole event is coordinated by local volunteers who put together wizarding events including potion classes, wizarding games, wand duels and Magical Ball. This event attracts wizards and muggles of all ages to celebrate magic, science and fantasy together!
Though technically not in Ithaca, this event is still is a key Ithacan event. Grassroots is a music and dance festival held in Trumansburg, NY in mid July. Started in the 1990s as an event to raise money for AIDS, this event has since flourished into the “hippie fest” it is today. You will find not just local bands, but also some large bands like the Blind Spots, Sim Redmond Band, and Patty Griffin.
- Cayuga Sound
Founded by X Ambassador, Cayuga Sound is entering its second run. X Ambassadors lead singer, and keyboardist are local grown Ithacans. In 2017 they decided to celebrate Ithaca and their inspirations by hosting a outdoor concert and weekend festival in Stewart Park, in Ithaca NY. At this great festival local bands and big names get to perform to waiting fans. Even better, the profits go to local arts organizations to help continue making Ithaca a special place.
Type A Tips for Best Food:
- Ithaca Bakery/Collegetown Bagel
Ithaca Bakery and Collegetown Bagel are owned by the same people, and offer a similar menu, with some minor differences. They have spots scattered throughout Ithaca. My favorites are Collegetown Bagels on Cornell’s campus, and Ithaca Bagel on route 13. They make some of the best bagels and sandwiches ever! They also offer hot foods and some great salads. They have a seasonal chocolate bagel which is to die for!
- Gimme Coffee
Ithaca Bakery might have the best bagels, sandwiches and pastries, but Gimme Coffee has the best coffee! They do sell some pastries, but really if you go here, you are here for the coffee! Check out the newest branch opened in the Gates Building on Cornell’s campus.
*there are two Gimme Coffees in NYC, and yes it’s owned by the same people. One located in Brooklyn and the other in SoHo
Wegmans is more than the best grocery store in the US. It’s a hang out spot, a cafe, and even a date spot! I can’t put into words what makes Wegmans incredible, but anyone who has been there will agree: it’s great! From the gorgeous produce to the variety of cheeses, olives, and prepared foods, there is something here for everyone. I recommend stopping in to grab some food prior to hiking some of Ithaca’s great spots.
- Viva Taqueria
This great Mexican restaurant is located on the Commons. You can’t go wrong with anything on the menu, and their margaritas are to die for. Fair warning, they do not take reservations and do not seat you until your entire party is there. Viva gets busy quick so try getting there early or just plan on sitting at the bar while you wait for a table. Another option is their more limited take out menu.
- Taste of Thai
Also located on the Commons, with another location on route 13, Taste of Thai offers some amazing Thai food! It is ranked some of the best Thai food in the state. In my option the Taste of Thai located on the Commons is superior to the other location, the atmosphere is incredible. If you love Thai food, you must stop by here!
- Ale House
A great bar and restaurant that serves up good old fashioned bar snacks and American food. Their fries are incredible, along with their burgers and sandwiches. They serve a rotating collection of local brews and are a great place to grab a bite and socialize with friends. This is also a great place to grab a post drink snack 😛
- Just a Taste
Just a Taste is a very yummy tapas restaurant located down the street from the Ale House and Viva. It’s a little more pricey, but offers some very good, locally grown food. In the summer be sure to check out their unique outdoor space.
Moosewood is a world renown natural vegetarian restaurant. It is located in Dewitt Mall, the former high school. The owners of the restaurant have written various cookbooks, so you can take the healthy eating you experience home with you.
- Dewitt Cafe
Dewitt Cafe is located in Dewitt Mall, on the opposite side of Moosewood. Dewitt Cafe is open for breakfast and lunch, but their brunch is what you go for! Stop by for brunch before exploring the Commons.
- Gola Osteria
Gola Osteria is located inside the Quarry Arm building, an apartment complex. But don’t let its mediocre surroundings confuse you, inside is an extraordinary restaurant serving even better Italian cuisine. Their homemade pasta’s are to die for. It is on the pricier side, but if you are looking to splurge on a special evening out this is the place!
Type A Tips on Where To Have a Drink (or two):
- Liquid State
When I went here I thought I was back in Portland Oregon. This brewery has a very vibrant, hipster feel. They have a great selection of beer with some local ciders and wines. They don’t offer food, but there is a local food truck parked by their outdoor patio that serves some yummy food!
- Argos Bar
Voted best cocktails in Ithaca in 2014 and 2015 this is a great place to get craft cocktails. This bar is technically part of the Argos Inn, but is open to the public. Many Ithacans were excited when this bar opened up a few years ago, and since it was become a staple of Ithaca.
- The Westy
This awesome little bar can be easily walked past without even noticing it. It is located down a small alley, making it hard to find. This great bar is worth the search! They have craft beers and amazing cocktails. They also have a great patio best enjoyed in the warmer weather.
- Ithaca Beer Company
The local brewery, that serves some great beers. Most of the beers are pale ales, but they have a good selection so I am sure you will find something you will like. They have a great indoor and even better outdoor space. They are located outside of the city, by Buttermilk falls, making it a great place to escape from the hustle of the city of Ithaca.
Moonies is Ithaca’s go to bar and nightclub. This bar is filled almost to the brim on most Friday and Saturday nights. Like most bars they offer nightly drink specials and sometimes host local bands.
Type A Tips on Where to Stay:
- Argo Inn
This local inn is set in one of Ithaca’s beautiful restore historic mansions. It is located near downtown making it an ideal spot for exploring Ithaca and the Finger Lakes. They also have an amazing bar offering up craft cocktails!
- Hotel Ithaca
This hotel is not your usual commercial hotel, but a local hotel run by Ithacans. But don’t worry, you still get all the accommodations that you expect from a Marriott or Holiday Inn. What I love about this hotel is that the owners truly support local business and give a lot back to the community. This hotel is also located near downtown, making it an even better spot to stay.
- Various Airbnb
Ithacan are all about Airbnb. There are too many options to list! Ithaca has many gorgeous older houses, and Airbnb is a great way to see some of these charming houses If you are on a budget, than definitely think about getting an airbnb. Housing is VERY expensive in Ithaca (close to NYC levels), this means a lot of locals have turned to Airbnb to make some extra money.
- Various Commercial Hotels
Ithaca is the home of two large universities. This means we have a TON of hotels. There is a Marriott and Hilton Garden right in downtown Ithaca. There are also Best Westerns, Homewood Suite, Clarion hotels in or around Ithaca (just to name a few).
I hope this has helped you in planning your trip. If you have any questions or comments please leave them below. I would love to hear from you!
– Teresa the Type A Trekker