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ithaca city guide

by Stephanie

Image via Visit Ithaca.com

Today’s Ithaca City Guide comes from recent Ithaca College grad and freelance writer Laura Lanz-Frolio. Laura now lives in New York City, where she splits her time between writing and running her vintage shop on Etsy, La Poubelle Vintage. As a former resident, Laura has learned the ins and outs of this upstate New York haven, and today she shares with us the many gems this college town has to offer. Thanks, Laura, for such a lovely tour through Ithaca! — Stephanie

CLICK HERE for the full guide after the jump!

Ithaca is a college town in the true sense of the word. With both Cornell University and Ithaca College occupying the city, college students make up a large percentage of the population. But despite the large collegiate presence, Ithaca isn’t a city full of dive bars and pizza joints. It’s a great liberal enclave in the middle of upstate New York farm country complete with beautiful scenery, cute shops and inventive restaurants (Bon Appetit magazine recently named it one of the top five foodie towns in America).

There are lots of areas to explore, but the best are the Commons and Collegetown. The Commons is a pedestrian mall closer to Ithaca College that is rife with fun shops to poke around in and some of the best restaurants in Ithaca. Collegetown is Cornell’s territory, and though there isn’t much shopping, the nightlife and ethnic restaurants are worth checking out.

Eat: There are way too many great places to list here, but these are some of the must-trys.

Just a Taste — This tapas bar has a constantly changing menu and a huge list of wines by the glass. If you’re in the mood for a snack, stop in for their homemade focaccia with spreadable roasted garlic and a local wine flight.

Ithaca Bakery and Collegetown Bagels — The quintessential bagel and sandwich shop in Ithaca with five locations in town. Bagels and spreads are made in house, and their bagel sandwiches are the best way to start your day after a night on the town.

John Thomas Steak House — Ithaca is known more for its funky eateries than fine dining establishments, but this pricey steakhouse is one of the nicest white tablecloth restaurants in the city. Dry-aged steaks are cooked to perfection and served in an old farmhouse setting with exceptional service.

Shortstop Deli — From the outside, this sandwich shop looks like your run-of-the-mill convenience store, but once you try one of their toasted French-bread subs, you’ll realize what sets them apart. To order, fill out one of their checklist forms, which give you ample time to mull over the many fresh toppings like mushrooms, caramelized onions and seitan.

Maxie’s Supper Club — This New Orleans-style restaurant is a spicy addition to the Ithaca dining scene with po’ boys, blackened fish and awesome slaw. It’s also one of the few places in town with a fresh raw bar.

Glenwood Pines — Burger junkies can’t go to Ithaca without trying one at this no-frills lakeside joint. It’s nothing fancy, but a patty smothered with thousand island dressing and served with all the fixings on French bread is super satisfying.

Cafe Dewitt — You wouldn’t find this subterranean cafe unless you were looking for it, but you’ll be glad you sought it out. Brunch is the best meal to grab at Dewitt and interesting egg combinations (like an omelet with sherry-glazed mushrooms, spinach and pesto ricotta) are out of this world.

Zaza’s Cucina — Ithaca is surprisingly lacking in good Italian restaurants but Zaza’s one of the few. Grab a seat in the elegant dining room for a meal of slightly upscale but classic Italian fare like earthy mushroom risotto plus a long list of specialty cocktails.

Madeline’s — The food is good at Madeline’s, but the real reason to come here is for dessert. There’s no dessert menu, since the homemade selection changes daily, so walk up to the case in the back of the restaurant to choose your sweets. You’ll be glad you saved room.

Viva Taqueria and Cantina — Don’t come here if you have a craving for greasy Tex Mex; the California-style Mexican food at Viva is super fresh and bright. On warm days, grab a set on the popular sidewalk patio, and do some people watching while nibbling on their crave-worthy taco salad with salsa buttermilk dressing.

Moosewood — If you’re a foodie, you probably have a Moosewood cookbook on your shelves, and this mother of all vegetarian restaurants is the original location. Open since 1973, you definitely won’t miss the meat on the menu that changes daily and focuses on local and seasonal produce.

Do: Music, art and nature-related activities

Ithaca Farmers’ Market — Every city has its own farmers’ market these days, but the Ithaca Farmers’ Market is a great experience. Open from April through December, this covered bazaar set on Lake Cayuga features local farmers and artisans selling leather goods and art, plus awesome prepared foods like breakfast burritos from Solaz and spicy peanut noodles from Macro Mamas.

The Gorges — If you’ve ever seen someone sporting an “Ithaca Is Gorges” tee shirt, you’ll soon know what they’re referring to. There are many large cliff-side waterfalls to visit in town, most with hikeable trails to the top and stunning views. There are hundreds of gorges in the Ithaca area, but some of the best to check out are Buttermilk Falls, Taughannock Falls and Fall Creek Gorge, which is great for swimming in the summer.

Castaways — This bar is the best place to see live music in Ithaca. The space is huge, the covers are cheap and they always pull in interesting indie bands worth checking out. If you’re available during happy hour on Fridays, the shows are always free.

Ithaca Beer Co. — Beer aficionados will definitely want to check out Ithaca Brewery for a tour. Afterward, saddle up to the bar where a friendly staffer will let you sample different beer varieties to your heart’s content. Their apricot wheat is a must-try and just happens to be my favorite beer ever.

Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art — This gallery on Cornell’s campus houses the university’s art collection with notable collections, like George and Mary Rockwell’s Asian art collection. Make sure you hit the top floor for a beautiful view of the campus.

Shop: Lots of antique and vintage shops to peruse

Home Green Home — This large and airy spot is located right on the Commons. All of the furniture and home goods inside are eco-friendly, such as reclaimed wood furniture, hemp shower curtains and green cleaning products. And although eco-friendly stores can veer toward the hippie, everything in Home Green Home is actually very modern and elegant.

Ithaca Antique Center — You never know what you’re going to find at this huge space on the outskirts of town, since the 75 booths are rented out by individual dealers. You could easily spend hours rummaging through jewelry, antique housewares and mid-century furniture.

Pastimes Antiques — This shop is great for digging with lots of bins and trays full of objects like old postcards, vintage brooches, beads and buttons that are fun to rummage through.

Homespun Boutique — No town is complete without a high-end yarn store, and Homespun is definitely that store here. There’s a small selection of nice fabrics and lots of high-quality yarns and knitting supplies.

Petrune — Definitely the best vintage store in Ithaca. I’m biased because I used to work there, but the selection is great, the prices are decent and they also carry cute pieces from new labels like Tulle.

Blue Bird Antiques — Find great larger furniture pieces and also kitchen goods, knick-knacks and wall art at really reasonable prices. There’s also some estate jewelry and vintage clothing worth perusing.

Tuff Soul — This boutique is rooted in sustainable fashion, which takes the form of organic-cotton pieces, gently used designer items and vintage clothing. There’s also a sewing room on the lower level where you can get items hemmed and have custom and reconstructed pieces created.

Drink: The best places for coffees or cocktails.

Felicia’s Atomic Lounge — In a college town, it’s hard to find grown-up bars, but this one is perfect for the late twenties/early thirties artsy crowd. There’s a long list of specialty cocktails here plus a range of live music.

Mate Factor — This earthy cafe is run by the controversial Twelve Tribes group (deemed by some as a religious cult), but if that doesn’t bother you, sip a mug of super strong organic mate tea while you enjoy the decor that makes you feel as if you’re sitting in a tree house.

Ithaca Ale House — A step above the other sports bars in town, this sleek spot is the best place in Ithaca to sample artisanal beers from around the country. Check out live music on the weekends and nibble on jacked-up bar snacks like guacamole and Brie dip.

Bluestone Grill — The food here is nothing to write home about, but it is a fun place to sit at the bar for a drink. Their Moscow Mule is super refreshing and served in an antique copper mug.

Gimme! Coffee — Gimme! Coffee has a cult following, and Ithaca is the only place besides New York City where you can visit a Gimme! cafe. The baristas here are first rate — not just college kids hawking venti lattes — so you know you’ll get a great cup of joe.

Kilpatrick’s Publick House — A true Irish bar with hearty fare and a good selection of beer and whiskey.

The Old Teahouse — This is where I honed my taste for bubble tea. The hours are strange, and it can get busy, but I love to grab a taro tea with tapioca balls, sit on the comfy couches and catch up on my gossip magazines.

Pixel Lounge — One of the best places in Ithaca to get you’re groove on with DJs spinning almost every night. There’s an emphasis on hip-hop and underground electronic music, so don’t expect top 40 jams here. And if you don’t feel like dancing, there are couches to lounge in and old school video games to play.

Ithaca Coffee Company — Contrary to the name, this coffee shop doesn’t just sell excellent java, they also have artisanal bottled beers and fancy cheese and chocolate from around the world.

Korova — This bar has it all: great beer, good music and board games in the back. Even though it’s in the middle of college-bar central, this place is great for the twenty-something set.

Six Mile Creek Vineyard — You’ll have to venture out of town for most of the wineries in the area, but this one is just minutes from downtown. Stop by for a tasting to whet your whistle before heading out to the other Finger Lakes vineyards.

Stay: Bed and breakfasts and other places to rest your head.

William Henry Miller Inn — This beautiful old brick-and-ivy mansion is located right downtown. Not only do they offer breakfast in the morning, but there’s also a gratis dessert buffet served in the evening for a sweet treat before you retire to your room.

La Tourelle Resort and Spa — In a town full of bed and breakfasts, this is as close as you’re going to get to a resort in Ithaca. The setting is beautiful with lots of hiking and walking trails in the back, and it’s attached to the classy August Moon Spa, if you’re in need of a relaxing treatment, and the amazing Simply Red Bistro, if you want to eat your meals on site.

Inn on Columbia — If you like bed and breakfasts but prefer a room that’s not cluttered with antiques, this modern-feeling B&B is for you. Be sure to enjoy the gourmet breakfast, too!

The Statler Hotel — Cornell is well known for its hospitality school, and the Statler Hotel is where the students hone their skills, which makes for extra friendly and eager service. The rooms have recently been remodeled and are now much more modern than they used to be. And it doesn’t hurt that you’re staying on Cornell’s historic and pristine campus.

The Inn at City Lights — Offbeat antiques fill the rooms, and the backyard is dotted with wild flowers. There’s also a barn in the back full of vintage furniture and knick-knacks for sale.

Rogues Harbor Inn — This large townhouse right outside of Ithaca has a bustling local bar and a homey restaurant on the ground floor, plus nine cozy rooms upstairs and homemade breakfast each morning.

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  • I love design sponge and I am in agreement with many of your recommendations for places to eat and drink but honestly Ithaca is SO expensive! and not THAT nice . There are so many other friendlier and more reasonable places to visit. I wouldn’t recommend Ithaca to anyone. The food is great at Dewitt – but breakfast will cost you $15 at least and it is in a dingy basement- no sunlight- really- depressing- sorry. Even Moosewood café is in a semi basement – yuck. Gimme!coffee has the most sterile, laptop filled atmosphere with the rudest, slowest service I have ever encountered – but yes their coffee is very good. It is great to come here as a student and leave – but I do not recommend visiting/living/working here. Rental housing is unbelievably expensive and the old beautiful homes (from what I have seen over the years) have been totally trashed inside and renovated so poorly. I find the downtown to be super depressing with small businesses shutting down and the big box stores on highway 13 taking over. There are great cities (sort of) close by but Ithaca does not have a train – so you will be stuck on buses. The lake here is surrounded by highway with horrible pedestrian access. It is a totally segregated town – and yes the rich people live up on the hill- it is so embarrassing. I can’t stand it here – and yes I only live here part time and yes I am moving asap and cannot wait.

  • Yay! An Ithaca guide! Heading there tomorrow for a small vacation – and just thought I’d pop in to see if there was an Ithaca guide. So happy to find this!

    Love the new D*S layout and functionality, Grace!

  • Thanks for this wonderful guide! I live in Chicago now but grew up in Ithaca, and worked at the Solaz Burritos booth growing up (the Solaz Burrito man is my dad.) I love D*S, and I’ll be sending him this post. He’ll be thrilled that his burritos found their way onto this list.

    If anyone finds their way to the market, be sure to grab a burrito and say hello!

  • Check out Saigon Kitchen on State Street. The owner is friendly and always there during dinner, the food (especially the pho) is delicious, and the prices are cheap! It’s usually very crowded and they don’t take phone reservations, so plan on a 10-15 minute wait on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s worth it!

  • Oh, Ithaca, I love you so. I grew up there and loved reading this post! Restaurant list is spot on. Viva, Maxie’s and Cafe Dewitt are not to be missed. (One update tho, the Korova is now called Silky Jones.). I mention Ithaca often on my food blog http://meatsandsweets.net/

    Also, Cornell Dairy Bar on the Cornell Campus scoops ice cream made by staff and students from Cornell’s own dairy farm.

    Sheldon Hill, on the commons, is possibly the best (and most affordable) antique and vintage accessory shop in the world.

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