What to do in Ithaca, NY other than getting drunk, stoned, or a college degree.
Ithaca is home to both the 5th-best Ivy League school, Cornell University, and the more liberal arts-oriented Ithaca College. It somehow seems appropriate to put two schools of higher learning—those bastions of radical, anti-establishment, and progressive thought—on the southern tip of Cayuga Lake, the literal middle finger of the Finger Lakes Region.
Where better than a college town for young men and women to begin questioning authority, protesting the status quo, and fighting The Man? (Or, in Cornell’s case, becoming The Man). And Ithaca is such a quintessential college town that, during the school year, students make up fully half its entire population. Not only that, but there’s an area between the two schools actually named CollegeTown. It’s even the name of a popular coffee and bagel chain (see below). Ithaca’s entire identity is wrapped up in—and its economy based upon—18-21 year old stoners just discovering Existentialism.
Ithaca puts the high in higher education.
We drove up into the hills above Ithaca and cruised through the Cornell campus on what appeared to be Orientation Weekend. The school’s streets were abuzz with bright young scions eager to spend six-figures on tuition for the chance of landing a $40,000 a year job.
The architecture of Cornell appears straight out of Ye Olde England, minus the systematic oppression of serf labor (though, to be fair, we didn’t see the whole campus). Its sturdy buildings, made of rock and stone, harkened back to a simpler time when grown men wore powdered wigs and dresses without the fear of being called gay because they could burn you as a witch. Today, these old structures have been expanded with stylish modern appendages to house the school’s ever-growing body of future unemployed people.
Despite having to share the small town with neighboring Ithaca College, Cornell and Ithaca don’t have much of a school rivalry. They coexist peacefully, both reserving their haughty contempt and savage vitriol for the dirtbags at SUNY Cortland instead. No doubt that’s due to Cortland’s reputation for graduating gym teachers, the natural enemy of all smart and/or creative kids.
Your friends back home probably won’t get your “Ithaca is gorges” t-shirt.
Besides being home to the esteemed Cornell University, Ithaca is perhaps best known—at least, to people who’ve been there and virtually no one else—for its impressive waterfalls and gorges, the geological result of endless rivers slowly but surely cutting narrow clefts into earth and granite leaving nothing but steep, shear walls in its wake. If you look closely at the remaining layered rock, you can see multiple generations of Cornell fraternity vomit embedded in the varied striations of limestone.
Amazingly, Ithaca’s gorgeous gorges might not have survived to this millennium intact had it not been for some Cornell alumni who pushed for gorge preservation as early as 1909. Cascadilla Gorge, for example, was preserved and donated by alum Robert H. Treman to support “public use, education, and enjoyment” (which probably involved satanic rituals or skinny dipping). Frankly, were it not for the veracity of their vision and subsequent ecological efforts, Ithaca might today be known only for its toxic lakefront salt mine (and, frankly, “Ithaca is salty” would make a lousy tourist t-shirt).
Taughannock Falls makes Niagara Falls look like a leaky faucet.
Halfway up the West side of Cayuga Lake lies the tallest single-drop waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains, a full three stories taller than the world famous Niagara Falls (suck it, Canada). At 215 feet in height, Taughannock Falls is an impressive sight, formed after eons of erosion slowly reshaping the indigenous rock until a viable tourist destination emerged in 1925.
Pronounced “Taw-GAN-nuhk” by most everyone (except our phone’s GPS which preferred the more hilarious “TOG-a-nock” pronunciation), the word Taughannock supposedly comes from the Iroquois language meaning either “the great fall in the woods” or “the crevice which rises to the tops of the trees.” Regardless of the word’s true meaning, Taughannock Falls is worth visiting for no other reason than to hear your GPS have a kernel panic trying to say the name.
When I first came here as a kid, the New York Park Service didn’t care whether visiting tourists lived or died so they’d let you walk up the gorge itself and even swim in the pool at the base of the waterfall if your parents would let you (and mine did). These days, the NYSPS is less tolerant of bad parenting and have made efforts to wash their hands of any legal liability by putting up “Stay on the path” and “No swimming” warning signs up everywhere.
Despite those clear and obvious warnings, many tourists nonetheless take an improvised path just past the warning signs to walk out onto the gorge and get their feet wet. The 0.7 mile hike to the falls is an easy trek if you take the path alongside the gorge, but wading up the gorge itself is more treacherous due to algae that makes the limestone rocks super slippery. If you’re not careful, you’ll be stopping by the Ithaca Best Buy to pick up a new mobile phone. PRO TIP: Stash yours in a ziplock bag.
The falls themselves (fall itself is?) are pretty impressive and worth the trek, mainly because 1) you’d have to drive west about 1500 miles to see bigger ones, 2) you’re already right there, and 3) your feet are probably already wet.
Botany is kinda boring and other lessons learned while visiting Ithaca.
To kill time and keep my wife happy, we went to the Cornell Botanical Gardens which first opened to the public in 1868. It currently occupies over 4,000 acres of natural and constructed landscape intended to “amplify and even expand upon the campus’ rich natural treasures.” While viewing the arboretum of rare specimen trees, the wildflower exhibit, the herb garden, the ponds of lily pads, and the stairs surrounded by plants, we found that this conservatory for teaching botany mostly teaches people the folly of not wearing strong insect repellent.
Where to eat food in Ithaca, New York.
Like many small lake towns in the Finger Lakes region of New York, Ithaca offers a variety of dining options ranging from the high-quality to the highly questionable.
- Ron Don’s Village Pub: If you’re in nearby Trumansburg and looking for deep-fried anything, you’ll find it at Ron Don’s Village Pub. The pizza seemed to be the standout menu item, but everything was good if not good for you.
- Moosewood Restaurant: This is a James Beard-rated, award-winning vegetarian restaurant inside a converted High School that can be safely avoided without the slightest FOMO. Despite a helpful and friendly staff, the food wasn’t anything to write home to our San Francisco foodie friends about.
- Collegetown Bagels: Opened in 1976, this local chain of hipster bagel shops (3) offers chalkboard menus, vegan and non-vegan sandwiches, paninis, wraps, organic fair-trade coffee, alcoholic mimosas, avocado and fruit smoothies, breakfast sandwiches (all day!), and lots of bagel-based foods.
- Glenwood Pines: Driving south along Route 96, you’ll pass this burger joint quirkily proclaiming the sale of “Legal Beverages,” which presumably excludes only moonshine, arsenic, and liquid nuclear waste. Located on the bank of Cayuga Lake, Glenwood Pines offers a “view” of the lake through a slim gap between a bunch of thick trees that surround the parking lot.
- The Boatyard Grill: Located on Cayuga Lake’s man-made inlet into the city, this old school seafood and steakhouse excels at doing what it does and doing it well. So don’t come here for inventive fusion dishes or calorie-conscious portion sizes—come here to eat.
Ithaca’s main economic driver is apparently parking fees.
With a growing population and limited space for cars Ithaca takes “land management” very seriously—free parking in the downtown area is as rare as open, public access to Cayuga Lake. Every potential parking spot in Ithaca is policed by overzealous parking enforcement officers who act like they get a cut of every fee dollar they generate. To avoid their unholy wrath and massive fines, I recommend paying the parking meter—even if it’s across the street—or you’ll be paying the city.
Cruising around Cayuga Lake in a boat.
At 38 miles long with a mind-bending depth of 435 feet—over twice the height of the falls themselves—Cayuga Lake is only New York’s second largest Finger Lake. Yet we’d been in Ithaca for a few days before we realized that we never been to the lake itself. You can drive right up to the edge of most lakes—to a park or vista—but not Cayuga Lake. On the West side where we were staying, there’s no public access to the lake besides the Taughannock Falls park “beach,” which is frankly more pebble than sand.
So to get a closer look at the lake we found Ithaca Boat Tours which offered a bunch of narrated, 45 minute lake excursions for US$18. We were told that we could just buy tickets at the boat, so we didn’t bother buying online. We set our GPS for “Ithaca Boat Tours” and arrived at the location a half hour early to get tickets and peruse the Farmers Market we were told was nearby. Unfortunately, there was no sign of said market—lots of boats, sure, but no IBT signage beyond the one directing us into this area from the main street.
We parked and asked a few people where Ithaca Boat Tours was, and they each seemed helpful, but confused to the point of being no help at all. After checking every building in the vicinity—including The Boatyard Grill, where we later ate—I found a bartender who informed me that the boat left from the Farmer’s Market on Thursday, a full fifteen minute drive away. We drove over to find the boat already full of passengers who somehow knew about the boat’s true departure point.
Rather than crowding the boat, we opted to wait and take the next boat, whiling away the next hour sampling sparkling hard cider, wood-fired pizza, and wooden clogs at the quirky Farmer’s Market. We eventually boarded and got a nice 45-minute cruise around the lower quarter of Cayuga Lake, listening to interesting trivia about the area while gawking at the homes of Cornell’s founders and other obscenely rich people who only summer in this town.
It was a beautiful, calm Summer day on the lake (see photos), and I could imagine myself settling down in this charming hamlet, an idea getting popular with retirees (and jacking up the local property values). Then I remembered that winter in New York State is a level of hell that I almost wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. But summer is good.