Visitors speeding across the New York Thruway from the Big Apple to Niagara Falls might be tempted to zip past Rochester, New York. But this gateway to the Finger Lakes region is the third-largest city in the state and in the midst of a historic renaissance.

Several boats float down a wide river leading to a city skyline and arched bridge in Rochester, New York
A flotilla of Erie Canal boats approach downtown Rochester on the Genesee River © Dave Parfitt / Lonely Planet

Nestled at the intersection of the Genesee River and Erie Canal, these historic waterways served as the original highway for social, political, and intellectual movements. Frederick Douglass printed the abolitionist newspaper “The North Star” from his downtown office, and Susan B. Anthony led the women’s suffrage movement from her house off Main St. In 2020, Rochester once again becomes Suffragist City, celebrating the centennial of the passage of the 19th amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote and Anthony’s 200th birthday.

A red brick house with an American flag and a sign saying it's Susan B. Anthony's house in Rochester, New York
Susan B. Anthony’s home in Rochester is also the site of her historic arrest for voting © Dave Parfitt / Lonely Planet

The epicenter of the women’s suffrage movement

Downtown Rochester’s National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House at 17 Madison Street was the civil rights leader’s home from 1866 until her death in 1906. The house served as headquarters for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and its parlor was the site of Anthony’s famous arrest for voting for Ulysses S. Grant in the 1872 Presidential Election.

During tours, docents practically bring the house and the suffragist to life – highlights include the desk where Anthony wrote, her furniture, papers, photographs, and the silk brocade dress she wore at many appearances and speeches. These items whet a visitor’s appetite to learn more about Anthony’s life on the front lines of history and weave a complicated story full of nuance and intrigue about Susan B. Anthony’s work for women’s voting rights, abolition of slavery, education reform, and complicated relationship with Frederick Douglass.

“As the nation focuses on the significance of the Centennial Anniversary of the 19th Amendment in 2020, Rochester and Susan B. Anthony will be at the center,” says Deborah L. Hughes, President & CEO of the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House. Events planned by the museum will celebrate women’s voices as well as the importance of voting rights and civil discourse – issues as timely now as they were more than a century ago.

A museum employee in period costume explains live in the 19th Century in Rochester, New York
Interpreters at the Genesee Country Village and Museum outside Rochester bring this history museum to life © Dave Parfitt / Lonely Planet

Living history at a 19th-century historic village

The Genesee Country Village & Museum just outside Rochester offers a broader perspective on the community during the mid-19th century while the fight for women’s suffrage was raging. It’s the largest living history museum in New York State and third largest in the country, says Becky Wehle, President & CEO of Genesee Country Village & Museum, and features more than 65 buildings and many knowledgeable costumed interpreters.

“Visitors of all ages will find something to educate and entertain them here,” she says, “including sampling craft brew from a working 19th-century brewery, meeting baby animals on the farm, making a punched-tin ornament, playing traditional games on the Village Square, or simply rolling down the grassy hill of the Great Meadow.”

The highlight might be the historic village at the center of the 600-acre property, which preserves many historical homes and buildings, including Kodak founder George Eastman’s boyhood home, built c.1840.

A not-real-looking elephant's head is mounted in an airy parlor in an obviously large house in Rochester, New York
George Eastman’s historic mansion is part of the Eastman Museum of photography and film in Rochester © Dave Parfitt / Lonely Planet

A cradle of photography, entrepreneurship and philanthropy 

Eastman, the pioneer of popular photography, made a lasting impact in Rochester, nurturing a high quality of life for Kodak employees at the turn of the 20th century. The city plays host to a thriving arts community with nearly 60 cultural organizations – many attributed to Eastman’s philanthropy such as the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, one of the top music schools in the country.

Film and photography aficionados should not miss the George Eastman Museum, the world’s oldest photography museum and film archives. The collection includes a permanent history of photography, rotating contemporary art exhibits, and one of the few movie theatres in the world showing nitrate films.

From May through October 2020, visitors can explore the intersecting histories of photography and Women's Suffrage in the History of Photography Gallery. George Eastman’s historic mansion and gardens are also part of the museum, providing a different view of life during the Women’s Suffrage Movement.

A museum dedicated to play has architecture modeled to look like huge, colorful blocks in Rochester, New York
The Strong National Museum of Play is filled with interactive galleries and exhibits devoted to toys, imagination, and play © Dave Parfitt / Lonely Planet

The most fun museum in the world?

For families with children, Rochester has another world-class attraction– the Strong National Museum of Play, home of the world’s largest collection of toys, dolls, and games. With multiple hands-on, interactive exhibits and play spaces for all ages, as well as the National Toy Hall of Fame and World Video Game Hall of Fame, it’s one of the premier children’s museums in the country.

The Strong opens a state-of-the-art expansion in 2020 that includes shops and a hotel. The new expansion will usher in Rochester’s Neighborhood of Play, a walkable green urban community where people can live, work, and … play.

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With millions of dollars invested into multiple projects downtown, Rochester is in a period of rapid revitalization. The city is the first in the nation to fill a sunken expressway bisecting neighborhoods to an “at-grade” street – complete with bicycle and walking paths. Downtown Rochester is also transforming its riverfront by finishing the Genesee Riverway Trail through Center City and redesigning several parks along the water. Combined with the city’s history, museums, cultural organizations, and new restaurants and nightlife options, there are plenty of reasons to put Rochester on your radar.

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