Ithaca is a city in New York’s Finger Lakes region found at the southern tip of Cayuga Lake.
The longstanding play on words is that “Ithaca is Gorges” (gorgeous) due to the area’s abundance of ravines, valleys, and waterfalls, all formed over tens of thousands of years by the same melting glaciers that created the Finger Lakes.
With an abundance of state parks, scenic viewpoints, museums, annual festivals, local dining, and more, Ithaca is such a fun option for an upstate NY getaway. I’ve visited a dozen or more times and still have a long list of things I’d like to see and do.
Keep reading for your Beginner’s Guide to Ithaca, New York.
Ithaca likes to brag that it offers more than 150 waterfalls within a 10 mile radius. And in the wise words of Beyoncé, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
Here are a few to get you started:
Buttermilk Falls State Park
Head to the park’s lower entrance at 106 East Buttermilk Falls Road and you’ll see the falls right away from the parking lot. Enjoy the view from below, head to the upper overlook, or choose from a variety of trails to see more of the area.
Tip: Entrance fees apply for most New York state parks. If you’re planning on visiting them on a regular basis, you can purchase an Empire Pass for $80, allowing unlimited access for a year. This pass can be shared with other members of your family as it’s not assigned to just one vehicle. Click here for more details.
Alternatively, check your local public library to see if they have an Empire Pass that you can borrow for a few days!
Cascadilla Gorge Trail
This stunning trail with multiple bridges and waterfalls runs alongside Cascadilla Creek and connects downtown Ithaca with the Cornell University campus. While surrounded by the city on both sides, it’s incredibly peaceful.
Fall Creek Gorge
Fall Creek Gorge is part of Fall Creek, the largest stream that flows into Cayuga Lake. The gorge is home to multiple waterfalls, from Ithaca Falls on the western end to Triphammer Falls in the east. With trails at the foot of the gorge as well as along the rim, you can walk a larger loop or stop off at various points along the way. The Fall Creek Gorge Suspension Bridge by Horseshoe Falls offers views from above.
Ithaca Falls is a favorite of mine, easily accessible from downtown Ithaca with a small parking lot on-site and another option you can see right away, no big hike required.
Ludlowville Falls is a 15-minute drive up the eastern side of Cayuga Lake from downtown Ithaca. View the falls from above at Ludlowville Park and follow a short path to the base for another vantage point. This is a popular spot for fishing and swimming.
We visited in July and the flow into Salmon Creek wasn’t very strong, but it was still beautiful. Due to there being less water, it was easier to see the large cave that has formed behind the falls.
Robert H. Treman State Park
This park – the #1 most popular thing to do in Ithaca according to TripAdvisor – is situated along Enfield Glen, a narrow gorge marked by craggy rock formations with a creek at its base.
Robert Treman purchased the area comprising today’s park in 1915. He planted more than 1,000 trees on the land before he and his wife donated it to the state five years later. Originally called Enfield Glen State Park, it was renamed to honor Treman after his death in the 1930s.
Get more details in my full post about this park here.
Taughannock Falls State Park
At 215-feet high, Taughannock Falls is not only the highest waterfall in New York state, but the highest single-drop waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains. Point your GPS to the Taughannock Falls Overlook View Point for a quick and beautiful intro to the falls and then consider heading out on one of the Rim Trails or the Gorge Trail for more views.
This 55-foot waterfall is situated on the western side of Beebe Lake and at the start of the Fall Creek Gorge. Head to the Beebe Dam Bridge or the Thurston Avenue Bridge to check it out.
In 1838 a dam was built above the falls to provide power to nearby mills. 60 years later in 1898 the dam was raised 10 feet, turning the swampy area at present day Beebe Lake into a proper lake.
One of the most unique features of Triphammer Falls is unfortunately no longer there. The former Hydraulics Laboratory at Cornell used to sit to the right of the falls, adding additional character to the view. The lab was abandoned in 1963 and collapsed in 2009, leading to its full demolition shortly thereafter.
If you’re disappointed the old hydraulics lab no longer sits next to Triphammer Falls, head to Wells Falls. Sometimes referred to as Businessman’s Lunch Falls, this waterfall flows into Six Mile Creek alongside the abandoned Van Nattas Pumping Station.
Tucked away below Giles Street, you’ll miss Wells Falls if you don’t know where to look. Park in the small lot at the Mulholland Wildflower Preserve and head up to Giles Street. Cross the road, head to the left, and walk across the bridge. Look for a wide green gate on your right and walk through. From there, follow a steep but short path down and to the right to reach the falls.
Tip: Have a backup plan in mind in case there’s no parking available. It’s a small lot in a popular area that can fill up fast.
Parks and Gardens
Cass Park, Rink, and Pool are run by the Ithaca Youth Bureau. I was so excited to see that in addition to ice skating in the winter, they offer roller skating from June through October.
Cornell Botanic Gardens
You’ll be spoiled for choice at the Cornell Botanic Gardens with more than two dozen gardens and plant collections to explore. Given the variety of flowers and trees, there’s something in peak season year-round, from the Mullestein Winter Garden to the Robison Herb Garden, the Young Flower Garden, and the Comstock Knoll and Rhododendron Collection (to name just a few!).
Beebe Lake, Triphammer Falls, and the lovely stone Sackett Foot Bridge are all part of the Gardens.
This spot is on my list of 12 Flower Fields and Gardens to Visit in Upstate New York This Year [Updated 2023]. Check it out to make more summer plans!
Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Sapsucker Woods
This 230-acre preserve is free to visit, with four miles of trails open daily from dawn to dusk and the Visitor Center open daily from 10 am to 5 pm.
Mulholland Wildflower Preserve
From the same parking lot as the lot for Wells Falls, follow the blue blazes for a peaceful walk along Six Mile Creek.
Home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, Ithaca is synonymous with the “college town” moniker and has been recognized as one of the best college towns in America by Business Insider, Travel & Leisure, WalletHub.
A few things to check out at Cornell:
- Cascadilla Gorge Trail, Fall Creek Gorge, and Triphammer Falls: more info in Waterfalls above
- Cornell Botanic Gardens: more info in Parks and Gardens above
- Library Slope aka “Libe Slope”: this hilly green space is the site of the annual Slope Day festivities that take place on campus every spring with live music, food, and drinks
- Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art: more info in Movies, Museums, and Theatre below
- McGraw Tower: part of the Uris Library building (below) and home to the Cornell Chimes, the historic bells that first rang at the University’s opening ceremonies in 1868. Students and alumni known as Chimesmasters play the bells on the hour along with daily concerts. These shows are usually open to the public but the tower is temporarily closed starting in June 2023 for renovations.
- Uris Library: Cornell’s first library often finds itself on lists of the most beautiful campus libraries in the US; the building is also home to the Andrew Dickson White Library
Anchoring the city at its northern edge, Cayuga Lake is one of New York’s eleven Finger Lakes, generally characterized by their long, thin shape and north-south orientation.
Get out on the water with a company like Bianconi Tours, Discover Cayuga Lake, or Ithaca Boat Tours. Keep an eye out for the Cayuga Inlet Lighthouse and the Cayuga Inlet Breakwater Lighthouse, white and red respectively.
Lakeside Parks and Viewpoints
- Allen H. Treman State Marine Park: inland marina with a picnic area, not to be confused with Robert H. Treman State Park
- Cayuga Waterfront Trail: 8-mile trail connecting the Allen H. Treman State Marine Park with Stewart Park (below) and passing by a number of other destinations including Cass Park, Ithaca Farmers Market (more info in Shopping below), and Lighthouse Point Trail (below)
- East Shore Park: small park northeast of the city
- Lighthouse Point Trail: short trail where the Cayuga Inlet and Fall Creek meet Cayuga Lake
- Stewart Park: lakeside park at one end of the Cayuga Waterfront Trail with a playground, carousel, picnic areas, birdwatching at the Fuertes Natural Area, and other amenities
Movies, Museums, and Theatre
Movie theater specializing in independent, foreign, and locally-produced films.
Non-profit regional theatre with a mainstage season, children’s shows, and special events.
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art
I.M. Pei-designed art museum on Cornell’s campus celebrating 50 years in 2023 and offering free admission to all.
Non-profit, hands-on science museum with roots in a volunteer-run elementary school science program.
1,600 seat theatre listed on the National Register of Historic Places hosting concerts, plays, comedy shows, dance performances, readings, and more.
Coffee, Food + Drinks
Farm-to-table restaurant with a wood-fired pizza oven.
Three locations open seven days a week serve an extensive menu of breakfast and specialty sandwiches, grain bowls, pizza bagels, and more.
An Ithaca institution and a must-stop for me whenever I visit. There are multiple locations, but if you go to the one at 430 Cayuga Drive you’ll be right by the Cascadilla Gorge Trail.
An Ithaca staple for more than 100 years with two locations serving a rotating menu of breads, bagels, soups, salads, sandwiches, desserts, and more; same ownership as Collegetown Bagels.
Ithaca Beer Co.
A family-run operation serving beer and food in its on-site taproom and outdoor beer garden as well as its second taproom location in Collegetown by Cornell.
A vegetarian and vegan restaurant famous for their cookbooks.
Blink and you might miss this coffee counter inside of Home Green Home on Ithaca Commons.
Purity Ice Cream Co.
This Ithaca mainstay has been in business since 1936. They make their own ice cream locally and have vegan options, too.
With no Thai food here in Hamilton, I love grabbing takeout from Tamarind when I’m in town. It’s right down the street from Purity and Ithaca Bakery and is across the street from Marmalade Mercantile (see Shopping section below).
Found in Ithaca
A sprawling antique and vintage marketplace with dozens of vendors.
This pedestrian-only shopping and dining area offers more than 100 independent businesses within a four block radius and serves as the heart of the city. I never miss Petrune for vintage clothing or Mockingbird Paperie for stationery, cards, and gifts.
Ithaca Farmers Market
If you like farmers markets you will *not* want to miss this one! On Saturdays from April through December and Sundays from May through November, vendors set up in a waterfront pavilion on Cayuga Lake.
Vendors are carefully vetted to ensure they grow or make their products within 30 miles of Ithaca, and you can find everything from flowers and produce to fine art and ready-to-eat lunch to enjoy on-site or take with you.
The market is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2023!
If you visit during the off season, you can still check out the market at its winter location at Triphammer Marketplace.
Vintage-inspired urban farmhouse decor located near Ithaca Bakery, Purity Ice Cream Co., and Tamarind.
Wegmans is an upstate New York institution that was founded in Rochester in 1916. An incredible grocery store with everything you’d expect to find but on steroids, including a huge bakery, produce section, and deli. Perhaps the best part, though, is their Market Café: a dining hall with prepared foods ranging from sushi and build-your-own salads to a hot bar, sandwiches, pizza, pasta, coffee, and more.
Apple Harvest Festival
Celebrate all things apple with three days of food and drink stands, a craft market, and live music. Scheduled for September 29th through October 1st in 2023.
The Friends of the Tompkins County Public Library hold two *gigantic* book sales each year over three weeks in May and October. If you like thrifting and/or reading, you will love exploring the seemingly endless stacks, carefully organized into dozens of sections ranging from Comic Books, History Sets, and Foreign Language to Science Fiction, Children’s, Philosophy (to name just a few). There’s even a Collector’s Corner with rare finds including first editions, records, artwork, and more.
The 2023 fall sale is scheduled for October 7th – 9th, 14th – 16th, and 21st – 24th, with a Seniors and Disabilities Day on October 19th and a Student Night that evening.
Ithaca Festival of the Arts
“Celebrating the artist in everyone since 1977”, Ithaca Festival of the Arts kicks off the month of June with a parade, live entertainment, a silent disco, family-friendly activities, and a craft fair with over 100 local and regional vendors and makers.
Take a walk around Ithaca’s Fall Creek and Northside neighborhoods and enjoy live music on people’s porches and in the street. This creative festival idea was born in Ithaca in 2007 and has inspired dozens of similar events in the years since, with almost 200 porchfests now taking place across the United States every year. Scheduled for September 25th in 2023.
If you drive north out of the city on Route 89 along the western side of Cayuga Lake, you’ll pass by dozens of wineries, cideries, and breweries and you’ll eventually hit Cayuga Lake State Park and Seneca Falls, often referred to as the birthplace of the women’s rights movement.
Heading north out of the city on the east side of the lake you can visit Myers Park, Long Point State Park, and the Great Gully Nature Preserve in addition to more breweries and wineries.
Watkins Glen State Park is just 45 minutes from Ithaca off the southern tip of Seneca Lake, another of the Finger Lakes.
- 1 hour and 10 minutes from Binghamton
- 1 hour and 15 minutes from Syracuse
- 1 hour and 45 minutes from Rochester
- 2 hours from Scranton, PA
- 2 hours and 40 minutes from Buffalo
- 3 hours from Albany
- 4 hours from New York City
To take advantage of all of the amazing outdoor activities in and around Ithaca, I would recommend visiting in the spring, summer, or fall. Like the rest of upstate New York and much of the Northeast in general, Ithaca gets *cold* in the winter. That said, plenty of people embrace the season with hikes to frozen waterfalls, indoor ice skating on Cass Rink, sledding, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and outdoor ice skating at Rice Hill, seeing live music or a show, visiting the winter farmers market, or warming up at the Annual Chili Cook-Off every March.
Have you visited Ithaca yet? Did I miss any favorite spot(s)? Drop them in the Comments so I can check them out the next time I go!
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