My wife recently told me about a story she read that involved two women who came to Rochester, New York from Canada—on purpose—and stayed for a few days in a downtown hotel. They wandered around, saw some sights, had a lot of fun, and went back home with a favorable impression of the area. This varies greatly from the views of many people who actually live here who complain endlessly about there being nothing to do, or that it’s b-o-o-o-o-o-ring, or that the city is a treacherous netherworld of darkness filled with evil creatures that would look more at home on the set of a Mad Max movie.
Me? I side more with those two Canadians. One can go almost anywhere and find something interesting and fun to do. Mrs. G. and I had fun in Cleveland, and while it wasn’t Paris in springtime, it was certainly enjoyable, so let’s hit a few of the highpoints of Rochester, the city that borders the town, which borders another town, which borders the village in which I live.
Rochester, New York is probably known for four things: Eastman Kodak, the International Museum of Play, lilacs, and being less than an hour from almost anything. For the sake of time, let’s concentrate on the first three.
Kodak is unfortunately a faded shadow of its former self, and even most of us who live here wonder what it is they still do, but its founder, George Eastman, left behind many gifts that enrich the city to this day. Among these is a wonderful mansion that was eventually opened to the public as a museum. My wife and I are members of this museum, and we go there often.
When I was younger, I never dreamed that I’d be a member of a museum, but there you have it. This is what happens. Next step: snow-white Velcro sneakers. The highlight of our year thus far has been the member’s only upstairs/downstairs tour, which meant we were able to go behind the velvet rope into the former bedroom area, the attic and the basement. I loved it, although I was slightly disappointed that I didn’t get to spin around on the revolving Batmobile platform in the garage.
Outside of this member’s only perquisite, the museum has rotating exhibits and a theater, but also offers a unique chance to see how one of the wealthiest men in the country lived almost a century ago. In the summer, the grounds are reminiscent of a small-scale version of the Gardens of Versailles, so there’s all of that, plus a snack bar that has a decent cup of coffee.
Five minutes away is the International Museum of Play, which used to be called the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum, and was named after a local philanthropist who liked to collect toys and dolls. Margaret’s family made their money in the buggy whip business, and upon her father’s death, he left her one million 1937 dollars, which she shrewdly grew to around seventy million dollars over the next thirty years. She also grew her toy and doll collection to the point where it needed to be housed in outbuildings on her estate. One year before her own death, she was given state approval for a museum, where twenty-two thousand Victorian dolls, enough doll houses to form a hamlet, and nearly a quarter of a million other toys were displayed. People who still played bridge and drank egg cream sodas visited by the dozens.
The museum eventually went through a metamorphosis with a name change and a doubling in size. They brought in interactive displays, ditched the grandma’s attic feel and managed to turn hoary-drab into retro-cool, and added a butterfly conservatory. It became a huge tourist draw. The Strong (as most locals still call it) went from housing a collection of dusty old porcelain dolls with vacant stares to a fun, fascinating place in which people could get lost for hours. The last time I was there was 2014, when my niece and her family visited from California. We had four generations at the museum, and each of us found something to enjoy.
So that’s the nickel tour of two of our biggest local attractions, which leaves the third: lilacs. I’ve told the story of the Highland Conservatory, which is nice indeed, but it’s only a piece of the one hundred and fifty-five acre park that lays international claim to one thing: lots and lots of lilac shrubs. There are roughly twelve hundred lilac shrubs in all, along with hundreds of varieties of magnolia trees and other plants that I refer to as whatnots and whatcha-ma-call-thems. I can’t know everything. Each year, the weather forecasters along with many residents of the area have but one thing on their mind: Will the lilacs be ready? People are in an actual tizzy over the exact timing of the lilac blooms.
This year, the Lilac Festival started on May 6, so in an effort to beat the masses and find a place to park that wasn’t in the next county, we went on opening day, which avoided the massive weekend crowd. I went for the lilacs and the photo ops, and of the twelve hundred shrubs in the park, maybe four were actually blooming, which was expected given the unseasonably cool weather. My wife did manage to score a free, four-foot tall potted pin oak, which she dutifully carried for the rest of the afternoon, much to the annoyance of anyone who walked within five feet of Mrs. G. the Impaler and her hair snagging, eye poking oak branches. That being said, the magnolias were amazing and so was the walk through the park with my wife and her potted tree. We did go back later the following week when the lilacs were blooming. The oak tree stayed home.
The Lilac Festival in one form or another has been a one hundred and eighteen year tradition in Rochester, and it’s the annual kick-off to a festival season that celebrates every imaginable neighborhood, ethnicity, nationality, pie, fruit, film, art form, and musical genre. In short, there are over fifty different area festivals between now and when the snow flies and a few beyond that, which means there should be something for everyone.
Rochester has been described as a big city in a small space, and as was mentioned earlier, it’s less than an hour from anywhere. The Finger Lakes area is gorgeous, along with several larger parks, boating facilities, waterfalls, small town stuff, wineries, breweries, distilleries, fishing, skiing, places to eat, theaters, a zoo, amusement parks, canal paths for bicyclists, beaches, hiking paths, and so much more.
Some may read this and accuse me of making lemonade; that the city and the surrounding areas have this problem and that and oh my God, I’d never go down there. Maybe this makes me a glass half full sort of guy, because I still wander around like a goober, occasionally taking pictures of the tall buildings, and not many days go by when I can’t find something interesting to see or do.
Would I make the trip from Canada to see what’s here? I sure would.
After writing this, it occurred to me that Rochester is also known for the International Jazz Festival in July, which is a lot of fun. It’s not entirely about jazz; so if that part doesn’t interest you, don’t worry. It stretches over nine days covering almost a block of city streets that have been closed to traffic. The pro Jazz Festers usually get a club pass, but there is a lot of free music, a great atmosphere, and not a single cellphone vendor. That’s what I’d call a win/win/win.