Beyond the Big Apple: A road trip through Central & Western New York
Between New York City, the Hudson Valley, the Catskills, and the Adirondacks, there’s a laundry list of amazing things to do in the eastern part of New York State. But don’t forget about Central and Western New York too. These areas are chock full of big-time attractions, jaw-dropping natural wonders, and some of the most scenic drives you’ll find anywhere in the country.
For our recommended trip through Central and Western New York, we’ll be starting in Albany and ending up in Buffalo. While it’s only a four and a half hour drive between those cities on Interstate 90, we recommend that you take the road less traveled and spread the trip out over a few days.
Day 1: Going back in time with baseball & caves
Starting out from Albany, our first stop is only about an hour or so away. Howe Caverns is the #2 most-visited natural attraction in New York after (spoiler alert) Niagara Falls.
Formed several millions of years ago, the cave extends 156 feet below the surface. If you’ve done basic cave tours before, you know the drill: head lamps, lots of steps, and surprisingly wide berths to accommodate the many visitors that go through each year. Howe Caverns, though, gives you something you don’t often get—an underwater boat ride! Yep, for part of your tour, you’ll be sailing the low seas of the Lake of Venus. If you have a couple of hours to spare, we’d recommend the longer tour that takes you to parts of the cave that have no artificial lighting.
Once you’ve spelunked to your heart’s content, get back in the car and head onto Cooperstown, about an hour’s drive away. It’s tempting to try to squeeze the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum into a morning or afternoon, but we recommend setting aside a whole day for the experience. Believe us, you won’t want to rush through it.
There’s plenty more to see in Cooperstown anyway. If you were wondering, the village was named for William Cooper, father of noted author James Fenimore Cooper. At the Fenimore Art Museum and the Farmers’ Museum, both nestled alongside beautiful Lake Otsego, you can check out everything from early American folk art to oddities like the Cardiff Giant. If you’re in Cooperstown at the right times during the summer, you might even luck into the Glimmerglass Festival’s opera on the lake.
The Baseball Hall of Fame was established and dedicated in Cooperstown in 1939. Cooperstown was the spot because it was widely believed at the time that Civil War veteran Abner Doubleday had “invented” baseball there. That’s long since been debunked, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying the Cooperstown marvel. The Baseball Hall of Fame features staggering amounts of baseball memorabilia and artifacts — everything from the bat Roger Maris used to break Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record to the one George Brett used during the infamous “Pine Tar Game” in 1983. They even have Shoeless Joe Jackson’s shoes! Make sure to save the very best for last, though. You’ll appreciate the Plaque Gallery even more after having immersed yourself in all the historical exhibits—it’s almost a cathedral-like experience.
Day 2: Taughannock Falls State Park is “gorges” too
From Cooperstown, it’s about two and a half hours to our next destination: Taughannock Falls State Park. The park’s centerpiece, naturally, is Taughannock Falls, which plunges an impressive 215 feet. According to National Geographic, it’s the highest single-drop waterfall east of the Rockies. There are two main viewing points for the falls. The .75-mile Gorge Trail takes you to a viewing area at the base of the Falls, or you can hike along the North Rim (1.5 miles) and South Rim (1.2 miles) trails.
Don’t forget the rest of the park too. There’s plenty more hiking and nature trails, plus you can take in the sprawling Cayuga Lake, our first of the Finger Lakes.
From here, you easily could press onto other Finger Lakes, but we’d recommend doubling back to Ithaca, one of America’s quintessential college towns. Take some time to wander the campuses of Cornell University, founded in 1865, and Ithaca College, founded a few decades later.
It’s also worth the 20-minute drive to the nearby town of Dryden to take in the Book Barn of The Finger Lakes. It’s truly one of the biggest bookstores you’ll ever see—and it’s a book lover’s dream. There are volumes everywhere the eye can see—bookcase after bookcase, stack after stack, room after room. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more memorable bookstore experience in the entire United States.
Day 3: Wine, history, antiques & more wine in the Finger Lakes
Eleven long, narrow lakes make up the Finger Lakes region of New York. You really can’t go wrong visiting any of them. They’re all super scenic and surrounded by quaint towns that will charm you to no end. And there’s plenty to do beyond just taking in lake views. Here are just a few examples:
- Visit a winery – The Finger Lakes area is the largest wine-producing region in New York State, with more than 100 wineries and vineyards around Seneca, Cayuga, Canandaigua, Keuka, Conesus, and Hemlock Lakes. Founded in 1860, Pleasant Valley Wine Company on Keuka Lake is one of America’s oldest wineries.
- Take in some history — In Seneca Falls, you’ll find the Women’s Rights National Historic Park, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton held the first convention on women’s rights in 1848.
- Go antiquing – The Antique Country Mile in Bloomfield features 10 shops and 175 dealers, while the massive Ontario Mall Antiques in Farmington is the largest antique store in all of New York.
We highly recommend spending the night in one of the Finger Lakes’ picturesque villages. Again, it’s hard to go wrong with any of them, but, if forced to pick, we’d recommend Geneva, Hammondsport, and Skaneateles (pronounced “Skinny Atlas”).
Day 4: Barrels of fun at Niagara Falls
Don’t worry — we’re not going to forget about Niagara Falls!
If you’re coming from Skaneateles, it’s going to be a roughly two and a half hour drive to Niagara Falls. From other points in the Finger Lakes, it’ll be a shorter trip. Toward the end of the drive, you’ll start to make your way around Buffalo. And, as the saying goes, “When in Buffalo…”
We’re not going to re-litigate who invented Buffalo wings — too much bleu cheese already has been spilled over that debate. Suffice it to say, you’ll want to stop at one or both of the two rival claimants: Anchor Bar or Duff’s Famous Wings. Duff’s will save you a little more time en route to Niagara Falls, but, if you have time, head into the city for a taste of Anchor Bar.
When you arrive at Niagara Falls, it’s definitely worth crossing the border to see them from the Canadian side, though the lines could be long depending on the time of day. The views are fantastic from both U.S. and Canada, but overall the Canadian side gives you a more comprehensive vantage point.
It may sound cliché, but Niagara Falls is truly breathtaking. There’s a reason it’s been a top U.S. tourist destination since the 1800s. The Falls have a vertical drop of 160 feet, and, according to the official website, more than six million cubic feet of water goes over their crest every minute during peak daytime hours.
Once you’ve had a chance to walk around and take in the Falls from various spots, get a ticket and hop aboard the Maid of the Mist. This legendary boat tour, which starts and ends on the American side, ferries past the base of the Falls and gives you an up-close, personal (and damp) view of the natural wonder. Don’t worry, though — complimentary rain ponchos are included.
Over the course of only four days in Central and Western New York, you can experience some truly amazing natural wonders, picturesque scenery, classic Americana, and impactful history—all without having to keep an aggressive driving pace. It’s a truly amazing and surprisingly underrated area — perfect for your next long weekend getaway.
Reviews of Beyond the Big Apple: A road trip through Central & Western New York
One place missed.
Forgot to visit the “It’s a Wonderful Life” museum in Seneca Falls-the claim is that Bedford Falls from the movie is based on Seneca Falls. Lots of memorabilia from the film-worth the cost of admission.