The Bad: Winter weather, Not exactly chock full of interesting stuff to do!
The Basics: With a decent standard-of-living, clean roads and walkways, generally friendly people, good shopping and food, Rochester, New York is a great place to raise a family.
If you ever want a real writing challenge, sit down and try to write about the city you grew up in objectively, especially if it is middle class America. After all, if one lives in the suburbs of a midsized city in the United States, what is the appeal of leaving the suburb you live in for the suburb of another city? The truth is, it is tough to look at places that one takes for granted and see them through the fresh eyes of a traveler. Still, I recently had the opportunity to do this when I took a friend of mine to my old stomping grounds, Rochester, New York.
I grew up on the border between Rochester and its suburb, Brighton, and as a result, I was able to get a great education in the Brighton Central School system while still having some of the flavor and diversity of the city. Rochester is a big enough city that there are things to do there, film companies test market movies there, and new products appear there, but not so large that it is packed with people constantly and there is no way to get around. This might have to do with there being little to do there. Forgive me; I love Rochester, but it is not like it is a major metropolis like New York City nor a place with a rich, quaint New England feel like Salem, Massachusetts (reviewed here!). Instead, Rochester, NY is an average, United States blue-state city where the people are middle class, friendly and largely do their own thing. It was a good place to grow up, though, and when I visit it now, there is quite a bit I appreciate about it.
Rochester, New York is located in upstate New York (yes, there is more to the state than The City!). Located in the eastern portion of what is considered western New York, Rochester is a decent-sized city with about a dozen suburbs just south of Lake Ontario, one of the Great Lakes of North America. This, rather problematically, means that Rochester gets dumped upon with extreme amounts of lake effect snow in the winter (not as bad as Buffalo, which gets it from two great lakes!), though it also tends not to get Southern hot in the summer, either. It has a temperate climate and outside high annual snowfall, it is a pretty moderate place to live in terms of weather.
Located in Monroe County, Rochester has two major exits off of the New York State Thruway and holds approximately two hundred thousand people within the city limits. The city is categorized more by sprawl than skyscrapers and despite a few waterways in the area - most notably the Genesee River which cuts through downtown Rochester - there is room to expand and the city has expanded outward like cities do. However, it is fairly well-contained now and the suburbs of Rochester have established cultures of their own and while Rochester flows off into its suburbs, there are untouched natural areas, like Highland Park, which persist and are not being industrialized. As a result, Rochester has a decent mix of technology and development and natural beauty, though most of the nature is now outside the city proper.
Ease Of Local Transport/Parking
Rochester, New York has two exits off the main arterial through New York State, the New York State Thruway. Getting to the city is easy as either exit 45 or 46 off Route 90 takes one to Rochester. I tend to recommend exit 45, as that puts visitors on 490, the main arterial through the outskirts and right into downtown Rochester. For those not driving, there is an international airport in Rochester and every few months they start up a ferry to Toronto (crossing Lake Ontario) that inevitably fails because Rochester is not a big deal the way it wants to be.
In Rochester, most of the streets are two way roads with one or two lanes in each direction. There are very few one-way streets in the city, so getting round is actually remarkably easy. Still, I always recommend having a map when looking for specific places. 490 is the major expressway that runs around Rochester and it is easily accessible from the Thruway. 490 bisects most of the major roads in Rochester and connects to the Inner Loop downtown for ease of getting around in the more gridlike downtown.
Parking in downtown Rochester has become more of an issue in recent years than it was when I was growing up. Many of the taller buildings in the city have their own subterranean parking garages and there are several open air lots now (parking seems to be relatively inexpensive in the $10/day range). Many of the major streets in the city proper have parking meters now as well, like outside the Little Theatre. However, the meters stop charging visitors after six p.m. on most days. In many of the areas where shopping is a priority, there is free on-street parking or parking lots near the establishments.
Growing up in Rochester, I had two working parents and I cycled almost everywhere. Rochester is a great city for cycling around in: everything is close enough for those with an average cycling ability, it's good for the environment, and it's a great way to stay in shape!
Rochester, New York is filled with hotels in the city and on the outskirts. Honestly, I've never stayed at one (well, there was one time, but . . .) because I still have family in Rochester and I am able to stay with them whenever I journey there. That said, every major hotel chain has a hotel in Rochester or its suburbs and finding accommodations is not usually a problem, save perhaps the weekend the Lilac Festival opens or graduation weekend when all of the schools manage to schedule their graduations on the same weekends.
There are no shortages of places to stay in Rochester (I know some people . . .).
Rochester has pretty much all of the typical things any big city has: parks, a zoo, movie theaters, hospitals, museums and restaurants and clubs. There are a few things that are uniquely Rochester and if one is visiting Rochester, NY, here are some of the best things I can recall that are worth visiting:
The Strasenburgh Planetarium - located in a very nice area of Rochester filled with museums and good shopping, the Planetarium provides information on the stars and is both affordable and educational. This planetarium has simulated night skies as the city lights do drown out natural starlight. Still, it is fun, educational and affordable. I am putting this on here because Rochester seems to be promoting the Strong Museum Of Play pretty heavily now and I loathe that. When I was a kid, the Strong Museum was a legitimate museum that took in roving exhibitions from big museums worldwide, though there was a standing collection of dolls and old toys (which were so infrequently traveled they made for great nooks and crannies to go into while on class trips and make out with . . . um, anyway). Now, it seems to focus on children and holds no interest for adults without children. The planetarium, though, that's a great place.
The Memorial Art Gallery - near the Strasenburgh, this is a modern art gallery that has a decent standing collection of artwork and receives exhibitions from other, more well-known art galleries.
The Eastman House - George Eastman, the founder of Kodak had a decent-sized house in downtown Rochester, which is now a film museum. The neat thing about this is that because of this, Rochester will occasionally get famous movie directors to visit when their films are made a part of the permanent collection at the Eastman House. So, for example, I had the privilege of attending a screening and meet and greet with writer/director P.T. Anderson when his film Punch-Drunk Love (reviewed here!) was inducted into the permanent collection of the Eastman House. There is a lot of information on the history of the physical development of the film industry here and that is very cool.
Highland Park - I lived right near Highland Park growing up, home of the annual Lilac Festival. Here's a hint for you: whatever the week the lilac festival is scheduled for, come two weeks early. In my youth, the joke was always that the Lilac Festival never hit when the lilacs actually bloomed. Thus, we would get inundated with people from all around the world (many who wanted to pay money to park on our lawn or just parked there and cheesed off my father) who were looking at a bunch of dying lilacs or (some years) lilac buds. Highland Park has an amazing collection of flowers, most notably the lilacs.
Mount Hope Cemetery - In picking the five essential places to visit when visiting Rochester, it might seem weird that I would say "come visit our Cemetery," but hey, come visit our Cemetery! Mount Hope Cemetery, in addition to being a wonderful place for kinky people to have safe sex in the outdoors, includes the graves of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas (there's a Black History Month theme to this!), as well as several people I knew growing up. Seriously, in Rochester, there is a beautiful mix of old headstones and mausoleums, though to be fair you can probably do everything at this Cemetery in a single day, maybe even squeeze it in the same day you visit Highland Park (they are proximate).
Downtown Rochester also has the High Falls, a theater, the Rochester Philharmonic, and nearby there is the Seabreeze Amusement Park.
Having standards in my travel reviews is nice because it allows me to set some things straight from time to time. There are many, many places to eat in Rochester, New York and despite the city's reputation, not everyone goes for the local custom of the "garbage plate." The "garbage plate" is available at one restaurant (and, I suppose, a few imitator now that they see crap sells) and if one does not want to be subjected to the foul mess that is the garbage plate (it is EXACTLY what it sounds like), simply do not go to Nick Tahou's. Despite the publicity the place gets for its gross specialty and the invention of white hot hot dogs, one may safely avoid both and still have an authentic Rochester experience. Sure, I can probably never run for Senator in New York now, but there is nothing missing from visiting Rochester, New York and not eating a garbage plate.
Sadly, that means that there is no real local cuisine unique to Rochester. But given the choice between an exceptional array of ethnic foods from around the world and eating whatever slop they throw on the garbage plate, I'll take the worldwide selection. A few places I recommend are:
Wegmans - Yes, the local grocery store chain. The Pittsford Wegmans is a citadel of food so large and with such a significant selection of prepared gourmet foods that they actually added an upscale restaurant to it. And yes, it is truly that good!
The Bagel Bin - In Brighton, it's a wonderful place to get bagels first thing in the morning.
The Imperial Chinese Restaurant - Near the intersection of Highland and Clinton, this is a family-owned Chinese Restaurant where food is cooked by master Chinese chefs . . . who are actually Chinese! Seriously, some of the best food one might ever eat.
Highland Park Diner - Near the Imperial, there is a decent little diner with good diner food. It's diner food, it's universal Americana!
The Ethiopian Restaurant On Alexander - Okay, that's not the actual name of it, but if you want great food at a wonderful price, hop on Alexander Street and look around for the Ethiopian Restaurant. It is right near the building that used to be Genesee Hospital and it has amazing food!
Unfortunately, the other places I would recommend have all gone out of business in recent years. Still, the suburbs of Rochester have some amazing dining choices from Mediterranean to Chinese to Mexican. There's also a confectioner, Steever's Chocolates, in Rochester that is absolutely amazing.
Rochester, New York is a great place for reasonably priced shopping, especially in the suburbs. There are at least three malls in the area - when I was growing up, Eastview was a dump, but now it is one of the greatest malls in the world, catering to a real up-scale clientele! - and they have their ebbs and flows. Creative people who like all of the things that cannot be found in malls will find Park Avenue to be the ideal shopping environment. For those looking for more the headshop type shopping, a huge tract of Monroe Avenue has that sort of thing right out in the open. Everyone has their own personal shopping bents, but for me the gems of Rochester shopping are:
Craft Service - This is a small, family owned art supply store (they do not accept credit cards!) that is absolutely amazing. If you have an artistic bone in your body and you want the tools and materials to create with, Craft Service on University Avenue is THE best place in the world to shop. They have everything from wax to make your own molded candles to oil paints and kilns! In fact, the store might be old fashioned, but it has books on every form of art and supplies for making everything from paintings to jewelry. Just bring cash.
Comics, Etc. - This is the local hangout for geeks and the owner of the store is friendly and has an amazing selection of comic books, toys (action figures) and trading cards. It's amazing he hasn't had to expand. Comics, Etc. is in a little quirky, artsy mall downtown called the Village Gate and it is a wonderful place to spend some time and money.
Lumiere Photo - An archival framing shop, Lumiere on Monroe Avenue has an amazingly friendly and artistically inclined staff that knows how to preserve photographs and artwork. I drive over a hundred miles just to do business with them!
Wegmans - Seriously, it's a citadel of food, you could get lost there for days.
As well, there are the usual wonderful chains like Barnes & Noble, Panera Bread (now), and all of the major clothiers.
Rochester, New York might not be a great place to visit, packed with all sorts of things to do or a history that changed the world, but it is an old canal town that burgeoned into a thriving city and continues to adapt to meet the needs of modern families. Ultimately, it is clean, increasingly diverse and the tax base is strong enough that the public schools are amazing here.
It might be tough for me to recommend Rochester, New York as a travel destination (outside shopping and having a great selection of places to eat and getting all of the latest things pretty quickly) but it is a great place to live in the United States.
For other places in New York, please check out my reviews of:
Turning Stone Casino
Sylvan Beach Amusement Park
For other travel reviews, please check out my Travel Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the travel reviews I have written!
© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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