32 Super Fun Things to Do in Rochester, NY

A woman sitting on a rock in front of the waterfall at Letchworth State Park.

As a local Western New Yorker, allow me to introduce you to the often underestimated city of Rochester, NY! Situated along the great Lake Ontario shores, this city boasts a diverse population of over 200,000, a rich history, and several universities/colleges! Once renowned for its industrial might (Rochester was the home of big companies like Kodak and Xerox) and its significance in Underground Railroad and Black history, today, it thrives as a hub of innovation and cultural diversity. From its burgeoning brewery scene to the array of museums, we’ll uncover the hidden gems in store, cool places to visit, and fun things to do in Rochester!

I. Rochester’s Interesting History 

The city of Rochester was established in 1821 thanks to its status as a port in the St. Lawrence Seaway, meeting up with the Genesee River at Lake Ontario. It was originally known as Rochesterville until it was shortened in 1822. 

WIth the Erie Canal (1825) and the waterpower and railway links that were made (1839), Rochester was considered one of the boom towns of Western New York by the mid-1800s. WIth flour milling, wheat production, and clothing and shoe industries, Rochester was mass-producing in the 1860s to keep up with the American Civil War.

In the late 19th century, George Eastman, John Jacob Bausch, and Henry Lomb helped Rochester gain its lasting nickname, the ‘Photo City,’ by coming to Rochester to develop their photographic, optical, and precision equipment. 

With famous names like Margaret and Kate Fox, Frederick Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony, Rochester has been home to some of the greatest influencers in American History. 

II. What Makes Rochester Unique?

So many aspects of the city of Rochester make it special. Being the former home of the Kodak Film company,  Susan B. Anthony, and Frederick Douglass, Rochester has an incredible and rich history that can be seen throughout the city. 

As the third largest city in New York, Rochester, or the ‘Flour City,’ has been home to a rich and growing industry that has touched just about every sector. It’s a city that knows how to adapt and survive. 

III. The Coolest Things to Do in Rochester

Artisan Works Gallery ★

Artisan Works Gallery is a revamped historic factory building converted to an art museum with 500,000 items in its collection.  The Gallery created a system of self-funding that allows the museum to run without government funding. This is where a lot of Rochester’s local art lives.

Visit Artisan Works Gallery on weekends between 12 and 5 to immerse yourself in the creative world and find inspiration in your life. 

Browse the Rochester Public Market

When I say Rochester really embraces their history, I mean it. The Public Market has been on North Union Street since 1905. The Market runs on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday all year round, with Saturdays often boasting over 300 vendors offering local produce, global delicacies, prepared and packaged foods from all ethnicities, and so much more.

You could easily spend hours here browsing, shopping, and tasting the different offerings.  Explore some local businesses and experience foods you’ve never tasted before!

Letchworth State Park (Day Trip)★

Take a day trip to the Grand Canyon of the East, just a short drive south of Rochester. As the Genesee River cuts through a massive gorge, you can witness not one but three incredible waterfalls – some of the best waterfalls in the United States.

Stroll through the forests and enjoy nature on any of the 66 total miles of hiking trails in this beautiful landscape. There are trails to suit anyone and any activity, from horseback riding and biking to snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. Absolutely one of the best things to do and one of the best state parks in New York.

Mendon Ponds Park

Take a moment to enjoy nature and de-stress in the largest park in Monroe County, Mendon Ponds Park. Because of its unique geological history, this park was listed on the National Registry of Natural Landmarks in 1969.

As one of the unique places to visit in Rochester, Mendon Ponds offers trails, birdwatching, boating, cross-country skiing, fishing, 48 geocaches, horseback riding, kayaking and canoeing, playgrounds, and sports fields. It’s a great break from the city, and just a short drive from downtown.

George Eastman Museum ★

You’ll find one of the most historic Rochester attractions on the George Eastman Estate in downtown Rochester. The pioneer of personal photography and motion picture film, George Eastman is perhaps one of the most famous Rochester personalities. 

The George Eastman Museum was founded in 1947 as the world’s oldest photography museum and archives. Peruse the massive collection or catch a movie in the Dryden Theatre. There are also music recitals almost every Sunday afternoon. 

Park Avenue Entertainment District

As one of Rochester’s most historic districts, Park Avenue offers restaurants, cafes, breweries, shops, galleries, and more.

Whether you’re looking to start off your day with a fantastic breakfast like a Hangover Bowl at Blu Wolf Bistro or eat somewhere with a theme like Mad Hatter, or you’d like to take a break with a cup of coffee after checking out some local shops, this district is made to please.

Even more pleasing is the architecture and ambiance. You can easily spend a day exploring the shops and galleries, and finish off the day at a local brewery.

Memorial Art Gallery ★

In one of the best cities in New York, you can find 5,000 years of history on display at the Memorial Art Gallery, hosted by the University of Rochester. With over 12,000 objects on display and a year-round schedule of exhibitions, concerts, tours, lectures, and family fun, it has been called one of the best museums in Upstate New York.  

The Gate House

How about affordable, organic, and sustainable food in an amazing environment? The Gate House offers just that with its mouth-watering gourmet burgers and wood-fired pizza. They manage all this while powering their entire operation and restaurant solely on wind and solar power! Don’t miss Sunday brunch with mimosas and their famous Bloody Marys.

Go Kayaking on Irondequoit Bay

If you’re a fan of kayaking, take the quiet path from Irondequoit Creek to the Bay. Whether you shuttle to the Bay or go round-trip, this peaceful and quiet creek offers plenty of flora and fauna to see.

There aren’t strong currents, so it’s a great activity for the family or beginners who want to try out their skills. You can rent kayaks in Ellison Park for the whole family.

Lyric Theatre Company of Rochester

Located in an early 1900s church, the Rochester Lyric Opera found a home in Rochester for their performances and educational programs. With 700 seats in the auditorium, this building was designed for music, featuring stunning architecture and perfect acoustics.

Although recently converted back to a church, the Lyric Theatre still offers community performances in its incredible space – why not stop in for a world-class production?

ArtWalk Rochester

This might be one of the best things to do in Rochester, NY! ARTWalk is a permanent urban art trail connecting the arts centers and public spaces within the Neighborhood of the Arts.

Join up your visits to the George Eastman Museum and the Memorial Art Gallery and follow this interactive, outdoor museum with public art as part of practical things like benches and painted on the sidewalks. You can check out individual pieces, or walk the whole route with a downloadable map.

Geva Theatre Center

The corner the Geva Theatre Center now stands on has an important place in history as a gathering place for presidents, governors, and military personnel, as well as artists, celebrities, and musicians.

Since Geva purchased and revamped the building in the 1980s, they’ve presented around 336 plays and housed over 5,000 actors, directors, managers, and designers. Each seat is at most 50 feet from the stage, making it an intimate space to watch performances.

The theater supports multiple productions throughout the year. Right now, they’re offering one of my favorites: Rogers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella!

Susan B. Anthony House Museum

On 17 Madison Street sits the house of Susan B. Anthony, the legendary women’s rights leader. This is the home she lived in, the site of her arrest in 1872 after she voted, and the headquarters of the National American Woman Suffrage Association while she was President.

Experience the power of place at her home and the Susan B. Anthony Museum and learn about the impact she had on women’s and American history.

Walk the Erie Canalway Trail

Between Rochester and nearby Fairport, there’s an excellent stretch of the Erie Canalway Trail to explore. The 14-mile off-road trail is great for walkers and bikers, and passes through woodlands and streams, with great views of canal boats and the infrastructure of this famous man-made waterway.

Bike the entire trail in about an hour or take a leisurely stroll to one of the picturesque villages along the way, such as Pittsford or Fairport.

Take a Segway Tour

Upstate Seg Tours can whisk you around the best parts of Rochester for an hour or two on a Segway scooter. Glide around with up to 5 other people and see more that the city has to offer with professional and knowledgeable guides. 

Relax on Charlotte Beach

If you’re looking for one of the best beaches in Upstate New York, Ontario Beach Park should be on your list. One of the Great Lake’s best natural sand beaches, it covers 39 acres and has a sandy waterfront with Charlotte Pier. Enjoy the beach, the pier, the Dentzel Menagerie Carousel built in 1905, or a picnic. It’s open year-round for summer or winter fun.

Strong National Museum of Play

Whether you have kids or not, the Strong National Museum of Play is not only one of the fun things to do in Rochester but may top the list of best museums in Upstate New York. Both kids and adults love the museum exhibits, and the learning about the history of how life and our interests have changed over the centuries. You can even visit Sesame Street!

Rochester Museum and Science Center

This interactive museum appeals to all ages. Whether you like natural history, space, or local history, there are exhibits for you to get lost in. My favorite exhibit is the life story of Frederick Douglass and black lives in Rochester, the Underground Railroad, and the impact of slavery on the United States. 

The Little Theater

This little theater, designed in the style of Edgar Philips of Rochester and Frederick Pike of Buffalo, is on the National Register of Historic Places and a big part of the Little Cinema Movement.

This movement tried to appeal to audiences that preferred things outside of the realm of the larger commercial movie houses, such as silent films. Why not see a movie at an iconic theater of cinematic history?

High Falls Center & Interpretive Museum

One of the best places to visit in Rochester, and probably the best place to start your visit, is the High Falls Center. Not only can you learn some of the history of Rochester at the museum, but there’s a laser show and plenty of tours to take. 

It sits right at the center of what used to be Rochester’s and America’s flour milling industry. There’s even a fantastic footbridge for the perfect view of High Falls. 

Visit the Breweries of Rochester

Rochester started its first brewery in 1819 and boomed to over 50 breweries before the fall in the 1900s (9 remained). Craft breweries started to pop up in the 90s, and Rochester is now home to over 30 craft breweries. 

  • Genesee Brewing Company (4.6/5): The oldest brewing company in Rochester and New York State, this brewery is named for the river it resides near. They stored the beer in the cold, dark caverns and gorges surrounding the river. 
  • Roc Brewing Co. (4.5/5): Grab a flight of local beer in their tasting room downtown. This brewery tries to maintain that hometown feel while following the current trends in craft brewing. There’s something for everyone to try, no matter what you fancy. 
  • R.G. Brewery and Five Sons Winery (4.7/5): I would say that this winery is among the best breweries in Upstate New York. Beyond their excellent location in Brockport, just outside of the city, their food, beer, and wine are a wonderful experience. I recommend the wine gelato!
  • Rohrbach Brewing Co. on Railroad Street (4.7/5): Founded in 1991, this brewery has the honor of being Rochester’s first craft brewery. The beer hall serves the best wood-fired pizza in town. 

Play at the Dreamworks Rink

This indoor, year-round skating rink is a great place to go and play, especially if you need some indoor fun out of the rain or snow. The Genesee Valley Sports Complex offers ice skating, an outdoor pool, and a sports floor. Check out their open skate and adult-only skating times, and rent your skates right in the Dreamworks Rink. 

Tinker Nature Park

While you’ll have to leave your four-footed friends at home, the Tinker Nature Park in Henrietta is a great little park focused on nature. With some short trails and several museums and learning centers, you can spend the day outside and see the flora and fauna firsthand. You can even rent snowshoes and skis the explore the park in the winter.

Mount Hope Cemetery

While you usually wouldn’t think of a cemetery on a list of things to do in Rochester, Mount Hope Cemetery has a lot to offer. Beyond being one of the most impressive Victorian cemeteries in the country, it’s also the resting place of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.

This stunning location will awe you in every way with the natural landscape and the sculptures scattered throughout the arboretum.  It might seem a little strange, but it is really worth a visit. 

Genesee Riverway Trail

Bike, run, or walk the scenic 9-mile trail that runs through 9 historic districts and landmarks, including the 1842 Erie Canal Aqueduct and the Lake Ontario Lighthouse. Along the course, you can access many of Rochester’s wonderful sites including three waterfalls, the gorge, eight bridges, and eleven parks (including some designed by Frederick Law Olmsted).

Genesee Country Village & Museum

Witness history brought to life at the Genesee Country Village and Museum. Here, 19th-century American history and New York State history have been preserved.

The museum maintains a 19th-century village over 600 acres including a working farm, 68 historic buildings and an educational experience you can’t beat. Engage all five senses and explore history before your eyes.

Lamberton Conservatory

Within the beautiful Highland Park, you’ll find the Lamberton Conservatory. After the flour mills left Rochester, the city started a booming business in the plant and seed market. Highland Park and the Conservatory are symbolic of that moment in the past.

Spend a gray or rainy day inside the conservatory relaxing to the sound of running water while taking in all the colors and scents of flowers and tropical plants. This is an excellent place for photographers to practice their art in macro photos.

Ganondagan State Historic Site

This very special historic site is a must stop! The Ganondagan serves as a valuable resource for understanding local Native American history in the region through its exhibitions, beautiful cultural center, Seneca Bark Longhouse, nature trails, and much more.

Situated just 15 minutes between Rochester and Canandaigua, it’s easy to stop by here between your New York road trip adventures. 

I learned so much at the Ganondagan State Historic Site, things that should have been taught to us in schools as New Yorkers! You’ll learn about the significance of this location, formerly a vital center for the Seneca people and the Iroquois Confederacy. 

Today, it continues to be an invaluable site for archaeological research, offering insights into the Seneca’s rich heritage and daily life through artifacts and the reconstructed Seneca Bark Longhouse. 

As a hub for cultural preservation, Ganondagan is dedicated to educating visitors about the traditions, politics, and social structures of the Seneca and other Iroquois nations.

Spanning 569 acres of diverse landscapes, it also offers natural beauty through its trails and guided tours, alongside hosting numerous cultural and educational events to promote understanding and appreciation of local Native American history and culture.

Black Button Distilling

If you’re a fan of bourbon or gin, then this is the place for you. I was introduced to Black Button by accident, and their bourbon creme makes the best root beer floats. After my first encounter, I needed to see what more they had to offer.

Tour their distillery and visit their tasting room in a stunning brick building; you won’t be sorry! They even host cocktail classes and sell kits.

Explore Finger Lakes Wine Country

Relax and sip away at world-class wine in the Finger Lakes Wine Country. There are wine trails, breweries, cideries, and distilleries sprinkled all throughout the region. Summer or winter, the views and the people are spectacular, and so is the wine. 

Rochester City Ballet

Rochester City Ballet is the only professional ballet company in New York State outside New York City! It’s a great opportunity to see a live ballet performance outside of New York City or Saratoga (where there’s a troop in residency from the city).

Whether they’re performing classics like Sleeping Beauty or The Nutcracker or original works, it’s sure to be breathtaking.

The Strasenburgh Planetarium

While searching around for fun things to do, the Planetarium at the Rochester Museum and Science Center might catch your eye. Take an incredible journey across the universe during one of their shows. They even have an exhibition on how much Rochester has influenced space exploration! 

Rochester & Genesee Valley Railroad Museum

As the third oldest chapter in the National Railway Historical Society, the museum began in 1937, but really came to fruition in 1971 with the purchase of a depot on the Erie Lackawanna Railroad.

They’ve built a demonstration railroad with historic railroad equipment and offer the only real train rides in the city. Two miles of landmark rail connect the two museums by train. 

Photo City Music Hall for Live Performances

This music hall caters to everyone, which features music from all cultures, including local, national, and international artists. Enjoy live music of all varieties. As they say, it’s live entertainment, “From the Weird Side of the Tracks”. With a full calendar of events, there might be something that piques your interest. 

Go to a Rochester Red Wings Game

Rochester has been home to the Red Wings Baseball team since 1899, the oldest minor-league team in the history of professional sports! Why not get tickets for their next game and experience sports history at Frontier Field in downtown Rochester?

Guided Tour of the City

If you want to observe everything there is to see, consider taking one of the many tours available to explore Rochester. Let a guide take you around and tell you all there is to know, or go on your own.

  1. Frederick Douglass Walking Tour: This self-guided tour takes you around to all the significant sites in this iconic man’s life. One of the foremost leaders in the abolitionist movement, he also worked alongside Susan B. Anthony in support of women’s suffrage. 
  2. Akwaaba Heritage Tours: You can take one of their pre-made tours, like the Riverwalk, that explores the stops on the Underground Railroad along Main Street, and learn about the lives of Frederick Douglass, Austin Steward, and Harriet A. Jacobs. You can also ask for a custom tour to cover other places you want to learn about. 

Where to Stay in Rochester

  • Hampton Inn & Suites: This beautiful hotel is located just outside the city, so you won’t have to fight heavy traffic. With delightful wood furnishings, a complimentary breakfast (they’ll even bag it for you on the go), and a heated indoor pool, you can’t beat this location. 
  • Luxury Cottage with Heated Pool + Hot Tub: Stay at this place if you want to experience the small-town charm of downtown yet want to have access to the city! It has a heated swimming outdoor pool and an indoor hot tub, too!
  • Cottage on Lake Ontario: If you’re looking for a stay that offers a view of Lake Ontario, this contemporary home is an option. It’s literally a few steps away from the lake! 
  • Lake Waterfront Stay: This serene property offers a view of Irondequoit Bay. You may even enjoy the views on a tub!

Where to Eat & Drink in Rochester

  1. Happy Gut Sanctuary ★: Step away from the kombucha trend and try their unique fermented teas. Each tea is designed to have the fermentation process enhance the subtle flavors of tea.
  2. Boulder Coffee: What better combination than good coffee and live music? Whether you’re here for a live show, a first date, or to relax with friends, Boulder is the perfect place. 
  3. Bar Bantam: Smack dab in the heart of Rochester, this all-day eatery commands an incredibly bright and welcoming space whether you’re looking for a lighter cafe-style meal or a full dinner with cocktails. The Marco Polo dinner is superb.
  4. Rella ★: A 2-minute walk from the Strong Museum of Play, Rella offers a fantastic seafood and wine menu in a retro but inviting setting. Get served generous portions of mouth-watering amazing food. 
  5. Living Root Urban Winery ★ With a direct link to Australia, the Living Roots Winery has a tasting room in Rochester. They have a bar and patio where you can get a taste or a little bite to eat. 

Annual Events in Rochester

  • Rochester International Jazz Festival (runs June 23 to July 1): it’s one of the world’s leading jazz festivals held at the Kodak Hall Eastman Theatre. With an incredible lineup of fantastic jazz musicians, this would be a great time to visit Rochester.
  • Lilac Festival is usually hosted during the first three weekends in May while the incredible lilac bushes are flowering. Walk around Highland Park and see the 1,200 lilac bushes in full bloom (they have over 500 varieties). You can also check out amusement rides and local merchants throughout the park. 
  • Roc Holiday Village is Rochester’s winter festival, running Wednesdays through Sundays throughout December until Christmas. There’s a shopping village, ice skating, Santa, fire pits, restaurants, igloos, live music, and food trucks. 

Things to Do in Rochester: Frequently Asked Questions

What is Rochester, NY, famous for?

So many things. It’s been known as the ‘Flour City,’ the ‘Flower City,’ ‘Photo City,’ and many more due to its contributions to American industry, photography, xerography, optics, and manufacturing. 

Is Rochester worth visiting?

Considering the museums and art galleries alone, Rochester makes a great place to visit. Add in history and diverse culture, and you’d be foolish not to check out this amazing city. 

What food is Rochester known for?

Rochester’s signature dish is the Garbage Plate – a mashup of all kinds of ingredients, usually including a hamburger or cheeseburger, hot dogs (specifically locally made red or white hots), meat or grilled cheese, all served on top of home fries or french fries, sometimes baked beans, and macaroni salad.  It looks a mess, but is surprisingly popular. 

You can find the Garbage Plate all over the city, but check out Nick Tahou Hots (home of the Original Garbage Plate). 

About the Author

Heather Menz has called the Buffalo area home for over 35 years. With a degree in archaeology and a keen interest in history, she has explored sites that are easy to find and those hidden deep in Buffalo and Rochester’s history.

As part of an active and outdoors-oriented family, she has traveled and hiked much and learned more about what the Western New York area has to offer.

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