Ithaca hangs from the tip of Cayuga like a wedding ring just before it’s been slipped over the longest of New York’s Finger Lakes.
There are actually two Ithacas, the city and the town. The City of Ithaca lives mostly in the center of the town, which is a larger, less populated area of farmland and a rolling hills hugging its smaller-in-size city sister and her much larger population. We approached the city from the East via New York Route 79, an up and down toboggan ride of a jaunt through the small towns and patchwork farms that make up most of the Finger Lakes region. Traffic will bring you to a standstill regardless of the time of day you choose to enter the city from this direction, about two blocks of long waits to get in or out of town. The good news though? Once you’re in Ithaca, you can park your car and let your feet push the pavement for the rest of your stay.
Nearly all of the City of Ithaca is completely flat. Bicycles zip along dedicated lanes, pedestrians gait under canopied streets, and speed humps and raised intersections keep the city’s motorized vehicle population to a nice slow pace. The first thing that strikes you about Ithaca are the houses: massive pillars on Greek Revival style houses hover regally between Federal and Gothic structures reminiscent of Pittsburgh, PA or Portland, OR. They’re all tucked neatly one nearly up against the next, in various states of colorful disarray, from those run down and less kept abodes with peeling paint and some nearly completely covered in ivy to others fantastically painted like a scene from Joseph and The Amazing Technicolored Dreamcoat.
Home of Cornell University, Ithaca has a liberal slant, as many college towns tend to lean. Dreadlocks and farmer’s markets abound. Local beers are found standing proud in nearly every establishment. The gay and lesbian population is more than twice as evident here as found in the average American city. In the Commons, a two block span of pedestrian only brick walkway, hippies and the homeless exchange their daily tales in front of smoke shops while dads’ tote their infants around in baby backpacks. Businessers on lunch meetings are seated at tables next to college kids between classes in abundant outdoor seating areas. The smell of local coffee is hard to escape and music fills the Commons around 7 o’clock most summer nights. At $10 or more a pack in New York, smokers are a rarity. Nearly everyone looks fit and trim, and for good reason: the city itself is begging you to walk, not drive, and Cayuga Lake is a playground full of kayakers, paddleboarders and hikers exploring the hills and forests the lake wears like an afro on their way to abundant waterfalls and swimming holes in the area.
We tuck into the small domicile we’ve secured via a house swap—where you trade your own home with someone else for a week or so in an attempt to get a change of scenery and not pay a dime for accommodations—where the owners have left us a cavalcade of brochures of things to do in the city. This is our third time to Ithaca in two years, and it’s a small city, but looking at the coffee table spread out with what seems to be the complete Encyclopedia Britannica’s worth of tourism brochures, we’ll have no trouble over the next week finding some type of new adventure to call our own.