Finger Lakes

Explore Wine Country and beyond on a Finger Lakes road trip. (Photo: Getty Images)

Road Trips

Plan a Scenic Road Trip to New York’s Finger Lakes

Explore Wine Country and beyond on a Finger Lakes road trip. (Photo: Getty Images)

We know: New York City is expensive. Sure, it’s got a seemingly endless array of cultural activities, but the price tag for a Big Apple vacation is cost-prohibitive for many travelers. If you’re among the budget-conscious, don’t worry.

There’s plenty to explore beyond the city in this massive state — and at a price point that gives you more bang for your buck. One option? The state’s gorgeous Finger Lakes region.

Here’s a Finger Lakes road-trip plan that won’t put a major dent in your wallet.

Start: Watkins Glen

Distance from NYC: 255 miles
From NYC you’ll make the drive north to the town of Watkins Glen, which sits on Seneca Lake and is surrounded on each side by vineyards and wineries, many of which are family-friendly (play areas and grape juice tastings for kids).

The town’s activities and attractions — both on and off the water — make it an ideal weekend or even weeklong vacation destination. It’s famous, especially among car racing fans, for its international racetrack. Established in 1948, it’s the only New York State NASCAR Sprint Cup site and has served as a Formula 1 track, as well.

Upon arriving, take a stroll along the main drag, N. Franklin Street, a fun place to walk around for an afternoon, window shop, snack and sample local microbrews. Rooster Fish Brewing pulls pints of ale, and its on-site restaurant specializes in a variety of grilled-cheese sandwiches; they make for a perfect combination.

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Hike to the falls and pools in Watkins Glen. (Photo: Getty Images)

The Colonial Pottery & Creamery is a hub where locals and visitors alike jostle amiably for space while they wait on line to order small-batch ice cream (vegan options are available), with traditional and unusual flavors, like banana chip or piña colada. Kids get a kick out of looking at the creamery’s working beehive, and adults may want to pick up a hand-thrown pot as a souvenir from the pottery.

Plan a visit to Watkins Glen State Park, home to beautiful glacial-carved canyons and waterfalls (and easily accessible from the town’s main street), and Watkins Glen International, the race track where NASCAR races are held. At the track, visitors can “Drive the Glen,” taking the 3.4-mile Grand Prix circuit in their own cars, speeding behind a pace vehicle, for just $25.

On a true shoestring budget? No worries! The town has a DIY driving map of the old Grand Prix Circuit, which you can view and download here. Once you’ve returned to Main Street, celebrate your championship status by indulging in some ice cream at one of several scoop shops on the main strip.

Stop 1: Corning

Distance from Watkins Glen: 21 miles

Just 30 minutes from Watkins Glen is the charming town of Corning, whose name may be familiar to you because of Corning glass, a fixture in practically every American kitchen.

Indeed, not only is Corning considered America’s capital of glass, it’s also home to the world’s largest glass museum, which can easily keep you occupied for an entire day. Between extensive exhibits and compelling live demonstrations, as well as affordable glass-blowing classes for all ages, the museum is a must-visit in the Finger Lakes.

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Don’t underestimate the amount of time you’ll want to spend at Corning’s glass museum. (Photo: Getty Images)

Maximize the value of your visit to Corning by purchasing a combination ticket that allows you discounted entrance to the Corning Museum of Glass and The Rockwell Museum. While its name may evoke images of Normal Rockwell paintings, it actually refers to the museum’s benefactors, who were avid collectors of art from the western United States.

The museum emphasizes family-friendly activities, and kids receive a backpack for a scavenger-hunt-type activity upon arrival. A shuttle runs between the Corning and Rockwell museums, and both are ideal for all ages. (Bonus? Kids 17 and under are always free at The Rockwell).

Stop 2: Elmira

Distance from Corning: 20 miles

From Corning, take a 25-minute jaunt east to Elmira, a tiny town that will be especially rewarding to Mark Twain fans. The writer’s studio sits on the campus of Elmira College and is open to the public at no cost. Nearby, in the town’s Elmira Cemetery, is the writer’s grave, adorned with coins and cigars (the writer was known to smoke two dozen or more cigars a day).

Stop 3: Wine Country

Distance from Elmira: 23-36 miles (depending on stops)

Unless you’re a teetotaler, you can’t visit the Finger Lakes without indulging in the region’s primary product: wine. Numerous varieties are produced here, from rieslings to pinots and everything in between.

Many of the region’s wineries offer free tastings if you show up on your own; those that charge impose a nominal fee. Several wineries have designated play spots for kids if you’ve got little ones in tow. And others, including Glenora Vineyards, have on-site restaurants.

While Glenora’s Veraisons Restaurant may be a bit of a splurge, it’s worth every cent. Plus, if you have kids you can send them out to the grass to play Frisbee golf while you sip local wines and indulge in haute dishes.

Even vegetarians and vegans are catered to here with dishes like orange cauliflower with soba noodles, Napa cabbage, asparagus, ginger carrots, broccoli and spiced cashews, paired with a local gewürztraminer.

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Revel in an evening meal — with locally sourced wine — in Ithaca. (Photo: Getty Images)

End: Ithaca

Distance from Wine Country: 24 miles

Wrap up your sojourn in the Finger Lakes with a stop in Ithaca, which, as local bumper stickers proclaim, is “gorges.” The play on words refers to the canyons and waterfalls that dot the area and make for plenty of outdoor adventure and photogenic fun.

Itahca is also a college town full of museums, cultural attractions, boutiques and trendy restaurants. Crunched for time? Focus on the city’s downtown, where you can browse and shop in the co-op bookstore, Buffalo Street Books, and eat at the legendary vegetarian restaurant Moosewood.