12 Must-Do Finger Lakes Activities With Kids
Updated August 2019
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, but you can see quite a bit on a long weekend if you focus on the activities around just one or two towns.
Here’s some of what we managed to do in five days with additional insights from writer Cat Jordan, who spent her own long weekend in the region with here family:
12 Top Things To Do in the Finger Lakes
Table of contents
- 12 Top Things To Do in the Finger Lakes
- 1. Drive on the Watkins Glen Race Track
- 2. Make Some Glass at CMOG
- 3. Ride a Horse
- 4. Visit Some Finger Lakes Wineries
- 5. Drink Local Beer
- 6. Eat Local Ice Cream
- 7. Hit the Cornell Campus
- 8. Explore Nature
- 9. Get Dirty at the Ithaca Children’s Garden
- 10. Stay on a Farm
- 11. Tour the Rockwell
- 12. Learn Some Science
- 1. Drive on the Watkins Glen Race Track
- Practical Information
- Pin it for Later!
1. Drive on the Watkins Glen 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 rigors 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.
Tip: Do not take a 6-year-old who tends to get carsick to drive around a racetrack. And definitely don’t let her read while you drive. Don’t ask how we came to know this; just tust me.
2. Make Some Glass at CMOG
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 Tiny Traveler was most looking forward to, and talked about the most afterward, was glassmaking.
Tiny Traveler 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 souvenirs. Five years later we still have them all.
CMOG: Fabulous in every way
CMOG added an entire new wing since Eileen visited, with MOMA-inspired style. Beautiful works of art in glass full a serene white-walled gallery.
There are live glass making demonstrations in a state-of-the-art theater, science areas about glass in telescopes and a Pyrex exhibition (Corning Glass Works created this houshold item in 1908).
We also loved that you can book an appointment to make your own glass. The kids blew glass (center photo above) to make their own ornaments and us parents wielded some heavy tools to create glass flowers.
— Cat Jordan
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.
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4. Visit Some Finger Lakes Wineries
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.
Tiny Traveler romped while we tasted a flight of nice Rieslings and was disappointed when it was time to go.
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.
More Wine Tasting
We drove up to and along majestic Seneca Lake and the lovely Torrey Ridge winery (above) was a welcome rest stop.
The owners Paul and Stephanie were lovely. They talked to us about their winemaking processes, let us taste some of the white wines the region is known for, and gave the kids some local grape juice for tasting too.
Mead and Cider are all the rage among hip Brooklynites right now and this is where a lot of it comes from! So we tried some of these as well.
With a huge stretch of grass and space for picnicking this winery is definitely kid friendly. I got the impression they are hoping to make it even more so.
— Cat Jordan
5. 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.
6. Eat Local Ice Cream
I told Tiny Traveler we would eat ice cream every day we were in the Finger Lakes and we found good local ice cream often made with milk from local cows, 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.
7. Hit the Cornell 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.
The Dairy Bar is to blame for Cornell students gaining the freshman ten (or 20). Stop by for student-made ice cream, which is really good. We chose one blackberry cone and fought over it. They sell milk, yogurt, cheese and cheese curds, too, so bring a cooler!
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. It’s a small museums and the galleries change frequently so it’s worth peeking in.
Across the road from the museum is a suspension bridge and walking trail that leads through some of Ithaca’s famous gorges.
8. Explore Nature
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 Tiny Traveler 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.
Nature: It’s Everywhere!
Watkins Glen State Park offers waterfall after waterfall after, you guessed it, waterfall. A hike here is a morning well spent.
For a 6 year old who believes in fairies, the opportunity to walk behind a waterfall in a lovely springtime forest was truly magical.
TIP: If it’s been raining recently then the layer upon layer of rocks on either side of the gorge will drip on you (a lot). The ideal footwear is a good sport sandal. But this trail is fine Crocs or wellies (rain boots to you Americans) to explore.
Take some time to walk up to Seneca lake too. The views from here are magnificent and soothing . —Cat Jordan
9. Get Dirty at the Ithaca Children’s Garden
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 and shoes or boots that can get wet).
In summer there is a camp and garden that sells its own produce. Even on a cold day, we had to drag outdoorsy Tiny Traveler away from it.
10. Stay on a Farm
More than anywhere else in the Finger Lakes, Ithaca was doing the the farm-to-fork thing long before it was hip Several of the restaurants we ate in prioritized local ingredients wherever they could.
Naturally, this is a great place to do a farm stay.
We spent two nights in the guest cottage at Rosebarb Farm just outside of town.
On our first morning we had a breakfast of eggs Tiny Traveler 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. Tiny Traveler 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 so call far ahead. Visit Ithaca lists other guesthouses and B&Bs on farms, too.
Read more: Here are 7 more farm stays around the U.S.
11. 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 has a nice family room, where young 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.
In the main museum, 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.
Tiny Traveler 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 photo above is Cat’s kids howing off their completed scavenger hunts.)
The museum is probably better for older kids and teens who have learned some American history and maybe seen a few westerns or least have read Little House on the Prairie.
12. Learn Some Science
The Ithaca 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. This is a good place to take older kids who are coming with younger siblings.
We also 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 Tiny Traveler’s attention. It’s not a must-do in a town focused on the outdoors, but it’s a handy rainy day option.
The Jordan family also enjoyed the Soaring Museum, which explores the history of engine-free flight and has a collection of gliders.
If they’d had time, she and her husband would have liked to explore some of the Mark Twain exhibits around the area, too (thought again, it helps to have kids along who have read some of his books).
Watkins Glen, which sits picturesquely at the base of the largest of the Finger Lakes, is four to five hours by car from New York City, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Toronto and Ottawa.
It’s six hours from Boston. There are regional flights, but if you go that route you’ll want to rent a car while you’re there.
— Cat Jordan [/infobox]
Ithaca is the biggest town with the most to offer in terms of hotels and dining.
Watkins Glen itself is small but what it has to offer in terms of food and hotels is good. It’s a good base for the hiking, lake activities and winery and farm visiting you can do nearby. Unless you are going for the auto racing, steer clear when racing is happening. This tiny town packs out.
Corning is between the two size-wise. Given the presence of Corning Glass and CMOG we expected more hotel choices than we saw. There are plenty of restaurants along Main Street, but when it’s not peak summer season some keep shorter hours or close.
Elmira is the biggest of the three towns we visited and the one most rooted in manufacturing, which means its fortune has peaked and waned over time.
It has some stately streets but also quite a few boarded up shops and houses. This made me feel a bit sad for it given its rich history.
Among other things, Mark Twain spent time here and the first female Space Shuttle commander grew up here. —Cat Jordan
Finger Lakes Hotels
We stayed at Rosebarb while in Ithaca, but there are plenty of hotels in and around town in all price ranges. For something different you can stay at the Statler Hotel, which is on the Cornell campus and staffed by students at the hotel management school.
We loved our stay at the gorgeous Harbor Hotel in Watkins Glenn
Read our full review of the Harbor Hotel, which we loved.
In Corning we stayed at the Radisson Hotel, which has a great location, near one end of the Market Street and a ten-minute walk from CMOG. It was fine and probably better in summer than early spring.
The standard rooms were fine but the lobby, halls and rooms feel like the they were done in the 1970s and need updating.
The indoor pool is a good size but was very cold. The hot tub was outside and closed for the winter, whch isn’t ideal in a region where winter can stretch from October through April.
Cat reports: We stayed at the Holiday Inn Riverview in Elmira, which had a friendly staff and a large indoor pool, to the kids’ delight. But it was a little bit of a drive from several of the places we went.
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*We were guests of the Watkins Glen Chamber, The Steuben County CVB and Rosebarb Farm.
*The Jordan family were guests of Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism for part of this trip. We don’t guarantee coverage in exchange for sponsored travel and our opinions are always our own.
Photos by Cat Jordan and Eileen Gunn for FamiliesGo!©