As spectacular as they are, the falls don’t hijack the narrative. They are located within Niagara Falls State Park’s 400-acre landscape, chock-full of diverse wildlife. Stroll through the park or ride the cute trolley. Let the kids stay up late to watch the firework display over the falls every night at 10pm, from May through early October, weather permitting.
If your family enjoys interactive history, drop by Old Fort Niagara. You’ll interact with tradesmen like blacksmiths and trappers and watch battles reenacted in the summer months. You may be surprised that the town itself is a well-oiled tourist machine. There are wax museums and arcade games galore, but the Aquarium of Niagara is probably the most worthwhile stop, thanks to resident penguins and seals.
Another must-see activity is the Cave of the Winds tour on the American side, which brings you to the base of the Bridal Veils Falls. Prepared to get wet! On the Canadian side, you can go behind the falls on the Journey Behind the Falls tour.
There are plenty of chain hotels, as well as smaller, family-operated motels. If your family wants to keep in tune with the earthly beauty of the area, there are many nearby farms that welcome visitors. Becker Farms has been in the same family for five generations. Guests are invited you to pick their own produce, plus there’s a working brewery and vineyard, so parents can enjoy an adult beverage.
Catching minnows in Chautauqua. Photo by Joshua Boucher/courtesy of The Chautauquan Daily
2. Summer Learning and Outdoor Fun in Chautauqua
If you’re interested in a vacation that combines fun with learning, visit the Chautauqua Institution. This lakeside village is a summer learning community of the finest caliber. Founded in 1874 as a learning vacation destination for Sunday school teachers, today it prides itself on its interfaith commitment. Participating families choose from a full schedule of lectures and classes during the nine-week sessions. Guest lecturers have included everyone from US presidents to gossip-worthy celebrities.
Adults attend morning classes centered on a single theme, such as the Supreme Court, Shakespeare, or Italian Opera. Children simultaneously attend supervised age-appropriate recreational programs. In the afternoon, there’s plenty of unstructured family time to swing a golf club or tennis racket, sail, fish, kayak, or swim in the lake. There’s nightly entertainment to the tune of concerts and dance performances in the open-air theater.
The lovely old-school Athenaeum Hotel is located on the grounds, but most families rent simple housekeeping cottages for modest fees. There are no cars at Chautauqua (you park your vehicle in the lot and won’t see it until the week is over), so everyone walks or cycles. The car-free streets are lined with colorful Victorian homes and provide a safe environment for city kids to get their first taste of freedom and independence.
Experience the paddles and pedal boats at Canalside. Photo courtesy Buffalo Waterside
3. Urban Renewal, Navy, and Water Sports in Buffalo
Buffalo may not immediately come to mind when you think of family vacation hotspots, but this city has pumped millions of dollars into its revitalization. The Canalside waterfront is the focal point of the city’s push for urban renewal. If you’ve got kids who crave in-water activity, they can kayak, stand-up paddleboard, and water bike along the Buffalo River. Families can partake in numerous activities like skating, games, history tours, music concerts, and more. Most of the events are FREE or low-cost. The Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park and museum on the shore of Lake Erie allows youngsters to tour a World War II-era cruiser, destroyer, and submarine.
Buffalo is rich in public art and the waterfront has bold and colorful examples. This city was once the world’s largest grain port. Today, its industrial heritage is celebrated with the transformation of these structures into lighting installations with a glittering nightly light show. You’ll get excellent views of this unique ‘canvas’ from the waterfront. Comfy chairs were recently installed, so stay as long as you like. The food scene here is tailor-made for families. Delectable culinary events include the Taste of Buffalo in July and the National Buffalo Wing Festival in September. Regional favorites such as the meat eater’s delight ‘beef on a weck’ sandwich are served at inexpensive eateries all over town. It’s also less than 30 minutes from Niagara Falls.
I Love Lucy memorabilia abounds in Jamestown, the birthplace of Lucille Ball, but so does a tradition of fostering the next generation of comics. Photo by Lucy Gray via Flickr.
4. I Love Lucy Laughs and Festivals in Jamestown
Comic genius Lucille Ball was born in Jamestown and residents are fiercely proud of their hometown heroine. Lucy-mania is rampant here, with murals of the redheaded icon dotting the landscape. Die-hard fans may visit her birthplace and grave. The crown jewel is the Lucille Ball Desi Arnaz Museum and Center For Comedy. Its mission is to promote the growth and development of comedy, and kids who love to laugh will be in stitches even if they never heard of Lucy. The museum’s creative exhibits allow you to take part in wacky comedic skits plucked from Lucy’s vintage television show. Remember the episode when Lucy sold Vitameatavegamin vitamin tonic? Head to the re-created set, where you too may try to say this tongue twister. You can watch original episodes of I Love Lucy and browse the costumes and memorabilia, getting a sense of what a true maverick she was.
The National Comedy Center hosts The Lucille Ball Comedy Festival each August (Lucy’s birth month), making it a great time to bring aspiring comedians to Jamestown. There have been many family-oriented events in the past like block parties and tours, and even comedy shows for kids.
Friendly people and low prices in this non-touristy corner of New York increase the vacation pleasure quotient. Of special note is the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History. This 27-acre sanctuary aims to educate children about the natural world with interactive exhibits. Wooded hiking trails are catnip for urbanites craving fresh air and peaceful scenery. Jamestown is not far from Buffalo, Chautauqua, and Niagara Falls, so it’s a wonderful addition to a western New York itinerary.
Congress Park is open to the public year-round, and it’s a great spot to relax for a few hours or enjoy events and activities. Photo courtesy of Saratoga.com
Upstate New York Getaways in Central New York
5. Arts and Culture in Saratoga Springs
Saratoga looks like a modern-day Mayberry, but its strong focus on the arts is in the vanguard. The pedestrian-friendly downtown is filled with independent shops, bookstores, and restaurants. Famous for its world-class horse racing and a plethora of mineral-water springs, this small town delivers as many diversions as a big city. Saratoga’s cultural side is anchored by the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, known as SPAC. The New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra take annual summer residency here, so expect high-quality performances. Kids 12 and under are admitted FREE to all classical events on the gently sloping lawn, so spread a blanket and hunker down with a picnic.
The Children’s Museum at Saratoga is a find for ages 7 and younger. The Saratoga Automobile Museum is a treasure trove for budding car enthusiasts. Kids who like horses will enjoy the interactive National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
To really enjoy this town’s natural side, head to Saratoga Spa State Park. Hiking trails, tennis courts, and two vintage outdoor swimming pools are perfect fresh-air diversions. When the kids are ready to go for a spin, you’ll find a yesteryear wooden carousel in leafy Congress Park.
Dozens of restaurants can satiate your appetite in this culinary hot spot. Save room for a homemade sweet treat at Mrs. London’s, a popular local bakery. Note that Saratoga is crowded and costly during the annual five-week racing season, starting in mid-July, so plan your trip accordingly.
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Baseball fans will be in heaven at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Photo courtesy of the venue.
6. Baseball and Americana Charm in Cooperstown
This lakeside beauty is the quintessential all-American town in your mind’s eye. Home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, fans of America’s favorite pastime come from near and far to pay homage to the sport. With three floors of baseball goods, it is indeed a showcase for memorabilia but it holds multifaceted appeal. Don’t miss the poignant exhibit on the early African American leagues. The Women in Baseball exhibit hits a home run. Tiny visitors should head to the Sandlot Kids’ Clubhouse. Shaped like a mitt, it’s a cozy play space geared toward the youngest guests. When you exit the baseball museum, you’ll be on Main Street, where you can browse the numerous shops, many selling baseball cards.
Cooperstown is more than just baseball. A stop at the Farmers Museum gives a window into rural 19th-century life. Set up as a re-created 1845 village, costumed guides demonstrate the traditions of the region. Ramble about the cottages and watch a newspaper being printed or horseshoes being made. Top it all off with a ride on the Empire State Carousel, where kids may ride on one of 24 indigenous New York State animals. The Fenimore Art Museum is another worthy stop. Built on the grounds of James Fenimore Cooper’s former estate, the broad collection of Native American handicrafts is a winner.
Glimmerglass State Park is located a few miles north of the village. You may swim and fish in the lake, as well as spend the night at one of the simple campsites. Book a room at the Otesaga Resort, located a short walk from the baseball museum. Claim a rocking chair on the hotel’s sweeping veranda and relax. Wooden staircases with banisters perfect to slide down, gracious service, lovely landscaping, and a large outdoor pool add to its charm.
7. Outdoor Adventures and Breathtaking Landscapes in the Finger Lakes
The Finger Lakes region is the perfect destination for families looking for a weekend getaway. The stunning natural scenery is alone worth a trip. There’s also a ton to do including outdoor activities, museums, great food, charming towns to explore, and spas and resorts for grownups to relax.
To enjoy the outdoors, take one of the many hikes throughout the area. Discover the towering waterfall at Taughannok State Park or spend a day at one of the 11 finger-shaped lakes where you can boat, swim, bike, fish, or camp. In the winter, skiing is a favorite activity. Head to the Greek Peak Mountain Resort for skiing, tubing, and other winter sports but also the indoor water adventure park.
There are also some cool museums to explore including the Corning Museum of Glass, the Rockwell Museum, which showcases Southwestern art, and the Ithaca Sciencenter for young kids. Don’t miss visiting the National Museum of Play in Rochester, which features interactive, hands-on exhibits kids love. It’s basically kid heaven.
The Hope Lake Lodge is a perfect resort for families with many family-friendly amenities. For a unique experience, try a farm stay where kids can experience what it’s like to work and live on a real farm.
Family swim spot Lake Placid offers pristine public beaches and water, as well as access to hiking trails. Photo via ROOST/LakePlacid.com
Upstate New York Getaways in the Adirondacks
8. Swimming, Hiking, and Wildlife in Lake Placid
This scenic Adirondack Mountain village has twice hosted the Winter Olympics and hosts the 2023 FISU World University Games come January, but summer is an equally fine time to vacation here. Nestled in the Adirondack Mountains, Lake Placid is a hub for those wanting easy access to miles of forests, streams, and hiking trails. Contrary to its name, the town is actually located on the shores of Mirror Lake, one of the clearest lakes in the Adirondacks. The pristine public beaches feature crystalline water that begs you to take a plunge. The water is surprisingly warm in summer, as it’s fairly shallow, so it’s nice for baby’s first fresh-water swim. Canoes, kayaks, and rowboats are a fun way to explore. When you feel the need to further cool off, hit the Olympic ice at the indoor skating rink, followed by a stop at the Lake Placid Olympic Museum, which is in the midst of a renovation and set to reopen soon.
The village offers many dining and shopping options. In the evening, the crowds come out for a stroll topped off with a yummy ice cream cone at Emma’s Lake Placid Creamery. The family-run Mirror Lake Inn is a delightful 131-room property that wholeheartedly welcomes children. Parents may want to consider splurging on a treatment at the top-notch spa, where pampering services utilize locally sourced ingredients like maple syrup.
Don’t skip the 40-minute drive to the Wild Center in Tupper Lake. Nestled in the mountains, it’s a favorite with lovers of the great outdoors, thanks to its miles of unspoiled paths, variety of wildlife, and Wild Walk. This connecting trail of elevated bridges is nestled in the treetops of the forest. You’ll feel as if you can touch the clouds as your senses are offered an awesome perspective that may just transform the way you view the natural world. Numerous exhibit halls beckon to be explored and animal encounters are a delight.
9. Relaxation and Adventure on Lake George
Another great area to explore in the Adirondacks is Lake George. Take in the incredible beauty of lakes, mountains, and foliage with outdoor activities like hiking, swimming, boating, and fishing. The Sagamore Resort is an ideal option for families because there’s a wide variety of accommodations to choose from. There are rooms, suites, and condo-style lodges and cottages with multiple rooms and fully-equipped kitchens. Whether staying on-site or exploring the surrounding areas, The Sagamore offers a ton of activities all year round. For kids, there’s an indoor mini-golf center, a movie theater, game centers, and a swimming pool.
For another ultra-kid-friendly landing spot, book a room at the nearby Great Escape Lodge, with its on-site, year-round water park. Whether you time your upstate New York getaway to Lake George for its annual Winter Carnival or opt for a summer stay, there’s year-round fun to be had here.
Originally published in 2016. Diana Kim contributed additional reporting.