With visions of rust-colored leaves and fields of apple trees, we packed the car and headed upstate. But not to the same upstate we’ve come to know. This place, for us, was entirely new—and totally lovely all on its own.
Just a four-hour drive northwest from Brooklyn, the Finger Lakes is like a less hip version of the Catskills or the Hudson River Valley—and that’s not a bad thing at all. Because what the area lacks in cool (or at least the same-ified version of “cool” that includes antique light fixtures, succulents, and acai bowls) it makes up for in low-key charm and picturesque views—both of which it has in spades.
Spend the day exploring Ithaca’s shops and cafés, take a walk through historic Trumansburg, hike to any of the region’s majestic waterfalls, and visit the cider houses and vineyards that line the shimmering lakes. Pretty soon, you’ll be hooked. You may even find yourself saying, “Woodstock … who?”
Though we hung mostly around Seneca and Cayuga Lakes, the Finger Lakes region takes up a huge swath of northwestern New York state and consists of 11 long, skinny lakes in total. In addition to its numerous gorges, waterfalls, and natural geographic beauty, the area is also well-known for being the biggest wine producer in the state.
The region boasts more than 100 vineyards that grow everything from Pinot Noir to Chardonnay. However, the dry Riesling is the region’s most famous—and arguably the most delicious. If you think you hate Riesling (like we did), you’re in for a very pleasant surprise.
Where to Stay
If overly quaint bed and breakfasts with floral curtains and gratuitous doilies are not your thing, it can be a bit of a challenge to find a good-looking place to stay near Ithaca. But if you don’t mind roughing it just a bit, Ithaca by Firelight Camps is a pretty great option. The recently opened “glampground” boasts safari-style canvas tents with comfy king-size beds, feather duvets, regional wines and beers, a bath house, spa, and access to the Buttermilk Falls hiking trails. Note: Ithaca by Firelight closes during the winter months.
We’d probably rather stay at Lakefront Loft—a chic Airbnb perched on the southwest banks of Cayuga Lake—than any of the more formal hotels in the area. The two-story apartment features two walls of windows, pared-down furnishings, a large patio with a hammock, and a dock from which to watch the sun rise over the lake.
Where to Eat
This unassuming but inviting restaurant on Trumansburg’s Main Street is about as delicious as it gets. With a focus on local ingredients, the farm-to-table menu features homey yet elegant dishes like apple-and-cheddar soup with spiced pecans, pumpkin-and-ricotta pierogi with crème fraîche, and haddock en papillote. Of course, the wine, cider, and beer list is filled with local offerings too. Make a reservation.
Probably one of the best lunches we’ve eaten in recent memory. Located just down the road from Hazelnut Kitchen in Trumansburg, this airy little mom-and-pop café knows how to make a mean sandwich—but the service is as sweet as can be. Order whatever soup is on the blackboard and the Shipwreck Panini, a fancied-up tuna melt made with albacore, sharp provolone, and focaccia. Open for breakfast, lunch, and brunch.
Though there are several Gimme! Coffee locations in NYC, it’d be sad not to visit the 15-year-old café chain’s original location on Cayuga Street in Ithaca. We recommend ordering a Morning Glory muffin to go along with your double espresso—Gimme! stocks patisserie from local bakery Krums Corners, another delicious Finger Lakes institution.
The Moosewood is an Ithaca institution. Opened in 1973, it was one of the first vegetarian restaurants in the United States to receive national acclaim, helping to pave the way for meat-free eating to become more mainstream. In fact, almost every newbie vegetarian has probably received (or given) at least one of the restaurant’s 13 cookbooks as a gift at some point—including me. Go for lunch and order something classic and comforting like a kale red lentil burger or spinach lasagna. It’s what the Moosewood does best.
This Southwestern-inspired restaurant is one of Ithaca’s newest and most modern. Though it’s housed in a historic train depot, the vibe is more sleek than antique, thanks to rustic reclaimed-wood paneling, bare-bulbed pendant lights, and a pastel-hued desert-themed wall mural. The locavore menu is equally inventive: crispy Brussels sprouts with chili honey and chick peas, quinoa- and raisin-stuffed poblano chile with smoked tomato broth, and wood-fired flatbreads with black salsa and Parmesan.
What to Do
There are so many ridiculously gorgeous waterfalls near Ithaca that you really can’t go wrong. However, Taughannock Falls near Trumansburg is particularly stunning—not only is it taller than Niagara Falls, but the water flows from a forested river valley into deep stone gorge. Best of all, there’s no need to do a huge hike to see the falls if you’re short on time. The park offers several vantage points from which to see the falls, including one that is just a short walk from the park’s entrance.
We didn’t pack enough warm clothing for our camping expedition, so we made a quick pit stop at Found. What a great place! The 7,000-square-foot shop features vintage and antique goods from more than 45 different dealers. We made a beeline for a small back room filled with vintage wool sweaters—but not before being distracted by neatly constructed displays of mid-century furniture and glass cases filled with old turquoise jewelry. Bonus: The prices are totally reasonable.
Where to Drink
Look, you really can’t go wrong following any of the Finger Lakes wine trails, but we loved the one that runs along 414 on the east side of Seneca Lake. Start at the top and work your way back (always a good idea to not end a day of wine tasting too far from home!), stopping at whichever vineyards look good. A few of our favorites: Hector, Bloomer Creek, and Wagner.
This might be the best way to discover the area’s wineries, distilleries, breweries, and cider houses: Hire a guy named Zach to drive you and your friends around in a refurbished 1971 Volkswagen Westfalia bus while playing the Grateful Dead. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to do this.
In recent years, the Finger Lakes has experienced a cider renaissance, with Finger Lakes Cider House at Good Life Farms at the epicenter. Swing by the Cider House’s airy wood-beamed tasting room to try ciders from five different local makers, including Good Life’s house dry, sparkling, and iced blends. In addition to cider, FLCH also stocks an assortment of local cheeses, meats, honey, and snacks—perfect for an impromptu picnic under the apple trees outside. Oh, and they have corn hole and horses too. Super fun!
Housed in an old grocery store on the main drag in Trumansburg, this brand-new spot features a sleek mid-century–inspired design and seven refurbished 1950s-era bowling lanes. The menu features elevated comfort foods (grilled salmon tacos, roasted chicken with gigante beans, or spaghetti alle vongole made with zucchini noodles instead of wheat pasta); the bar features a rotating selection of specialty beers and cocktails, and a DJ spins vinyl all night long.
Inside Elsewhere is a travel website dedicated to free spirits near and far. From Bali to Brooklyn and everywhere in between, Christina Pérez and Thomas Beckner explore the best places to stay, eat, shop, and play. Let’s get out of here. Follow along on Instagram at @inside_elsewhere.