Dotted with wineries, waterfalls, and small towns with interesting history, the Finger Lakes region in New York State makes a perfect weekend getaway. I headed there with a friend for a few days recently, and our itinerary was packed with adventures that any nature lover, foodie, or history buff would love! Here are some of my top picks to help you plan a few days in the southern Finger Lakes–no matter your style!
Where Are the Finger Lakes Located?
The Finger Lakes region is located in Upstate New York–stretching between Syracuse, Rochester, and the Pennsylvania border. The lakes are essentially a halfway point between New York City and Niagara Falls. It’s about a four- to six-hour drive from Philadelphia, New York City, or western Connecticut to various points in the Finger Lakes. It’s a great place to escape city life for a weekend–whether you’re looking to get back to nature, enjoy some delicious food and wine, or explore the history of the region.
How Many Finger Lakes Are There?
There are 11 Finger Lakes, which–as you can imagine–have a long and skinny shape that makes them look like fingers. There are a few stragglers in the area that could potentially be considered additional extremities, but for one reason or another, they haven’t made the traditional list.
- Canadice (smallest)
- Canandaigua (has the smallest island, Squaw Island)
- Cayuga (longest)
- Conesus (westernmost)
- Hemlock (least developed)
- Honeoye (shallowest)
- Keuka (only lake that runs north and south)
- Seneca (deepest)
- Skaneateles (only Finger Lake not connected to the Erie Canal System)
- Otisco (easternmost)
- Owasco (has both a cold water and a warm water fishery)
Find out more about how they were mapped (and the additional lakes that didn’t make the cut) here.
Finger Lakes Map
A down-to-earth weekend getaway for the nature lover
Watkins Glen, which is known for both race cars and waterfalls, is a great place to get outside and enjoy nature in the Finger Lakes.
Head out for an afternoon (or entire day) chasing waterfalls around the area. Watkins Glen State Park is a must-visit, but there are plenty of other waterfalls in the area that you’ll want to check out as well. Head to Shequaga Falls (no hiking required) and Havana Glen Park (short walk and five flights of stairs) in the nearby town of Montour Falls.
There are plenty of other falls in the area, so do your best to keep your eyes on the road as you drive. One local summed it up perfectly when she told me, “You can’t go down any side road without seeing a beautiful waterfall.” It’s not hyperbole–this area is a waterfall-lover’s dream.
Another stop on your weekend itinerary should be going out on horseback at Painted Bar Stables. I was admittedly a little nervous to go since I haven’t been horseback riding since I was in high school (and let’s just say that’s more than a couple years ago). But the owner Erika was phenomenal in her ability to teach and guide us along–perfectly balancing her knowledge and experience with a sense of humor that put us immediately at ease. The trails weave through fields and forests, and if you’re up for it, you might get to ford a stream.
Grab lunch at The Elf in the Oak, where you’ll hear the story of how this little restaurant got its name. Feeling thirsty? Head to Atwater Estate Vineyard and enjoy a wine tasting overlooking the vineyard that slopes down the hill toward Lake Seneca. If wine isn’t your thing or you’re just craving a scenic drive, head out to Cider Creek for a hard cider tasting. Enjoy live music on Saturday nights, a cool vibe inside their tasting room and bar, or hang out around the fire ring outside. They’ve got plenty of their own ciders on tap, craft beers and wines from New York State, and a small food menu.
A weekend getaway for the foodie
Being that I come from a small town, I typically expect more “rustic” food options when I venture away from the city. And don’t get me wrong, I love those homey restaurants for the taste of local life they show you. But if you want some amazing food to pair with all the Finger Lakes wine you’ll be tasting, you won’t be disappointed–whether you’re a connoisseur of fine foods or just a wannabe foodie like myself.
Committed to sourcing their menu locally as much as possible, GRAFT Wine + Cider Bar is a must-visit restaurant in Watkins Glen. You may even end up sitting at the bar next to the owner, Ted Marks, in a serendipitous encounter and spend the evening chatting away–if you’re lucky!
If you’re in Watkins Glen from May – September and need a break from all the eating, head out on a mushroom farm tour at Hawk Meadow Farm for a few hours to see how owners Steve and Anne grow and harvest shiitake mushrooms. Truly, they bring your respect for this one ingredient–and the whole ecology of the forest–to a new level. If you want a taste of what local chefs are creating with these mushrooms, Steve and Anne will be happy to share which restaurants are buying their products this season.
When you’re ready for a little wine tasting, head to the tasting room at Heron Hill Winery, which sits on top of a hill overlooking the vineyard and Keuka Lake. Although my visit here was quick, this tasting room stands out as being particularly beautiful. I was impressed by their respect for the land and commitment to environmental sustainability. They don’t use chemical fertilizers, herbicides, or insecticides and opt to control weeds mechanically. Among other sustainable growing practices, they follow the “happy rule”: Happy soil > Happy ecology > Happy vines > Happy grapes > Happy wine > Happy people!
For the ultimate foodie experience, head to Pleasant Valley Inn in Hammondsport, where you can take part in getting your food from farm-to-table by booking a special package with the inn (available seasonally). After a freshly made breakfast–think homemade bagels, perfect scrambled eggs, and Concord grapes from across the road–you’ll head to a local farm to pick produce that will be used by the chef to prepare a special for your dinner at the inn that evening.
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A weekend getaway for the history buff (or historically curious)
Exploring the history of a place can be woven into any itinerary, and it’s not just for destinations like Philadelphia or Boston–every town is full of stories from the past. I’m a big believer that understanding local history is an important part of responsible travel because it helps you more deeply engage with culture.
Head to Montour Falls for a relaxed walking tour of the historic district known as the “Glorious T.” Follow along on the walking tour map, which you can pick up at the library, to learn a little about the town and its historic buildings. Best of all, the center of town is a park with a towering waterfall behind it, which makes for a fun and scenic stop. Head into The Brick Tavern Museum, where you can learn about local history as well as the interesting past of the oldest building in Schuyler County–from its days as a tavern on the stagecoach route to becoming a boarding house at the Select School for Boys.
If you’re interested in aviation history, head to the Glenn Curtiss Museum, where you’ll learn about how Curtiss’ curiosity and obsession with speed led him from racing bicycles, to tinkering with motorcycles, and eventually building aircraft–and earned him the title of “Fastest Man on Earth” for several years.
For a great wine tasting experience near Keuka Lake with a bit of history, Dr. Frank’s Winery is a must-visit. Dr. Konstantin Frank immigrated to the United States from Europe in the 1950s, and he was convinced that it wasn’t the cold climate that prevented European grapes from growing in the U.S. By grafting native root stock to European vinifera grape vines, he was the first to successfully grow these grape varieties in the northeastern United States, and he was instrumental in the development of the Finger Lakes as a world-class wine region.
For an immersive experience that will bring appreciation for the artistic craft of glassmaking, you’ll definitely want to hit up the Corning Museum of Glass. Whether you have kids or are a group of adults, starting your time there with a hands-on glassmaking experience will set the stage and bring an immense appreciation for the artistic ability and many hours that go into creating glass pieces. Throughout the museum, you’ll see contemporary art, learn about the science of glass making through interactive exhibits and live demos, and stroll through 35 centuries of glassmaking from around the world.
Where to stay in the southern Finger Lakes
Boutique hotel: Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel
Modern country inn: Pleasant Valley Inn
Are you a nature lover, foodie, or history buff–or a little of all three? Which of these stops sounds most interesting to you? Let me know in the comments!
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