Ithaca is most famous for being an Ivy-league college town just a few hours north of New York City and a few hours south of Montreal and Toronto. As part of the popular Finger Lakes region of wineries and vacation spots, you might be wondering what makes it so special.
Embodying both an unassuming coolness and a sense of history, Ithaca offers a vibrant dining, music, and entertainment scene to all. The town welcomes visitors of all stripes throughout the year, from college hopefuls and city gastronomers to visiting faculty and touring bands.
Ithaca is a welcoming place – just go to the right spots, and you’ll immediately feel like a local. Take advantage of the two amazing university campuses in town and check out their beautiful grounds and attractions. Then, you can paddle up Cayuga Lake to visit some wineries or hike a gorge to see the waterfalls.
Even if you never step out of the Ithaca Commons, Ithaca is the kind of town that facilitates memorable experiences. With so many things to see and do, you might not know where to begin. So we’ve compiled our list of the absolute best things to do in Ithaca for you.
Stick to these fun and unique Ithaca bucket list recommendations, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time exploring this magical New York city!
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15 Fun and Unique Things to do in Ithaca, NY
1. Visit Amazing Wineries On The Cayuga Lake Wine Trail
America’s first wine trail was right along Cayuga Lake. If you’re in town, following the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail is one of the most fun things to do in Ithaca.
The trail will lead you to amazing views of the lake and surrounding waterfalls. It’s not just wineries, either! You’ll find a meadery, cideries, distilleries, and breweries too.
Established in 1983, the intent of the wine trail was to promote locally produced wines, and it continues in this capacity as a collective effort led by businesses in the area. Altogether, the wineries represented by this wine trail have collected awards from all over the world.
You might start the day with breakfast at one vineyard before heading to a few afternoon tastings. For a preview, check out Buttonwood Grove, Cayuga Ridge Estate, and Thirsty Owl Wine Co. Along the way, you might stop at Muranda Cheese Company to start assembling your own charcuterie board.
Most of the wineries and attractions are located on the west side of the lake, from its northern tip down to Ithaca. We’d recommend booking transportation so you can have a stress-free day.
2. Grab A Classy Brunch At Simeon’s American Bistro
Simeon’s American Bistro is located right in the heart of the Ithaca Commons. This spot is worth the wait, serving up great brunch and even better dinners. The vibe is classic Americana with a fine dining twist.
We recommend sitting at the bar for brunch. Between the wall of liqueurs, marble countertop, and impeccable plating, Simeon’s offers a perfectly casual mood with the right amount of busy. Every ingredient is fresh, perfectly cooked, and served with care. The menu highlights include the fresh oysters, Bloody Mary cocktails, and salmon eggs benedict.
As one of the top Ithaca attractions, this spot is a local favorite and impossible to miss, considering the building has been a staple of Ithaca’s downtown for about 135 years. With its prime location, you can people-watch while enjoying a glass of local wine and lobster dinner if that’s more your speed. Just get there early or book a table at this local favorite.
3. Get Amazing Views At Taughannock Falls State Park
Every visitor to Ithaca probably stops at the iconic Taughannock Falls. Conveniently located only 15 minutes from Ithaca by car, on the edge of wine country, it’s easy to fold a trip here into your itinerary, and you’ll be rewarded with amazing views of Ithaca’s gorges. If you’re looking for the very best things to do in Ithaca, this is a must.
The falls drop 215 feet, over twice as high as Niagara Falls. The towering and plunging gorges surrounding measure over 400 feet tall, and the trail is marked with signs that explain how these magnificent rock formations came to be.
The gorge trail is super easy and under a mile long. Between the lower falls you’ll encounter, the green forest, and the view from the base right at the end, this place is gorgeous. There’s also an overlook that you can drive right up to for a different view.
If you want to make a larger trip of this, the park offers a beach, marina, and campsite nearby.
4. Shop Local At The Ithaca Farmers Market
The Ithaca Farmers Market has been a staple in Ithaca’s community since 1973 when it was opened up by volunteers. Even now, the market is run by a collective that aims to present high-quality, locally produced goods to the public.
We’d say this market also feels like a town square. You’ll be able to grab some delicious meals and snacks and have a picnic while you’re there, then peruse the fresh produce, handmade crafts, beverages, and plenty more.
Every vendor at the Ithaca Farmers Market went through an application and judging period. These are the best local businesses in the area, and they’re open year-round!
The main market is open on weekends on Steamboat Landing just off Cayuga Lake, and it operates year-round. Two other markets open up right in Ithaca, and there’s a special winter market at Triphammer Marketplace, too. A trip to the farmers’ market is one of the top Ithaca activities, especially for the foodies in your group.
5. Tour Cornell University’s Attractions
Arguably one of the top Ithaca attractions, Cornell University is worth a visit for its beautiful architecture and grounds alone. But, you might not have known that the campus also houses a beautiful botanic garden, one of Ithaca’s best art museums, and the beautiful Cascadilla Gorge Trail.
All of the attractions are free of charge and are open year-round. The botanical gardens cover nearly 150 acres of specialized gardens. The flower and herb gardens are beautiful, the wildflower area is forested and quiet, and you can also walk through the arboretum, depending on your mood.
The Johnson Museum of Art specializes in Asian art, but the collection also includes well-curated selections of contemporary and European pieces. Make sure you stop in the sculpture court for a Leo Villareal art installation and reclining chairs. This is a great place to relax before your next destination.
The Cascadilla Gorge Trail actually connects the Cornell campus and downtown Ithaca, and it’s definitely the best way to get between the two on foot. The views of the gorges and waterfalls are worth it, and the trail is well-maintained, with handrails and rest spots.
6. Watch A Performance At Ithaca College
Ithaca College has one of the best performing arts programs in the country, and if you visit during the academic year, you might be lucky enough to catch a performance. If the opportunity comes up, we’d highly recommend taking it.
For one, tickets to performances are very affordable, and smaller productions might even be free to attend. You might catch a Broadway-level musical rendition of Shakespeare or even a classic opera.
Three large productions are staged every year, beginning in late February and ending in late April. Productions run for about a week. Expect professional acting, staging, costuming, direction, and orchestra. Over 200 performing arts students come together for each production, and the results are always well-reviewed.
Alongside theater shows, orchestral concerts are held year-round and are also worth the trip to this campus. While you’re here, take a seat by the fountains, which light up at night to create a special atmosphere just outside the theater.
7. Check Out The Music Scene At Deep Dive
Ithaca is home to a lively local music scene, between the locals and students who turn out for gigs to the independent bands touring through New York or Montreal who roll in for a weekend. If you’re a music lover, checking out one of the many venues is easily one of the most fun things to do in Ithaca.
Deep Dive is an intimate venue for these shows, and we’d recommend checking their calendar on the nights you’re in town. Deep Dive hosts events every weekend. You can expect everything from classic reggae nights, locally organized open-mic nights, and performances by the house band to bluegrass shows, indie acts like Mikaela Davis and Circles Around the Sun, and more.
Deep Dive serves drinks and food in an ambiance that can be described as neon, funky, and low-key. Run by music industry vets, you can expect solid service and a great sound system.
Other venues that you might want to check out include The Upstairs, which is similar to Deep Dive with a more classic style. If you mainly want to dance and have a cocktail, head to Lot 10.
8. Grab A Nightcap At The Watershed
If you’re looking for fun things to do in Ithaca at night, you’ll appreciate that downtown Ithaca is packed with cocktail lounges, dive bars, and pubs. What makes The Watershed stand out is its commitment to sustainability and inclusivity. Come for the great drinks, and stay for the nice vibe. This is the perfect place to grab a nightcap and have a great conversation.
You can expect a solid selection of regional craft beers, artisanal ciders, a small but curated wine list, and, of course, cocktails. The Watershed specializes in mixed drinks with a unique zero-waste philosophy. Unlike most bars, The Watershed generates less than a pound of landfill waste daily. No fruit hulls, no dirty ice, and no inedible add-ons or garnishes.
Expect new twists on old favorites, like a mezcal old fashioned, a purple G and T, or an autumn Manhattan. There’s also a special selection of sober cocktails, so everyone can have a handcrafted experience.
Expect only small nibbles on the menu – locally sourced and delicious, but not a full meal. This is firmly an after-dinner stop.
9. Take A Walk Through The Ithaca Commons
The Ithaca Commons is the beating heart of the town. It’s a four-block section of Ithaca’s downtown, which might not sound like much, but it’s always buzzing with activity. All of Ithaca’s best bars, shops, and restaurants live on and around this pedestrian-only strip.
For starters, you can grab a coffee at Nothing Nowhere, then head over to Dewitt Mall, a historic complex filled with vintage shops and boutiques. After that, make your way to the fantastic Angry Mom Records and listen to a few rare vinyls before checking out Autumn Leaves Used Books, which sits right on top of it.
Once you’ve got your shopping done, for dinner, you might go to Taste of Thai, then head over to The Cellar D’Or for a special bottle, or rack up for a game of pool at The Range while a local band plays. Basically, you can’t go wrong in the Commons: just take a walk and let the evening lead you.
10. Enjoy A Chill Evening At Sacred Root Kava Lounge
The Sacred Root Kava Lounge is a hidden treasure in Ithaca. Despite being housed right off the Ithaca Commons, this spot is always calm and quiet. The spacious basement suite is decked out in a comfortable and cool boho style, with vintage rugs, eclectic furniture, and nooks and crannies to hide out in.
The main draw of the lounge is that it’s one of a rare few venues that serves kava – a traditional plant beverage commonly consumed in the South Pacific. The drink is known to help relax muscles, calm emotions, and improve general well-being without the adverse effects of drinking, say, alcohol.
This lounge serves amazing organic teas and vegan treats. It’s worth a stop for the atmosphere alone, which feels like an oasis in an otherwise busy college town. There’s often a live band playing on the weekends.
11. Visit The Fall Creek Suspension Bridge (Falls Creek Gorge)
The Fall Creek Suspension Bridge is a New York state landmark and one of the best things to do in Ithaca. The bridge is suspended 140 feet above the Fall Creek gorge near Cornell University. It stretches over 270 feet across, and the bridge noticeably dips and sways with the wind.
From the bridge, you’ll be able to see across the tops of old-growth trees, which are especially stunning in the fall as the leaves begin to change color. You’ll also have a bird’s-eye vantage over the gorge, including a stunning view of the Rocky Falls, a 44-foot waterfall in the middle of Ithaca’s woodland area.
This is also the site of classic movie magic. Back in 1914, the Wharton brothers, silent film legends, drove a trolley car off Ithaca’s Stewart Avenue Bridge and into the Fall Creek Gorge while almost 1,000 spectators watched, inaugurating the beginning of the cliffhanger genre of films.
These days, the gorge is thankfully trolley-car free and is a beautiful, if sometimes nerve-wracking, part of Ithaca’s history.
12. Grab A Snack At Collegetown Bagels
Of all the coffee and sandwich shops in Ithaca, none quite match the institution that is Collegetown Bagels. This local chain began with one cafe in 1976 and has since expanded to seven locations and national shipping.
Even so, when you step inside one of these shops, you still feel that home-style approach, from the quick but friendly service to the simple menu. You can’t go wrong with options from a classic New York bagel to a breakfast sandwich to a panini or salad. If you need a pick-me-up, there are also specialty coffee drinks that rotate daily.
This is a great place to stop for a quick lunch and a caffeine break, but you might also spend the afternoon working in the cafe or people-watching on the sidewalk, and that would work too.
Either way, expect to spend more time here than you thought you would. Between tourists, students, professors, and locals, the crowd is eclectic, interesting, and unbothered – much like the store itself.
13. Have A Swim In Robert Tremens State Park
Most of the gorges in Ithaca are not safe to swim in, but if you’re itching to take a dip, just head to Robert Tremens State Park! During the warm months, the lower falls open up for swimming, and you can dive into one of the most beautiful locales in New York state. Taking a swim here is definitely one of the coolest things to do in Ithaca!
With six trails to choose from, you’ve got a lot of options when it comes to catching a view of the beautiful gorges. The rim trail is more strenuous, but it promises the best views of the Lucifer Falls, which cascades down 115 feet of rock face. Go back down on the gorge trail to complete your sightseeing expedition with the numerous smaller cascades all the way down.
Follow up your hike by jumping into the swimming hole at the lower falls. This state park is less than a 10-minute drive from Ithaca, and it comes fully equipped with campsites, picnic facilities, and even fossil hunting activities. You can swing over to the nearby Buttermilk Falls, too, to complete your Ithaca gorge trekking trip.
14. Go Kayaking On Cayuga Lake
Cayuga Lake is the longest of the Finger Lakes and the second largest overall. Ithaca sits at the lake’s south shore. If you’re staying in Ithaca, access to the lake is fast and easy, and you’ll find that it’s a great place to bookend a trip to one of the region’s fantastic wineries or the gorge hikes nearby.
Specifically developed for water recreation, the Cayuga Lake Blueway Trail comprises launch and exit sites all along the shore. You can start and stop your trip at convenient locations, which might include your own accommodations if you’ve chosen to stay by the lake. If you’re looking for fun outdoor Ithaca activities, you can rent a paddleboard or kayak in Ithaca or at one of the larger public launch points.
Maybe you’ll get started at Stewart Park in Ithaca, then paddle up to Taughannock Falls State Park or to Long Point State Park on the eastern shore. You’ll spot a number of vineyards along the way, which might entice you to disembark for a quick tasting, and you might also grab lunch in Trumansburg or spend your afternoon on the beach.
15. Stargaze At The Fuertes Observatory
Every Friday night, the Fuertes Observatory on the Cornell University campus opens up for public viewings of the cosmos. From 8 pm to midnight during the academic year, you can stop in for some of the best stargazing to be found on the East Coast.
The undergraduate Cornell Astronomical Society has been running these public observing nights since 1972. During special events, you might also meet one of Cornell’s faculty or staff members from the Department of Astrology, who’ll give you a guided tour of the night sky.
Fuertes is the university’s fifth observatory, and each of its predecessors has been demolished. It is now exclusively used for introductory lab classes and public outreach.
The guided viewings are complemented by the antique Irving Porter Church Telescope, a beautiful piece of astronomical technology that still contains an original clock drive from 1923. Smaller, modern telescopes are also available to the public on viewing nights.
This observatory, while small, is full of history and run by a passionate group of brilliant volunteers. It’s the perfect place to go after a night on the town or a day exploring the Finger Lakes, where you can get a view of Ithaca that wouldn’t be possible anywhere else. If you’re looking for unique things to do in Ithaca, marveling at the star-speckled sky is a must!
There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Ithaca. What’s your favorite thing to do in Ithaca?
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