“Play is the highest form of research,” – Albert Einstein
It had been years since I last set foot in Rochester New York. There was a time Rochester was a destination Canadians visited for the weekend, when they wanted to shop and save money. Shopping bags loaded with clothing, shoes, and the occasional bottle of rum or whiskey, we’d return satisfied and armed with Christmas presents for everyone, but not before that final stop at the Duty Free store. This is how I remember Rochester, New York.
We were guests of Visit Rochester while in the city which means we received accommodations, meals and entrance to all attractions in exchange for honest consideration here.
Earlier this year, I started hearing murmurs of how much Rochester had grown and become a place to visit for the museums and food. I wondered if the buzz was warranted and was curious to find out. The idea of a family trip, plus time to play, in Rochester New York captured my imagination and I had to see it for myself.
The proof is in the pudding, as they say, so when the city of Rochester invited me to visit the area with my kids this fall, we were up for the adventure. Did they still have good shopping? What was there for teens to do? Since when had Rochester become synonymous with great food and culture? These were all questions swirling in my head before we checked in and launched into one museum after another.
Day 1 in Rochester New York
Things to Do in Rochester New York
On our way into the city, just on the outskirts of Rochester we stopped at the Genesee Country Village and Museum. Known as the largest living history museum in New York and the third largest in the country, the Genesee Country Village Museum is actually located in Mumford and was founded with the goal of preserving and sharing architecture of the 19th century.
My oldest daughter, now 18, has always been fascinated by art, culture, history and all things anthropological, so the idea of exploring a living history museum, which also included period actor/characters inside many of the buildings demonstrating life at that time, was clearly something that appealed to her.
How To Get To Rochester New York?
Rochester is a very straightforward four-hour drive through Niagara Region from London, Ontario. It is about 251 miles from New York City and roughly 2.5 hours from Toronto. The temperature is chilly in the winter months and can be hot in the summer, very similar to southern Ontario.
Our First Stop
The Genesee Country Village and Museum was our first stop and we took our time pausing to listen to the homemaker inside the pioneer section. Stop at the Grieves’ Brewery and watch as a brewer details how they once harvested the hops, growing nearby, and turned them into beer. It’s astounding to reflect on the manual labour and human capital once involved in something that today looks so simple.
The Genesee Country Village and Museum
The Genesee Country Village and Museum hosts educational events, weddings and summer camps too. School children from as far away as Pennsylvania come for field trips to complement their curriculum with hands on exploration of this living history museum. We very much enjoyed our trip through history and had trouble leaving, but there was a lot to see and do so on we went.
That first night we set out to find a good restaurant for dinner and we landed in Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. I had heard good things and, when we stepped in this casual barbecue restaurant, I had very high hopes. It was busy, so right off the bat, I figured that was a good sign.
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que surpassed my expectations. I had a mixed platter, with ribs and brisket and it was mouth-watering. One of my girls had a burger, which was huge and juicy. The food in Rochester New York was without a doubt some of the tastiest I have had anywhere in the USA. I did not expect to find the best barbecue dinner I have had in years in Rochester New York. In fact, it rivals any authentic southern barbecue dish you can find anywhere in North America.
Wondering Where to Stay?
We stayed at The Doubletree by Hilton on Jefferson Road in Rochester New York. It was a lovely, clean and quiet place. Easy to access and ample parking, plus lots of shopping and restaurants nearby. Then we drove in to downtown Rochester daily, which was about a 15-20 minute drive. If you are looking for family friendly and affordable accommodations you will do well here. There are many places to stay in Rochester.
Day 2 in Rochester New York – Museums!
Breakfast at Jines
Breakfast at Jines, in downtown Rochester started our day on the second day here. Let’s just say you won’t leave Jines hungry and this could tide you over through a part of the afternoon too. Waffles, delicious omelettes and hot cakes, which for some reason, I always forget is a regional term for pancakes. So very good!
Jines is an upscale diner located in the historic and cultural section of the Park Avenue neighbourhood. This is a good spot to remember because the location is close to several museums, which is where we were headed immediately after we took a quick detour from the itinerary for chocolate.
Chocolate Store Detour
Cut across the street from Jines, safely of course, and duck into Stever’s chocolates. Inside a home on Park Avenue you will find the most delicious and inventive chocolates around. Made fresh every day, Stever’s has featured homemade candy since 1946. Their caramels were delicious and my two teens each bought some tasty treats for later in the day. Cute homespun atmosphere too.
Rochester Museum and Science Center
Next up, we headed over to the Rochester Museum and Science Center and Strasenbergh Planetarium. This museum was a highlight for all of us. It’s super family friendly, with over 200 exhibits and shows. We learned a lot about the history of the area and loved the hands-on science. Awesome galleries for every age.
You can’t leave the Rochester Museum and Science Center without learning something new. Also, there’s a rock wall to climb on in one of the galleries, so clearly you have to love a museum that literally lets your kids climb the walls. This museum gets everything right. Don’t miss the show at the Planetarium. Grab a schedule when you enter so you can time it right.
Sunflower Spectacular at Wickham Farms
When I realized it was late August and Rochester had a farm full of sunflowers called Wickham Farms, I made sure we carved out time to visit. Despite a slightly overcast day and kind of muddy fields, we made the drive out to Wickham Farms to see what they had to offer tourists and locals alike.
Gigantic sunflowers everywhere, and so many chances to admire them and pose for photographs in the flower fields too. Wickham Farms has a small area with goats and chickens for kids, plus a corn maze, a repurposed piece of farm equipment that is now a children’s climber with slide, multiple other children’s climbers, swings and slides, a bouncy giant trampoline and more. Inside the farm shop when you enter there’s a cafeteria style bakery offering ice cream, fudge, coffee and handmade farm goods.
Don’t miss Wickham Farms Sunflower Spectacular. On the weekends in the fall they also offer hay rides and the apple cannons are working then too!
Seneca Park Zoo
The Seneca Park Zoo looks pretty unassuming from the entry. We looked for river otters, but they were hiding and then we walked through a few other exhibits before reaching the sea lions, who were extremely entertaining and busy, so we had a seat for a bit and watched them. The polar bear could not be spotted the day we visited. The weather had actually turned hot by the time we arrived at the zoo, so not so surprising.
Stick with this zoo and you will be rewarded with the amazing African pavilion. Giraffes, zebras, rhinos and elephants. The elephants were extremely impressive and staff were feeding them and gently moving them indoors for the evening.
The Seneca Park Zoo leads conservation efforts locally, regionally and internationally.
Dinner at Veneto Wood Fired Pizza and Pasta
After a busy day of exploring we headed to the heart of the east end neighbourhood and popped into Veneto. About five minutes in I was not regretting that choice. We ordered an appetizer that was sublime, but the specialty pizza that evening with sausage, feta and banana peppers was the piece de resistance. The flavour combination was a hint of sweet, plus savoury and slightly spicy too.
After dinner we headed back to the Doubletree for a quiet evening. The next morning we planned to visit the Rochester Public Market and wanted to be well rested and on time.
Day 3 – Rochester’s Public Market and More Museums
Rochester New York’s public market has served the area since 1905. Open all year round on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday I highly recommend a visit. Fresh seasonal produce, merchandise like clothing, sunglasses and numerous restaurants and cafes are all open all year round.
We picked up some fabulous little reusable eco-friendly food wraps and makeup wipes. The kid’s bought sunglasses and kettle corn too. I can see why locals load up on fresh fruits.
YUMMIEST donuts ever. Most creative donuts too. Honestly it didn’t take long for me to realize the foodie scene in Rochester is ridiculously worth the visit alone. This place wins for most creative donuts because CREME Brûlée donuts and also S’mores donuts. Located in the public market district, BXCR restaurant, has an open industrial contemporary feel that was clean and fresh. We had a quick breakfast here but they also serve brunch, coffee, and fried chicken. DROOL!
Fun Family Travel Tip – Try to find all of the dinosaurs hidden around the restaurant. We stayed to count them all!
The Strong National Museum of Play
We couldn’t believe our luck arriving at The Strong National Museum of Play on their Fan Appreciation Day. Perfect timing! Games were scattered on the sidewalk on the way in and after a full afternoon exploring all of the exhibits there was also a shaved ice truck serving free treats on the way out.
A few of the highlights for me were all the interactive hands-on exhibits, plus Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street? and the Toy Halls of Fame. DC Superheroes temporary exhibit is fun for any comic book loving kids and grownups too. There’s a carousel inside the building at the entryway and a fun cafeteria which looks like an old time soda shop.
The three of us loved every moment at The Strong. Several people asked me since returning whether it was too young for my kids. But, to be honest I feel like The Strong is fun for all ages. The Women in Games exhibit appealed to all of us of course and it was fascinating to see the role of women in gaming over the years, both as architects of games and as characters. These are the sorts of exhibits and topics that resonate and promote conversation when we travel together on our mother daughter trips.
We enjoyed visiting Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street? because it’s iconic and brought back memories of all the shows we used to watch together. Sesame Street has done amazing work tackling complex social issues over the decades. Everyone can appreciate that.
The Toy Halls of Fame was so much hands-on fun and the Dancing Butterfly Garden was one of our favourite sections. The Strong National Museum of Play has it all and it’s beautiful in its execution and curation. With 100,000 square feet of space and a diverse number of exhibits The Strong will make you feel like a child again.
George Eastman Museum
George Eastman Museum is the world’s largest photography museum, founded in 1947. When we visited we loved the Warner Brothers cartoon exhibit. The Eastman has a collection of 400,000 photographs from 14,000 photographers dating from the origin of the medium.
Memorial Art Gallery
Take a journey through the last 5,000 years of art history. From the relics of antiquity to contemporary pieces, there are over 12,000 objects in this sprawling museum. The pieces here will challenge you. Loved the graffiti exhibit.
I’ve never done virtual reality before, so when I spied a VRcade in Rochester New York, not far from the Doubletree it seemed like a brilliant way to end our adventure in Rochester. Both of the girls loved this experience. My kids had tried VR at school once previously. Payton, my gaming enthusiast dove right in and picked a hard core battle virtual reality scene and setting. She was all in from the start and surprisingly good at Super Hot.
Ainsley opted for basketball and when we switched out I was stunned because I landed myself on a platform that seemed suspended in the middle of the room. That was completely discombobulating for a moment or two until I switched out to a walking with dinosaurs scene. Imagine that!
If you can imagine it, you can do it here. Many groups, teams and birthday parties do VeRacity VRCade and its a huge hit with people who have disabilities. According to the employee we had helping us out the night we were there, many people with disabilities really enjoy the virtual reality simulations. Some people who are wheelchair bound have also indicated that it feels like they are walking again when in the simulated scenario on screen.
VeRacity VRCade is perfect for teens and families traveling with older kids. Such a fun experience and the service was great too. I can see why this spot is popular.
Rochester New York is So Much More
In fact, in the last decade, Rochester New York has been reimagined, and now stands in upstate New York as a cultural destination for those wanting a break, a long weekend getaway, or an artistic adventure, tourists who are looking to bask in the museums and restaurants that have redefined the city. Rochester New York is so much more than I imagined. Immerse yourself in world class museums and savour the creative food scene here. No matter who your companions are, it’s the perfect place to play.