We have the movement of glaciers way back in the Ice Age to thank for formation of the Finger Lakes – 11 slender bodies of water flanked by wilderness, vineyards and farmland in an idyllic swath of Upstate New York.

While the Finger Lakes wine country may be finally getting its due, there are plenty of other things to love about this bucolic region. Within a few hours of leisurely driving among the lakes, you’ll encounter waterfalls, bird-watching, sculpture, women’s history, craft breweries and lots and lots of ice-cream. Here’s what to add to your itinerary.

Aerial of Skaneateles Lake and Village on a sunny day with blue skies and green trees © Matt Champlin / Getty Images
Dotted with idyllic villages, the 11 Finger Lakes offer a wide variety of activities and sights © Matt Champlin / Getty Images

Settle in to village life

It would be hard to pinpoint one thing that makes the Finger Lakes so charming, but a lot of it has to do with the sleepy lakeside villages dotted throughout the region.

Skaneateles, located at the top of its namesake lake (the moniker for which, pronounced “Skinny-atlas,” comes from the Iroquois term for “long lake”), vies hard for the title of the quaintest village in the land. Take a swim in the lakefront of Clift Park, just off the town’s main street, and then stroll through the smattering of adorable boutiques followed by a meal or ice-cream cone at the beloved Doug’s Fish Fry or a treat from Skaneateles Bakery.

Perched midway along the east bank of Cayuga Lake, Aurora is home to liberal arts institution Wells College, earning the village a reputation as a playground for intellectuals. The college is named after Henry Wells, co-founder of Wells Fargo and American Express, and still houses several stagecoaches as a result. Long Point State Park sits just south of the college and is a lovely spot for a picnic (pick up your provisions at The Village Market or at the farmers market if you’re there on a Saturday between June and October), as well as swimming, fishing, kayaking and boating. And if ornate homewares take your fancy, stop by the MacKenzie Childs store and its onsite Victorian farmhouse and gardens, just outside Aurora.

Close-up of facade of Skaneatles Bakery, a 19th-century building with green shutters and a green-and-white striped awning © Mikki Brammer / Lonely Planet
The villages along the Finger Lakes are full of charming independent cafes and eateries © Mikki Brammer / Lonely Planet

Over on Seneca Lake, Geneva is perhaps most well-known for its innovative concept restaurant FLX Table, which serves seasonal cuisine at one 14-seat dining table in front of an open kitchen (reserve your spot online a month in advance). The village is also home to the scenic Seneca Lake State Park and Lakefront Park, the latter of which hosts weekly free concerts in its gazebo in July and August. You can also take a stroll around the campuses of Hobart and William Smith Colleges or past the historic row houses on South Main Street.

Located at the top of its own eponymous lake, Canandaigua’s many charms include the 50-acre Sonnenberg Gardens & Mansion Historic Park, which features nine painstakingly tended gardens, as well as a greenhouse complex and a Victorian mansion (be sure to check the events calendar if you’re headed there in summer). The kids will love you if you factor in a day at Roseland Waterpark, open June to September, while Roseland Wake Park is the only full-sized cable wakeboarding park in the region. But if you prefer to stay dry while out on the water, book some seats aboard the Canandaigua Lady, 19th-century paddle wheel steamboat replica that offers lunch, dinner and excursion cruises.

Though more of a town than a village, Ithaca – nestled at the foot of Cayuga Lake – is the liveliest enclave of the Finger Lakes, in part thanks to the presence of Cornell University and Ithaca College. A vibrant bohemian spirit permeates its pleasant streets, which are lined with surprisingly top-notch foodie spots (try Coltivare and Le Café Cent-Dix) and offbeat boutiques like Angry Mom Records and Autumn Leaves Used Books. Bibliophiles will love the A.D. White Library at Cornell University, while the Cornell Botanic Gardens will undoubtedly enchant green thumbs.

Explore Finger Lakes wine (and beer) country

Many who flock to the Finger Lakes are drawn to its wine country, which has earned itself a reputable name in the past few years. There are wine trails aplenty, with Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake being the most popular, but you’ll pass by boutique vineyards and wineries throughout your journey. Two of the oldest wineries in the regions, Dr. Konstantin Frank and Hermann J. Wiemer are well known for their Rieslings, while newer standouts include Heart & Hands Wine Company in Union Springs, Bloomer Creek in Hector, Boundary Breaks in Lodi, and Sheldrake Point in Ovid.

And if wine’s not your thing, or you’ve just had your fill of it, the region also has a thriving craft brew scene, best experienced via the Finger Lakes Beer Trail.

Interior of small brick chapel full of natural light and ornate original wooden pews© Mikki Brammer / Lonely Planet
The First Women's Rights Convention was held in Wesleyan Chapel in 1848 © Mikki Brammer / Lonely Planet

Celebrate women’s history

In July 1848, the first women’s rights convention in the United States convened at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who would become known as the founders of the US women’s rights movement. The Wesleyan Chapel still stands as a tribute to that historic event, alongside the official visitor center of the Women's Rights National Historical Park, which hosts exhibitions and educational tours. You can also pay a visit to the Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s home just across the lake or the National Women’s Hall of Fame nearby.

Other cultural highlights in the Finger Lakes include the Johnson Museum of Fine Art in Ithaca, designed by architect IM Pei (who also designed the Louvre Pyramid in Paris), and the Rockwell Museum of Western Art in Corning. The Corning Museum of Glass, dedicated to the art, history and science of glass (the first light bulbs were blown by hand in Corning in the 1890s), houses more than 45,000 glass objects.

Stop for ice-cream, often

One of the great things about traveling through a region dotted with small towns and villages is that mom-and-pop ice-cream spots are plentiful. Some of the best purveyors include Super Cream Dairy Bar in Homer, Pete’s Treats in Union Springs, Spotted Duck in Penn Yan, Purity in Ithaca, Cayuga Lake Creamery in Interlaken, the Colonial Pottery and Creamery in Watkins Glen, Dippity Do Dahs in Corning, Scoops in Canandaigua, Jones Humdinger in Binghampton, Chill & Grill in Palmyra and Mr Twistee’s, which has outposts in Geneva and Dresden.

Be sure to hit up an ATM first – true to their old-fashioned feel, many of these shops only accept cash. And if your tooth runs more sweet than savory, you might like to do the Finger Lakes Cheese Trail instead.

A waterfall in a canyon in Watkins Glen is illuminated by light from above © Ultima_Gaina / Getty Images
Watkins Glen State Park offers some of the most stunning hikes in the USA © Ultima_Gaina / Getty Images

Revel in nature

While there is ample opportunity for sailing and other watersports on the lakes, you’ll also find many other ways to experience the area’s natural charms.

The Finger Lakes are situated within the Atlantic Flyway, which is a prominent migratory route for North American birds. Grab your birding book and binoculars and pull up a perch at one of the many key bird-watching spots, including Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary, Montezuma Wetlands Complex, Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area and Salmon Creek.

For a stunning hike, head to Watkins Glen State Park, where the trail winds through gorges and under and over 19 waterfalls. At Taughannock Falls near Ulysses, you can view the cascade from a lookout above or hike down the easy Gorge Trail to the base of the falls (the Rim Trail is a little more difficult, but worth it for the views). And remember your swimsuit if you’re headed to Buttermilk Falls just outside Ithaca, because you’ll likely want to take a dip in the natural pool at its base after completing one of the state park’s many hikes.

Exterior shot of brownstone castle-like mansion, Belhurst Castle, in the Finger Lakes against a blue sky with green grass and tall pine trees © Mikki Brammer / Lonely Planet
Belhurst Castle is one of the most picturesque places to stay in the Finger Lakes © Mikki Brammer / Lonely Planet

Wake up to lakeside views

Chances are you’ll have a pretty decent view wherever you happen to stay in the Finger Lakes, but for the best lakeside vista, book a room at the Inns of Aurora, Belhurst Castle or Geneva on the Lake in Geneva, or the Sherwood Inn (originally a stagecoach shop) in Skaneateles. Or for something a little more intimate, try Onanda by the Lake Bed and Breakfast.

Getting to the Finger Lakes

The Finger Lakes are about five hours’ drive from New York City, or accessible from Rochester or Syracuse airports, the latter of which is undergoing a $45 million renovation that will include a regional aviation history museum.

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