Raised in a quasi-treehouse on the edge of Cayuga Lake in Ithaca, New York, Nat Geo Young Explorer Alizé Carrère now travels the globe to illuminate how humans and other animals adapt to changing environments. When she’s not in the field mingling in Moroccan markets, sniffing out electronic waste graveyards in Palestine, or chasing reindeer in the Arctic Circle, she recharges her batteries in her beloved hometown. Ithaca “is an incubator for creativity, intellectual development, self-expression, and a place to gain an appreciation for life’s diversity,” she says. Here are a few of her favorite things about this upstate oasis.
Ithaca Is My City
When someone comes to visit me, the first place I take them is to the original Gimme! Coffee shop on Cayuga Street for a taste of our best locally brewed beans.
Summer is the best time to visit my city because that’s when Ithaca really comes to life. Many of the college students leave for summer break, so the city opens up and all of the best outdoor attractions are in their prime. You can enjoy waterfall hikes, summer concerts in the park, patio happy hours, fresh produce in local restaurants, and twilights that stretch into the nine o’clock hour.
You can see my city best from the top floor of Cornell University’s Johnson Art Museum, which reveals a near 360-degree view of Ithaca, including Cornell’s beautiful campus and the south end of Cayuga Lake. The museum itself, which looks like a giant sewing machine, was designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei, the creative mind behind the striking (and once controversial) glass pyramid in front of the Louvre.
Locals know to skip Regal Cinemas and check out Cinemapolis—Ithaca’s local movie theater specializing in independent, foreign, and locally-produced films—instead. I particularly enjoy diving into their buttered popcorn sprinkled with brewer’s yeast—an Ithaca twist on an American tradition. It’s addictive.
In the summer, the Ithaca Farmers Market is the place to buy authentic, local souvenirs. If you’re visiting in winter when the market is closed, you can stop by Handwork, a cooperative craft store where you’ll find locally made products ranging from ceramics and glass to leather and wood.
In the past, notable people like Carl Sagan and Vladimir Nabokov have called my city home. Famed astrophysicist and host of the original Cosmos series, Sagan was a longtime Ithaca resident and Cornell professor, and Nabokov wrote his most renowned book, Lolita, during the decade he spent in the city while teaching at Cornell University.
My city’s best museum is the Museum of the Earth because, really, who doesn’t love a natural history museum that takes you on a journey through our planet’s 4.5 billion years of existence? Upon entering you can study a 44-foot-long skeleton of a North Atlantic Right Whale…and find out why whales have hip bones (trust me, you want to know).
If there’s one thing you should know about getting around my city, it’s to get creative! Just ask my friend, and the city’s mayor, Svante Myrick, who has never owned a car and prides himself on navigating the city via foot, Ithaca Carshare, and our local T-Cat bus transportation system.
The best place to spend time outdoors in my city is on Cayuga Lake. I grew up on the lake, so I can assure you that whether you spend time swimming in it, boating on it, or hanging out along its shores, you will not be disappointed by its splendor. If you like to kayak, canoe, or paddleboard, check out Puddledockers or Paddle-N-More for rentals.
My city really knows how to celebrate its residents—and all of our talents and eccentricities—because it seems to have festivals for every occasion. The parade of local celebrations includes the Ithaca Festival, Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance, Porch Fest, and Apple Harvest Fest, among others. If you happen across a fleet of Volvos adorned in tutus, don’t say you weren’t warned. It’s called “Volvo Ballet” and it’s a longstanding centerpiece of the Ithaca Festival procession.
You can tell if someone is from my city if they compost and use (or know how and where to use) Ithaca Hours. (FYI, non-locals, Ithaca Hours is the city’s own local currency, and also the oldest and largest local currency system operating in the United States!)
For a fancy night out, I will go to an evening show at the Hangar Theatre, a professional regional theater in a renovated municipal airport hangar that stages award-winning plays and musicals. After that, it’s straight to Madeline’s for dessert.
Just outside my city, you can visit a plethora of great wineries. Ithaca is located in the heart of the extremely fertile Finger Lakes region, which is gaining fast recognition as a top wine-producing area, particularly for Riesling varieties. Ithaca’s own Cayuga Lake, the longest of the glacially carved Finger Lakes, is home to many award-winning vineyards, more than a dozen of which are included on America’s first and oldest wine trail, the Cayuga Lake Wine Trail.
My city is known for being “gorges” (a pun on gorgeous), but it’s far more than just a lush, verdant oasis in the middle of upstate New York. With world-class educational institutions, strong businesses, and a vibrant local community, it is like the best jam band of talent, creativity, and diversity you’ve ever stumbled across.
The best outdoor market in my city is the Ithaca Farmers Market at Steamboat Landing (there are currently three locations). The market sets a lovely stage for a wide variety of local craftsmen, agriculturalists, wine producers, artists, musicians, and excellent cuisine from the region (and the world!). It sits on the bank of the Cayuga Lake inlet, so you can enjoy your delicious egg burrito from Solaz (one of the vendors at the market) with your feet dangling off of the dock.
If I’m short on time, Ithaca Bakery is my favorite place to grab breakfast (you can’t go wrong with their breakfast bagel sandwiches), but if I’m looking for something a bit more leisurely and quaint, I’ll opt for the Carriage House Café in Collegetown. The State Diner and Short Stop Deli are the spots for late-night eats.
To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, read the Ithaca Times. You’ll find all you need to know about news, entertainment, arts, restaurants, and wineries serving the city.
When I’m feeling cash-strapped, I grab a picnic and head to Stewart Park on the edge of Cayuga Lake (tip: go at sunset for the view) or the Cornell Plantations, botanical gardens adjacent to the university’s campus where you can see an impressive array of native trees and shrubs.
To escape the crowds, go for a hike in one of the many parks to see some of the best waterfalls and gorges New York State has to offer. My two favorites are Taughannock Falls and the upper portion of Treman State Park.
The dish that represents my city best is the peanut-lime noodles from Macro Mamas, and beer is my city’s signature drink. Sample them at the Macro Mamas booth at the farmers market or local co-op GreenStar Natural Foods Market, and at Ithaca Beer, respectively. While you’re at Ithaca Beer, check out their in-house brewery and be sure to try my favorite, Flower Power IPA.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The Haunt is the best place to see live music, but if you’re in the mood to dance, check out anywhere in Ithaca where Dj Cappel or djGOURD are playing. When Dj Cappel isn’t spinning, he and his partner Sam can be found running Emmy’s Organics, their gluten-free, vegan, and non-GMO snack food company.
In the spring you should go for a hike in one of the gorges when all the ice is melting and feel the rush of the water flows picking up again.
In the summer you should do anything in, on, or near Cayuga Lake.
In the fall you should go apple picking at Little Tree Orchards and take in the splash of fiery colors that defines autumn in upstate New York.
In the winter you should cross-country ski through the flat woodlands in the Ithaca area. A particularly good place can be found on the west side of Cayuga Lake along the abandoned railway tracks that run parallel to Taughannock Boulevard.
If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss the Ithaca Sciencenter. With brain games, the “Sagan Planet Walk,” a saltwater tide touch tank, and an outdoor playground that invites visitors to make music and bounce on a Kevlar cable suspension bridge, the Sciencenter is sure to be a hit with kids and parents alike.