Rochester is one of the country’s most underrated cities.
The city (population about 206,000) is in western New York on Lake Ontario, one of the five Great Lakes. New York City is at least six hours away by car.
Rochester, like other Rust Belt cities, has seen its share of challenges in recent decades since the population peaked back in 1950. In some ways, this is a mixed blessing as downtown retains a fair share of old buildings—many on the National Register of Historic Places—that would have been demolished for newer developments had things went differently.
Several notable museums are perhaps the most lasting legacy of Rochester’s rich heritage.
The big draw is the George Eastman Museum.
Named after George Eastman, who, as founder of Kodak, pioneered photography for the masses, the museum isn’t a company museum. Instead, it includes one of the best collections of all things photography and cinematography. Included in the museum is Eastman’s stately house, which has been restored to its period grandeur.
A few blocks away on University Avenue is Memorial Art Gallery, part of the University of Rochester.
Visitors discover world-class art with works by Rubens, Monet, Rembrandt, van Dyck, Gainsborough, Romney, and others. You expect this kind of collection in a big-city museum, not a smaller museum in, of all places, Rochester. There’s even an impressive gallery of antiquities.
Had it not been for the pandemic, last year would have been much bigger for the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House. That’s because 2020 was the centenary of women getting the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment.
The house, located at 17 Madison Street, isn’t just where Susan B. Anthony, the heroine of women’s suffrage, lived. Meticulously restored to how it would have looked during her lifetime, this was where Anthony ran the National American Women Suffrage Association. It was also where she was arrested for voting in the 1872 presidential election.
Last but certainly not least is the Genesee Country Village & Museum, the third-largest open-air, living history museum in the United States.
Spread across 600 acres in rural Monroe County—about 20 miles from downtown—the must-visit attraction features a recreated village with period buildings from throughout New York and costumed interpreters depicting life in the 19th century. While buildings span architectural styles from the 1800s, including federal, Greek revival, and Victorian, the focus seems to be the antebellum era. Think Colonial Williamsburg, but western New York around the time when the famed Erie Canal opened.
If You Go
Stay at The Del Monte Lodge, part of Marriott’s upscale Renaissance brand. The hotel is located about 15 minutes by car from downtown Rochester in Pittsford, a quaint village on the banks of the Erie Canal. Best of all, it combines the consistency and standards of a chain with the design of boutiques.
Eat at the hotel’s aptly named Erie Grill (ErieGrill.com), which is popular with visitors and locals alike. Nearby alternatives include Richardson’s Canal House (RichardsonsCanalHouse.com), housed within an old tavern from 1818, and Label 7 Napa Eatery & Bar (LabelSeven.com). Both feature outdoor seating with million-dollar views of the canal. Back downtown, try the Brew House (GeneseeBeer.com/brewhouse) at Genesee Brewing Company—New York’s oldest brewery—or the Memorial Art Gallery’s Brown Hound (BrownHoundBistro.com) on Thursday evenings when the museum stays open late.
The George Eastman Museum (Eastman.org) is open Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 pm.
Visiting the Memorial Art Gallery (mag.rochester.edu) requires a timed reservation, due to pandemic protocols. Slots are available every 90 minutes during opening hours, which are Wednesday to Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., with Thursday hours extended to 9 p.m.
The National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House (SusanB.org) also requires reservations for its tours, which are offered daily Tuesday through Sunday.
The Genesee Country Village & Museum (gcv.org) is open Wednesday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Be advised that some museums are requiring visitors, even those fully vaccinated, to wear a mask even though there is no city or state mask mandate.
The author’s visit was partially hosted by Visit Rochester.