A cultural hub of the Finger Lakes region, Ithaca, NY, has always marched to the beat of its own drum. Independent businesses flourish alongside the two nationally renowned colleges (Cornell University and Ithaca College) that populate the town with over 20,000 students September through May, providing a young, hip vibe. Paired with the region’s beautiful gorges and acclaimed vineyards, a weekend relaxing in the cool Ithaca vibe is the perfect tonic to anyone’s big city blues.
Where to stay: Hotel Ithaca (rates starting at $81 per night) is steps away from the town's main attraction, the Ithaca Commons. The 10-story hotel is well-maintained and has a friendly staff, many of whom are studying at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. The indoor pool is a nice bonus to this budget hotel that goes above and beyond expectations.
Where to shop: Once you’ve checked in to the hotel, head a block over to downtown Ithaca’s car-free pedestrian mall, the Ithaca Commons. Complete with independent boutiques (latest trends at Evolution 102), coffee shops (Ithaca Coffee Company’s fine specialty coffee is fantastic), and book shops (35,000 volumes of used and rare books at The Bookery), Ithaca’s pride can be seen through its local commerce culture.
Best breakfast: Fresh bagels, a multitude of cream cheese options, and a great egg and bacon sandwich are just some of the signature staples at Ithaca’s hopping Collegetown Bagels. This popular bagel and coffee joint originally established in Cornell’s Collegetown has expanded with two additional locations in Ithaca, all with lines out the door come weekend mornings.
Where to snack: Slices of pizza and garlic knots are the best at Sammy's Pizzeria on the Ithaca Commons.
Best dinner: Ithaca has plenty of affordable restaurants geared towards its college-aged population. Do your best to arrive early in the night to snag a table at downtown Ithaca’s mainstay Viva Taqueria, where the strong margaritas ($5), fresh guac ($3.75), and the chicken mole soft tacos ($8.99) dominate the menu of delicious California-style Mexican fare. For something more exotic, head across the way to local favorite, Taste of Thai, where the flavorful Chicken Pad Kra Pao -- Spicy Basil ($11.50) is a must.
The evening’s entertainment: Keep an eye on IthacaEvents.com -- the handy guide lists all of the area’s many bars and clubs’ events including live music, theater, dancing, and readings. The local music scene has an impressive array of talented musicians that often perform at no-cover bars. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to visit the town’s first-class movie theater, Cinemapolis, an art house cinema that was recently renovated as part of Ithaca’s Downtown Alliance. The town’s State Theater also features an impressive lineup of musicians and artists including acts like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Lewis Black.
Where to drink: For an upscale option, head to Felicia’s Atomic Lounge for one of their masterful cocktail concoctions. This comfortable lounge serves fun twists on classic cocktails including their Jameson Ginger and Ginger, which combines ginger-infused Irish whiskey with ginger ale ($6). For more of a college atmosphere, head to downtown’s 2nd Floor Bar to sip $3 well drinks and $2 beers.
Taste the wine: Ithaca and the surrounding Finger Lakes region is home to over 100 wineries and microbreweries, many welcoming visitors. The main draw is the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail, a 16-member affiliation that includes 15 wineries, a cidery, meadery, and four distilleries. Brochures, available online, help to distinguish the varieties of wine and spirits found along the trail. For the best budget option, choose one or two stops along the trail and rent a bike from the Ithaca Outdoor Store (206 E State St.) to make it a day-long trek.
Where to see nature: Just a 20-minute walk from downtown, head north on Aurora Street to the Ithaca Falls, a natural 150-foot cascading fall park that's perfect for a picnic.