Ithaca, home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, may be best known as a laid-back college town, but given its stunning setting on the south shore of 64-kilometer (40-mile) long Cayuga Lake, and sandwiched between two incredible gorges, it perhaps deserves to be even better known for its natural beauty. Ithaca is a cosmopolitan town with many of the amenities of a bigger city, such as good restaurants, bars, and theaters, but few of the hassles, all of which contributed to its once being ranked as the number one “emerging city” in the U.S., by Cities Ranked & Rated. You never know what you’ll discover with all the things to do in Ithaca. It could be something fleeting, like a rainbow in the midst of one of the many Ithaca waterfalls, or something powerful, like insight from an acclaimed speaker on campus at Cornell University. Book a themed hotel or a hotel with a rooftop pool in New York and explore Ithaca.
Read on to learn about the best things to do in Ithaca, NY.
1. Spend a day with family at Ithaca Children's Garden
Editor's Note: Photo taken from the establishment's official social account
A family-friendly destination, Ithaca Children’s Garden can offer kids the opportunity to have fun while they admire the wonders of nature. With thousands of visitors annually, the garden allows guests to enjoy an educational experience. Ithaca Children’s Garden showcases different outdoor events for both children and adults, like International Mud Day, where you can enjoy a unique mud bath. You can even try some mud cakes while you are here. If you are visiting during the winter, this place has an annual event that features lovely ice sculptures and activities like sledding.
Ithaca Children's Garden
Address: 121 Turtle Ln, Ithaca, NY 14850, United States
Website: Ithaca Children’s Garden
Opening hours: 7am - 7pm (daily)
2. Step back in time at The History Center in Tompkins County
Editor's Note: Photo taken from the establishment's official social account
Interested to learn more about the rich history of Ithaca? Visit The History Center in Tompkins County and join a guided walking or driving tour around the historic county. Here, you can find several interesting artifacts that showcase the past of Native Americans who lived in the area. Kids are also welcome here, offering several engaging activities for children, like scavenger hunts. Other exhibits you can find here include period clothing and the famous Tommy Plane, which dates back to over 100 years ago.
The History Center in Tompkins County
Address: 110 N Tioga St, Ithaca, NY 14850, United States
Opening hours: Wed - Sat: 10am - 5pm (closed from Sun - Tue)
3. Satisfy your curiosity at Museum of the Earth
Museum of the Earth is a wonderful attraction to visit for the curious. Perfect for science enthusiasts, this museum features fossil exhibits, including that of a 44-feet (13-meter) right whale and a giant mastodon. You can head to the coral reef section to see different kinds of corals from the beautiful regions of the Indo-Pacific and the Caribbean or visit the glacier exhibit, where kids can learn more about the features of the ice cave. Unique discoveries and achievements by women from the paleontology department are also showcased here.
Museum of the Earth
Address: 1259 Trumansburg Rd, Ithaca, NY 14850, United States
Website: Museum of the Earth
Opening hours: Fri - Mon: 10am - 12pm, 1pm - 5pm (closed from Tue - Thu)
4. Head to the visitors' center downtown
If you’re wondering what to see in Ithaca NY, then just explore its downtown area. Located in the heart of downtown is the newly renovated Ithaca Commons. It offers visitors and locals dozens of dining, shopping, and entertainment options, the downtown visitors’ center is a great place to visit. The Commons is also a great place for people to watch and enjoy street musicians entertain the crowds. Summer is the perfect time of year to explore downtown Ithaca, particularly in the Fall Creek neighborhood near the Ithaca Commons. Here you will find spectacular front yard gardens, some ornate and some with simple wildflowers that will make you smile.
Downtown visitors' center
Address: 171 The Ithaca Commons (center of Ithaca)
Phone Number: (607) 273-7482
5. Shop great finds at Ithaca Farmers Market
Among the many must-do Ithaca activities is spending a lazy morning strolling through the stalls of Ithaca’s lakeside open-air farmers market. Locally grown, organic produce and fresh flowers may be its specialty, but vendors at this funky pavilion also offer local wines and crafts. Hosted in a large, airy, waterfront pavilion, the Ithaca Farmers Market has something for everyone. With cuisine ranging from Sri Lankan to Korean to the standard breakfast burrito, you can snack as you peruse the local vendors and merchants, pick up a fresh bouquet of flowers, or just sit by the water and listen to the live musicians.
Ithaca Farmers Market
Address: Steamboat Landing 3rd St off Rte 13, 14850 Ithaca, NY
Phone Number: (607) 273-7109
6. Visit Cornell University
The top attraction in town is probably Cornell University, a handsome Ivy League school on 300 hectares (745 acres), which sits high on a hill in so-called “Collegetown,” from which it surveys the rest of Ithaca and the splendid stripe of Cayuga Lake that stretches northward. On campus, the top public draw is the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. The museum counts more than 30,000 pieces in its collection, with particular strengths in Asian art, as well as prints and photographs.
The museum hosts interesting traveling exhibitions, but even visitors without strong interests in art shouldn’t miss the unsurpassed fifth-floor views of Cayuga Lake and the gentle hillsides surrounding Ithaca. The most visible building on campus, McGraw Tower, is known for the Cornell Chimes, an old school tradition played daily by students and alumni. East of Beebe Lake is the university’s museum of living plants, Cornell Plantations, a real find and well worth a visit for garden lovers or anyone seeking a bit of solace. The public is welcome to visit the botanical garden, wildflower garden, and Newman Arboretum, which specializes in New York State trees and shrubs, as well as any of the 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) of natural areas in and around the campus.
Phone Number: 607-254-4636
Website: Cornell University
7. Enrich your knowledge of birds at Cornell Lab of Ornithology
If the natural world were a national park, the Lab of Ornithology would be its visitor center. Take an inside look at the global environment by following the life and travels of birds. Don’t miss the Macaulay Sound Library, the world’s largest natural sound archive.
Come learn all about birds at the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity at the Lab of Ornithology. Surrounded by an 88-hectare (220-acre) wildlife sanctuary with 6.5 kilometers (four miles) of walking trails, the Lab is a perfect place to immerse yourself in the world of birds.Take in the breathtaking skill of Jane Kim as you admire her “From So Simple a Beginning” mural, depicting the evolutionary history of birds. In your spare time, shop at our Wild Birds Unlimited Store or check out some bird books in the Adelson Library. Shown at the top of each hour, make sure to catch our “Inside the Lab” movie screening.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Address: 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd, 14850-1923 Ithaca, NY
Phone Number 800-843-2473
Website: Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Over 150 waterfalls within 26 square kilometers (10 square miles). Don’t believe it? Come see it for yourself. Possibly one of the best things to do in Ithaca, NY this weekend is to visit this beautiful falls.
As the saying goes, “Ithaca is gorges!” It’s because of 150 waterfalls that flow across the town, funneling water through gorges carved out thousands of years ago. By glaciers, they tell us. That means you can go up to Cornell University, down to Ithaca Commons, or head to one of the state parks to enjoy a fun waterfall hike.
Address: 399 Lake St, 14850 Ithaca, NY
Phone Number: 607-272-1313
Ithaca Waterfalls Sightseeing Full-Day Bus Tour from NYC
Duration: 1 day
9. Venture around Finger Lake
Discover a wonderland of deep gorges, cascading waterfalls, sparkling lakes, and acres of forests, farms, and vineyards. Venture about to find beauty everywhere and quaint towns hidden like gems across the region. Feel the passion of the locals in every sight, sip, and flavor you encounter, as you make your way through a region rich in agricultural variety and artistic expression.
Raise a glass with the folks who create the region’s world-class wines, award-winning brews, and acclaimed ciders and spirits. Savor the flavors of exceptional ingredients cultivated by farmers and artisans who love this land.The Finger Lakes are not just for the 21+ crowd; there are activities here for all ages. Museums are spread across the region, including the Glenn H. Curtiss Aviation Museum. From hiking and biking to boating and fishing, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.
Address: 14850 Ithaca, NY
Website: Finger Lake
10. Take your kids to Ithaca's Sciencenter
The Sciencenter proves to be a popular spot for toddlers, children and even parents, too. The nonprofit, hands-on museum invites guests to check out over 250 exhibits, educational programs, gift shop, and seasonal outdoor science playground and mini-golf course. The museum offers memberships, which may be the best bet if you are local or plan to go there even once a month. For an entertaining, low-cost and educational Ithaca attraction, look no further.
Address: 601 1st St, 14850-3507 Ithaca, NY
Phone Number: 607-272-0600
11. Take part in Ithaca Festival
It's hard to believe the weekend is over, but we had an amazing time! Thanks to all of our staff, volunteers, vendors,...Posted by Ithaca Festival on Monday, 6 June 2016
If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Ithaca the first weekend after Memorial Day, you’ll stumble upon an event that reveals the community-based soul of this college town, during the lively and friendly annual Ithaca Festival, which has been put on in charming low-key fashion since the late 1970s. The opening parade on Friday is a wacky classic, including adults parading as dancing tofu, kids dressed up like compost piles, and the hilarious Volvo Ballet, complete with tutus wrapped around boxy station wagons.
Phone Number. 607-273-3646
Website: Ithaca Festival
12. See what's showing at State and Hangar Theaters
Ithaca has quite a lot of theater and music programs, especially in summer. The Kitchen Theatre, in the historic Greek Revival Clinton House, is a top spot for year-round classic and contemporary theater. In summer, the Hanger Theatre, just north of downtown, offers professional, children’s, and experimental theater in a renovated municipal airport hangar near Lake Cayuga.
The State Theater, a historic theater, hosts a wide array of programs from rock to plays like The Vagina Monologues. Summer outdoor concert series are held at The Commons, Taughannock Falls State Park, and the Cornell University quad. The annual 4-day Ithaca Festival features several stages and performances by musicians, painters, dance groups, and more.
Ithaca’s historic State Theater had its opening night on December 6, 1928. The building dates to 1915 and was originally an automobile garage and showroom. Today the 1600-seat State Theater offers a calendar of events featuring performances by nationally recognized performers, outstanding regional groups, dance companies and theater troupes. With the nonprofit theater’s dedication to historic preservation, the building continues to be renovated while hosting dozens of events each year.
Address: 107 W State St, 14850-5427 Ithaca, NY
Phone Number: 607-277-8283
Website: State Theater
Address: 801 Taughnnock Bivd, 14850-9501 Ithaca, NY
Phone Number: 607-273-2787
Website: Hangar Theater
13. Sample Moosewood and Ithaca Bakery's specialties
Known for their natural food cuisine, Moosewood Restaurant has operated successfully for 40 years. Meals are prepared with fresh vegetables, herbs, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans, high-quality oils, spices, seasonings and fine imported and domestic cheese. Serving up American fare with a modern flair, the Ithaca Ale House’s signature dish has to be creative and decadent burgers. Go big or go home with their “Fat Kid,” a burger sandwiched by grilled cheeses for buns. If you are a fan of fresh healthy Mexican food, then Viva Taqueria is your place in Ithaca.
Address: 215 N Cayuga St, Ste 70, 14850-4329 Ithaca, NY
Phone Number: 607-273-9610
Address: 400 N Meadow St, 14850-3227 Ithaca, NY
Phone Number: 607-273-7110
Website: Ithaca Bakery
14. Go shopping at Ithaca Commons
From clothing boutiques with a local flair to foodie shops full of handmade delights, shopping in Ithaca is as varied as it gets. Stroll through art galleries and quirky shops while taking in the historical downtown Ithaca Commons architecture, or make your way just a few blocks down to Ithaca’s up-and-coming shopping district, where you can find everything from jewelry and custom-built bikes to holistic herbs and interior design goods for every taste, budget and style. Visit one of the several Ithaca malls in convenient locations or second-hand stores that can be found throughout town. Shopping in Ithaca is as diverse as the people who live here.
Address: 171 E M.L.K Jr. St, Ithaca, NY
Phone Number: 607-277-8679
Website: Ithaca Commons
Explore bountiful nature at Buttermilk Falls State Park on this two-hour hike in Ithaca, New York. Starting from Firelight Camps, trek through forests, meadows, and marshes in search of a variety of plants, fungi, and berries. Sarah is a knowledgeable guide and an ecologist who is eager to answer questions and teach hikers how to recognize and forage an assortment of local plants – all while being mindful of the local environment. Drinks and equipment will be provided, and the hike is designed for up to 10 people at a time.
Wild Foraging Hike in Ithaca, NY
Duration: 2 hours
While in Ithaca, why not try out blacklight body painting? This unique experience lasts about three hours, and the artist can accommodate up to four people at a time. From start to finish, the entire process is a spiritual adventure, including meditation and a serene atmosphere. Myztico will carefully use vibrant UV paint to bring out and highlight the inner energy and colors of each subject. Afterward, he will take at least 40 different photographs at his studio for his guests to take home. Those looking to paint themselves can join him in a collaborative experience.
BlackLight Psychedelic Body Paint
Duration: 3 hours
17. Get a bird's-eye view with Southern Tier Balloon Tours
Photo is only for illustrative purposes
Have the best view of Ithaca with this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Southern Tier Balloon Tours offers a hot air balloon ride over the gorgeous city. Marvel at the picturesque views and fresh air as you ascend into the skies. This is perfect for friends and families (kids 5-10 years old are welcome) or even for a private flight if you would like a special romantic date. See Ithaca, NY from a bird’s-eye view with this memorable balloon tour. The experience is about 3 hours, with each flight lasting up to 70 minutes long - so you’ll surely be able to take in the wonderful sights of Ithaca.
Southern Tier Balloon Tours
Address: 197 Bostwick Rd, Ithaca, NY 14850, United States
Website: Southern Tier Balloon Tours
Opening hours: 6am - 9pm (daily)
18. Go on water adventures with Paddle-N-More
Editor's Note: There's no photo available at the time of writing
Those fans of water activities like canoeing and kayaking can check out Paddle-N-More in Ithaca, NY. Located on 71 Stewart Park, this is a one-stop-shop for rentals and even lessons. Interested tourists can check out their website and find all the information to sign up for classes in their very own paddle school. What are you waiting for? Glide through Ithaca’s waters with Paddle-N-More.
Address: 71 Stewart Park, Ithaca, NY 14850, United States
Opening hours: 10am - 6:30pm (daily)
Ithaca is unique
What makes Ithaca unique? Is it the towering waterfalls, lush ice-age gorges, endless panoramic views? Is it the hiking, the biking, the boating? Is it the beauty of Cayuga Lake, the largest of the Finger Lakes?
Ithaca is Ithaca, and it’s undoubtedly one of the best places to visit in New York. There’s a vibe here unlike anywhere else in America. And experiencing it is the only way to discover it.
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Frequently asked questions about best things to do in Ithaca, New York
1. What are the top attractions to visit in Ithaca?
Known as a college town, Ithaca offers numerous things to do, but if you’re looking for their top attractions here, you can visit Cornell University, Finger Lake, and Ithaca Waterfalls.
2. What are the best outdoor activities in Ithaca?
One of the best outdoor activities you can try here is visiting its many waterfalls, exploring Finger Lake, and strolling around Ithaca’s downtown.
3. What are the most popular things to do in Ithaca with kids?
Ithaca is not only a college town but also home to many natural wonders and museums, which your kids will surely enjoy. Make sure you bring them to Ithaca’s Sciencenter and let them see the many exhibits and educational activities. They also have here a seasonal outdoor playground for kids as well as a mini-golf course.
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