By Jesse Walker
Nestled 90 minutes from Niagara Falls and just off of the southern shore of Lake Ontario in the Finger Lakes region of New York, you’ll find the truly limitless city of Rochester. Known for numerous festivals and events throughout the year, immense history, world class museums, and its inclusive hospitality, New York State’s third largest city has something for everyone. I recently explored the city for myself and my expectations were consistently exceeded. My visit coincided with Rochester’s Pride Fest. The inclusiveness of the city is apparent, and I felt welcome from the start. “Roc Pride,” as it’s known, is one of the largest Pride festivals in the state outside of NYC. Complete with events, music, and a parade, there’s plenty to experience during this week-long celebration.
When you ask how far something is from the city center, locals will say “about 15 minutes or so.” That’s because, well, it’s true. The greater Rochester region has a population of about 1 million people, so getting from place-to-place is quite stress-free. With nonstop flights from Greater Rochester International Airport (ROC) to Charlotte, New York City, Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, Toronto, and more, the city is as accessible as ever. For a central location, stay at the East Avenue Inn & Suites. The staff is friendly, the rooms are spacious, and the entire property was recently renovated. Better yet, the location is superb as you can walk to numerous shops and restaurants all within a few short blocks.
Upon arriving, the bar for the trip was set high after a visit to The Strong National Museum of Play. This interactive museum has a surprise around every corner, and something for absolutely everyone. Learn about the history of toys, why playtime is so important, and check out the Toy Hall of Fame to see your favorite childhood toys. There’s even a mini Wegman’s where kids can play ‘customer’ or ‘cashier’ at the beloved supermarket chain.
After a full day of travel, it was time for dinner. I visited The Playhouse/Swillburger, which is an arcade/restaurant housed in an old church. The burgers and beer are great, but the tater tots are an absolutely must. Check out what the special is for the day, and enjoy. After eating, take a few steps over into the arcade area to enjoy classic games, like Pac-Man and pinball, or immersive and modern thrills like the Jurassic Park game.
Your time in Rochester wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the home of one of its most famous residents, George Eastman. Now a world-class museum, gallery, theater, and film/photograph archive, the beautiful home and gardens at The George Eastman Museum will tell the Kodak founder’s story from behind the lens. Tour the mansion to get a glimpse of his lavish lifestyle, see the famous elephant in his living room, and learn why he literally cut his house in half. The archives house over one million pieces of film, photographs, and other cinematic artifacts or technologies of importance to the industry. With many rotating exhibitions, there will always be new artwork and exhibits to explore, along with summer events such as their concert series held outdoors on the lawn.
Anywhere I go, I look to try the local beers. One of the oldest and continually operating breweries in America just happens to be in Rochester – The Genesee Brewery. Named after the Genesee River which flows through the city, the Genesee Brew House is located in the heart of the city overlooking a stunning view of High Falls. When it’s nice out, sit on the balcony or the rooftop for full appreciation of the view. Plus, order the pretzel appetizer.
Rochester has a buzzing art and culture scene. I’ve been to traditional galleries before, and ArtisanWorks is everything but a traditional gallery. This non-profit creative community space supports local artists by purchasing their art for display in their 40,000 square foot facility, containing over 500,000 unique pieces. Each turn brings you into a new theme, era, style, or collection. Everywhere you look, you’ll see something new and extraordinary. After, head over to the Memorial Art Gallery (the “MAG”) for an art experience spanning across 5,000 years. With pieces from around the world, the 14-acre campus features an outdoor sculpture garden with unique pieces open year-round. The MAG features several LGBT artists in the collection and hosts events as part of Roc Pride.
On my final day, I enjoyed an iced coffee at Equal Grounds Coffee House, located in the trendy South Wedge neighborhood. It was then time to learn some history. I stopped by the Frederick Douglass Statue in Highland Park, before visiting the gravesites of Douglass and Susan B. Anthony at Mount Hope Cemetery. Both activists were friends and worked alongside each other for their movements. The Susan B. Anthony National House & Museum showcases Anthony’s actual home where she lived, organized her community, and was arrested for voting illegally due to being a woman. The home is exceptionally preserved and educational about the incredible work she did.
Up next, the Park Avenue Food Tour by Flower City Food Tours. Pro tip: Don’t eat breakfast on this day! This 3-hour tour brings you to 8 unique locations along Park Avenue ranging from a local staple, Jine’s, to Baker Street Bakery, and Magnolia’s Deli and Cafe, where President Obama dined in 2013 for lunch while passing through Rochester. (Check out the pictures on the wall from his visit!) This tour was not only delicious, but I learned a lot about the neighborhood and its history. Some of the restaurant owners were even present to greet the group and provide additional information about the food or drink options.
Be sure to stop by Living Roots, an urban winery that makes wines based on the two hometowns of its owners – Rochester, NY, and Adelaide, South Australia. They source grapes from both the Finger Lakes region as well as Adelaide Hills to provide a tasty balance of flavor.
One must-see is Radio Social. This state-of-the-art restaurant, bar, event space, and bowling alley features some of the best food I had on the entire trip. I strongly suggest the Kubaneh ‘Pull Apart’ Bread and the Chicken Kebab Pita. My drink of choice here was the “Up the Bracket” Have some fun with a few games of bowling before taking a few pictures around the totally ‘Instagrammable’ interior.
As part of Roc Pride, Rochester Pedal Tours provided a fun way to get from bar-to-bar. Check out the numerous LGBT bars, each with its own flair. Enjoy the great drinks, fun atmosphere, and meet new friends at places like Avenue Pub and Lux Lounge. For a late-night snack, check out Swan Dive, a new restaurant that mixes a classic diner with a modern and upscale aura.
Rochester is a welcoming destination for all types, and I highly recommend adding it to your travel list. You’ll discover new events and festivals throughout the year, and will experience the seasonal beauty from the region.