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