The northward-flowing Genesee River meets Great Lake Ontario in Rochester: New York State's third-largest city. A hub of industry since shortly after its post-Revolutionary War founding, Rochester remains at the forefront of innovation. If you remember the days of film cameras, then you probably helped build Rochester, which has famously been home to the Eastman Kodak Company since 1888. And that means you owe it to yourself to visit this lively city, where these days, "Kodak moments" happen at cool museums and flower-filled parks, at sports and performing arts venues, beside waterfalls and at more than 100 area wineries, breweries and distilleries. Ready to explore Rochester? Here are 15 of the best things to do in and near "Rachacha."
You'll never think of museums the same way after a visit to this interactive destination that appeals to the kid in everyone. Founder Margaret Woodbury Strong was the largest single Kodak shareholder and a multimillionaire at the time of her death in 1969: just one year after she created her Museum of Fascination. Her substantial assets have enabled the museum to grow and evolve into one of the largest history museums in the nation with a one-of-a-kind mission to celebrate and encourage creativity and play. Home to collections, exhibits and the National Toy Hall of Fame and World Video Game Hall of Fame, you'll be immersed in both nostalgia and the latest technology. Hang out on Sesame Street (it's recreated here!); bust a move in the DanceLab; walk through a giant kaleidoscope; play your way through the evolution of video games. That's just a smattering of the activities that make the Strong Museum a must for all ages.
Rochester's year-round, city-run Public Market is a long-standing tradition that dates back to 1905. Open on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, it attracts a plethora of vendors — as many as 300 on a peak Saturday — and you'll be astounded by the array of farm-fresh and foraged produce, gourmet products, locally raised meats, art and crafts, flowers and other unique products on offer. It's the food, though, that entices many out-of-towners, especially when the Public Market hosts Food Truck Rodeos the last Wednesday evening of each month from April through September.
Kodak co-founder George Eastman never married but his company and his city were his "babies." Much of his substantial fortune was donated or bequeathed to Rochester institutions, and his legacy is most strongly preserved at this multifaceted museum of photography and motion pictures, which opened in 1949 and gained a 73,000-square-foot exhibition building in 1989. Visitors can tour Eastman's restored Colonial Revival mansion and snap photos in the gardens, then head into the museum to see current exhibitions of work by contemporary photographers, films screened in the Dryden Theatre and the permanent collection's photography equipment and images, from primitive daguerreotypes to works by legendary photographers like Mathew Brady and Ansel Adams.
The Genesee River tumbles 96 feet at High Falls in the heart of Rochester. You'll want to admire and photograph this waterfall, which powered the mills that earned Rochester its first nickname: "Flour City." In this historic part of the city, a self-guided walking tour of less than a half-mile will lead you to landmarks from Rochester's 19th-century industrial boom including Genesee Brewing Company and the former Rochester Button Company, as well as the 1914 Kodak Tower. Walk out onto the Pont de Rennes pedestrian bridge, and you'll have a perfect angle for shooting pictures of High Falls and the Genesee River Gorge.
Rochester's Highland Park has a sweet-smelling claim to fame: It is home to the largest lilac collection in the world. The first lilacs were planted in 1892, and these spring blooms have been celebrated since 1905. May is the prime month to visit if you want to see these 1,200-some lilac shrubs in fragrant bloom: There are more than 500 varieties to photograph and admire. They're the inspiration for Rochester's newer nickname — "Flower City" — and a 10-day free Lilac Festival that is North America's largest celebration of its kind. You'll want to wear purple and be there for the parade; wine, craft beer and Bloody Mary tasting expos; Art in the Park; live-action Garden Battles and evening concerts.
More than 100 beer, wine and spirits makers are clustered in this New York region, so you may feel overwhelmed by the opportunities to imbibe. If beer is your beverage of choice, you can sip history at the Genesee Brew House, located adjacent to one of America's oldest breweries. Genesee has been brewing in Rochester since 1878. Visit more than a dozen upstart craft brewers like Iron Tug, Fifth Frame and Three Heads, too. Wine enthusiasts love Rochester's proximity to Finger Lakes Wine Country: The "Sonoma of the East" has more than 100 scenic wineries, and additional vineyards are popping up along Lake Ontario's shores, too. Be sure to try ice wine at Casa Larga, just a 15-minute trip from downtown Rochester. Fine spirits are being distilled in Rochester, as well. Tour Black Button Distilling and taste grain-to-glass, distinctly Rochester spirits like Lilac Gin.
While you're in the Rochester area, you'd be remiss not to visit the state park nicknamed the "Grand Canyon of the East." Letchworth State Park, a 45-minute drive southwest of the city, may not be a household name, but it frequently appears atop lists of the best state parks in the nation. Even if you only drive through the park, stopping at overlooks, you'll be mesmerized by the 600-foot walls of 250-million-year-old sedimentary rock and the three dramatic waterfalls, as the Genesee River gushes through this scenic gorge. Have more time? There are trails to hike, exhibits to visit in the Humphrey Nature Center and, if you plan ahead, hot air balloon rides over the falls for aerial views.
Not just any lake, of course — Lake Ontario, one of America's Great Lakes. Rochester's location gives visitors prime access to this freshwater swimming pool, and city-owned, 39-acre Ontario Beach Park is the place to go if you want to spread a blanket on the natural sand, stroll along the pier and even ride an antique carousel. In addition to horses, the 1905 Dentzel Menagerie Carousel has mules, ostriches and a tiger to ride. For more throwback fun, attend a big band dance party at the beach's community center. Admission is just $2 to dance to a live band on Wednesday evenings in the spring and fall.
Triple-A minor league baseball action awaits at Frontier Field in Rochester, where the Red Wings have played since 1899. That's right: This is the oldest continuously operating minor league franchise in America. Affiliated with the Minnesota Twins, this top-level farm team's roster features some of the hottest prospects in the country, and affordable tickets, theme nights, giveaways and $1 hot dogs and snacks on Wednesdays make this the perfect family outing.
Many of the concerts held at this acoustically and visually superb theatre are open free to the public. The venue is located at the renowned Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester, and talented faculty and student soloists and ensembles perform here frequently. Eastman Theatre, named, of course, after benefactor George Eastman, was updated in 2009 with a $10 million donation from the Eastman Kodak Company. It is home, as well, to performances by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and Eastman Opera Theatre, as well as touring ensembles.
Home to the newly rejuvenated Strasenburgh Planetarium, where shows inside the four-story dome will take you on an outer space journey, the Rochester Museum & Science Center has been a hub for exploration of our natural world and human scientific achievement for more than a century. With a unique emphasis on history and humanity, along with eye-popping exhibits like the Electricity Theater's dancing lightning, plus new simulator rides each month, you can chart your own adventure through this urban museum. The Science Center's 900-acre Cumming Nature Center, located just under an hour south of Rochester in Naples, gives you another opportunity to learn and observe on trail hikes and wildflower walks and through a variety of educational programs.
Be forewarned: Once you see Instagram images of the sweet, oversized orbs at Rochester's best donut shop, you won't be able to think about much else until you get your hands on one of these palm-sized confections. Since 1977, family-owned Ridge Donut Cafe has been crafting both tried-and-true traditional donuts and newfangled temptations like cannoli-stuffed powdered donuts and maple-frosted bacon donuts. Expect to find a daily assortment of 30 varieties plus three specials that are often first to sell out. Apple fritters are popular, too, and the cafe serves your basic line-up of hot beverages, and breakfast and hot lunch sandwiches, too.
At just 20 acres, Rochester's zoo is less than one-tenth the size of the Bronx Zoo. Yet, a visit here will take you on a trip around the world to meet more than 90 species including endangered African penguins and a polar bear, plus some creatures that sound as though they were invented by Dr. Seuss including the Rock Hyrax and the Hellbender. Seneca Park Zoo is in the midst of a transformation that will add even more animals and attractions, while expanding conservation and education programs. Visit nearly any day of the year, rain or shine: The zoo closes only for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.
Tour the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House
Step inside the Rochester home where legendary women's suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony spent much of her life. You'll see the parlor where she was arrested in 1872 for voting in the presidential election, and you'll hear of her tireless work for women's rights. The museum exhibits her personal possessions including her famous alligator purse and artifacts related to her efforts.
Buffalo may have the big league NHL team, but Rochester has an affordable alternative that is just as exciting. The Americans play in the American Hockey League (AHL), and these up-and-coming players skate their hearts out. At Blue Cross Arena at the War Memorial, fans are treated to special theme nights and promotions.