Rochester is the third largest city in New York State, and the gateway to the beautiful Finger Lakes region. It is vibrant and booming, a centre for culture, cuisine and craft beers. And it is conveniently situated between New York City and Niagara Falls. All of that makes it an ideal tourist destination, but it’s not as well known as it should be, meaning that it retains a friendly and intimate atmosphere.
Here’s my personal selection of what to see and do in Rochester.
A Cultural Centre: Museums and Festivals
Rochester is well known as a lively centre for the arts. There are conventional – and world-class – offerings in the form of classical music, jazz, art and drama. But there is also a quirky alternative scene, with music of every conceivable genre, and festivals galore. In particular, don’t miss the Rochester Fringe Festival, an eleven day extravaganza of visual and performance arts, incorporating music, magic and more…
Then there are the museums. One of these celebrates Rochester’s most famous resident: George Eastman, founder of the Kodak Company and of many of the city’s cultural and educational institutions. Another is devoted to Susan B Anthony, a pioneer in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. But there are lots of other museums to enjoy (more about Rochester’s museums here).
Architecture and Street Art in Rochester
Like many American cities Rochester has a mixture of ultra-modern and historic architecture. Even in the city centre gleaming skyscrapers stand beside grand Victorian buildings and smaller dwellings with ornate features. Away from the centre look out for historic areas such as the beautifully kept houses around Susan B Anthony Square.
There is street art too. Many of the murals come from a project called Wall\Therapy, started in 2012 as a way of bringing back life to depressed areas of the city. One of the murals is a part of “The Giant Storybook Project”, an ambitious series of murals in cities around the world.
A fun way to explore the architecture and the street art is with Rochester Pedal Tours. These are tours on special bikes which can accommodate up to 15 people, pedalling around the central area with a guide who points out the places of interest as you go. (Tours are designed for groups of six or more, but there are also midweek “mixer” days for individuals or smaller groups.)
Waterways and the Natural Environment
Rochester is full of parks, walking and cycling trails. But it is the waterways that are the most remarkable. The Genesee River dominates the city, particularly around the High Falls, a 96 ft cascade that once provided the energy for Rochester’s industrial boom. Today the High Falls is a historical area with walks and a visitor centre.
Then there is the Erie Canal, a 363 mile canal with 83 locks that connects the Great Lakes with the Hudson River. Built for industrial use in 1825, the Erie Canal has now been redeveloped as a leisure amentity. You can walk or cycle along the towpath, or enjoy a leisurely cruise in a replica paddleboat.
Eating and Drinking in Rochester
One thing you start to realise about Rochester is the importance of small, local businesses. This is especially true with eating out, where you are as likely to find individual bars and restaurants as large national chains. There’s a whole range of options, from haute cuisine to comfort food. And Rochester is home to the famous “garbage plate”, an unlikely sounding mixture of meat, macaroni, beans, fries and onions, topped with a special hot sauce (I haven’t tried it myself, but I am assured it’s better than the name would suggest…) For more classic American Fare try the Dinosaur BBQ, housed in a former subway station.
There are two local institutions that deserve a mention. The first is the Rochester Public Market (open throughout the year on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday). More than just a market, it is a popular meeting point, and a place to find a whole variety of fresh foods and meals or snacks to eat on the go. Then there is Wegmans, a regional grocery chain that is a favourite with the locals, and has an immense range of hot and cold meals to take away or eat in store.
As for the drink, there are craft breweries, distilleries and vineyards… (Read more in my post about Drinking My Way Around Rochester.)
Staying and Travelling in Rochester
Rochester has its own airport, with connecting flights from local and international airports in North America. It is ideally placed as a centre, within easy reach of the Great Lakes, and of the Finger Lakes wine region. Many visitors hire cars to get around the city and to explore the local area. But there are opportunities for walking and cycling within the city, and buses are available for local trips or to travel further afield.
There are several hotels in the city centre. I was a guest at the newly renovated Hyatt Regency Hotel, the tallest hotel in the city with breathtaking views (if you go high enough you can just glimpse Lake Ontario in the distance). I enjoyed cocktails and gourmet food in the Center City Terrace and Lounge, a great way to end a day’s sightseeing in Rochester.
Thanks to Rachel and the team at Visit Rochester for their hospitality during my visit to Rochester.
This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.