I’ve always been a fan of cross-border shopping – any excuse to spend a few hours at Target and I’m in! But with the Canadian dollar reaching all-time lows this year, it’s been harder to justify traveling to the US just for shopping.
If, however, there were a destination that was easily accessible, bursting with museums, kid-centered attractions, family-friendly restaurants, scenic rural towns and a bustling, culture-filled urban centre—then I could justify a cross-boarder weekend excursion.
That’s exactly what I found in upstate New York and the reason we keep returning to Rochester. A 1.5-hour drive from Niagara Falls, Ontario, three hours from Toronto, and four from Ottawa, Rochester is easily accessible by car while also serviced by an international airport and the Amtrak train.
Here are the top 7 reasons why Rochester is the ideal family cross-border getaway:
The Kids will PLAY!
A perfect weekend destination, with enough going on to keep you busy for a few weeks at least, Rochester has become a favourite for our family and the biggest draw is the Strong National Museum of Play.
With 400,000 toys, dolls, games, electronic games, and other historical materials related to play, there’s literally something for every kid—and adult—to be awed and inspired by. The Strong is half history museum—an amazing nostalgic experience for big kids (read: parents and grandparents) and hands-on history lesson for the littles—and half interactive playspace.
While at the museum, my daughters grocery shopped—and worked—in the Wegmans Super Kids Market, stepped into the past to reenact life in the 19th century in the One History Place exhibit, played in the worlds of some of their favourite characters including Big Bird and Elmo, the Berenstain Bears, and the Marvel Super Heroes. They tried their hand at a few video games and gleefully rode the antique Carousel and The Strong Express Train. Needless to say, when it was time to pull the kids away for lunch, no one wanted to leave.
Time flies when you’re having fun, and with lots of food options on-site at The Strong, it’s quite easy to spend the better part of a day. Don’t expect to drag your kids away without a fight.
The kids will learn, explore, discover, and PLAY some more!
Once you’ve checked The Strong off your list, there are countless other museums and attractions worth visiting in Rochester. During a fun-filled family weekend your itinerary could include: The Rochester Museum & Science Centre and The Strasenburgh Planetarium, The George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, Memorial Art Gallery, or the Seneca Park Zoo.
For outdoor summer fun with tons of rides and games for kids of all ages, Darien Lake Amusement Park is just under an hour outside of Rochester on the way back to Niagara/Toronto. There are more than 45-rides, including six world-class roller coasters (which you couldn’t pay me to step foot on) and tons of rides for little-little kids, and bigger-little kids too! It was too chilly for us to enjoy the water park, but it looked incredible. There are also plenty of daily shows/performances and summer concerts worth planning your trip around.
Stopping at Darien Lake on the way to or from Rochester breaks up the drive. But there are tons of accommodations—camping and lodges—on site if you want to stay longer than a day.
You can take the PLAY outdoors into nature
Once you’re done with museums and attractions, a whole stunning, and scenic, world exists just outside of Rochester on the shores of Lake Ontario and the Erie Canal. We visited Wayne County, home to the Lake Ontario Wine Trail, interactive farms, golf courses, markets, museums, beaches, marinas and more.
Our first stop was Long Acre Farm in Macedon. It’s one of those “agritourism” destinations that allow kids to have a blast while experiencing farm life. Our favourite activity, among the many, was Gemstone panning. Both kids went home with bags of gems and crystals they proudly showed off to relatives and friends! There is no admission price to visit the farm, but you are required to purchase (inexpensive) tickets for certain activities including the Back 40 Adventure, the famous Amazing Maize Maze, and gemstone panning. If you’re looking for a beautiful place for your kids to burn off some steam and get in touch with nature—this is it! Fall is the busy season here, but there’s a lot to do during the spring and summer months too.
In the spirit of farm hopping, we departed Long Acre and drove to Lagoner Farms in Williamson for a delicious lunch at the Farm to Table Café and Embark Craft Ciderworks Taproom. This fifth-generation family farm has a lovely market and fall activities including apple picking, wagon rides, and a playground for kids. The hard craft cider business was inspired by a love of farming apples and the desire to do something a bit different with the produce they were growing. The result: delicious (and totally worth sampling on site and taking a few bottles home to enjoy with friends!).
You can PLAY all day…and all night too!
Despite being exhausted from a day of activity, we gave our kids a quick catnap before taking them out on the town for a Friday night Rochester Red Wings baseball game (the minor league affiliate of the Minnesota Twins). Tickets are much more affordable than major league games ($8-$12/seat) meaning we could secure four fifth-row seats and the kids could see everything! The mascots—and there were many—entertained my 3-year-old, while my 6-year-old was able to follow along and actually see the ball in play from our amazing seats. Hot dogs, cotton candy, chocolate, beer, and the seventh inning stadium-wide singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” made for a perfect all-American night out! And despite late-game loss by the Red Wings, our kids made it to the end of the 9th inning for the awesome fireworks show that followed.
If nightlife is your thing—and you’re travelling without little ones—Rochester is known for its music scene (Including the Rochester International Jazz Festival), local craft breweries, and theatre and dance.
The shopping…(how mommy likes to PLAY)…is incredible!
Last time we were in town we spent an evening at Eastview Mall—a lovely upscale place to shop, dine, and PLAY—in Rochester’s beautiful Pittsford neighbourhood. If you go, be sure to check out the department store Von Maur (the first in the US northeast) and something resembling shopping heaven.
Tip: When the kids start whining that they’re sick of shopping (as if that’s even possible?!) be sure to steer them toward the back of the food court where you’ll find a stunning, double-decker antique carousel! Around and around and around they’ll go—and suddenly the whining will stop!
If you don’t think grocery shopping is fun, you’ve never been to Rochester’s Wegmans Super Store. Trust me, you’ll wish this were your local supermarket! The huge Marketplace filled with an insane amount of prepared foods options is the perfect solution for families. While one kid might want pizza, the other can have sushi, and dad (and maybe mom too) can have a Buffalo Chicken Fingers sub (so yummy!).
For us Canadians looking for a good deal to offset the Canadian dollar, the Waterloo Premium Outlets is where it’s at!
While you can’t PLAY with your food…you sure can enjoy it.
Speaking of food…when you’re traveling with kids, finding the right restaurants can be the difference between a great vacation and a disaster! Am I right?! The meal that went over the best for us was at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. Large portions, delicious food, lots of kid-friendly sides, and a noisy ambiance that means kids can’t be disruptive, even if they try. Nationally acclaimed real pit BBQ and smoking live Blues, if you’re a meat fan, this downtown restaurant should be front and centre on your eating itinerary.
For the most delicious cold treat that’s a Rochester claim to fame, you’ll want to take your kids to Abbott’s Frozen Custard with tons of locations to choose from. Arthur Abbott started selling his frozen dessert in 1926 on the shore of Lake Ontario and the rest is a very sweet history.
Finally, when you need to rest your tired feet, there are tons of great places to STAY
Hotels are reasonably priced in Rochester and most are used to accommodating families. My favourite hotel in the city is The Strathallan—tucked into the tree-lined NOTA (neighbourhood of the arts). The rooms are modern and spacious; and the hotel has a lovely little pool, a delicious on-site restaurant, and is in a quiet residential neighbourhood that’s close to everything.
We stayed downtown at The Hilton Garden Inn, Rochester’s newest hotel. There is a bit more traffic in this part of the city, but we enjoyed the character and charm of Rochester’s downtown core. Walking distance to many cultural attractions, the hotel offers excellent service and comfortable rooms. Amenities include an indoor pool (which we enjoyed after a hot day of sightseeing!), fitness centre, and two restaurants.
When you’re planning your trip to Rochester be sure to check out Cross Border Showcase for more great tips on where to eat, stay, and PLAY—plus lots of deals and special offers especially for Canadians.
By Hailey Eisen
Hailey Eisen is a Toronto-based freelance writer & editor. She works as a content creator & communications strategist for Felicity [Inspiring Communications] and The Debut Group among others. Her work has appeared most recently in Women of Influence Magazine, Meetings & Incentive Travel, and online at the Yummy Mummy Club. Hailey is a book-lover, parent council volunteer, and seeker of kid-friendly adventures that she can share with her daughters, ages 3 and 6! Learn more at haileyeisen.com and follow her on Twitter @haileyeisen