Ithaca, N.Y., is the kind of destination where the usual summer fun is on tap—there are plenty of spots to hike, bike, swim, shop, and dine—yet the two-college city (Cornell University and Ithaca College) feels homey, a place where its 30k+ full-time residents and the student population work, play, and live side-by-side. Fortunately for the 1.6 million visitors between May 2019 and 2020 to the Commons, the area’s busiest shopping and dining district, the locals like to share their secrets.
We booked an Airbnb for a few nights in early September and drove the 5.5 hours from Wellesley. Our goals: to see Ithaca’s famous gorges, enjoy some good meals, bike the safe and scenic Rail Trail up to Taughannock Falls (the tallest waterfall on the East Coast), hike the beautiful Robert H. Treman State Park, visit the Johnson Museum of Art on the Cornell University campus, and more. You don’t go to Ithaca to experience the fall “shoulder season,” that period of time after the crush of tourists has gone home and you can finally get into all the cool restaurants and attractions. You just go to visit Ithaca. If you want a party scene, it’s there for you, somewhere. Certainly the red solo cups littered around student rental houses after a Saturday night debauch attest to that. It’s just not in your face, demanding your attention and participation. (We’re still kinda exhausted from last year’s adventure to Block Island, a rock-on place if ever there was one.)
Working out the kinks
After being in the car for so long, we were eager to stretch our legs. We went straight to the Fall Creek Gorge suspension bridge, a part of the Cornell campus, where we walked 140 feet over the rushing water, alongside students on their way to class. There’s a small parking area at 310 Fall Creek Dr. After walking over the bridge, there are plenty of paths along the water for additional exploration.
We were told ahead of time that the beauty of the bridges was marred by fencing and safety netting that was put in place in 2010 after a long history of people jumping from the Fall Creek Gorge and other nearby bridges. We found that the unobtrusive netting couldn’t grab attention from the roar of the water and the natural beauty of the scene. When you consider that before safety measures were installed, 27 people died by suicide between 1990 and 2010 (including 15 students) by jumping from the five area bridges, the protective measures seem a small price to pay.
The Commons, dining and shopping
Ithaca Commons is the area’s hot hangout scene, a place to catch a movie at the Cinemapolis Art House Theater, or visit Buffalo Street Books to browse volumes on two floors, and their basement collection of vinyl. We peeked into the iconic Chanticleer, but the landmark corner dive-bar looked too cool for the likes of us. We didn’t want to go in and risk altering the vibe. Lots of indie shops and restaurants gave the two-block pedestrian mall an authentic feel. You couldn’t just as well have been in Faneuil Hall. The Commons is all Ithaca, from the head shops to the outdoors store to upscale artisans shops and restaurants. Not much in the way of chains here.
Down the street a couple of blocks from The Commons is the famous Moosewood Restaurant, which we tried out our first night in town. The vegetarian eatery is under new ownership since earlier this year. Danica Wilcox and her husband Nicholas, after living in Spain for many years, came home to take over the restaurant where Danica long ago was hired for her first job in the Moosewood kitchen. We sat outside on the lovely brick patio and watched the street scene go by. Our servers, both local students— one experienced and one in-training acolyte—were attentive and able to answer our questions about the dishes on the curated, seasonal menu. The choices included five apps, a few salads, several mains, and three side dishes, all vegetarian, with vegan and gluten-free options. I tried out the strozzapreti pasta (similar to penne) with shiitake and oyster mushrooms, baby spinach, sherry cream, gremolata, and parmesan. The dish, unfortunately, was bland and barely sauced. Moosewood is the kind of place where there are no salt and pepper shakers on the table, and I was determined to eat dinner as it was served for the purposes of this story. I doggy-bagged most of the meal and doctored it the next day on my Airbnb’s hotplate. A dash of seasoning and a little cream brought the strozzapreti to life, making it what it surely would have been if the chef’s final tasting hadn’t somehow been missed. Mr. Swellesley dared try his historic first black bean burger, and lived to tell about it. Who knows what the future could bring for his limited palate.
The lemon tahini broccoli and the spicy coconut curry we’re told are two must-try items. Homemade desserts include their famous fudge brownie. Wines and beers, some local, as well as a selection of creative non-alcoholic drinks such as ginger tea and fresh-squeezed lemonade, are available in this restaurant, which offers nice ambience in a convivial downtown location.
It’s all uphill from here
We made a quest out of our desire to see Taughannock Falls, a 215-foot waterfall billed as the highest vertical drop waterfall in the northeastern United States. Ithaca Bike Rental, located in view of the 45k-acre Cayuga Lake, outfitted us in good-quality bikes up to the task of taking us along a scenic paved
path that led us to The Rail Trail’s Black Diamond Trail. When we heard “black diamond” our first thought was uh-oh, is this going to be trouble, like the time we accidentally ended up skiing a black diamond trail at Sunday River? Not even close. We crushed the 8.5 miles of gentle incline on the stone-dust path leading to the Falls area, and sailed down the remaining 8.5 miles on our way back.
In normal conditions, riders are treated to a view of seven waterfalls on their way up to Taughannock Falls, but drought had dried the cascades to mere trickles. Still, there was plenty to look at during the hour or so it took us to ride the first part of the trail. The Cayuga Lake views were beautiful, and we passed many farms, some small and others that looked like fully realized homesteads. The path is also popular with hikers and, in the winter, cross-country skiiers. And most importantly, Taughannock Falls did not disappoint, and shouldn’t me missed if you go.
We ate lunch on a bench overlooking the falls, which a dozen or so birds of prey kept criss-crossing.
After the work we did to pedal up, the ride down was a breeze, and we felt quite accomplished after finishing the 16-mile round-trip adventure. If you want to see Taughannock Falls without biking there, parking is available nearby, and a short path through the woods offers fine viewing areas. The area is also accessible by public bus transportation.
Robert H. Treman State Park
We highly recommend a stop at the Robert H. Treman State Park, where hikers can find easy or strenuous paths. There’s an amazing swimming hole that was closed for the season when we were there, and remains on our list of must-do things should we ever find our way to this area again.
We bypassed the main entrance where a campground is located, driving a few additional miles to the less-crowded upper lot, where the old historic mill is located. We then hiked a 5-mile loop, starting at the Rim Trail and coming back via the Gorge Trail. The hundreds of stone steps are an amazing part of the experience, built between 1933 and 1942 by workers of the Civilian Conservations Corps, according to a plaque in the mill. The cliff staircase on the South Rim Trail has 222 beautiful stone steps. Lucifer Falls, and the gorge that is a part of the falls, is the most impressive of the dozen waterfalls along that loop. The views as we wound our way along paths in the shadow of massive natural stone walls were spectacular. Our hike wasn’t always easy, and took us a little over two hours.
A little local food, some art
The Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art on the Cornell campus is worth a stop, if you can find parking. The 20 or so spots outside the museum were taken when we visited, and we hear that’s the usual. As you can tell, we don’t mind walking, so we parked about five-minute walk away. Admission to the museum is free.
The historic I.M. Pei building holds 40K works of art, and its 5th-floor Asian art collection is well regarded. We were also taken with the views of Cayuga Lake, the campus, and the surrounding area, all framed by enormous floor-to-ceiling windows. If you’re a houseplant lover, make sure you see the massive jade plant basking in the sunniest of spots up there. Pop outside to the sculpture patio, which has a site-specific installation of patterned lights called Cosmos, by Leo Villareal. Villareal’s creation honors Carl Sagan, who was a professor of astronomy at Cornell for almost 30 years.
Finally, the Farmer’s Market on Lake Cayuga was really special, and something we wouldn’t have known about if a local resident hadn’t waxed so eloquent about its charms. Over 100 vendors in three categories (agriculture, food, artisan) set up their stalls each weekend underneath a long pavilion. Fruits, vegetables, eggs, meats & chicken, cheeses, honey, maple syrup, textiles, wood crafts, and more are available. To be included, every vendor must grow or produce their wares within 30 miles of the pavilion, and go through an application and jurying process to guarantee quality.
The pavilion is in frequent use for events, as well. As we bought a knit hat, the young employee sighed happily as she remembered dancing at her senior prom in the Farmers Market under twinkle lights. Earlier in the week as we passed by on our bikes, wedding planners were busy with flower displays and table settings. This attraction, well-loved by locals who happily support their neighbors, was well worth the visit.
The open-air market is open Saturdays from April – December and Sundays from May – November.