Less than three hours from Toronto (2 hours and 59 minutes, to be exact, not including traffic, construction and crossing the border) is this beautiful hidden gem of a city called Rochester. Once known as the Flour City due to its Mill history, it is now known as Flower City due to its beautiful horticulture scene. Most likely inspired by George Eastman’s and his love for gardens and nature.
Part of Upstate New York, Rochester sits on Lake Ontario’s southern shore, and not only are there endless things to do in Rochester NY, but it is also home to some major historic movements.
Susan B. Anthony, a women’s rights activist known for leading the movement towards the 19th Amendment: “The right to vote shall not be denied on account of sex,” Widely known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. A Rochester tradition is after voting, women will place an “I voted” sticker on her gravesite in Mt. Hope Cemetery.
Escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who, when he wasn’t helping to smuggle slaves into Canadian cities like Oakville and Brantford, was having tea and talking about human rights with his dear friend Susan B. Anthony
George Eastman, who founded the Kodak Company, helped to bring the photographic use of roll film into the mainstream.
The late Philip Hoffman was born on July 23, 1967, in the Rochester suburb of Fairport, New York.
We are ashamed we haven’t visited this easy Ontario road trip destination until now, but we are happy to introduce you to the city with this guide. We put together all the best things to do in Rochester, restaurants, hotels, and more.
Read on for a guide on Rochester activities and how best to spend your time here.
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Set on the Erie Canal and Genesee River, Rochester City has long benefited from being a hub of industry and commerce. The city was founded early in the 19th century, became the USA’s largest flour-producing city in 1838, and earned the nickname “Flour City.” Since then, it’s been a thriving community of academics, cultural events, and social reform movements.
As you explore the city, you’ll find a blend of old industrial buildings along the river, new office buildings, and cozy homes. And dotted in between is an array of museums and galleries that bring some of the city’s history and heritage to life.
Besides, any city with a waterfall in the middle is pretty awesome and unique.
Getting to Rochester From Toronto
It’s a bit of a long drive for a day trip from Toronto, but Rochester makes for a great weekend getaway. The distance is about 168 miles or 270 kilometres, and it’s a pretty decent drive down Highway 401 and a cross over the border using the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge.
You can take the bus or train from Toronto to Rochester if you’re not driving. The bus is a bit quicker, but the train is cheaper. Both of these modes of transport can be booked on busbud.com.
Tip: For those driving across the border in your own car, make sure you have all the necessary documents, just in case.
22 Fun Things to Do in Rochester, New York
There’s truly no shortage of activities in Rochester, NY. If you’re lucky enough to spend more than a day here, you’ll easily find enough to keep you busy.
Go Bowling at Radio Social
Feel your inner child delight at Radio Social, an entertainment venue inside Rochester’s historical Stromberg-Carlson warehouse with one of the best bowling alleys you’ll ever see. Added to that are the numerous other inside and outside games laid out for you. There’s also a beer and whiskey bar, and often you’ll be able to catch local talent playing live music.
Stop and Smell The Flowers at Highland Park
With 150 acres and 500 varieties of flowering shrubs, Highland Park is a treasure trove of plant prettiness. Many people travel to Rochester every May just to attend Highland Park’s annual Lilac Festival; it’s that special! And in winter, skating on Lily Pond draws the crowd in. Also within the park is the significant Greater Rochester Vietnam Memorial.
View The Frederick Douglass Monument and Memorial Plaza
Escaped slave and abolitionist campaigner Frederick Douglass lived and worked in Rochester for around 25 years, so it’s no surprise that the city honours his life. This statue was commissioned by the African-American activist John W. Thompson and sculpted by Sidney W. Edwards. It was installed in Rochester in 1899 and can be found at Robinson Dr & South Ave in Highland Park.
Snap a Few Photos at Warner Castle
If you use your travels to find unbelievable photo opportunities like us, this is one of those. Located within Highland Park, Warner Castle was built by Horatio Gates Warner (a prominent publisher, judge, and bank president) in 1854. The gardens around the castle include the Sunken Gardens, and you really should take some time to stroll around them.
Discover The Lamberton Conservatory
And another must-see while at Highland Park (it’s big — there’s a lot) is the Lamberton Conservatory, built in 1911 and named after former President of the Parks Board, Alexander B. Lamberton. The greenhouse is full of fascinating plants to marvel at.
Shop and Eat at Rochester Public Market
You can’t miss this massive market on Union Street — the sign is pretty large. It’s been around since 1905 and has only become more popular. The market has indoor and outdoor vendors and is open to the public on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
It opens as early as 5:00 am (6:00 am on Tues and Thurs) and closes just after lunch. We found a selection of local arts and crafts, fresh produce, and delicious food vendors like Flour City Bread, Fresh Pressed Juice, and Juan & Maria’s Empanadas.
Browse The Rochester Memorial Art Gallery
The Memorial Art Gallery (MAG) is on the University of Rochester’s campus and features a rich art collection spanning various periods and styles. The gallery has a permanent exhibition of 12000 objects that will take you on a journey of over 5,000 years of art history. There are also temporary exhibits, workshops, lectures, and events to participate in.
Embrace Your Inner Child at The Strong National Museum of Play
If you have kids with you, this will enthral them! If not, prepare to be amazed yourself. This two-story building is packed with interactive exhibit spaces that explore the history of play. Here you’ll find the world’s largest collection of toys, dolls, and games — from video games to board games, carousels, and comics. There’s an indoor butterfly garden, a high rope course, and a food court.
Rochester Museum & Science Center and Strasenburgh Planetarium
There’s plenty of stuff to do in Rochester with kids, but most of it is great adult fun too. The Museum & Science Center is one such activity. This building provides hours of learning and fun in the form of exhibits based on the world, history, and important topics (like “How Objects And Images Perpetuate Racism… And What We Can Do To Change It” and “Rochester Women Who Changed The World”).
The planetarium then offers a deep dive into space and the universe, with shows and exhibits that help us better understand the stars and planets. An extension of the RMSC is the Cumming Nature Center, which is all about nature and the outdoors.
Try a Bit of Wine Tasting at Living Roots Taste Room
Along with playing and learning about this city and the world, there’s still plenty of opportunity to just… chill. The Living Roots tasting room on University Avenue is a good place to start. This is where you can savour some of the wines made at Living Roots Winery (one in Finger Lakes and another in Australia).
These wines bring together the best harvests from practically all around the world and blend them carefully yet creatively. Book a private wine tasting or try your luck and just pop into the bar to try a glass or two.
Book an Erie Canal Cruise on the Sam Patch
For this trip, you’ll need to travel about 20 minutes from Rochester to depart from Schoen Place in the Port of Pittsford, NY. Aboard a replica of an 1800s packet boat, take a 90-minute tour of this incredible canal — which many consider the world’s eighth wonder.
The Erie Canal Cruise on Sam Patch offers food and drinks on board as well as a knowledgeable guide to inform you about landmarks you pass.
See a Show at The Eastman Theatre
Found at the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester, this performance venue is exquisite. It hosts various performers and shows, including comedy, classical concerts, and film screenings. Check the lineup here.
Take a Step Back in Time at The George Eastman Museum
As the co-founder of the Kodak Company, George Eastman is admired by many photographers — and for good reason! This museum, inside his former mansion home, opened to the public in 1949 and is the oldest photography museum in the world.
Within its walls, you’ll find a collection of over 400,000 photographs from 14,000 photographers. The museum houses a library, hosts workshops, and draws a crowd almost every Sunday for musical recitals.
Visit The Susan B. Anthony Museum
Rochester has an amazing list of inspiring past residents, and Susan B. Anthony is one of them. This women’s rights activist lived in her Rochester home for 40 years until her death. This home has become a museum where you can tour and learn more about Anthony and her work.
Tip: These tours often book out fast, so schedule yours online before you arrive.
Over on our podcast, Road Trip Ready, we explore the deep roots of the women’s suffrage movement in Rochester, New York, and its lasting impact on our society. Discover how Susan B. Anthony fought for equity and played a crucial role in securing women’s right to vote in the United States.
Find Anthony and Douglas at The Let’s Have Tea Sculpture
You may be interested to know that these amazing people, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, knew each other and were friends while living in Rochester. And in Anthony Square Park (across from Anthony’s former residence) is a sculpture dedicated to the famous suffragist and abolitionists and depicts them “having tea”.
Track Down The Frederick Douglass Mural at 999 South Avenue
On the walls of what used to be the rural second home of the African-American abolitionist, orator, newspaper publisher, and author are adorned with murals that include a number of famous quotes by Douglass. The building is now used as the Anna Murray-Douglass School, Frederick Douglass Library and Frederick Douglass R-Center.
And Their Graves at Mount Hope Cemetery
Another place in Rochester where Anthony and Frederick are immortalized together forever is their gravestones in Mount Hope Cemetery. This cemetery is also the final resting place of other great abolitionists and those who helped make Rochester’s history. As well as both of Douglass’ wives and Anthony’s relatives.
Take in The Views of Rochester’s High Falls
These stunning falls tower around 96 ft above the Genesee River and have been a focal point of the city since as far back as 1807. Early settlers noted the falls and their potential for hydropower, and so much of the industrial part of Rochester was built around this natural beauty. Thankfully, this means we can visit breweries, bridges, and other businesses today to enjoy a clear and captivating view.
Stop to Admire The Charlotte–Genesee Lighthouse
As the oldest active surviving lighthouse on Lake Ontario, this structure is one of the top things to see in Rochester, NY. The 1822 stone octagonal lighthouse is 40ft high and sits at the mouth of the Genesee River. You can enter the lighthouse and even book an informational tour, but I’d suggest you first look at their opening hours and seasonal changes.
Steal a Glance at White Lady’s Castle
If you walk through Durand-Eastman Park, you’ll eventually come across a crumbling stone structure that looks a bit medieval (and a little spooky, if I’m honest). This actually used to be a hotel dining hall way back when.
But over the decades, it has crumbled and now sits in ruins which Rochester locals have dubbed the White Lady’s Castle. Maybe don’t go at night, but if you’re into old ruins, this is one of the best places to visit in Rochester, NY.
Make a Turn at Rundel Memorial Building
A striking building sitting on the Genesee River banks, this memorial building was once the original downtown site of the Rochester Public Library. It was built during the Great Depression, and many hurdles existed before the dream was realized. This has served as an inspiration to the Rochester people that anything is possible.
Find The 1872 Monument
Not far from the Susan B. Anthony Museum is a bronze ballot box standing as a reminder of where Anthony (a woman) voted illegally in 1972. This year, Anthony led a group of women from her home to West Main Street, where only men could vote. That day, Anthony was arrested and fined for her “crime,” but this was just the start of the movement allowing women to vote.
Where to Eat & Drink in Rochester
While exploring the streets, you’ll get hungry or need a refreshing drink. There are plenty of great restaurants in Rochester and a selection of breweries and other establishments.
The Cub Room
739 South Clinton Avenue
This family-run industrial-style tavern serves seasonal dishes and dramatic cocktails. Stop by for a brunch of Manhattan Donuts or a Diner Breakfast. Or have dinner and choose from meals like the Cubby Burger or Grilled Octopus.
Genesee Brew House
25 Cataract St
If you’re even the slightest bit interested in beer, the process of making it, and the drink’s history, the Genesee Brewery is the place to visit. In 2012, the 100-year-old building was transformed from an old brew house into a brewery that pays homage to its history but breathes new life into its beers.
For the record, the Orange Honey Cream Ale has entered into our top five favourite beers.
Stop by to take a few beers home, have lunch and a beer flight in the taproom, or book a tasting and tour of the brewery. Also, be sure to reserve a seat on the upper patio, as it offers the best views of the city and High Falls.
Restaurant Good Luck
50 Anderson Ave
Open Wednesday through Saturday, from 4:30 pm until late, this bold and bright restaurant has made its home in a warehouse-style space. Book a table for dinner, enjoy one of their hearty meals and a scrumptious dessert, and pair it with your choice of a cocktail, beer, or wine.
You should note that the majority of the food on the menu has a rather large serving size and is designed to be shared. The Bibb Salad and the Good Luck Burger (A burger the size of your head and very popular here) were more than enough for 2 us.
311 Alexander St
This Bohemian cafe serves breakfast and lunch, with coffee or cocktails on the side. And despite the name, it’s a great place for visitors too. The menu is delectable and varied for all tastes, and the atmosphere is welcoming and relaxed. I’d suggest making this your first stop of the day.
62 Marshall St
Named the 2022 New York State Craft Brewery of the Year, Strangebird brewery is yet another spot to sip on handcrafted beers. They also have an impressive menu of pizza, burgers, mac and cheese, as well as other beer-friendly meals. They’re open Thursday to Monday from 12:00 pm to 11:00 pm (last food orders are at 9:00 pm).
99 Court St
This quirky southern-style restaurant opened in 1998 and took over the former Lehigh Valley Railroad Station. It’s now a favourite for anyone craving that distinct BBQ flavour in their food. But while the meat options are amazing, the menu also caters to vegetarians, vegans, and other dietary restrictions. Ah, and if you’re road tripping with your dog, you can have lunch with them here too.
145 Culver Rd
Have dinner here any day (except Wednesdays — they’re closed) and enjoy a large selection of meals, beer, and wine. All set in a large, contemporary but upscale building. The self-serve wall with 48 beers on tap is a focal point.
Rohrbach Brewing Co. & Roc Brewing Co.
Two more incredible Breweries to take note of! But we’ve only scratched the surface of Rochester’s food scene; luckily, a friend of Road Trip Ontario, Danielle Desir, wrote Places To Eat In Rochester You Don’t Want To Miss on her website, The Thought Card.
Rochester Places to Stay
A great weekend getaway needs great accommodations! So we’ve put together a few recommendations for your stay in Rochester, NY.
Courtyard by Marriott Rochester Downtown
While in Rochester, we stayed here, and it’s well-reviewed by other guests. It’s a cute hotel that is within walking distance of many things to do around Rochester and offers a no-fuss comforting stay.
It’s also located right around the corner from the site where the family house of Frederick Douglass once stood.
Country Inn & Suites by Radisson
Free hot breakfast, whirlpool baths in the suites, and all kids under 19 years old staying for free with an adult are some of the reasons this hotel is known to be affordable and enjoyable. It’s also close to the airport, so this is a convenient spot if you’re flying in or out.
Hilton Garden Inn Rochester
This 3-star hotel offers the comfort you’d expect from a Hilton hotel. There’s an Italian on-site restaurant, a pool, and free parking to take advantage of when you’re not out finding the many Rochester things to do.
What to Do in Rochester, NY | Final Thoughts
As soon as you pass under the “Welcome to Rochester City” sign, you’re in for a weekend to be remembered and planning to come back. Whether you’re travelling with the family and booking all the playful Rochester activities or are more focused on the historically significant Rochester attractions, this city will have you mesmerized.
Visit the former homes of significant historical figures, track down the many sculptures and statues, and soak in the powerful stories of centuries ago. Then let your hair down and enjoy a craft beer or wine paired with a tasty dish of your choice.
We recommend you speak to locals; they hold the secrets to how best to enjoy this city. Above and beyond this already insightful article, of course.