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Small Town, Big Heart: Why Ithaca Should Be Part of Your Finger Lakes Getaway

Traveling during the pandemic can be a real challenge. The distance of some locales preclude them as options by default. Still others may have a more convenient proximity, but what, pray tell, do you do when you get there? Even before the pandemic, the Finger Lakes Region was a compelling road trip destination for its world-class wineries and scenic landscapes. But in a post-COVID world, Ithaca shines as a travel destination with myriad activities perfectly suited for outdoor adventures. Its unique terrain, and the fact that it is an eminently walkable city, is part and parcel of Ithaca’s charm. So dust off your walking shoes, dress in layers, and enjoy our favorite things to see and do in Ithaca.

Go on a waterfall crawl

ithaca falls during fall

Boasting 150 waterfalls within 10 square miles, Ithaca makes a true waterfall crawl possible.  Regardless of how much time and effort you’re able to invest, you’ll manage to visit some magnificent waterfalls. Ithaca Falls is located at the very bottom of the effort scale, as you can simply drive right up to Lake Street bridge for an unobstructed view. But a short walk from the bridge (less than 5 minutes!) gets you up close and personal to its beautiful cascades. Fall Creek runs through Ithaca, even serving as a drinking water and hydroelectric power source for Cornell University. Easy trails and pedestrian suspension bridges allow you to take in scenic views of five additional waterfalls along the creek, such as Horseshoe Falls, Forest Falls and Triphammer Falls.

For a waterfall surrounded by a scenic vista, Taughannock Falls is hard to beat. The Gorge Trail is just shy of a mile in each direction and runs right along the creek. The terrain is fairly flat with awe-inspiring upward views of the gorge. The longer South and North Rim Trails are more challenging but offer impressive elevated views. Buttermilk Falls State Park offers five different trails with varying levels of difficulty and a variety of landscapes.

Pro Tip: While Ithaca’s gorges are beautiful, they can be dangerous too. Some trails may be closed due to weather conditions or lack of adequate space for social distancing, so always obey the signs. Stay on marked trails, and beware falling rocks or strong undercurrents. Take some time to review Cornell’s helpful gorge safety video and brochure in advance. 

Where to Caffeinate in Ithaca

There are many benefits to getting an early start when exploring a new locale. But in order to do that, we usually need a little help. When seeking out that jolt of caffeine, we lean on local coffee shops and roasters as much as possible. Ithaca delivered on the coffee front, and these are the local names you should know.

Gimme! Coffee wasn’t new to us. They were one of the early trailblazers of third-wave coffee, and once had outposts in both Manhattan and Brooklyn (both permanently closed shortly after the start of the pandemic). They originated in Ithaca, however, and continue to serve patrons excellent espresso and coffee beverages, as well as an eclectic array of local pastries. Ithaca Coffee Co. is not a gimmick, it’s a concept. It’s a hyper local chain that’s part coffee shop, part specialty market, and part tavern. At their multiple locations, they strive to serve customers solid espresso and coffee beverages to start their day and a glass of craft beer to end it. Press Cafe is a modern, minimalist café offering expertly crafted espresso and coffee beverage from a rotating selection of local Ithaca-based and Finger Lakes region roasters.

Take a self-guided historical architecture walking tour

first baptist church exterior
Even if you’re not an architecture aficionado, wandering around Ithaca will make you feel like one. With signs highlighting structures of historical significance, you’ll find yourself on a DIY walking tour in no time.

It won’t take long for you to recognize the work of prolific local architect William Henry Miller, who attended Cornell University. Though he did not graduate, his portrait hangs in the school’s Uris Library, a testament to his influence. His designs include the Queen Anne-style boutique hotel which now bears his name, the William Henry Miller Inn, and the Greek Revival-style Clinton House.

Other notable architectural gems include the First Baptist Church built in 1890 made of grey limestone, with its striking tower soaring high above DeWitt Park. (Fun fact: John D. Rockefeller contributed funds to its construction.) The State Theatre, an entertainment venue temporarily shuttered due to the pandemic, is a striking example of landmark preservation. Two Cornell alumni had the foresight to convert an auto garage into the theatre in 1928, and Historic Ithaca oversaw its restoration in 1998. The structure is on the National Register of Historic Places.
 

Explore the local flora and fauna

While many Finger Lakes destinations may boast lush outdoor landscapes, Ithaca offers a uniquely accessible way to explore them by way of Cornell’s rich educational resources. The Cornell Botanic Gardens is open daily from dawn to dusk, and is completely free of charge. Curated gardens like the herb garden and winter garden are a joy to walk through, while plant tags and audio tour guides provide thorough details about soil erosion, sustainability efforts, and more. Benches are strategically located throughout the garden to offer scenic views, allowing for moments of rest and introspection. Sculptures and artwork blend art and nature seamlessly.

Another amazing free resource is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where research, education and conservation efforts extend well beyond the study of birds. The lab is located in the Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary, and four miles of trails are open to the public from dawn to dusk. The Cornell Lab makes it incredibly easy to explore on your own. They provide seasonal trail guides with pictures of birds you’re likely to encounter so that even amateur birdies can have a satisfying experience. Trail maps are located on the grounds, or can be downloaded in advance from their website.
 

Discover the incredible outdoor street art gallery

press pay ally red tailed hawk mural ithacal

Cities with great street art have one thing in common: a core belief that art belongs to the masses. In Ithaca, the growth of street art has been a thoughtful, deliberate grassroots movement spanning decades. Ithaca Murals has been central to that movement, engaging with the city’s local committees, merchants and organizations.

A user-friendly map takes all the guesswork out of finding the hundreds of street art pieces in Ithaca. Some of our favorite pieces include the imposing hawk by Connecticut artist Ryan Christenson (aka Arcy) near Press Bay Alley, and the portrait of Ezra Cornell by Peruvian artist Nestor Maladengoitia at the Tompkins County Public Library. The network of artists and organizers also hope to create awareness and shift perspectives through public art. Portals to Peace by Lachlan Chambliss promotes inclusion by celebrating Muslims in the community, while the mural of Black-Eyed Susans by Kellie Cox facilitates discussions about native plant conservation.

In addition to the intricate murals, Ithaca has a matrix of decorated electrical boxes, thanks to the 21 Box Exhibit initiated in 2014. And because you can never have too much art, in 2017 a Community Bike Rack Design Competition resulted in 12 winning designs being brought to life and placed around downtown Ithaca. It’s truly an embarrassment of riches.

There are so many things to see and do in Ithaca, and we’ve only covered a fraction here. If you need a jolt of caffeine to jumpstart your day, or to replenish your calories in between chasing waterfalls, we have some fun recommendations. So be sure to check out all the reasons why Ithaca should be part of your Finger Lakes itinerary.

About the authors:

Mad Hatters NYC is a NYC-based travel, lifestyle and food website founded by Lynn and Justin. They are real, hard-working, busy people, just like you. They spend their free time either exploring the city they love, or fleeing it to see the world. They hope their stories inspire their readers to get out and do the same.

Mad Hatters NYC Tips for Traveling During the Pandemic

  • Traveling during the pandemic can be unnerving, but taking every possible precaution can help mitigate the risk. Besides social distancing and wearing a mask:
  • Review and follow quarantine requirements. States have individual quarantine requirements for visitors, so be sure to review them prior to planning your trip. If you’re traveling somewhere that requires an overnight stay in between, check that state’s requirements too. New York currently allows you to take tests to reduce the number of days you’re required to quarantine.
  • Check the infection levels. The CDC COVID Data Tracker allows you to review the 7-day moving average of new cases for each state, as well as the direction that number is trending. Hold off traveling to areas until infections are trending downwards.
  • Spend most of your time outdoors. CDC guidance advises to avoid indoor spaces as much as possible, so take advantage of Ithaca’s many outdoor attractions. As a reminder, dress adequately for the weather! You may be perfectly clothed for mild temperatures during the day, but find yourself severely underdressed for an outdoor dining experience in the evening. Bring an extra jacket or scarf if necessary.

List of links:

  1. Gorge safety video and brochure - http://gorgesafety.cornell.edu/
  2. Concert schedule for Cornell Chimes - https://chimes.cornell.edu/concert-schedule
  3. Cornell Lab of Ornithology guides - https://www.birds.cornell.edu/home/visit/guides-and-activities-for-your-visit/
  4. Ithaca Murals map - https://www.ithacamurals.com/map.html
  5. New York state COVID-19 travel guidelines - https://coronavirus.health.ny.gov/covid-19-travel-advisory
  6. CDC COVID Data Tracker - https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#trends_dailytrendscases
  7. Mad Hatters NYC Ithaca post - http://madhattersnyc.com/blog/best-spots-ithaca-finger-lakes-new-york

people sitting on slope at sunset

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2020 Visit Ithaca Travel Guide
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Ithaca/Tompkins County Convention & Visitors Bureau
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