The Northeast’s famed fall foliage is reason enough for an autumnal getaway. But few regions compare to New York’s Finger Lakes, where the natural scenery is matched by cozy B&Bs, delightful restaurants, remarkable history, lovely hiking, and oh such wonderful wineries.
The 11 Finger Lakes are actually “fjord lakes,” whose long, narrow shapes stretch out in rows across central New York State like hands. The two largest lakes, Cayuga and Seneca, are among the continent’s deepest, yet slim enough to see across their smooth waters to tree-lined far shores. The region was long ago inhabited by the Iroquois people, and many of their names for the lakes and towns remain — along with the fertile and beautiful landscapes that have long charmed travelers.
The Finger Lakes are prime road-tripping territory, and most city dwellers can save hours by hopping a quick flight into Ithaca, Syracuse, or Rochester for a car rental. Each of those towns has its own appeal, though for ultimate leaf-peeping, you’ll want to drift toward the rural areas.
Around Cayuga Lake
On the east side of Cayuga Lake is the village of Aurora, home to Wells College, one of the first women’s colleges, founded in 1868 (and turned co-ed in 2005). The school made Aurora an upstate destination, and many travelers today are fans of the Inns of Aurora. The LGBT-friendly inn is comprised of four separate buildings built between 1833 and 1909, each with its own design style and all within the national historic district of Aurora. As the only luxury accommodation in the area, the Inns of Aurora is an indulgent experience thanks to comfy furnishings, grand shared spaces, and picture-perfect porches and lakefront yards. Do not miss the sunsets across Cayuga Lake.
Dining at the Inns of Aurora is both upscale and homey, with a menu that prioritizes ingredients sourced locally and made in-house. Menus for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch span charcuterie and cheeses from New York farms, seasonal fish and greens, cocktails made with regional spirits, and a wine menu with a long list of Finger Lakes vintages.
Thanks to the inn’s owner, original art decorates the hotel, along with plenty of locally made MacKenzie-Childs pottery. The brand is known for whimsical housewares and kitchen tools with colorful designs and patterns. MacKenzie-Childs occupies a restored 1800s farmhouse, open daily for free tours (and great sales).
Wine is one of the main draws to the Finger Lakes. As New York’s largest wine region, more than 100 wineries and vineyards dot the landscape, many of them along the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail (mostly on the lake’s west side). Several kinds of grapes thrive in the fertile swaths between the lakes, but the most common varietals are Cabernet Franc and Riesling (both sweet and dry). Most tasting experiences are affordable, sometimes as little as $3 for five tastes. And many, like Long Point Winery and Treleaven Winery, offer gorgeous outdoor spaces with views across rolling hills and forests.
They say Cayuga’s is America’s first “wine trail,” and it’s spurred other themed trails like the Finger Lakes Beer Trail, Sweet Treats Trail, Haunted History Trail, and Cheese-Alliance Trail.
Around Seneca Lake
The pretty town of Geneva is perched at Seneca Lake’s north end. In the heart of its historic downtown, don’t miss a visit to Wicked Water, an “urban farm winery” that makes its own Cabernet Franc and Riesling, and is a tasting room/ wine shop for other New York winemakers. Weary of wine? Head to Kashong Creek for craft-cider tastings and innovative cocktails.
Geneva has turned into something of a hotspot for the region, home to reliably good tipples and dishes at memorable establishments. The Linden Social Club pours stellar libations and light bites in a speakeasy atmosphere. Kindred Fare serves both inventive and familiar “farmhouse cooking” from its downtown outpost. FLX Live (aka “Finger Lakes Live”) brings live entertainment and dance nights to Geneva’s Headless Sullivan Theater.
Drive a few miles outside town to Geneva on the Lake for lodging on a historic 10-acre landscaped lakeside property. Wineries along the way include Ravines Wine Cellars, one of the region’s top winemakers, and Billsboro Winery, tucked away in a converted barn for tastings that can be paired with local chocolate.
Progressive Upstate New York
Seneca Falls is home to the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, which occupies the site where the first Women’s Rights Convention was held in July 1848. It’s worth a visit to the National Parks Service center there to learn about suffrage, abolitionism, and other 19th- and early 20th-century political reform struggles. In neighboring Cayuga County, the Harriet Tubman Home sheds light on the former slave’s legendary struggle and success to save slaves via the Underground Railroad. It’s now a National Historic Landmark. Another local landmark is the Susan B. Anthony House, located further west in Rochester. Along with its annual suffrage celebrations, Anthony’s home is preserved with original furnishings and historic materials, and is open for daily tours. Her grave and that of Frederick Douglass can be found in Rochester’s Mt. Hope Cemetery, both popular stops for reverent visitors.
As the state’s third-largest city, Rochester offers more culinary and cultural options than smaller towns upstate. Photography and film fans will love the George Eastman Museum for its art and history exhibits. Queer travelers can head to Bachelor Forum for drinks among the upstate LGBTQ locals. On its namesake river, there’s the famous (and enormous) Genesee Brew House, one of the country’s oldest breweries, and now a destination unto itself.
Kelsy Chauvin (@kelsycc on Twitter and Instagram) is Brooklyn-based writer and photographer, specializing in travel, culture, and LGBTQ interests.