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12 Essential Rochester, NY Things To Do & Eat With Kids & Teens

12 Essential Rochester, NY Things To Do & Eat With Kids & Teens

College visits brought us to Rochester, NY. for a 3-day weekend. But it was somewhat opportunistic on my part because I’d been wanting to check out this city in Upstate New York for some time.

While we found activities that our teen enjoyed, it’s really a great city to visit with school-age kids. On the Autumn holiday weekend we visited, our hotel was full of families that had come for the Strong Museum of Play and the plethora of good, casual, kid-friendly restaurants around town.

Here is my guide to the best things to do around Rochester with kids and teens on a weekend jaunt.

Read More:
15 Ways To Make The Most of College Visits With Your Teen

Where To Stay: A Hampton Inn Surprise

The new Hampton Inn & Suites Downtown has opened literally steps from the Strong Museum.

I’ve always thought of Hampton Inn as Hiltons’ no-frills budget brand. But this hotel was bright and stylish. It’s taken inspiration for some of its design elements, like round rocking chairs in the lobby, from the museum. It works. The effect is playful and modern rather than childish.

rochester hampton lobby

We had a standard twin room with a large desk and comfortable chair, which suited our needs. There are also family rooms with bunk beds if you need more space.

There’s a good-sized pool, which was busy in the late afternoon, when people were coming back from the museum.

The nicest surprise was Lila’s in the lobby, a stylish bar that mixed excellent cocktails, poured local beer and cider and had friendly bartenders.

Rich and I wound up relaxing there with hot toddies one rainy afternoon when Teen Traveler wanted our room to herself to do homework (the life of a high-school junior). It has a nice outdoor space, though on the chilly October weekend we visited, we were happier inside on a couch by the fireplace.

We didn’t eat there, but we saw quite a few families having dinner. The burger and macaroni & cheese were very tempting when we saw them go by. I would say it’s a reliable fallback if you’re too tired to hunt down dinner around town after a long day at the Strong.

Read More:
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How To Make the Most of 48 Hours in Rochester With Kids & Teens

Rochester seemed to us like a series of residential neighborhoods with single-family houses, which made it feel somewhat suburban to us. It’s easy to drive around and park.

But we didn’t come across a walkable neighborhood with lots of shops and restaurants. Our activities were spread out with a couple of things here and a small cluster there.

Driving around to explore, we came across some creative murals and a good number of independent bookshops with quirky names like Ampersand, Akimbo and (my favorite) the Unreliable Narrator. And this always makes us think favorably about a city.

All the activities and restaurants below, as well as the Hampton Inn, are in the city’s Northwest Quadrant, which contains the Neighborhood of Play and sprawling Neighborhood of the Arts. Booking a hotel in this area will place you a few minutes’ drive and possibly walking distance from most of what you’ll want to do.

Essential Things To Do With Kids & Teens on a 3-Day Rochester Getaway

Our Favorite Stop: The George Eastman Museum

The Eastman Museum, was hands-down our favorite attraction. It helped that Teen Traveler had done school projects on the history of cameras and photography during the Civia War. But even without that bonus this is easily the best thing in the city to do with teens.

eastman conservatory

It’s the former home of George Eastman, who founded the Eastman Kodak Company and put photography in the hands of everyday people with portable cameras and film that could be sent to Kodak to be developed.

The exhibits alternately focus on his life and work and the history of cameras and photography. It was interesting to me to see how innovations in cameras influenced who could take photos and the kinds of photos they took.

Photos evolved from stiff studio portraits by professionals to casual outdoor photos of family outings, to informative photos for newspapers an artistic photos that are expressive rather than literal.

eastman cameras

There’s a kids’ room with activities and the opportunity to pick up and examine cameras from different eras. But I would say that this is a good resource if you and your older kids want to see the museum. I wouldn’t specifically come here with kids under ten or so.

Ever the innovator, Eastman had two connected pipe organs installed in his home to create the Victorian equivalent of surround sound. They’ve had to replace the originals with those of a similar style.

We visited on the right Sunday: Once a month, a professional musician plays American standards and popular show tunes on the three-tier Aeolian pipe organ, filling the house with music.

The house has a lovely garden and the museum café has a floor-to-ceiling window that looks out on it. It’s a lovely place to stop for coffee and dessert even on a rainy October day. I’m sure that in the spring and early summer the garden is bursting with color.


The Rochester Public Market for Lunch

One of the oldest urban public markets in the country, the Rochester Public Market has been operating in its current location since 1905. Its three covered outdoor market areas and one indoor market are open year-round on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Look for fresh produce, artisanal cheeses and meats, crafts, food vendors, musicians and more.

The market is a melting pot of the city’s ethnic foods and cultures, too. We enjoyed grabbing a seat at an empanada stand and savoring some of the best Latinx dishes in Rochester!


Dinner & Tabletop Games

The second evening we were in town, it poured rain, so we were happy to check out Nerdvana, a game café across from both the Strong Museum and our hotel.

It bills itself as a computer game café and every booth has a screen for playing video games. But they have a good-sized collection of tabletop games, too. That’s what we came for. And since all the dedicated tabletop-game tables were taken (no screens at these), it seems that’s why a lot of others go, too.

We like gaming cafés because they provide dinner and entertainment in one place. And they allow us to try out games we’ve heard about but have not yet tried.

two people discuss the moves in a board game at nervana cafe in rochester's neighborhoof of play.

Nervana makes all its food from scratch, to order. We like finger foods we can eat without utensils when we’re at game cafés, so eating doesn’t get in the way of playing.

Here we enjoyed crunchy coconut shrimp, a smoky brisket quesadilla with chunky homemade salsa and macaroni-and-cheese balls that were crispy and gooey. We also shared a s’mores style chocolate mousse with a graham cracker bottom and toasted marshmallow top.

the homemade chocolate mousse at nervana game café has graham crackers and a toasted marshmallow top.

We also wanted to try Radio Social, a multi-story bowling alley in a former industrial space on the other side of the North Quadrant of the city, where we spent most of our time.

It serves upscale bar food with an International accent, along with local beer and fun cocktails. It has corn hole, skeeball and other games, too, in indoor and outdoor spaces.

All-in-all, it’s an ideal place to go with tweens and teens, but it had a private event going on the night that we wanted to try it out. We never got back to it.

— Eileen

Read More:
About great game cafés we discovered in Philadelphia and London.

Memorial Art Gallery: Art for Everyone

MAG was gifted to the University of Rochester for the benefit of the public when it opened in 1913 with little more than the founder’s personal collection. The building and its collections have grown piece by piece over the years.

the european rooms at the memorial art gallery include this open space with its high ceilings, paintings and this full-size italian baroque  organ.

It’s now a good regional art museum with a collection that crosses the spectrum from the Golden Age of 1600s Europe to cutting edge contemporary and folk art.

We were lucky enough to catch Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Room, for which you need special tickets. Only a few people can be in the room at the time. It’s the type of modern art I appreciate in that, whether or not your group likes it, it will provoke discussion.

the inifinity mirror room is a temporary art installation at the memorial art gallery in rochester's north quadrant.

The Museum has 25 large outdoor sculptures spread over its extensive grounds. It was raining the day we visited, so we didn’t get to see more than the few out front. But on a nice day it would be lovely to walk around to see them.

This is a very kid-friendly way to go to a museum. Teens can walk around or hang out by a sculpture that calls to them. Little kids might not appreciate that these large stone creations are art, but they’ll notice a few of them. And they can run around happily while you enjoy the artwork at your leisure.

— Eileen

Rochester Museum and Science Center: Hands-On Fun & Learning

The Science Center has three floors of immersive and hands-on activities.

My youngsters liked the exhibits that focused on the natural sciences and one that has kids exploring the New York state that existed a few thousand years ago. From giving a live weather report to raising the waters of the Erie Canal, we easily spent a couple of hours here.

Older school-age kids will like playing with electricity, light and optics. And they’ll appreciate the New York State exhibit on a slightly different level and might be interested in the exhibit that explains Rochester’s role in the Underground Railroad with artifacts and hands-on activities.


The Strasenburgh Planetarium at the RMSC: Stars & Lasers

We like planetariums a lot and decided to check out Rochester’s.

Part of its exhibits highlight the role Kodak lenses and cameras have played in space exploration, which was unique and kind of cool, especially after visiting the Eastman museum.

a view of saturn and its rings during the star show at rochester's planetarium.

The seats in the planetarium look like fancy lawn chairs. I wondered why they went with this aesthetic and Teen Traveler explained that it’s to make the audience feel like we’re sitting out on the lawn staring up at the night sky. That makes sense and is a fun idea.

The planetarium is pretty small, though. And because it’s next door to the Science Center, the shows are aimed at elementary-school-aged kids. While the show was well done and informative, my teen was a bit underwhelmed.

the camera that generates the star and laser shows at the strasenburgh planetarium in rochester, ny

However, they have Laser Swift every Friday and Saturday afternoon. And if I were headed to Rochester with a teen again, I would plan on getting tickets for that, ideally ahead of time.


The National Museum of Play: All-Ages Fun

The Strong call itself the Museum of Play, rather than a children’s museum, because it wants to convey that it isn’t just a space for the under-8 set.

For starters, it’s enormous: It has 370,000 square feet spread over two floors that fill a city block. There’s no way to do everything in one day.

A large part of the second floor is dedicate to the museum’s Toy Hall of Fame, a collection of popular toys from the 1920s through today. Teen Traveler and I were the only ones paying attention to it on a busy holiday weekend, but there was a lot to take from it.

strong boy game

We noted a wide variety of toys for boys that evolved as trains, automobiles, airplanes and building technology did. Aside from the World-War-II years, girls basically had dolls for much of the 20th century.

Gender-neutral toys and a wider range of girls’ playthings emerged in the 1960s and ’70s.

Teen Traveler was curious to see in action the Atari computer gaming system that Rich and I always talk about from our youth. She was not only unimpressed; I think she felt a little sorry for us.

There is a video game arcade with games from the 1980s through today, but it was a bit of a zoo, as was the three-story rope course that looked bigger and more elaborate than some outdoor ones we’ve seen. These activities are geared toward older kids and tweens and even teens.

strong pinball

What really made Teen Traveler happy was discovering the pinball arcade. We spent more than an hour trying out the many different machines and only stopped when we did because the museum closed.

Needless to say, there is a lot for younger kids, from a life-sized Sesame Street to an interactive exhibit based on books and meant to fire kids’ imaginations.

Adrienne’s much smaller kids love the Berenstain Bears play area and the kid-size Wegmans supermarket (the popular chain is headquartered in Rochester.

It’s my favorite grocery store chain, truth be told, she says. And the children’s version is complete with miniature shopping carts, produce, cheese, bakery, seafood and meat sections. Kids can spend quite a lot of time engaged in imaginary play here.

She says she also appreciated that many of the exhibit areas have specially designated baby and toddler areas that are completely baby-proofed.

the strong museum inspires imaginary play with its room full of sets that draw from all kinds of children's books.

I don’t know if I would recommend specifically seeking the museum out with tweens and teens; $25 is a lot to pay for access to video games and pinball (the games require tokens, too). And the sky course is an additional $12.

But if you are trying to please kids in a variety of age ranges, you can absolutely come here with a school-age child or preschooler and trust that there would be enough to engage their older siblings, too.

— Eileen & Adrienne

Genesee Country Village & Museum: A Worthwhile Detour

Since we lucked out with a nice autumn day, we made a detour on the way into town at the Genesee Country Village, a living-history museum about 22 miles southwest of Rochester.

munger's confectionary is a popular stop for kids of all ages at the genesee country village.

We really like this sort of thing and wish we’d had more time, especially since they had somewhat unusual Halloween-season offerings, including a collection of mourning jewelry, which intrigued all of us.

It has a collection of historical buildings from three periods. There were modest colonial cabins, post-Colonial clapboard houses and businesses and more elaborate Victorian homes; all gathered from around the area.

one of the highlights of a visit to the genesee country village museum in new york is a post-civil-war octagon house, painted a bright victorian green.

Some of the more unique buildings include a brewery, George Eastman’s modest childhood home and an Octagon House, part of a building trend in the 1870s.

springerle cookie

There was also a village confectionery where visitors can buy cookies, tarts, hand pies and more, made from period recipes. I bought a molded springerle cookie that was flavored with orange extract and was almost too pretty to eat (but I managed).

— Eileen

Where to Eat: Notable Rochester Restaurants with Kids

We found a two-block stretch with a mix of sit-down restaurants, take-out places and cafés along Park Ave. between Barrington and Argyle streets.

Roux, a stylish, casual French bistro with reasonable prices, really called to us. But we didn’t make a reservation and on a Saturday night they had a long wait list.

Park Avenue Mexican

We wound up a few doors down at Dorado, which looks super casual but has brightly colored cocktails and great food. It was easily the best meal we had.

I had cast-iron enchiladas, which were essentially Mexican lasagna. They layered corn tortillas, pulled roast pork, spicy salsa, cheese and beans in a cast-iron skillet that came to the table sizzling hot. The flavors were deep and earthy; I really liked it.

Rich had the day’s special: two crispy pork empenadas with rice and beans. They came with an au jus to dip them in, which gave them the added depth that birria tacos have. And they were drizzled with a sauce that had just a bit of a kick.

I decided to skip the cocktails in favor of an agua fresca, which changes from day to day. Mine was watermelon-lime, and it was the perfect foil to the earthy, spicy enchiladas.

A Buzzing Bistro

After the Eastman House, we drove to the Gatehouse, in the Village Square, yet another industrial space converted to shops, restaurants, offices and artists’ studios.

Despite it being a rainy day, this gastro-pub was full of families drawn by the creative burgers, salads and appetizers.

rochester gatehouse falafel

We saw falafel platters that were filled with a colorful mix of falafel, roasted veggies, hummus, olives and pita bread. We split one, along with a Margherita pizza.

The falafel platter was great and we barely finished it. The pizza had a thicker and softer crust than is usual on wood-fired oven pies, which we weren’t keen on. We very much regretted not ordering the large, crispy beer-battered onion rings after we saw a few plates of them go by.

2 Good Local Coffee Spots

The hotel’s breakfast wasn’t particularly interesting. We skipped it and found two coffee shops nearby.

Ugly Duck Coffee was my favorite of the two. It feels like a cozy whitewashed Nordic cottage inside. Its croissants were flaky and my brown-sugar scone was moist and just sweet enough to eat on its own. The coffee and hot chocolate were good, too.

ugly duck coffee is a friendly breakfast spot in rochester, ny that serves its lattes and other hot drinks in home blue china cups.

It’s set back from South Union Street on Charlotte Street. It has a parking lot next to it. It seemed most people stopping by had driven there.

Spot Coffee, on East Avenue, is closer to the hotel and bigger. It felt like most of the customers had walked there from nearby apartments, often after exercising or walking their dogs. It has a bigger menu, too, including lunch items.

In addition to good coffee, it had good egg sandwiches on English muffins. The bagels were a reasonable size and good toasted. They also had rich, chewy brownies, which pass for breakfast when you’re 16.

— Eileen

Rochester Essential information

Getting to Rochester, NY

Rochester is about four hours from Cleveland and Pittsburgh, making it an easy weekend destination. It’s five-and-a-half hours from Baltimore and Philadelphia, six from Boston and New York and seven from Washington, DC. It was a longer drive than we would normally do for a three-day weekend, but with four days it would have been fine.

Moreover, it’s 75 miles from Buffalo, 90 from Niagara Falls and 170 from Toronto, It’s an excellent place to stop on a road trip to any of these destinations from East Coast cities.

It’s also 90 miles from Ithaca and 100 miles from Corning, making it an easy addition to a road-trip around the Finger Lakes.

You can take Amtrak’s Empire Service or Maple Leaf lines to Rochester from NYC and other stops throughout the state. Those lines connect with the Berkshire Flyer, Ethan Allen Express, Adirondack and Lake Shore Limited lines in Albany.

If you choose this option, bring bicycles or plan to rent a car at the station; otherwise you’ll need to take a lot of cabs.

Rochester Weather

Like much of Upstate New York, winter comes early and stays long in Rochester. From October to April, you should pack a sweater or two, a heavy fall jacket, scarf and hat. In winter, a heavy coat, boots, and warm accessories are a must.

Late spring, summer and early fall can be lovely though, with temperate weather for biking and other outdoor activities. If you don’t visit in the fall for Empire State foliage, aim for May when the giant Lilac Festival takes over Highland Park for ten days.

Read more:
• About Rochester’s Lilac Festival and other floral springtime celebrations.
• About the Best Things To Do With Kids in the Finger Lakes’ Top Towns.

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Adrienne Veglia Mazeau writes about finding balance between family, working full time and traveling with with her son, daughter and attractively geeky archaeologist husband. 

Disclosure: Visit Rochester hosted Adrienne’s family. Visit Rochester also sponsored the hotel stay for Eileen’s family and Eileen’s admission to some Rochester attractions. Neither of us agreed to any particular coverage in exchange for the visits. I always provide readers with my honest opinions.