Indulge All Your Senses While Exploring this Dynamic City
On a sunny four-day weekend my husband, my guide dog, and I visited Rochester, New York for the first time. We immersed ourselves in the art, architecture, history, entertainment, food, and libations of this upstate New York city. And by the time we left, we had fallen in love with the city and all it has to offer. If Rochester isn’t on your radar yet, here’s what you’re missing.
Getting to Know Rochester
In order to get a sense of Rochester’s many fascinating attributes and friendly population, take a walking, bus, water or peddle tour. We opted for the latter: an architecture tour with Rochester Pedal Tours.
A group of us peddled a bicycle built for 12 while our knowledgable and entertaining guide steered. He described some of Rochester’s historic buildings and houses. For our part, we drank beer and whooped at drivers tooting their horns at us and at friendly passersby. Our guide introduced us to small parks and large murals.
He told of events and people that shaped the Rochester we see today. We stopped to explore some of the buildings and to experience a small portion of Rochester’s 12,000 Acres of Parkland. Our guide’s patter was engagingly descriptive, so I never felt I was missing anything.
Another way to get up close and personal with Rochester is to attend one of the city’s over 140 Festivals & Events. Fringe Festival 2018 was in full swing during our visit, and we found ourselves in the middle of a giant massaoke at Parcel 5, an enormous outdoor venue. A live band played familiar favorites like “September” and “Don’t Stop Believing”, while hundreds of happy folks danced and joined in a massive singalong with the help of lyrics on a giant screen. As twilight descended, we wandered around, chatted with fellow revelers, and left for our delightfully comfortable room at the Hyatt Regency Rochester feeling tired but buoyant.
Fringe Festival 2019 will take place September 10 – 21.
Marvel at the Past and Play in the Present at Rochester’s Museums
Rochester winters bring snow. At other times of the year it does rain. Although we saw neither during our visit, we wouldn’t have missed these four indoor attractions, and neither should you.
Memorial Art Gallery
Constructed on a 14-acre campus, Rochester’s Memorial Gallery houses an impressive permanent collection of over 12,000 paintings, sculptures and artifacts. The collection spans more than 5,000 years of art history.
The paintings would have been completely lost to me had our docent not described several of them. She showed us a painting that had been stolen by the Nazis during World War II, recovered, and purchased by the gallery. Another – an original Rembrandt that hung in the home of George Eastman – had been cut out of its frame and stolen. The painting was on its way to Canada when a lucky tip-off brought the police down on the thieves.
On the second floor, we were introduced to ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman artifacts, art from medieval times, and from the renaissance, as well as contemporary works. The Gallery’s collection is not touchable, but Centennial Sculpture Park is located on the Memorial Gallery campus. There you can let your fingers do the walking to your heart’s content.
George Eastman Museum
Rochester exceeded our expectations in countless ways. One such experience was the George Eastman Museum, the world’s oldest photography museum. The museum was founded in 1947. When Eastman’s mansion – constructed between 1902 and 1905 – outgrew the collection, a new building was added in 1989. The museum’s collection includes over 400,000 photographs from 14,000 photographers dating back to photography’s beginnings, 16,000 items of camera technology, 26,000 motion picture titles, as well as one of the world’s most comprehensive libraries of photographic books, manuscripts, and journals. The house section of the museum also contains furniture, musical instruments, and other items, 90 percent of which once belonged to George Eastman himself.
Our docent ushered us through the museum section which was comprised of three galleries. We walked through areas of history, special projects, and constantly changing exhibits. Our docent regaled us with descriptions and stories about items such as the first Kodak Camera built in 1888, the first Brownie (sold for $1.00 in 1901), and Ansel Adams’ first Brownie, given to him as a child. She also wove stories of George Eastman throughout her presentation.
George Eastman opened his first company in 1881 at the age of 27. It was called Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company. Later the company was renamed Eastman Kodak. Eastman died in 1932. Between those years, he revolutionized photography, making it accessible to everyone. His forward thinking, hard work and ingenuity made him a wealthy man, He was also an exceptionally generous philanthropist, giving much of his fortune away during his lifetime.
The house and gardens offered more delightful surprises: a stuffed elephant’s head brought home from one of Eastman’s African safaris, a player organ, and a clock with its original case with a rich-toned chime, and a room that had once been square, but was now rectangular. Apparently, Eastman, an avid music lover, wanted to improve the acoustics, so he extended the square by having the house cut down the middle to insert the extra space.
Upstairs we found a family-friendly interactive area with a sign saying, “Please touch.” This had been George Eastman’s bedroom, and I felt his presence most strongly there.
Outside, we walked through the gardens where Eastman grew grapes for jams, jellies, and wine. And we came upon a wellhead that was the oldest artifact in the museum. I don’t remember how long we were there, but I’m convinced we need at least one more visit to the George Eastman Museum.
You can take an online audio tour by calling (585) 563-3496.
National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House
On our last morning in Rochester, we toured the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and house. We arrived at 19 Madison Street, the home once owned by Susan’s sister, Hannah, for our introduction to the life and times of Susan B. Anthony.
Today, the house is used for administration and a reception area for tours. Our docent then escorted us next door to 17 Madison Street. This house was owned by Susan’s sister, Mary, and it was where Susan lived and was arrested for having the audacity to attempt to vote in the 1872 Presidential Election.
The sisters lived in the house from 1866 until Susan’s death in 1906 and Mary’s a year later. The house passed through several owners, until it was finally purchased in 1945 by the Rochester Federation of Women’s Clubs, which had been founded by Susan and Mary.
Our first stop was the front parlor, where Susan was arrested. Most of the furniture was reproduced from photos. One of the original pieces was an ornately carved rocking chair described in vivid detail by our docent. She continued to give similar descriptions throughout the tour, making it easy for me to imagine what the others in our group were seeing.
Upstairs and Back Downstairs
In Susan’s upstairs office, our docent invited me to touch a marble bust of Susan so I could get a sense of her facial features. She also handed me a faux alligator shoe to give me an idea of the texture of Susan’s famous alligator purse.
Our tour took us through the bedrooms and two large rooms in the third floor attic. There our docent pointed out the Anthony family pew from their Unitarian church.
Back downstairs, our attention was drawn to a portrait of Frederick Douglass over the mantle in the family room behind the front parlor. Susan had been a Quaker. Her first cause was temperance. She then became a passionate abolitionist, Frederick Douglass was a close friend. of Susan’s until his death in 1895. A captivating bronze sculpture of the two friends having tea stood in a park a short distance from the house. The detailed carving told me so much, I couldn’t keep my hands off it.
Of course, I knew of Susan B. Anthony’s leadership in the women’s suffrage movement. She had been President of National American Women’s Suffrage Association which had been headquartered in the house. But on our tour, I learned so much more about the wisdom, determination, and courage of this remarkable individual.
The Strong National Museum of Play
The Strong Museum of Play is suitable for children and children-at-heart. Since I belong to the latter category, a visit to this fun-on-steroids venue was a must.
The Strong is a gigantic playpen spread over two floors housing the world’s largest collection of toys, dolls, and games. The museum is a winning combination of history, education, and hands-on play.
The museum was founded by Margaret Woodbury Strong in 1968 to house her vast collection of toys, dolls, and miniatures. The Strong grew and evolved from a historical and educational museum to the lively, noisy interactive venue we see today.
Upon our arrival, we were immediately drawn in by the sounds of children and adults at play and exhibits of playthings that seemed to stretch into infinity. From a jigsaw puzzle painstakingly produced in the late 1700s to contemporary video games, the collection covered every aspect of play.
We were initially greeted by a 100-year-old carousel that had once traveled from town to town. Although it was a piece of play history, the original horses were intended to be ridden. And so it was throughout the Strong. Although many fragile and valuable toys were protected behind glass, there was no shortage of activities to keep both little and big hands busy.
Popular play areas included a miniature Wegmans supermarket with pint-size canned goods, rubber vegetables, and even rubber sushi. In this store, the kids are always in charge.
Strong’s butterfly garden is kept at a humid 80 degrees for the comfort of its colorful winged residents, the quail, and other captivating critters. Like every area of the museum, the garden is meticulously maintained and designed for pure enjoyment.
National Toy Hall of Fame
At the time of our visit, 66 toys had been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame, but this collection is expanded each year. Raggedy Ann and Andy, Barbie, Lego, Winnie the Poo, PlayDough, Tinker Toys, and teddy bear were a few of the familiar residents of this place of play honor. Nontraditional playthings such as a stick and a cardboard box were also included for their ability to fuel children’s imaginations.
An easy place to get stuck is the pinball exhibit. Beginning with a machine dating back to the 1930s, you can play your way through the history of pinball machines until you loose all sense of time.
Chow Down in Rochester
Rochester is replete with dining options for every taste and budget, so we weren’t short on places to feed our faces. But rather than offer up a list of restaurants – you won’t have any trouble finding a selection that suits you – I’ll tell you about two food-oriented locations that blew us away.
Rochester Public Market
Rochester’s Public Market has been a local icon since 1905. you can satisfy the shopaholic bargain hunter in you on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, year round. Shop for fresh produce, ethnic delicacies, and a wide selection of non-food items from an impressive variety of vendors. When your stomach sends a message to your shopping bone that it needs attention, simply follow your nose to a hot breakfast sandwich, a spicy empanada, fresh pastry or any of the many tempting eats available at the market.
We spent one lunch break exploring the Pittsford Wegmans, the flagship store of Rochester-based, Wegmans Food Market. What were we doing hanging out at a supermarket? It happens that Wegmans is one of the area’s most popular attraction, and for good reason. It won numerous awards including the first-ever Food Channel award for the grocery store that most changed the way we shop, and was named the #1 grocery store in the United States.
Wandering through this vast immaculately clean store was a food-lovers paradise. The cheese counter alone was enough to make us swoon from the assortment of fresh cheese ripened and flavored by Wegmans. Seafood, luscious produce, and ethnic ingredients beckoned us. And that didn’t include skin and hair care products, pharmaceuticals, and a host of other areas.
One aspect that definitely got our attention was the multitude of prepared foods available at Wegmans: a pizza station, Mexican offerings, a burger bar, sushi, and more. It was hard to make a choice, but my husband and I selected King of Poke Bowls, a multi-textured, multi-flavored combination of salmon, avocado, cucumber, carrots, soybeans, pistachios, onions, fried shallots, radish, sesame seeds, brown rice, quinoa, and Poke Sauce. The portion was generous and it tasted scrumptiously delicious. Unfortunately, all of Wegmans stores are in the Mid-Atlantic region, so we’ll just have to head back up North to get another Wegmans fix
Drink-Up in Rochester
Touring, walking, partying and dining can work up a powerful thirst. Fortunately, Rochester’s more than 100 wineries, breweries & distilleries are open and equipped to take care of the problem. Here’s how we drenched the drought while in Rochester.
Genesee Brew House
The Genesee Brew House is a 9,200 square-foot beer destination that embodies the long history and spirit of The Genesee Brewery. There we toured interactive exhibits and the pilot brewery to learn how one of the largest and oldest continually operating breweries in America works its magic
After our tour, we sampled the goods. And good they were. My favorite was the crisp , clean-tasting OctoberFest, followed closely by the rich dark Schwartz and the IPA.
Rohrbach’s Beer Hall
Rohrbach’s is a laidback brewpub serving good American and German food and great craft beers. In fact, it was Rochester’s first craft brewery, established in 1991..
We toured the brewery, then sat down for brunch. I dug into a chicken leg, pasta with a zesty tomato sauce and egg casserole with ham that had a mild kick to it. Everything was tasty, but the surprise came when I washed it all down with coffee. It was the best I’d had in Rochester, and to think I had to go to a brewpub to find it.
Casa Larga Vineyards
One afternoon, we took a short drive to Casa Larga Vineyards, just outside of Rochester. It happened that the annual Purple Foot festival was in full swing, so not only did we taste some juicy, delicious wines, we participated in the family-oriented grape-stomping free-for-all.
The Colaruotolo family established their winery in 1974, and has been producing quality wines from their grapes ever since. Naturally, we couldn’t resist taking home a couple of bottles to remind us of that sunny afternoon when we took our aggression out on a bunch of unsuspecting grapes.
Black Button Distilling
Rochester’s Black Button Distilling was the first small-batch distillery to open since Prohibition. It was established in 2012 by Owner Jason Barrett, the youngest master distiller in the United States. We had the opportunity to meet Jason in the tasting room, and found him to be as personable as he is talented.
Black Button produces a variety of spirits including gin, bourbon, vodka, moonshine, and bourbon cream. We toured the facility, then sat down for a tasting experience.
I’m not a lover of gin, so my impression of Black Button’s gin wouldn’t be helpful. Thoroughly delightful, though, was the bourbon cream. It was somewhat reminiscent of Bailey’s, but with a more intense flavor. What I wouldn’t have given at that moment for some good strong coffee to accompany it.
If you don’t have time to get out to Black Button Distilling, the distillery has a tasting room in Rochester. You’ll miss the tour, but the tasting room is definitely worth a visit.
Rochester, New York is a treasure trove of sensory experiences for all ages and interests. During our visit, we only scratched the surface. But if you are taking a longer vacation, remember Rochester is considered the gateway to the Finger Lakes with its charming towns, historic sites, stunning scenery, and enough wine, beer and spirits to keep you afloat..
Other things to do include cruising down the Erie Canal on the Sam Patch, a replica of a 1800s packet boat. Departing from Schoen Place in the Port of Pittsford, you’ll cruise the canal while the captain entertains you with historical facts and stories. Then you’ll experience one of the wonders of Erie Canal technology as the boat passes through a century old lock.
You can also spend several hours exploring Genesee Country Village & Museum in Mumford. This is the largest and most comprehensive living history museum in New York State. Genesee Country Village & Museum offers families and individuals a golden opportunity to see, smell, taste, touch, explore and experience 68 historic buildings; more than 20,000 artifacts; wildlife paintings, drawings and sculptures. The site is a composite of living collections on display in the gardens, on the working farm, and at the Nature Center. You can wander at will through buildings, observe how things were done centuries ago, and listen to stories told by villagers in period costume.
We did all these things, and would happily return to Rochester and this spectacular area of New York State the next time our senses need a special treat.
Disclaimer: Our thanks go out to Visit Rochester for generously hosting us for our visit. However, all opinions, as always, are entirely my own.
I used to live there (over 16 years ago) and now, after reading this blog, I want to go back to experience it as a tourist. I would appreciate it more!
I hope you get back to Rochester sooner than later. I think you’ll absolutely love it. Be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to take it all in.
Penny, your vivid descriptions make me feel like I’m right in the middle of each story.
Simon, very impressive areal view of Eastman mansion. Was that your drone in action?
Thank you, Mallory. I wish you had been there with us. You would have loved Rochester. And yes, Simon did use his drone to get that aerial shot.
Who would have thought that Rochester NY was such a fascinating place to visit?
Why do tourist only want to “DO” NYC when coming to NY, when there are so many beautiful cities like Rochester, with so much varied culture to offer!?
Thanks, Penny, for an informative article.
Thank you, Ginger. Rochester if a fabulous and fun city to visit, and I hope more people will begin to appreciate what it has to offer.