12 Must-Do Finger Lakes Activities With Kids
Read more about the Finger Lakes.
The Finger Lakes region of New York offers an ideal combination of museums, outdoor activities, and yummy local food, wine and beer. For a family that enjoys hitting a museum in the morning and hiking in the afternoon—with lunch at a microbrewery in between—it’s the perfect destination. We recommend a week to thoroughly explore the region’s several towns and lakes. Here’s some of what we managed to do in five days:
1. Drive on a Race Track
On opening weekend at Watkins Glen International racetrack, anyone can drive 3 laps around the track in her own car for a $25 fee. How cool you think this is will depend on how much of a racing fan you are. Feeling our Matrix hatchback straining against the turns at only 70 mph gave us new appreciation for the riggers of auto racing. Tiny Traveler wondered why we were driving more, got bored and stuck her nose in a book, which was a bad idea. Do not take a 6-year-old who tends to get carsick to drive around a racetrack. And definitely don’t let her read.
2. Make Some Glass
The Corning Museum of Glass is one of the coolest museums I’ve been to. One gallery explores the art of glass making, displaying items from throughout history (including a pair of real glass slippers!). A science gallery has hands-on exhibits that show the many neat things glass can do. The thing TT was most looking forward to, and talked about the most afterward, was glassmaking. TT made a fused-glass nightlight, I made a clock and Rich did a blown Christmas ornament. The prices, $20-$29, were reasonable for a unique experience and beautiful souvenir.
3. Ride a Horse
At Painted Bar Stables outside of Watkins Glen we rode up and down hills, through tall grass and across streams on a two-trail ride that was the most challenging and fun trail ride I’ve ever been on. Kids have to be at least 8 and I wouldn’t take a child who hasn’t been on a horse before. While Rich and I rode, Tiny Traveler took a lesson, groomed her horse and hung out with the stable staff until we got back.
You might wonder about taking kids to a tasting room, but at Lakewood Vineyards outside of Watkins Glen they have local grape juice for kids, a toddler play area and a swing set with a vineyard view. She romped while we tasted a flight of nice Rieslings. This casual attitude toward kids isn’t uncommon in the region’s wineries. Some also have cafes and outdoor decks, so you can combine your wine tasting with lunch or dinner, a kid-friendly way to do it.
5. Tour the Rockwell
If you are interested in exploring the many ways the American West has been depicted in art, this is the Rockwell is the museum for you. It recently added a family room, where kids can do art, play with puppets and curl up with a parent in a reading corner. On school breaks, they often have specials art projects in their learning studio. Younger kids can follow a scavenger hunt through the gallery and older kids can borrow an activity pack with a spyglass and games to help them interact with the art. TT liked the Art Hunt, but the American West doesn’t hold the high place in pop culture it once did and she didn’t have a context for understanding the art. The museum is probably better for older kids and teens who have learned some American history and maybe seen a few westerns.
6. Visit a Waterfall
A towering waterfall is your reward for a flat, easy mile-long walk through Taughanok State Park. In early April we found huge ice boulders and piles of slate, which TT was delighted to discover she could draw on. We also went wading in ankle-deep parts of the stream that flows from the frigid waterfall. Be sure to check out the overlook above the falls and look for a good size playground in a lakefront park across the road from where the waterfall trail begins.
7. Hit Campus
There is a lot to do on the sprawling Cornell University campus. The Plantation is a well-curated botanical garden. On the cliff above it is the Dairy school, where you can sometimes see milk being bottled. Stop by the Dairy Bar for student-made ice cream (yum!), yogurt, cheese and cheese curds. We didn’t love the collections on display the day we visited the free Johnson Art Museum, but the views from the top floor make a visit worthwhile. Across the road from the museum is a suspension bridge and walking trail that leads through some of Ithaca’s famous gorges.
8. Stay on a Farm
More than anywhere else in the Finger Lakes, Ithaca is leading the farm-to-fork movement. Several of the restaurants we ate in prioritized local ingredients wherever they could. This is a great place to do a farm stay.
We spent two nights in the guest cottage at Rosebarb Farm (top) just outside of town. On our first morning we had a breakfast of eggs TT had collected from the hens the day before, the farm’s own apple juice and berry compote, and local yogurt and bacon. In season, guests can sample fruit from the farm’s berry bushes and fruit trees. TT loved having our own cozy little house, especially when she found a cabinet of toys and games for guests to borrow. Rosebarb often books up for the summer, but Visit Ithaca lists other guesthouses and B&Bs on farms.
9. Learn Some Science
The Sciencenter in Ithaca is more of a science-themed kids museum than a full on science museum, probably best for the 3-to-7 set. One of the best things is a room where you can borrow kits that let you experiment with electricity, colors, finger printing and more. We liked the musical staircase and spent quite a while experimenting with air pressure and ping-pong balls. But several other exhibits weren’t enough to hold TT’s attention. It’s not a must-do but in a town focused on the outdoors it’s a handy rainy day option.
9. Get Dirty
Driving into Ithaca from Taughanok, look on your right for a giant stone turtle. This is the Ithaca Children’s Garden, a unique play space where kids make forts out of sticks and hay bales, swing on ropes slung over tree branches and splash in water and mud piles (bring extra clothes). In summer there is a camp and garden that sells its own produce. Even on a cold day, we had to drag outdoorsy TT away from it.
10. Drink Local Beer
Ithaca Beer Co. is doing very interesting things with beer, often combining European brewing styles with American flavors, like a Belgian-style sour beer made with cranberries. Much of the very good bar fare, including the kids’ hot dog, is local. On a nice day sit outside and let your kids explore the garden and romp on the huge field while you enjoy a pint.
12. Eat Ice Cream
I told TT we would eat ice cream every day we were in the Finger Lakes and we found good local ice cream in every town. The best was at The Colonial Inn, an ice cream shop and B&B in Watkins Glen with a luscious honey vanilla. We had creative concoctions at Life’s So Sweet, a chocolate shop and soda fountain near the Ithaca Commons. Play on a retro Candyland board while sipping a cherry phosphate, chocolate egg cream or a tropical float with pineapple soda and coconut ice cream. If you have time and a good appetite, ask for the soda fountain sampler to share.
*We were guests of the Watkins Glen Chamber, The Steuben County CVB and Rosebarb Farm. We don’t guarantee coverage in exchange for sponsored travel and our opinions are always our own.