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Best of the Finger Lakes: Top Things To Do in the Finger Lakes

The Finger Lakes region is the East Coast’s best-kept secret. Find here the top things to do in the Finger Lakes.

Written by Carla from Travel By Carla Vianna

Located about four to five hours north of New York City, the Finger Lakes is a nature-rich destination known for its waterfalls, lakes, and wineries. Can you think of a better combo?

The top things to do in the Finger Lakes involve hiking through lush gorges, photographing beautiful waterfalls, and visiting lakefront vineyards. The best part is you can do it all on the same day.

While the Finger Lakes is one of the top road trip destinations in New York, it’s still a hidden gem compared with other over-explored places on the East Coast. 

Have I caught your attention yet? Read on to discover the best of the Finger Lakes, including the top things to do in this magical part of New York state.

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What Are The Finger Lakes?

The Finger Lakes is a well-known western Upstate New York destination known for its abundant waterfalls and excellent wine.

The region gets its name from 11 glacial lakes that almost look like fingers reaching down into New York state from Canada.

Its striking natural landscape makes it a big tourist attraction for outdoor enthusiasts. It’s also the premier wine destination on the East Coast, with at least 100 wineries to choose from.

Lucifer Falls
Lucifer Falls

How To Get To The Finger Lakes

The easiest way to get to the Finger Lakes is to take a road trip from New York or nearby cities.

If you’re coming from farther away, you can fly into Rochester or Syracuse airports in Upstate New York. You’ll then need to rent a car to drive over to the Finger Lakes.

Another option is to take a bus or a train. Whatever way to choose to get to the Finger Lakes, keep in mind that the region is best explored by car.

The best of the Finger Lakes attractions can be spread out among the many cities that make up the region, so having a car is ideal for making the most of your trip.

How Many Days Should You Spend in the Finger Lakes?

You should spend at least three days in Finger Lakes to really enjoy everything the region has to offer.

The Finger Lakes comprises several historic towns, parks, and lakes, each offering its own sights and attractions. If you have the time, you could fill an entire week with Finger Lakes activities.

Otherwise, a long weekend is a perfect amount of time to enjoy the area.

When To Go To The Finger Lakes?

The best times to visit the Finger Lakes are fall and spring.

In the fall, the main attraction is the changing leaves, which is best seen from the many parks in the region.

The spring, however, is when you’ll catch the waterfalls at their full potential. Waterfalls like Taughannock are powerfully flowing after March, whereas they tend to dry up in the summer.

Where To Stay In The Finger Lakes

There are so many different towns in the Finger Lakes, and they offer unique accommodation options. 

The best way to choose where to stay in the Finger Lakes is to map out all the things you want to do and pick the closest town.

For example, if you’re going to the Finger Lakes to hike the gorges, your best bet is to stay in Ithaca since it’s relatively close to all the best parks. If your main priority is wine tasting, you should consider staying somewhere along Seneca Lake.

Overall, the best towns to visit are Skaneateles, Watkins Glen, Ithaca, Geneva, and Corning.

Top Things To Do In The Finger Lakes

Whether you’re a wine connoisseur or a nature enthusiast, the Finger Lakes offers something for everyone.

The top things to do in the Finger Lakes run the gamut from hiking to touring historic buildings. Here are the top five Finger Lakes activities you can’t miss during your visit.

1. Visit The Best of Finger Lakes State Parks

Top Things To Do in the Finger Lakes Robert Thurman Gorge
Robert H. Thurman State Park

The Finger Lakes is home to some of the most beautiful parks in New York. Here are four state parks absolutely worth visiting:

  • Watkins Glen State Park: Watkins Glen is the most famous park in the Finger Lakes. The main attraction is the Gorge Trail, which takes you past nearly two dozen waterfalls in less than 2 miles.
  • Robert H. Thurman State Park: Robert Thurman has its own scenic Gorge Trail that takes you along a 115-foot waterfall in the middle of the forest.
  • Taughannock Falls State Park: The star of Taughannock Falls is the waterfall that goes by the same name. An easy walk through the woods takes you to the base of the tallest free-falling waterfall in the northeastern U.S.
  • Letchworth State Park: Letchworth is often called the “Grand Canyon of the East.” It’s one of the most scenic parks in the eastern U.S., with major waterfalls and 66 miles of hiking trails.

2. See The Waterfalls

Buttermilk Falls
Buttermilk Falls

The abundance of waterfalls (you can even find them on the side of the road!) makes the Finger Lakes one of the unique places to visit in New York. Many of the waterfalls can be easily reached without much effort, while others involve fun hikes.

If you can only visit one or two, make sure to pick from this list:

  • Taughannock Falls: This is the tallest free-falling waterfall in the northeastern U.S.
  • Lucifer Falls: You can view this 115-foot waterfall from all angles: from above, the side, and the ground. It cascades over a tall cliff in Robert H. Thurman State Park, and you might find people swimming at its base.
  • Ithaca Falls: Located just north of downtown Ithaca, this beautiful waterfall is one of the most accessible. The falls can be seen from the road, or up close after a short walk.
  • Buttermilk Falls: At Buttermilk, a long stream of waterfalls winds through a gorge, making small turquoise pools in between them.

3. Wine-Tasting on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail

Dozens of wineries can be found on the rolling green hills around Seneca Lake, making it the ideal place to explore the best of Finger Lakes wine.

Here are three wineries offering delicious local wine with stunning lake views:

  • Lamoreaux Landing: A three-generation family-run winery located on the banks of Seneca Lake. The winery grows its grapes on more than 112 acres giving way to wonderful Riesling, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Franc wines.
  • Chateau LaFayette Reneau: This winery is housed in a fully restored century-old barn on the east side of Seneca Lake. The vineyards stretch down the side of a hill with sweeping views over the lake, growing both white and red grape varieties. The vineyard offers a range of delicious wines, including Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. 
  • Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery: The founder of this winery is recognized for revolutionizing New York’s wine industry. Today the winery is known for its excellent Rieslings.
Taughannock Falls
Taughannock Falls

4. Learn About the Region’s Rich History

The Finger Lakes region was the base for several historical movements, from the Underground Railroad to the Women’s Rights Movement.

  • Harriet Tubman Home: You can tour the home of Harriet Tubman, a former slave and American abolitionist applauded for her efforts in the Underground Railroad. The home is located in Auburn, near Owasco Lake.
  • Women’s Rights National Historic Park: The Finger Lakes region is where the Women’s Rights Movement began. This park commemorates the first Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls in 1848. You can tour where the convention was held, as well as walk through the homes of the women who planned it.
  • Mark Twain Study: You can tour the spot where famed author Mark Twain wrote many of his books, including portions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The study can be found in Elmira, south of Seneca Lake.

5. Sightsee in the Best Finger Lakes Towns

Sunset in Ithaca on Cayuga Lake
Sunset in Ithaca on Cayuga Lake

The Finger Lakes region is blessed with historic small towns that have retained their charm over the years. Here are five of the most unique towns to visit:

  • Skaneateles: This charming, historic town dates back to the Revolutionary War. You’ll find plenty of local shops, restaurants, and bed-and-breakfasts, as well as the beautiful Skaneateles Lake, a good fishing and boating spot.
  • Ithaca: Home to Ithaca College and Cornell University, Ithaca is the quintessential college town. Its geographical location gives way to beautiful gorges, hiking trails, and waterfalls, including one right in the center of town. The town sits on Cayuga Lake, where you’ll find plenty of wineries.
  • Watking Glen: The town’s best attraction is the park that goes by the same name, where you’ll see over a dozen waterfalls in a beautiful trail leading through a gorge. It’s also renowned for racing at the Watkins Glen International racetrack. 
  • Corning: This small town is home to The Corning Museum of Glass, the world’s largest museum of glass art and artifacts. Travel + Leisure named the town’s historic Centerway Square one of “America’s Most Beautiful Town Squares.”
  • Geneva: Located on the northern tip of Seneca Lake, Geneva is a beautiful lakeside city with plenty of exciting restaurants, hotels, and bars. It’s the perfect lakefront vacation.

I hope this guide has helped you plan your own getaway to the Finger Lakes in New York. Whether you’re going for the waterfalls or the wine, I’m sure you’ll have a fantastic time!