Fun & unique things to do in Rochester, NY (and what to eat!)
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Year visited: 2023
Time of year: June
Rochester, NY was never high on my list of places to visit. Except for one thing: The National Museum of Play!!! I’ve been wanting to visit this Rochester museum since I saw a commercial for it watching Arthur when I was 9.
So when 2020 happened, and cancelled all our grand travel plans, we museum hopped around our state and checked the Museum of Play off my bucket list. But other than that, I didn’t even give Rochester a chance to prove to me it had other worthwhile attractions.
Until I started travel blogging about western NY, and realized that my knowledge beyond my own bubble is a little bit too thin. So when my friend who grew up in Rochester came home for a visit, we explored the city and found A LOT more magical things to do in Rochester!
About Rochester, NY
Where is Rochester, NY?
Rochester is located in north western New York, on the shores of Lake Ontario. It is pretty much halfway between Buffalo and Syracuse, and is the third most populated city in the state, behind Buffalo and the obvious one that shall not be named (because we’re sensitive about people assuming “New York” means NYC).
What is Rochester known for?
Growing up, the only thing I knew Rochester for was the Museum of Play (a worthy reason to be known). But the city actually has a lot of reasons to be known:
The Flour City- The city of Rochester boomed in the early 1800’s, after the construction of the Erie Canal made it an ideal location for shipping goods. So many flour mills popped up along the Genesee River (flowing right through the city!) that it was nicknamed the “Flour City.”
The Flower City- A slightly more modern nickname, and a play off the original, Rochester is known as the “Flower City” because of all the lilac bushes, and its world renowned lilac festival.
Eastman Kodak Company- Rochester native George Eastman developed a photographic process that made it easy for everyone to take pictures. The Kodak Company, which is still in business in Rochester today, has long been an innovator in the photographic, film and digital print industry.
Susan B. Anthony- The famous women’s rights suffragist lived in Rochester for 40 years, and was even arrested for voting at her home in the city.
Frederick Douglass- Frederick Douglass helped Harriet Tubman lead many escaped slaves on the last leg of their journey from the US into Canada, on the northward flowing Genesee River. He also gave a famous speech in Rochester, the city he called home for longer than anywhere else in his life.
Wegmans- Wegmans is the best! That’s all there is to say. Wegmans is a western NY staple, but is especially popular (and common) in Rochester because the grocery store chain began here in 1916.
Toys!- Last of all, Rochester is known for toys, as they do have the play capital of the world and the national toy hall of fame here. The museum began as the toy collection of philanthropist Margaret Woodbury Strong in the 1960s (I mean, I still have all my old toys too…) and has since grown to the unique Rochester icon that it is today.
Why visit Rochester?
As I stated above, we found so many fun and magical things to do in Rochester! From a Scottish castle to a mansion that looks like the epitome of the board game Clue, world renown lilacs to a museum full of the world’s best toys, there are so many reasons to visit Rochester!
How to get to Rochester:
Rochester does have its own airport. However, because it is a smaller and less popular destination, it will be much easier and usually cheaper to fly into Buffalo.
It is just an hour drive across I-90 from Buffalo to Rochester (plus, you can visit Buffalo and Niagara Falls too!)
Things to Do in Rochester, NY
It’s time to plan your trip to Rochester, NY! First I’ll go over all the unique things to do in Rochester, and then I’ll cover where (and what) to eat and where to stay, PLUS other things to do nearby!
The only natural place to start a list of things to do in Rochester? My #1 pick, the Strong National Museum of Play!
Map of the best things to do in Rochester:
The Strong Museum of Play
Probably the most well-known thing to do in Rochester is the Strong National Museum of Play. It is one of the most fun and interactive museums in the world!
It includes the National Toy Hall of Fame, a butterfly garden, a room full of old arcade games (that you can play!), a mini Wegmans (more on that later), and plenty of places for both kids and adults to explore.
Read my article about the Museum of Play to learn more about the different sections of the museum and what parts are best for kids and adults.
Tips for visiting the Museum of Play:
Park in the brightly colored parking garage on Howell St.
Parking is $5. Pay for parking inside at the front desk, or at the kiosks in the garage. Be sure to scan your admission ticket to receive the $5 rate.
The museum is open 10 am-5 pm Sunday-Wednesday and 10 am-8 pm Thursday-Saturday.
Museum admission costs $25 in person, or $23 if you book in advance online. Some things in the museum cost extra.
George Eastman Museum
My high school photography teacher took our class to Rochester to visit the George Eastman House… but like a cowardly teenager, I opted out to avoid having to miss my other classes (yes, I was a strange child).
I also refused to visit when we came to the Play Museum in 2020, stubbornly not wanting to know what I had missed out on (I am a strange adult too…).
But the responsibility of a travel blogger is to explore ALL the things to do and report back to you, so finally, countless years later, I visited the Eastman House & Museum. And it was one of my FAVORITE things to do in Rochester!!
The museum is split into two parts: the photography museum with the old cameras and photographs and works by contemporary artists, and the mansion where the Eastmans lived, which literally looks like you stepped into the board game Clue. It is seriously one of the coolest houses ever!
Tips for visiting the Eastman Museum:
Parking is free for museum guests. The entrance to the parking lot is off of East Ave. (NOT University Ave, where our GPS decided to take us).
The museum is open 10 am-5 pm Tuesday-Saturday, and 11 am-5 pm on Sunday.
Museum admission is $20.
The Dryden Theater is connected to the Eastman Museum. George Eastman was a big proponent of the film industry, and as such, the theater makes it its mission to support the art form and preserve film history. It is one of the few theaters in the world still able to project original nitrate films, and screens many old films in their original format, as well as newer movies.
So if you’re sad you missed your chance to watch Invasion of the Body Snatchers in its original black and white in theaters, now’s your chance!
You can’t visit Rochester, or western NY for that matter, without visiting at least one Wegmans. And there are plenty to choose from in the Rochester area!
Wegmans has been touted as the “Disneyland of grocery stores.” I always tell people it is so much more than a grocery store.
To help you understand a little better, here’s a video of the Pittsford Wegmans, one of the largest Wegmans in the world!
Highland Park is one of the jewels of the city of Rochester. Walking paths, memorials, and a castle make this 150 acre park one of the cheapest and one of the most unique things to do in Rochester! You can spend plenty of your time in Rochester wandering around this beautiful park.
Here are some of the things you can expect to find:
The world famous lilac blooms. Come in May to see them in bloom.
Explore the Lamberton Conservatory. Hours are from 10 am-4 pm.
Visit the Frederick Douglass Memorial Plaza, or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Just across the street from Highland Park is Mt. Hope Cemetery, where you can find the graves of Frederick Douglass & Susan B. Anthony.
Warner Castle (listed next)!
Hidden in the midst of Highland Park in central NY is… wait for it… a Scottish castle! I love Scotland and castles, so I was super excited to find this as one of the (free) things to do in Rochester, NY!!
Warner Castle was built as the home of Horatio Gates Warner in 1854. It was modeled after a castle he had seen in Scotland and fell in love with.
The castle is now owned by the Landmark Society of Western NY, and unfortunately the inside is not open for exploration. But you can visit the outside of the castle, and the magical sunken gardens in the back. It is a great spot for a family photo op.
Tips for visiting Warner Castle:
There is a small, free parking lot for Warner Castle. The parking lot is located on Castle Park, off of Reservoir Ave.
If the parking lot is full or blocked off, you can park in Highland Park and walk to the castle from the back entrance to the sunken gardens.
Ignore the hours on Google. You can visit the outside of the castle/sunken gardens any time (unless someone has rented out the gardens for a private event).
Susan B. Anthony Museum
Susan B. Anthony is one of the most well-known figures of the women’s rights movement. You can visit the Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester, NY where she lived most of her life, and was even arrested for voting in 1872!
Don’t forget you can also visit her grave site in Mt. Hope Cemetery, across from Highland Park.
Tips for visiting the Susan B. Anthony House
The museum is in a residential neighborhood, as it is the house in which Anthony lived.
There is a small parking lot next to the house, and also free on-street parking available.
The museum is open 11 am-5 pm Tuesday-Sunday.
Museum admission costs $15.
Here are some fun, unique facts about Rochester: It is one of the few cities with a waterfall flowing right through the middle of the city! The Genesee River is also one of the few rivers to flow northward!
The setting of High Falls right in the city center makes this a very accessible thing to do in Rochester. You can get a great view of the waterfall, no hiking required!
Tips for visiting High Falls:
A very small (free) parking lot is available at High Falls Terrace. There is also a large parking lot right next door for patrons of the Genesee Brew House.
There is a good view and lounge chairs at the High Falls Terrace Platform. You can feel the spray of the waterfall from here.
Another good view is from the Pont de Rennes Bridge, which crosses the Genesee River and connects the High Falls Terrace to the Browns Race Historic District.
The High Falls Visitor’s Center is just across the bridge, although it is temporarily closed.
Neighborhood of the Arts
Neighborhood of the Arts (NOTA) is a fun area of Rochester to explore, with lots of local shops, restaurants and art installations.
It is right next to the Eastman Museum, so you can park at and explore the museum, and then walk around NOTA after. Paid parking is also available along the street.
Cruise on the Erie Canal
Rochester is one of many NY cities built along the statewide Erie Canal. The best place to explore the canal is in Pittsford, NY, a 15 min. drive from the city center. You can ride a boat down the famous canal, walk along the water (for free!), or grab dinner (or gelato!) with a great view.
Tips for visiting the Erie Canal in Pittsford:
Free parking is available at Schoen Place. The main parking lots are for patrons of the shops/restaurants. If you just want to walk, there is a free gravel parking lot behind the paved parking lots.
Book a cruise on the Erie Canal with Sam Patch Boat Tours.
There are lots of shops and restaurants along Schoen Place to visit and explore.
Swim in a Great Lake
Rochester rests on the shores of Lake Ontario, one of the five Great Lakes (Man, waterfalls, the Erie Canal, the Great Lakes…Rochester is really spoiled for choice when it comes to water activities!).
If you happen to be in town on a warm day, one of the best things to do in Rochester, NY is go to the beach! That is honestly a sentence I never thought I’d say, but there is in fact a great beach near Rochester on Lake Ontario. Check out Ontario Beach Park for swimming, volleyball, a ride on the historic carousel, or just relaxing on the sand.
Tips for visiting Ontario Beach Park:
The park is open all year, from 7 am-11 pm (although this may not be a top thing to do in January…).
Free parking is available. The beach is free to visit.
Oldest Mini Golf Course in the US
Not far from Ontario Beach Park is Whispering Pines Mini Golf. First built in 1930, Whispering Pines is the oldest mini golf course still in use in the US (granted is has been updated in the last 100 years)!
Side note: The world’s longest mini golf hole is also in central NY. Congrats to NY State for holding so many mini golf distinctions!
Catch a Show
A fun thing to do in any large city is to catch a show in a downtown theater, and Rochester has many to choose from.
Rochester Broadway Theater League’s Auditorium Theater has touring Broadway shows, as well as other live performances throughout the year.
The Geva Theater is another great place to watch live performances during your time in Rochester.
Don’t forget about the Dryden Theater, showcasing old black and white films and other classic movies at the Eastman House.
Where to Eat in Rochester
There are a lot of great local places to eat in Rochester, NY. Here are a few of the best choices, recommended by locals.
I feel obliged to start with the iconic Rochester dish, the garbage plate (though to be honest, I’ve actually never tried one…)
Try a Garbage Plate
A garbage plate basically consists of hamburger or a similar meat topped with french fries, baked beans, macaroni salad and hot sauce. More or less.
Genesee Brew House
The Genesee Brew House is a good choice for a place to eat in Rochester not only because of its ideal location overlooking High Falls, but also because it happens to be one of the oldest continually operated breweries in the US!
Our local friends took us to Dinosaur BBQ when we came to visit. The food was delicious, and the downtown location is super convenient (as long as you don’t accidentally drive onto the highway when you think you’re just turning around the block to find a parking spot).
We found ourselves on the super cool block of Railroad St. in search of donuts one morning. Unfortunately that donut shop no longer exists, but there are still a lot of great restaurants to check out on this block, that would definitely have a fun vibe at nighttime.
Not only did our local friends recommend Java’s Cafe; it’s also listed as the #1 coffee shop in Rochester on Trip Advisor! So obviously it has to be good.
This was a fun local coffee shop to hang out in for a while after exploring downtown Rochester.
Melo Coffee & Kitchen
The Neighborhood of the Arts cafe Melo was recommended to us by the cool dude in the gift shop at the Eastman Museum (thanks cool gift shop dude!).
We ended up going to Java’s instead, because we can only drink so much coffee… But if you are looking for somewhere to eat in NOTA, look no further than Melo.
Boulder Cafe & Lounge
Boulder was another local cafe recommended to us by the super cool gardener at the Eastman Museum (thanks super cool gardener girl!). She recommended Boulder as somewhere unique to the Rochester area, promoting local artists and musicians.
Ridge Donut Cafe
I am always in search of the best donuts. And Ridge Donuts wasn’t even on my radar, until I found it mentioned in a Reddit post about whether BXCR Donuts (that donut shop on Railroad St.) was still open (they’re not).
I tried several other donut shops in Rochester as well, but this one is definitely the winner. No fancy out of this world flavors, just really good donuts!
Wegmans is always a good choice for where to eat. They have grab and go meals, salad bars, sub shops and sushi shops, and, in fancy Wegmans like the one in Pittsford, entire restaurants!
Wegmans is an especially great choice for where to eat in Rochester, since, you know, they invented Wegmans (thank you, Rochester!).
The Best Time of Year to Visit Rochester
The best time of year to visit Rochester would be between May-October.
Spring is when the flowers start to bloom and kids are still in school, summer is your best chance of good weather, and fall is when the leaves turn, and the kids are back in school.
Anytime during these months would be good to visit Rochester, but I would say the most ideal time to visit is in May, before the lilac festival. This is when the famous lilacs will be starting to bloom, but come before the festival to avoid all the people!
Where to Stay in Rochester
Courtyard by Marriott
Courtyard by Marriott is the perfect place to stay right downtown, and close to everything. It is right in between the Eastman Museum and the Museum of Play.
If you’re looking for something a little more fancy, The Strathallan boutique hotel is also right in downtown and pretty close to everything you’ll want to see.
Hyatt Regency is a downtown hotel near the river, and close to the Museum of Play. It is a bit further from the Eatman Museum, in between the Museum of Play and High Falls.
Hilton Garden Inn
Hilton Garden Inn is right next to the Hyatt Regency. It is a convenient location in downtown Rochester.
Holiday Inn Rochester
The Holiday Inn in downtown Rochester is also a great location. It is just across the river from the main city center, and is in between High Falls and the Museum of Play.
The Best Day Trips from Rochester
Niagara Falls needs no introduction! It is the oldest state park in the country, and one of the natural wonders of the world.
It is only an hour and a half drive to Niagara Falls from Rochester, or a half hour drive from Buffalo, where you will most likely fly into. It makes a great day trip from Rochester, or an add on in a road trip from Buffalo.
Letchworth State Park
The northernmost entrance to Letchworth State Park is only 45 minutes from Rochester, although the best part of the park is around the Middle Falls, just over an hour drive. Letchworth has been voted the #1 state park in the country!
Geneva, NY/Finger Lakes Region
Geneva, NY is the heart of the beautiful Finger Lakes Region, and one of my favorite places on earth! It is just under an hour drive to Geneva, making it an easy day trip from Rochester.
From here you can enjoy the lake, visit a winery, or explore some of the other nearby lakes.
Watkins Glen State Park
Watkins Glen State Park is just 45 minutes past Geneva (an hour and a half total from Rochester), so you can easily visit both on a day trip from the city, or a road trip around western NY. The fairy tale bridge on the 1.5 mile Gorge Trail is the main attraction at the #3 state park in the country.
Corning Museum of Glass
One final day trip from Rochester is the hour and a half drive to Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, NY. Here you can make your own glass and wander through the galleries containing all sorts of things from awesome and strange glass sculptures to ancient Egyptian pottery.