Pages Navigation Menu

Rochester, New York: from America’s first western boomtown to the cultural center of western New York

Rochester has what it takes for an entertaining and enlightening urban getaway and it is right by the scenic Finger Lakes region of western New York. America’s first western boomtown has grown to be a place to drink in the local flavors, delve into the world of fine art and natural wonders, feel like a kid again and revel in how Rochester—and America—came to be what it is today. 

There are over 140 festivals a year and a diverse array of museums, each of which takes visitors through time in its own unique way.  From one of New York’s finest art collections to the homes of influential residents who changed history and the interactive exhibits in an extraordinary newly expanded world of play, Rochester is an intriguing place for all ages and interests.

The Erie Canal

Rochester became the nation’s first western boomtown with the completion of the Erie Canal. This engineering marvel was built right through it, connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. 

An influx of settlers came west to fertile lands. Goods could be transported at drastically lower cost to and from what became the nation’s top seaport, New York City. The small frontier town of Rochester became known as the Young Lion of the West.

Rochester: flour, flowers and festivals 

With its growing labor force, expanding trade opportunities, waterfalls to power mills, and easy access to America’s wheat, Rochester became the world’s largest producer of baking flour. It was of such high quality that it made its way into Queen Victoria’s kitchen. Rochester was known as Flour City

The best view of the 96’ tall High Falls that powered the mills and the former industrial district is from the pedestrian walkway or from the rooftop of the Genesee Brewhouse. This popular pub-style restaurant and bar is a 9,200-square-foot beer destination in a century-old former bottling plant. The varied menu includes the customary appetizers, salads, sandwiches, wraps and pizzas.

Rochester is the home of the famous plate, and you might want to try the Genny Plate, available with two hot dogs or a burger, topped with Brew House meat sauce chopped onions and served over Mac salad and French fries. It is their version of a Rochester Garbage Plate, a local specialty that originated at and was trademarked by Nick Tahou Hots in downtown Rochester.

Colorful interactive and multimedia exhibits entertain and tell the history of the brewhouse’s owner, Genesee Brewery, one of the largest and oldest continually operating breweries in America. This is a place to enjoy a casual meal with a view from the outdoor patio, sample beer unique to the brewhouse and schedule a tour, if you like, at the pilot brewery.

Rochester also became internationally renowned as a flower and tree center and for its seed companies and soon became known as Flower City. Ellwanger & Barry Nursery, with its international clientele, became the largest nursery in the world. The city’s logo may look like a snowflake, but the design actually combines a lilac blossom, honoring the city’s flower, with five spokes representing a flour mill’s water wheel.

A 10-day Lilac Festival is held in late spring in Highland Park, which is home to over 500 varieties of this fragrant flower. This is North America’s largest collection of lilacs and the largest free festival of its kind. The park is also home to the Lamberton Conservatory, where you might spot a tortoise or two.

In summer, follow the music to streets closed to traffic for the 9-day CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival. Over 1,500 artists perform in more than 300 concerts that are in both public outdoor stages and in ticketed indoor venues. As one of the nation’s most popular music festivals it attracts people from around the world. September’s highly popular Rochester Fringe Festival, modeled after the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, is another noteworthy event.

In the footsteps of influential Rochester residents

Tours of two historic homes, that of women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony and photography innovator George Eastman, provide an opportunity to walk in their footsteps and learn about the pivotal roles these Rochester residents played in revolutionizing the world. Both houses are listed in the National Register of Historic Places and are National Historic Landmarks.

The National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House was home to one of the most famous people in the world in her day. With the support of her like-minded Quaker family and longtime friend, women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony traveled the country to zealously promote not only an amendment to the U.S. Constitution for a woman’s right to vote but also temperance, abolition, labor rights, equal educational opportunities for all and equal pay for equal work.

The house was the headquarters of the Woman Suffrage Association and the Rochester Political Equality Club. Anthony was arrested in her front parlor for voting in the 1872 Presidential election.

Anthony met here with several abolitionists, including former slave, eloquent orator and Rochester resident Frederick Douglass. He was the most photographed man in the world and a strong influence on the passage of the 19th Amendment, which went into effect fourteen years after Anthony’s death.

The historic homes and mansions throughout the city are symbolic of its glorious past. The grandest of them all was built by George Eastman, founder of the Eastman Kodak Company, which became the world’s foremost camera and photographic company. The George Eastman Museum was established in 1947 to preserve the legacy of Rochester’s premier entrepreneur, inventor and and philanthropist.

Eastman revolutionized and simplified the technology of photography, making Kodak a household name. He wanted to bring photography to all, and, in 1888, with his slogan “You press the button, we do the rest,” sold a $25 simple hand-held box-style camera outfitted with enough of his flexible rolled film for 100 exposures. Cameras were shipped back for professional photo finishing and returned with a new film cartridge.

With his determination to make photography “as convenient as the pencil” he developed the simple and inexpensive Brownie camera in 1900. It was designed for children but quickly became enormously popular with all age groups.

Tours of the museum include major rooms in his 35,000-square-foot, fifty-room 1905 Colonial Revival Mansion, notably the relatively unchanged library and east sitting room, which is dominated by its mounted elephant’s head, a replica of the original.

The second floor features his mother’s bedroom, which has the best view of the gardens.

The second floor also includes exhibits on the evolution of photographic technology, beginning with a room dedicated to the camera obscura.

Eastman spared no expense when he had his mansion cut in half to enlarge his music room. He loved orchestral organ music and added a second organ to complement his original 1905 Aeolian organ, thereby creating his own version of surround sound. 

Parts of the home have been converted to gallery space. The museum of international photography includes the full history of film and one of the oldest film archives in the world.

Thomas Edison visited Eastman in his Terrace Garden and together they demonstrated Kodacolor motion picture film.

Visitors can relax with view of that magnificent garden from some of the tables at the museum’s Open Face Café.

Eastman was one of the greatest philanthropists of his time. During his lifetime donated, often anonymously, over $100,000,000 to educational and art institutions, public parks, and for medical and dental clinics and hospitals in Rochester and around the world.  He willed additional money for education, appreciation of the arts and expansion of medical services to the Rochester community. His philanthropy was among the highest in the world, equivalent to about $3 billion today. 

Living history: Travel through the Genesee Valley’s past

Eastman’s early childhood home is one of the 68 buildings, each with its own story, at the 600 acre Genesee Country Village & Museum in nearby Mumford. This working historic village with costumed historical interpreters is America’ s third-largest living history museum and the largest and most comprehensive in New York State. Experience the sweeping changes in lifestyle, technology and architecture as you wander through three distinct time periods, entering to emerging from the 19th century.

Begin with the scattered self-sustaining farms in the Pioneer Village (1790s to 1830s) to travel through Genesee Valley history. Settlers arrived here when land became available after the Revolutionary War. Houses in this area are modest and have basic gardens for self-sufficiency. The most notable structure is the Col. Nathaniel Rochester House, home to the man who became Rochester’s founder.

The Erie Canal and railroads brought goods and specialized services to the area. Visit the Center Village (1830s-1860s) to see how well the Altay Store was stocked with inventory.

Speak with costumed historic interpreters depicting merchants, craftspeople and professionals. Observe a boot and shoemaker, cooper, printer, gunsmith, potter, cabinetmaker, dressmaker or wagon maker and wheelwright in action. Stop to chat at the law or insurance office, drug store, tavern, inn, town hall, confectionery, church and parsonage.

Visit kitchens to see how 19th century cooking varied depending on the era and affluence. Catch the aroma of pies or bread being baked. You might see cheese being made as a way to preserve milk.

Take in the grandeur of the columned Livingston-Backus House. It was built in 1827 for a Rochester entrepreneur who made a fortune in milling, banking, and speculative ventures.

In the Gas Light District (1870s to 1920s), see how emerging technologies, farm mechanization, industry and the production of supplies like shoes for Civil War soldiers created wealth. This brought about leisure time to recreational pursuits like carriage rides, bicycling and sports as well as entertainment. A heightened involvement with social causes developed.

Buildings like Davis Hall, built in 1884, became cultural hubs, the site of plays and musical concerts, traveling circuses and lecture circuits.

There was a growing concern about the benefits of fresh air and communing with nature. Orson Squire Fowler was among those who built an octagonal house for superior natural light and ventilation.

This was the age of elegant Victorian architecture. Gardens became ornamental, not just functional. Gazebos were built in parks and gardens.

The opulence of this era is seen in homes like the Hamilton House, built the elegant Italianate style with elaborate towers and cupolas.

Art through the ages

Travel through time when you globetrot through 5,000 years of art history, from antiquity to the present day, at the Memorial Art Gallery on University Avenue.

The 14 acre campus, with its extensive permanent works from around the world, offers one of New York’s finest collections outside New York City. 

Special exhibits are curated to reflect lifestyle changes through time. See how art reflects adaptations to a rapidly changing world reshaped by wars, electricity, automobiles and photography.

Continue outdoors to the public Centennial Sculpture Park, a showcase of public art in the middle of the Neighborhood of the Arts.

Wonders of the world: from the paleontological to the extraterrestrial

Revel in the wonders of our world and beyond with the entertaining hands-on exhibits, authentic collections and electrifying shows at the Rochester Museum & Science Center and Strasenburgh Planetarium on East Avenue. 

Journey from the time of prehistoric creatures to that of the European fur trade with the the Seneca people and other Native Americans.

Learn about Rochester’s Underground Railroad and the slaves who escaped to Canada.

From nanotechnology to distant stars, this is a place to better understand Rochester and the world around us and to rediscover the world of wonder.  

The Strong Museum of Play: The ultimate immersive play destination for all ages

One of the many quotations posted throughout the Strong National Museum of Play is “Almost all creativity involves purposeful play,”  by American psychologist Abraham Maslow. It is one of many that stress the importance of play.

Relive your childhood and spot the toys your parents and grandparents enjoyed when you see some of the best and most important classic toys from all ages at the the National Toy Hall of Fame. It is at the newly expanded ultimate immersive play destination for all ages, the Strong Museum of Play. The museum showcases the world’s largest collection of toys, dolls, and games of all time and features the most comprehensive collection of historical materials related to play.

This, however, is a lively museum with visitors of all ages absorbed in a range of playful pursuits. Rise to the challenges of the Skyline Climb. Zipline across the atrium or find your thrill on the carousel. Visit Sesame Street and your favorite characters. Play your favorite games. Find your favorite areas by exploring the two floors, each a city block long.

Explore the world of play and see toys and games from a new perspective. Enter the world of comic book superheroes. Become immersed in some of the best pinball games and most influential video games of all time. Try the nearly 20’ tall Donkey Kong. Solve quests. Experience first-hand how the way people play and connect has changed. 

The museum reopened in June 2023 with a 90,000 sq. ft. expansion. This is part of a $75 million project that includes a rainbow-colored parking garage, 24,000-square-feet of exhibit space dedicated to the celebration of electronic games, and Hasbro Game Park, an 17,000-square-feet expanse of outdoor exhibit space exploring the influence of board games, complete with a 17’ fire-breathing dragon. Check the website for upcoming special events.

Rochester from the water

Relax with an iconic view of the city along with live narration on life along the river with Genesee River Cruise aboard the Riverie.  It set sail in June, 2023 and is the newest boat in the Rochester area. Thursday evening cruises feature live music. 

To add to the experience, enjoy Happy Hour at Flight Wine Bar, steps from where the boat docks, before or after your cruise.

Nature’s bounty

The Rochester Public Market, 280 N. Union Street is one of the busiest places in the city. It is open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, 52 weeks a year and offers free parking across the street.

Stroll the rows of local farm fresh produce, ethnic foods, food vendors, jewelry, clothing and more and take in the local flavors.

Where to stay

The newly renovated Strathallen Rochester Hotel & Spa is Rochester’s premier boutique hotel. It is in the Neighborhood of the Arts, the East End Cultural District, and is conveniently located within walking distance of most major cultural attractions. It was awarded Best Of Rochester in the 2023 Readers’ Poll published in 

The adjacent Century Club of Rochester is a stately venue used for club and hotel events. 7 on Strath, in a historic Queen-Anne style mansion just steps away, has six newly renovated luxury suites for business or leisure travelers.

Char Steak and Lounge, just off the hotel lobby, is open for lunch and dinner and was awarded Open Table’s 2023 Diners’ Choice Award. The bountiful buffet breakfast (à la carte also available) served there gets the day off to a good start. Cleanliness is apparent throughout. Wipes for hard surfaces and hand sanitizer dispensers are provided at entrances and elevators.

Enjoy the exceptional view of the city from the 9th floor rooftop at Hattie’s, the hotel’s lively bar at this hip social hub. There is special event space and a wraparound patio, complete with a fire pit, for panoramic views of the city.

Other dining suggestions

For casual dining and a sense of the hip urban vibe, choose one of the restaurants along the tree-lined Park Avenue.

Enjoy Happy Hour on University Avenue at Living Roots Wine & Co., where you can savor the best of the owners’ hometowns. Choose from the rich and aromatic whites and sparklings from of the Finger Lakes and vibrant, medium-bodied reds from South Australia.

Dine by the Erie Canal in historic Pittsford. Try the New-Age American fare at Label 7  or the contemporary American cuisine at Erie Grill, And don’t miss dessert at Pittsford Farm Dairy and Bakery It is on landmark dairy property that dates back to 1814 when Samuel Hildreth built his home and established a stagecoach operation and livery business here.

Take an Erie Canal lock tour in Pittsford aboard a replica historic packet boat, the Sam Patch. The boat is named named for a 19th-century mill worker, the first famous American daredevil to jump from waterfalls. He gained national fame with his 120′ jump into Niagara Falls, but his subsequent second jump from a platform 25′ above Rochester’s High Falls was, unfortunately, his last.

Coming attraction

Rochester is on the path of the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024. This is the last great opportunity until 2045 for large segments of our country to experience a total solar eclipse. Just one more reason to visit Rochester.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!