Cities That Surprise: Rochester, New York

“Cities That Surprise” highlights places across America that defied or exceeded our expectations, for whatever reason. Today, Allison Sass tells us why under all that snow, Rochester, New York is a hidden gem!

After graduating college, I spent two years living and working in Rochester, NY, a city best known for its now-bankrupt Kodak national headquarters, horrible winters, and being one of the three cities in the U.S. that’s actually cloudier than Seattle. Want to visit yet??

Rochester Snow Bank
Dramatic photo of snow in downtown Rochester. This was once a parking lot.

Despite its less than stellar reputation, Rochester is actually a vibrant city with tons of unique things to do. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend taking a week of vacation time to visit, I do think Rochester is a perfect city for an affordable weekend getaway. I moved away to Austin, TX last year and I love my new city, but there are many things I miss about this hidden gem of a city in Western New York.

Rochester Jazz Festival Crowd
Jazz festival crowd. (Image source)

Festivals. The upside of living in a city that’s freezing for 6 months out of the year is that Rochestarians take spring and summer seriously. If you visit Rochester during the warmer months, there will be a free festival the weekend you decide to visit. It’s not even a question. The Lilac Festival, Jazz Festival, Park Avenue Festival, Corn Hill Arts Festival, and Letchworth Arts and Crafts Show are just a few I recommend checking out. All of these take place between May and October and many span out over the course of one or two weeks. Rochester festivals generally include some type of live music and are always filled with craft vendors, the standard deep-fried food options, and of course, plenty of red hots and pop (hotdogs and soda for non-western NY readers).

Ontario Beach Park

Lake Ontario. Lake Ontario is the main reason why the weather in Rochester is so extreme for half the year (lake-effect snow is real and horrible), but this huge body of water is definitely worth seeing when visiting the city. Lake Ontario is expansive and looks just like an ocean, minus the waves. Taking a picnic to Ontario Beach Park or Hamlin Beach is a great way to spend a summer afternoon and only a 20 minute car ride from downtown Rochester.

Rochester Park Avenue

Park Ave Neighborhood. If you enjoy checking out beautiful old homes, sidewalk cafes, and specialty shops, this is the Rochester neighborhood for you! Park your car near the intersection of Park Ave & Berkeley St. and you won’t be able to walk two feet without stumbling on a restaurant. Gelato, classic American, Thai, Mediterranean, Italian… it’s all on Park Ave. You can work off your meal by walking about a mile down Park Ave towards Goodman St. to check out Parkleigh, a gift shop with a chocolate truffle bar, fancy soaps, and other things you never knew you needed. Keep walking down Park Ave. and you’ll hit the thrift store Utter Clutter, which is full of quirky vintage treasures. I lived in this neighborhood during my time in Rochester, and miss the walkable streets now that I’ve moved to car-centric Texas.

South Wedge Food & Drink. This neighborhood has more of an “up- and-coming” feel than the established Park Ave area, but its home to some of the best food and drink options in the city. Tap and Mallet is one of my favorite bars in Rochester with great pub food (I went to a pig roast there once), blind beer tasting events, and a rotating list of unique beers on tap. John’s Tex-Mex is another extremely affordable South Wedge restaurant that rivals some of the excellent Tex-Mex I’ve had since moving to Austin.

Improv Comedy. Rochester has a thriving improv comedy scene and shows are generally affordable at under 10 dollars per ticket. The Village Idiots and Geva Comedy Improv are two of my favorite improv groups. Make sure to purchase tickets ahead of time for these shows because seats fill up quickly!

Strong National Museum of Play. This is a place to bring the kiddos, or yourself if you’re like me and completely geek out over Berenstain Bears paraphernalia and large legos. The museum is also home to a neat butterfly exhibit, a gallery of historical (and slightly creepy) toys, and a miniature Wegman’s supermarket. Which brings me to my last and possibly most important travel suggestion…..

Wegmans Cheese Shop

WEGMANS! If you meet someone from Rochester while not in Rochester, they will probably mention Wegmans in the first five minutes of conversation. The flagship Wegman’s grocery store is located in Pittsford, just ten short minutes away from downtown. This gigantic store is basically the amusement park of grocery stores. Wegman’s serves oysters at their fancy food bar, has over 300 kinds of imported cheeses, free tea samples, a brick oven imported from Spain, and best of all, all of their groceries are affordably priced. They even have a cooking school on site! Don’t question, just go.

Have I convinced you to visit Rochester yet? I love living in Austin, but I’m a true believer that your surroundings are what you make of them. I had a great time discovering all that Rochester has to offer during my time there and am hoping I can return as a visitor someday soon!

Allison Sass is an Austin-based web copywriter who loves local exploring, slow jogging, and all things seasonal. You can follow her on Twitter at @allison_sass.