Occasionally, when I tell people I’m from New York, their reaction is something along the lines of, “But you don’t sound like you’re from New York.” I wonder, have they forgotten there’s a whole state beyond the Big Apple?
But upstate New York, with its majestic mountains, abundance of lakes, and charming small towns, is anything but forgettable as anyone who has been to the region knows. For those who haven’t yet visited, or want to see more of it, here are 20 of the best places to visit in upstate New York.
Conesus Lake is the westernmost Finger Lake, drawing crowds every year for its July 3rd Ring of Fire, when 10,000 flares are lit along its periphery as fireworks explode overhead. Nearby, the tiny hamlet of Lakeville is home to the Little Lake Brewing brewery, one of the stops along the new Livingston Libation Loop that maps out wineries, cideries, and craft microbreweries around the county. While there, don’t miss the recently installed street murals and art along the 90-mile self-guided Inspirations Trail.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame is just one of the notable attractions worth visiting in this quaint New York village. The Fenimore Art Museum, built on land once owned by novelist James Fenimore Cooper, features an impressive collection of American art, and the Glimmerglass Festival, held each summer, lures opera lovers from far and wide. Visitors to nearby Howe Caverns (about 38 miles east), can go caving or spelunking at New York state’s second-most visited natural attraction.
Letchworth State Park
Known as the “Grand Canyon of the East,” Letchworth State Park features an impressive gorge carved out over centuries by the Genesee River. You’ll find dozens of camera-ready waterfalls where the river dramatically crashes down along shale, limestone, and sandstone cliffs that rise 550 feet at their highest point. A recently built Autism Nature Trail, the first in the country designed for people on the autism spectrum, includes eight marked sensory stations spread across a one-mile loop.
In addition to the iconic Niagara Falls, the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center is worth a stop to learn more about the history of the Underground Railroad, which often culminated at the Canadian border. Learn about Harriet Tubman and local heroes like John Morrison. The museum’s permanent exhibit, “One More River to Cross,” received the 2019 Award of Excellence from the American Association for State and Local History.
Located at the southwestern end of Chautauqua Lake, Jamestown is best known as the hometown of comedienne Lucille Ball. Visitors with an appreciation of comedy should pop by the National Comedy Center — the first museum dedicated to the art of comedy. For something more intellectual, the renowned Chautauqua Institution is a short drive up the lake, and each summer features speakers, performers, and programs focused on the “exploration of the best in human values and the enrichment of life.”
About an hour south of Buffalo, in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, this quaint village exudes charm as witnessed by the well-preserved and restored homes and buildings dating back to the 19th century. It’s also where western New York sports enthusiasts and skiers go to mountain bike, hike, or slalom down the 60 slopes and trails at neighboring Holiday Valley Resort.
Situated at the north end of Cayuga Lake, this historic spot is believed to be the inspiration for the town of Bedford Falls in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Most notably, though, is the important role it played in the women’s rights movement, having hosted the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848. The town’s Convention Days (each July) attract crowds, and the Women’s Rights National Historical Park is worth visiting, too. You can also toast to the suffragettes while wine tasting along one of the many nearby Finger Lakes wine trails.
This affluent town (pronounced skinny-atlas) whose name means “long lake” in native Iroquois is another central New York destination known for its wine tasting and fall foliage. It’s also a favorite among avid cyclists who come to pedal the 32-mile trail around the lake. Each year, starting Thanksgiving weekend, the town hosts its annual Dickens Christmas celebration with live entertainment, horse and wagon rides, and a cast of Dickensian characters.
Few lakes around New York state are known for scuba diving, so visitors are often surprised to discover that certified divers can explore 18th-century shipwrecks at the bottom of Lake George, including the oldest intact warship in North America. Vacationers flock to this town in the Adirondack region each summer, and the crowds can get thick, but there’s also plenty of winter fun to be had, including snowshoeing and a family-focused carnival every February.
The Adirondack Mountains have beckoned city dwellers for centuries, including tycoons like the Guggenheims and Vanderbilts, who owned rustic yet luxurious compounds known as the Great Camps. The Point, once a Rockefeller Great Camp, still welcomes guests with all-inclusive stays that harken back to that time, complete with black-tie dinners. The resort is near the village of Saranac Lake, nestled between the mountains and lakes and filled with inviting boutiques, galleries, and restaurants.
Not only is Ithaca a top-notch college town, but it’s also a natural wonderland with breathtaking gorges, parks, and waterfalls, like Taughannock Falls, with a height three times that of Niagara Falls. There’s an abundance of activities around the city, too, including a botanical garden, boat tours, wine trails, and a self-guided Discovery Trail that highlights local history, astronomy, and earth science. Rumor has it that it was also the birthplace of the ice cream sundae.
Watkins Glen and Montour Falls
In upstate New York, many destinations are defined by their proximity to one of the state’s lakes — and so it is, with Watkins Glen, found on the southern end of Seneca Lake. Best known for its legendary auto-racing history, the Watkins Glen International racetrack has played host to countless races, from the Grand Prix to Nascar to Formula One. It’s also a good jumping-off point to hit the Seneca Lake Wine Trail, which stretches along the length of the lake and is the largest wine trail in the Finger Lakes.
Just because Saratoga Springs is already known as a popular vacation destination doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. There’s something classically old-school about spending a day at the races at the famous Saratoga Race Course or at Saratoga Spa State Park, which is a National Historic Landmark. The art scene is solid, too, with impressive productions at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the Spa Little Theatre, and other venues.
The U.S.-Canadian border snakes through the St. Lawrence River, zigzagging through the spectacular Thousand Islands archipelago where the river meets Lake Ontario. The archipelago consists of about 1,800 islands, from small and craggy to large and lush. Visitors converge here each summer and fall to soak up views of picture-perfect lighthouses and dramatic castles, including the never-inhabited Boldt Castle. On the nearby mainland, towns include Clayton, Cape Vincent, and Sackets Harbor, the latter of which has been designated a New York State Heritage Area.
An affluent upstate New York community, Pittsford is a charmer set on the banks of the Erie Canal. This year, the town — and many others along the path of this historic waterway that connects the Atlantic with the Great Lakes — celebrates its bicentennial with special programming. That includes a twilight boat tour on the Sam Patch, a replica 1800s packet boat. Come summer, visitors and locals dine at Schoen Place overlooking the canal, then line up for homemade ice cream at Pittsford Farms Dairy & Bakery. Other attractions include neighboring Mendon Ponds Park and The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester.
In the eastern Adirondacks, not far from Lake Champlain and the Vermont border, Ausable Chasm is a two-mile-long sandstone gorge carved out 500 million years ago. It’s another ideal destination for chasing waterfalls (particularly the cascading Rainbow Falls) and exploring the Adirondacks on its many hiking and adventure trails. It’s also a stone’s throw from the North Star Underground Railroad Museum, which tells the stories of slaves seeking freedom at the Canadian border, located about an hour north by car.
Dia Beacon, a celebrated collection of contemporary art, brought a lot of attention — and visitors — to this city on the banks of the Hudson River. And with that attention came more appreciation for the many other galleries, shops, cafés, breweries, and antique stores that have taken up residence on its magnetic Main Street. Trek to the top of Mount Beacon or book a boat tour to Pollepel Island (known locally as Bannerman Island), which Native Americans believed was inhabited by haunted, hostile spirits.
About a three-hour drive from New York City, this mountain town welcomes adventurers with its multitude of endorphin-producing activities, including the fastest and longest zip-line canopy tour in North America. There’s a charming Main Street in this “gem of the Catskills,” with inviting boutiques, bistros, and galleries. In August 2022, the Wylder Windham hotel reopened with a pickleball court, heated pool, and wine tastings every weekend.
Don’t write off Buffalo just because of its infamous winter weather. The city continues to evolve as a tourism destination, with the recent restoration of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House, a restored historic carousel on the Buffalo Waterfront, and a big expansion of the Buffalo AKG Art Museum (previously known as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery).
Since we’re highlighting towns around New York’s Finger Lakes, Oneida Lake and the village of Sylvan Beach deserve a shout-out, too. It’s a great option for a classic upstate summer vacation, where visitors can spend the day at the town’s old-timey amusement park, kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding, or simply relaxing lakeside with a bottle of local vino. Another way to while away the day is on the water: Rent a cottage at the new Cove at Sylvan Beach, where each rental includes a private pontoon boat.