New York’s Finger Lakes Vacation Guide for First Timers: Top 23 Things to Do in the Finger Lakes

The Finger Lakes region of New York spans across 11 lakes which were formerly glaciers. The two most popular are the biggest and deepest: Seneca Lake (618 ft) — home to the iconic Watkins Glen State Park, and Cayuga Lake (435 ft) — which faces Cornell University in Ithaca. In addition to the lakes which offer a variety of things to do in the Finger Lakes, the region is blessed with several gorges, natural pools, waterfalls, state parks, and most famously hundreds of wineries, breweries, distilleries, and/or cider houses.

This underrated region makes for the perfect relaxing New York weekend getaway, perfect for food/wine lovers, outdoor enthusiasts, and culture/history buffs. If this if your first time traveling to the Finger Lakes, remember that one trip will likely not be enough. You’ll want to come back for more and more!

If you’re considering a Finger Lakes vacation and want to add this amazing place to your USA bucket list then here is a full guide to the best of the region broken down by topic.

Quick Recap About the Finger Lakes

The Finger Lakes get their name from their unique shapes (pictured above). These long narrow lakes are in a basin/valley eroded by glaciers hundreds of meters deep. The vast region covers ~9,000 square miles, stretching across New York State and as far south as near the Pennsylvania border. The area is also an essential part of the homeland belonging to the Iroquois tribes (including Seneca and Cayuga nations).

Since these lakes span across a large chunk of New York State, in this Finger Lakes travel blog post, we are going to focus on Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga. These are the most popular lakes and the best ones to start with for first time travel to the Finger Lakes.

How to Get to the Finger Lakes

The best way to get around the Finger Lakes is by driving. This way you get the most out of your trip and get to see a little bit of everything. Otherwise, you can take a bus to the walkable town of Ithaca and take an Uber to places around Cayuga Lake.

Because the Finger Lakes are expansive the time it takes to get there varies on which lake/area you choose. But the most popular lakes (Cayuga/Seneca) are about a 4-5 hour drive from NYC.

Where to Stay in the Finger Lakes

The best and most active places to stay in the Finger Lakes are Seneca Lake, Keuka Lake, and Cayuga Lake. And one of the best accommodations is Airbnb for both luxury and budget accommodation. If you’re looking for hotels, click on the town names below.

1) Seneca Lake

This is the largest and deepest (~650 ft) lake. Here, I recommend staying in the towns of Geneva (upscale/cute town with great food), Burdett (near some of the popular wineries and restaurants), or Watkins Glen (full of restaurants, shops, and the Watkins Glen National Park). If you stay in Seneca Lake, you’ll be in between both Keuka and Cayuga Lake! This is probably the best lake for your first time Finger Lakes vacation.

Per location and super host quality I recommend the following Airbnbs/ hotels:

Watkins Glen – This is one of the best towns to stay for first time travel to the Finger Lakes because it’s perfectly located between major attractions. The town itself offers several great restaurants and is a stone throw’s away from popular wineries. Consider staying at this gorgeous Victorian home all to yourself in the heart of Watkins Glen at an excellent price! Nature lovers, consider this cute and well-priced cabin located right along the lake.

Burdett – For epic lake views and to be in the heart of Finger Lakes wine country, consider this cabin and all its outdoor space in nature. Perfect for social distancing!

Geneva – Nothing more luxurious than staying in a castle by the lake! Consider a few nights at the Vinifera Inn located within the Belhurst Castle & Spa..

2) Keuka Lake

Keuka Lake is uniquely shaped like a Y, thinner/smaller, and more quaint yet near tons of things to see and do. This is my favorite one. You can stay in Hammondsport (near antique shops and an Aviation museum) or Penn Yan (a cute little town with good food and near outdoor opportunities yet still close to Seneca Lake).

Penn YanThis STUNNING luxury cabin is perfectly situated between Penn Yann and Geneva so you can get the best of both Keuka Lake and Seneca Lake.

HammondsportI stayed here during my first trip and it was just $85 for this super underrated, beautiful, and spacious Airbnb that holds up to 4 guests. It’s a steal! This area was super cute with an aviation museum, antique shops, and close access to Keuka Lake. From here, Watkins Glen and Corning are both about 20 minutes away.

3) Cayuga Lake

Cayuga Lake is just as popular for its own unique reasons. It’s home to the popular college town of Ithaca and close to several wineries, tours, incredible food. You will not run out of things to do here!

Ithaca – Also one of best small city to base yourself out of for first time travelers. This very liberal, educated, and progressive town is home to the prestigious Cornell University and Ithaca College. I recommend staying in a beautiful timber garden cottage like this one or a city center studio like this one for budget travelers/couples.

Interlaken – This is one of my favorite regions in the Finger Lakes because of its vast beauty, farmlands, and proximity to places like the Finger Lakes Cider House, Americana Winery, and Thirsty Owl. You can also drive to Seneca Lake from here within 15-20 minutes. Consider staying in this gorgeous farm house or this adorable “tiny house” at a great price.

Outdoor Things to Do in the Finger Lakes

From waterfalls, state parks, hiking trails and much more. Here are some of the best things to do in the Finger Lakes for outdoor lovers. If you have physical limitations, below we’re including some accessible adventures too!

4) Watkins Glen State Park + Trails

The iconic Watkins Glen State Park is a must visit for all who travel to the region who love: waterfalls, gorges, hiking, and natural wonders. This park’s most iconic attraction is the rainbow bridge which is about a mile walking from the entrance on relatively flat grounds + some steps. Get there early to avoid crowds or on a weekday.

The park also offers other trails to explore that hardly have any visitors. I strongly recommend the South Rim trail which takes you into a beautiful forest for about another mile where you can see a creek from high above.

5) Buttermilks Falls State Park

This is one of my favorite places in the entire State of New York and one of the most beautiful hikes in New York. This park is a short hike around several natural gorges, natural pools, streams, waterfalls, unique rock formations, and lovely trails. Swimming is officially allowed at the bottom of the waterfalls when a lifeguard is present.

Located near Ithaca, NY (South of Cayuga Lake)

6) Finger Lakes National Park

7) Horse Back Riding with Painted Bar Stables

Wondering what to do in the Finger Lakes for adventure? How about galloping through the Finger Lakes National Forest with the folks at Painted Bar Stables? If you’re new to horseback riding, you can start with some lessons before going on the trail. They offer year-round guided trail rides. But book ahead of time, they can sell out fast!

Located in Burdett, NY (Seneca Lake)

8) Keuka Outlet Trail + Seneca Mills Falls

This scenic hike or bike trail offers beautiful waterfalls along the way. You can start in Dresen and end in Pen Yann (3 miles one way).

Located near Penn Yan (Northwest of Keuka Lake)

9) Kayaking on Keuka, Seneca, and/or Cayuga Lake

On a nice day, consider kayaking or stand up paddleboarding in the Finger Lakes.

For Keuka Lake, check Shoreline Rentals from Penn Yan. In Cayuga Lake, try Paddle N More right by the beach in the area that leads to Taughnonck Falls. And in Seneca Lake, I recommend Summit To Stream Adventures.

10) Wine Tasting Boat Tour

This boat tour through Cayuga Lake departs from two different ports and takes a small number of travelers through different wineries/vineyards for wine tastings. A beautiful way to get to know Cayuga Lake while enjoying in many wineries.

The cost is $150 + tip and tax. So it’s not cheap. But it’s perfect if you don’t want to drive and/or want something more physically accessible while enjoying the beautiful views.

11) Finger Lakes Sea Plane

Get a better view of the Finger Lakes by flying on the Finger Lakes Sea Plane Tour. This plane takes off and lands over Keuka Lake but you can also opt to fly over Watkins Glen, Seneca Lake, and Canandaigua Lake.

Starting at $250 per person.

12) Taughannock Falls State Park

This is an easy walk/hike to the waterfall (Taughannock Falls) or you can see it from high above without having to go into any trail. Along the way there, you will pass a beautiful stream where you’ll likely see kids swimming and enjoying the natural pools.

Here is a Tik Tok video of my visit there.

Location: 15 minutes from Ithaca (western Seneca Lake)

Art, Culture & Heritage

At least a half-day trip to the beautiful town of Corning, New York is a must for art, history, and culture enthusiasts. In Corning, you will find two must-visit museums: the Corning Glass Museum and Rockwell Museum. If time permits, consider strolling through the town’s historic center and Market Street for good food and boutique shopping.

13) Corning Glass Museum + Studio

I had no idea that glass was such an interesting part of our human history, art and science. This museums puts the function of glass into perspective with exhibitions, galleries, historic interactive workshops, demonstrations, ancient collections, a wing explaining the impactful industrial uses of glass (past/present), and a large gift shop featuring glass from local New York artists. This is arguably one of the best museums in the country featuring such an interesting medium and so underrated! Allocate at least 2 hours to this museum and that’s NOT including the studio workshop classes.

14) Rockwell Museum

You may feel a special connection to the art in this museum, not just because it’s European American, Latino American, and Native American, but because a lot of the art here is reminiscent of the landscapes you’ll pass on your drives around the Finger Lakes. That northeastern landscape, the hills, the history, and the culture permeates through many of the paintings you’ll see in this small but meaningful museum full of stunning artwork about the American experience.

The museum puts it beautifully: “The people, land, and ideas that shape America through the eyes of American artists.”

Wineries in the Finger Lakes

Please note, there are over a hundred wineries in this region and people have different predilections to the wines/tastes they may prefer. These are my suggestions based on taste, recognition/accolades, and ambiance.

Two unique types of wine that I personally recommend trying in the Finger Lakes are Riesling and Cayuga White. The former is renowned in the region as one of the best in the world and the latter was invented by local Cornell students!

15) JR Dill Winery

If you love white wine + lake side views surrounded by beautiful pine trees, then this is the place to stop by! My friend and I both left carrying white wine bottles. And that’s after a long consideration between three white wine bottles!

Location: Burdett, NY (Seneca Lake)

16) Wagner Vineyards Estate Winery

Have you ever gone to a vineyard/winery and tasted their wines but not understood the jargon nor the significance of the wine’s composition? Ever wish someone could help contextualize your experience by giving you some fun insight into the grapes, the aroma, the region, and taste? Well, this was one of my most wholesome wine tasting experiences. John, our sommelier, gave us an in-depth look at the history of Seneca Lake, the jargon used for wine, the grapes, the region, and more. We left feeling much more connected and educated via laughs and drinks.

If that doesn’t convince you to stop by Wagner, their wines have been ranked as some of the best in the country receiving various awards and accolades.

Try their award-winning Riesling Caywood East Dry 2018!

Location: Seneca Lake

17) Thirsty Owl Wine Company & Bistro

A well-known and fun winery to pop into for lunch and wine tasting. Moreover, this winery also provided some of the most spectacular lakeside views. As for the wine, my friends left carrying bottles from here!

18) Other Wineries

Please note that wineries close around 5PM (or 6PM in the summer), thus it’s important to plan your visits wisely. I’ve heard the below wineries are wonderful but didn’t have time to check them out. There are just so many!

  • Dr. Konstantin (Keuka Lake)
  • Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard (Seneca Lake)
  • Miles Wine Cellars (Seneca Lake – pictured above)
  • Americana Winery (Cayuga Lake)

Finger Lakes Breweries & Cider Houses

In addition to wineries, the Finger Lakes region is also home to several breweries, cider houses, and distilleries. There are various, but here are the three I strongly recommend stopping by!

19) Grist Iron Brewing Company

This brewery wins on all counts: great ambience, beautiful views, delicious food, and really good beer. Since most of their drinks are on tap, you can ask to try a beer before committing to an entire class. I tried the grape beer (which isn’t very sweet) and was floored by how delicious and refreshing it was!

Location: Seneca Lake

20) Finger Lakes Cider House

One of the Best Things to Do in the Finger Lakes!

Just the drive there alone is worth the drive, as you pass magnificent landscape views, beautiful homes, bucolic farms, and the sprawling countryside. Located in the middle of vast farmland, the rustic American-style Finger Lakes Cider House offers delicious food, a unique gift shop, and a huge list of some of the best cider you’ll taste. Their ciders and cider cocktails vary from sweet to dry, some infused with herbs, spices, wine grapes, and much more.

This is definitely one of the best things to do in the Finger Lakes.

Location: Northwest Cayuga Lake

21) Ithaca Beer Company

Stunning views welcome you as you walk into their outdoor seating area. You can sit either by a picnic table in the field or by a grapevine decorated seating area for small or larger groups. You can order some fast food here as well. The beer selection was extensive and delicious.

The Best Restaurants in the Finger Lakes

22) Graft Wine + Cider Bar

I was delighted to find out that the chef of this restaurant is a fellow Dominican! You know what that means? FLAVOR!

Honestly, anything you get on the menu is bound to satisfy your taste buds. We tried the chicken, pork, salmon, and we were all delighted with Chef Orlando’s dishes. The ambiance is uniquely beautiful and cozy. And the service was lovely. A must-visit for tasty and fresh dishes by a dexterous chef! And some of the best food I had in the entire Finger Lakes region.

Bonus: I recommend starting dinner with their delicious cheeseboard + a cider flight!

23) Veraisons Restaurant (Glenora Wine Cellars)

Hands down, also some of the best food I had in the entire Finger Lakes. Everything was full of good seasoning, perfect texture, and balanced. They also offer gluten-free and vegan options. Try the calamari and the mushroom tart! Oh, and the baked apple + ice cream dessert, too. Yum.

This is also a winery; though we didn’t get to do a wine tasting here they have an extensive selection of wines to choose from.

Location: Seneca Lake

24) FLX Table

The concept of this restaurant is unique. Sixteen strangers gather together over a 4-course dinner which the chef chooses. You sit together at a long table sharing the experience and connecting with each other. By far, one of the coolest cultural experiences in the Finger Lakes to meet others, including local people over delicious food.

This is one of the best Finger Lakes activities and if you don’t believe me, USA Today ranked FLX Table as the best restaurant in the country!

Book weeks ahead of time as they book up quickly and only host two rounds of dinner at 5 PM and another at 8 PM on select days.

Location: Geneva, NY (Northern Seneca Lake)

25) Nickel’s BBQ Pit

For some classic American food with a southern meaty-heavy twist, stop by Nick’s BBQ Pit. As a chicken wing connoisseur, I can eagerly attest to the deliciousness and crunchiness of their buffalo-garlic-parmesan chicken wings! Whew, I’m gulping just thinking about how tasty they were. Also try their ribs, tater tots, and fried pickles. Yum, yum, yum!

26) Spotted Duck – (Duck Egg Ice Cream)

Frozen custard, cones and cookies made from local/organic ingredients including duck eggs from the very farm you see pictured above! They do not use corn syrup, artificial colors or flavors!

If you can’t decide on one flavor, go with a “flight” so you can taste 4 different scoops for $6.75.

27) Grist Iron Brewing Company’s Restaurant

As I noted above, this brewery wins on all counts: great ambiance, beautiful views, delicious food, and really good beer. The mac and cheese is a must-try! Ask for a glass of grape beer, I promise it’s refreshing and not sweet.

Shopping in the Finger Lakes

28) Local Small Businesses & Farmers

There are plenty of places, corners, stands and shops to do all sorts of shopping in the Finger Lakes. But one of my favorites? Buying local and supporting small businesses/farmers. The way of life in this region is much calmer, thus business owners will leave their businesses completely unattended with the prices listed above a box where you put the cash and take the product. It’s based on the honor system! What a beautiful way to cultivate a craft via trust in the community.

29) Ithaca + Weekend Farmers Market

You could easily spend your morning at this lovely market in Ithaca. Here you can grab your morning coffee/kombucha while you shop for plants, local honey, cheese, meats, organic soaps, lotions, jewelry, home goods, fruits/veggies, and a zillion other local small business products. After you work up an appetite, be sure to check out of the food stands in the back. I recommend the Cambodian food, it’s full of flavor and uses some of my favorite Caribbean/Asian staples like plantains!

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6 thoughts on “New York’s Finger Lakes Vacation Guide for First Timers: Top 23 Things to Do in the Finger Lakes

  1. Emma says:

    I always wondered why they were called the Finger Lakes. But once I saw the map I had a major AHA moment. Looks like a great area and I love all the trails around there, so pretty. I thought I was sold at the beer tasting but a flight of ice cream?! Wow!

  2. Shannon says:

    This is awesome! I’ve never been to the area, but now it’s on my list! A winery boat tour… now that’s what I’m talking about! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Taylor says:

    Wow! This is such an amazing guide to the Finger Lakes. I still need to go (I’m from New Jersey). It looks absolutely beautiful there and so much to do!

  4. vaisakhi says:

    I absolutely love Finger Lakes area and you have covered the literal best of the area in this post! Cayuga Lake / Ithaca area is my absolute favorite to go to, but you are right – if there is one of two things one just must do in this area, it would be Watkins Glen and maybe even Buttermilk falls. I am yet to do Seneca Mills Falls, gonna add it for my next time. Loved the post btw!

  5. Ophelie says:

    What a beautiful area to discover! The lakes look stunning with the fall colors! Thanks for all your tips about the places to stay, eat and the wineries!

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