How to Plan a World Class Vacation in the Finger Lakes
When it comes to planning a world class Finger Lakes vacation, you’re in luck! From incredible scenery to fantastic wineries, there’s so much to do and see, your real concern will be narrowing thing down.
This post is in collaboration with Finger Lakes Wine Country. All opinions are my own.
I’ll never turn down a chance to return to the Finger Lakes. Ever since I went to a conference in Corning a few years ago, I’ve been a fan of this seriously underrated destination. It covers a ton of ground in New York and is constantly changing with new small businesses, wineries, and restaurants, so no two visits will ever quite be the same.
A big bonus is that it’s now the perfect middle ground for meeting up with one of my favorite travel friends, Alyshia from A Girl En Route. Since she lives in Toronto, and I live in Philly, it only takes both of us about 3-4 hours by car! When we realized she had a free week in October and the fall foliage was going to be around peak colors, we decided it’d be the perfect time to go.
Based on our trip, here’s a little Finger Lakes vacation guide to help you plan your own!
Tips for Your Finger Lakes Vacation
Best Time to Visit
The Finger Lakes, like much of New York and the U.S. Northeast, experience all four seasons. I would say the best (but also the busiest) seasons are both summer and autumn. The peak time to visit is in the summer between June and August, so if you do want to go then, you’ll want to book everything in advance.
I’ve been in September, October, and January, and I’d say my absolute favorite so far has been October. The entire region is awash in bright red, orange, and golden hues, and it really just makes the place a bit more beautiful than it already was.
How Long You’ll Need
It depends on how much you want to see in one go. I would say at least a weekend to enjoy a few spots and mainly stay in one town. However, to get a good, full experience, plan for anywhere up to a week if not longer.
How to Get into the Finger Lakes
The best way to get here is by car. From Philly and Toronto, it’s around four hours or less. If you’re coming from further away and want to fly in, the easiest airports to use are near Corning and Elmira. From there, you can rent a car.
How to Get Around & Tips for Parking
By car. It’s really the only way. A lot of places are sometimes 15+ minutes apart if you drive, and there’s no signs of public transportation that I’ve seen. Even if there was, you’re going to want to have a car so you can stop off and admire the views whenever you want!
Where to Go in the Finger Lakes (A-Z)
Keep in mind the Finger Lakes region is massive, so depending on how long you have, I’d stick to one area within. If it’s your first time to the region, here’s where I’d visit:
- Parking: Plenty of spots along the main road, all free.
You know, I’m just saying it here – Bath is a very underrated little town. Sharing a name with the famous English town, it was founded by William Pulteney in 1793 and is most known for having the longest continuously running county fair in the United States.
Plan a morning visit here that starts with breakfast at The Chat-A-Whyle Restaurant and ends with a visit to Betty-Kay Bake Shop. In between, stroll along the downtown and head towards Pulteney Square. If you can time it correctly, visit the First Presbyterian Church and see one of eight Tiffany glass sanctuaries in the entire country. They were closed when I was there, so I could only admire from the outside.
- Parking: As the busiest town in the region, parking can be a bit of a challenge. I suggest leaving your car at your hotel lot and walking around.
- Stay: The Hilton Garden Inn Corning Downtown is by the Museum of Glass and has some cool views. I’d also look into Gaffer Inn or Rosewood Inn for something more boutique.
The way I see it, Corning is like the belle of the ball when it comes to the Finger Lakes. If you come for a weekend, this is the town you want to stay in. It really rose to prominence when it became home to a number of glass factories. These factories would go on to produce everything from everyday products like Pyrex storage sets to artistic creations like Tiffany’s Glass.
There’s honestly so many cool things to do in Corning that you could fill up a weekend not leaving. As far as food goes, know that breakfast places are fairly limited but Popplepon Bakery is absolutely adorable and full of delicious options. If you want a bit of a fancy night out, head to The Quincy Exchange. Bonus: There’s no tipping here. They make a note of it with your check, and there’s not even a receipt line to give you the option. Another place we were recommended was Hand + Foot. The menu is small but tasty, especially the fried buttermilk chicken sandwich. And for those that don’t mind driving out a bit, Rye Restaurant over in Elmira is absolutely phenomenal.
Fun Fact: Corning has a wineglass marathon in the fall!
- Parking: Plenty of free parking along the main road.
Hammondsport was once called the coolest small town in America. It’s probably the smallest spot we visited. I mainly stopped here to meet Alyshia before we went down further to Owego. The church looks especially pretty with all the foliage, and I do have to say this is the one place I found a cat hanging out outside!
Vern’s Bakery is the most delightful place ever, and Vern himself is as friendly as his pastries are flavorsome. If you’re lucky you might meet his very cute pup too. Nearby is the very cool Glenn H. Curtiss Aviation Museum and then a little further up is Dr. Frank Konstantin Winery. Next time I go, I want to visit both but we ran out of time!
If you’re coming from Ontario, this is a great spot to visit on your way back up to break up the drive.
- Parking: If you’re not staying here, there’s a 3 hour lot right next to the City Hall as well as plenty of 2 hour street parking.
- Stay: I’ve loved both my stays at the historic 1867 Parkview Inn and Belva Lockwood Inn. Both have incredible customer service and are in great downtown locations.
I love, love, love Owego. If I were ever to move to the Finger Lakes with a husband, this is where I’d push for us to move. For such a small town, it’s practically brimming with activity and even in the three times I’ve been, I’ve found somewhere new to go.
Be sure to get breakfast at The Owego Kitchen before wandering to the downtown boutique stores. The vintage shops were closed when we went but they looked like they had the coolest treasures from the window. There’s also a fantastic antique shop where you could spend an hour looking at all the bits and bops they offer.
Of course, my absolute favorite place is the Riverow Bookshop. Three, count ’em, three floors of books. The whole basement is a bargain section too.
Grab coffee and lunch at the really lovely Carol’s Coffee & Art Bar. There was live music when I went. Normally, I’m 50/50 on liking live music, but it was so peaceful, and the singer was so lovely, I actually enjoyed it. The coffee is top notch and the flavor options are endless.
Some other places I’ve loved are MJ’s Bar + Restaurant, especially for dinner, and The Cellar Restaurant.
- Parking: Skip the main parking lot for Watkin Glen State Park which costs like $20. You can park literally across the street for free for 2 hours, and you do not need 2 hours to see the park.
- Stay: I’ve only had breakfast there, but the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel would be my top pick.
Watkins Glen is a very cute town south of Seneca Lake. It has two major claims to fame. The first is its role in auto racing, especially its Watkins Glen International race track.
The other is the magical Watkins Glen State Park. Follow the Gorge Trail to see all of the park’s 19 waterfalls and, what I think, are some of the prettiest landscapes you’ll see during your Finger Lakes vacation. The trail is easy and short; just be prepared to climb a decent amount of stairs and wear waterproof shoes.
Nearby, grab a bite at Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel, The Elf in the Oak, or Glen Mountain Market Bakery. Don’t forget to snap a photo at Seneca Harbor. And if you’re going later in the day, Wagner Vineyards is supposed to be great for wine and Horseheads Brewing Seneca Lake for beer.
- Parking: Park at your hotel or ask for guidance. It looks like there’s a lot of street parking but the signs are out of date, so some places are actually blocked off at certain times. If you get a ticket, you can only pay via cash or check, and to fight it, you have to appear in court only on Mondays.
- Stay: We LOVED The Laurentide Inn! It’s in a very cute historical home that’s painted yellow and kind of reminds of me of Plumfield in 1994’s Little Women. There are rooms in the inn but also suites and we stayed in the Carriage House Loft which is actually separate from the inn and over their onsite brewery.
Just north of Keuka Lake, Penn Yan gets its name from “Pennsylvania” and “Yankee” as a reference to where settlers came from in the early days. It’s a great base town to explore the area around Keuka Lake and nearby. As a bonus, you may see some Amish and Mennonites in their horse and buggies as you drive around!
In town, grab dinner at Laurentide Inn’s restaurant, True Roots Kitchen before grabbing a beer at their brewery. For breakfast walk over to Amity Coffee or Penn Yan Diner. Stroll along the Keuka Outlet Trail to see a waterfall, and on your way, check out the world’s largest gridle!
Head out of downtown Penn Yan and do a little tasting at Red Tail Ridge Winery. What makes this spot so unique, besides it being the only LEED-gold certified green winery in New York, is that one of its co-founders, Nancy, has a scientific background that includes a PhD in grape genetics.
Once you’ve finished your wine tasting, head nearby to San’s Dumpling for lunch. The dumplings are made from scratch and absolutely delicious. There’s a reason this tiny, take-out spot has gained something of a cult following! While it’s takeout only, there are a few picnic benches outside if the weather is nice. The eatery is located on the same property as Kemmeter Wines, so you could also reserve a tasting there and then coordinate to have your dumplings waiting fresh for you once you’ve finished.
Another gem in the area is the aptly named Sweet Farm. This non-profit farm is both a climate and animal sanctuary as they focus on four key programs – farm animal rescue and rehabilitation, sustainable, regenerative agriculture, plant-based living, and eco-friendly technology start-up incubation. Book a tour to learn more and say hi to all the happy creatures on this farm and keep an eye on their website for upcoming events. Plus, as another accommodation option, you can also stay at the Sweet Farm House across the road.
NOTE: There are SO many other towns I still want to spend more time in, so this is by no means a complete list!
What to Do in the Finger Lakes
Visit wineries, of course.
I mean it would be deeply silly of me to not name this as the number one thing to do in the Finger Lakes. The place is known for its wine, particularly riesling, and many of the wine owners here are deeply passionate about their business. The whole place is home to over a hundred wineries and at one point driving around Seneca Lake, I swear we saw one every few seconds.
Ok, try some breweries too
The region may not be known for its beer, but there are quite a few breweries sprinkled around for those that prefer their alcohol to come from wheat and not grapes. We stopped off at Tin Barn Brewing while driving along Seneca Lake, and I’ve heard good things about Grist Iron Brewing.
Indulge in ALL the good food
Foodies delight, there are some seriously incredible restaurants in the Finger Lakes. You’ve got a great mix of classic spots that’ve been here for decades as well as many city transplants hoping to add variety to the culinary scene. Each time I’ve been, I can’t say I’ve had a bad meal or experience.
I made this reel which highlights a bunch of places from my last trip, and then there are a ton of comments with even more suggestions!
Guys, I cannot emphasize this enough – get outside, especially when the leaves are turning colors. Between all the farms, parks, trails, charming downtowns, and outdoor seating options, it’s almost impossible not to get outside if you want to.
I suggest asking your hotel for some nearby trail recommendations if you want to go for a nice walk or run when you arrive to a new town.
Chase some waterfalls
Admittedly, this is one that I haven’t had a chance to do as much of, but the Finger Lakes are home to tons of waterfalls. If you only have time to do one, I recommend the Gorge Trail at Watkins Glen State Park. It’s pretty magical.
Enjoy farm life
As you might expect from the countryside aspect of the region, there are plenty of farms sprinkled all throughout. The easiest way to do this is to make sure you visit a farm-to-table restaurant or a farmer’s market.
If you’re in Owego, Iron Kettle Farm is mere minutes away by car. They have different events all year round, and when we went in autumn, they had the most incredible festival set-up. It’s got all the fall classics from pumpkins to apple cider to hay rides and little rides. The part that absolutely delighted me, though, was their set-up in the front yard. They took all these pumpkins and turned them into famous characters from movies and nursery rhymes!
And of course, I already mentioned how much I loved Sweet Farm up in Penn Yan.
Visit some world class museums
For those of you that love a good museum when traveling, you won’t be disappointed in the Finger Lakes’ offerings. In Corning specifically, you have two fantastic options, and they even have a free shuttle that runs in between!
Located downtown in Old City Hall, The Rockwell Museum focuses on art inspired by the American experience and how that definition is consistently expanding. It’s truly impressive how much care the curators take in introducing new exhibits and engaging in the local community. Don’t forget to walk around nearby and see the murals from their Alley Art Project.
Across the river sits the incredible Corning Museum of Glass which is all about, you guessed it, the history of glass! Wander around the exhibits to learn more and check out the many demonstrations happening through the day. For a really cool souvenir, sign-up for a “Make Your Own Glass” workshop. We walked away with some very pretty glass pumpkins for the autumn season.
Wander through the cute towns
As you can see from the towns above, the Finger Lakes is brimming with the kind of small towns that could give Stars Hollow a run for its money. With historic architecture, charming downtowns, and locals passionate about their small businesses, it’s always worth setting aside a morning to wander around. Just make sure it’s the morning – like most small towns around the world, these businesses close up shop early!
One of my favorite things about small towns is all the small businesses that make up their downtowns. You won’t find many chain and franchise options in the Finger Lakes, which means there’s always a ton of opportunity to find some real hidden gems. I always like to make time for vintage and antique shops as well as local boutiques and, of course, any thing with sweets.
FAQ for Your Finger Lakes Vacation
The summer through the fall. I’m partial to the fall because the foliage is truly stunning and it’s less crowded than in the summer.
Absolutely. It’s such a pretty and underrated wine region with a lot to do even if you’re a non-drinker.
Give yourself at least a weekend depending on how much ground you want to cover. To really travel around, plan for a week or more.
I haven’t been to all of them to say definitively, but from where I’ve been the most beautiful are Seneca Lake or Cayuga Lake.
And there you have it – a complete guide to planning the perfect, world class Finger Lakes vacation. Anywhere I should make sure to visit on my next trip?
For more U.S. Northeast travel, read these posts next:
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- 26 Unique Things to Do in Portland, Maine
- Belleayre Skiing: What to Expect, Where to Stay, and More
- Is Niagara Falls Worth Visiting in the Winter?
- Pennsylvania Bucket List: 97 Places to Visit
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