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Note: Cayuga County Tourism kindly hosted me for a long weekend in exchange for coverage. As always, all opinions are my own and it’s my main priority to write honestly about my experiences.
Despite living in close proximity to New York City for several years, I still haven’t explored New York State nearly as much as I should. Sure, I went to Sleepy Hollow for some pre-Halloween fun and loved all the spooky vibes, but other than that, my NYS experiences are limited. Which is a shame!
After all, New York State is so massive and has several unique regions and flourishing smaller cities, as well as rich history – especially surrounding both the Abolitionist and Women Rights Movements.
So, when I had the opportunity to visit Cayuga County in the Finger Lakes region, I jumped at the chance to experience something entirely new! And boy, was it wonderful.
Fun Things to Do in Auburn NY
In Cayuga County, I stayed in Auburn NY for two nights, which put me in a central location. For instance, popular Lake Cayuga was only a thirty minute drive (and what a beautiful drive it was…).
Not to mention, Auburn is so historically important in its own right. I mean, Harriet Tubman walked Auburn’s streets!
Honestly, I didn’t know much about this small city prior to my visit and was blown away at the end of my stay.
So, in this guide, I wanted to discuss all the fun things to do in Auburn NY to help you plan your next vacation to the Finger Lakes region. Solo travel in the Finger Lakes is just … awesome.
Admire Artists at Schweinfurth Art Center
Everyone knows how much I adore art museums. I mean, the Met in New York City is one of my favorite places in the entire world. So I was especially excited to check out Schweinfurth Art Center.
Renowned architect, Julius A. Schweinfurth, grew up in Auburn and in his will, set aside part of his trust to build an art center in his hometown. And I’m so glad that he did!
Today visitors come to Schweinfurth Art Center to enjoy three separate art exhibits, including the annual Made in NY exhibition. These exhibits rotate depending on the time of year, so make sure to check the website in advance.
On my own trip, I had the pleasure of seeing the Here/Hear exhibit by artist Hunter Quinn. This exhibit makes you think long and hard about the erasure of Black people in the “Liberal” North (Quinn’s work focuses on Detroit), as well as the failure to acknowledge enslaved women on Antebellum plantations. It was a haunting exhibit, but I’m grateful I had a chance to view it.
You can find Schweinfurth Art Center on 205 Genesee Street.
Dive into the Past at Cayuga Museum of History & Art
So, unsurprisingly thanks to my love of art exhibits, I could also literally spend hours in other museums, especially as a solo traveler (no worries about rushing to please your friends, haha).
And if you visit Schweinfurth Art Center, then you must walk next door to Cayuga Museum of History & Art – which was founded in 1936 in Theodore Case’s beautiful estate. The house’s exterior took my breath away.
Like Schweinfurth Art Center, Cayuga Museum has changing exhibitions, too, and all of them will take you back in time in Auburn.
On my visit here, I personally enjoyed the exhibits on Prohibition and the Criminal Justice System. As an English teacher, I love teaching The Great Gatsby, so the Prohibition Era fascinates me.
In the museum, you’re also able to learn about the 100 years history of the house itself aka the Willard-Case Mansion, which makes Cayuga Museum of History & Art one of the fun things to do in Auburn NY.
You can find the museum on 203 Genesee Street.
Drink Craft Beer at Prison City Pub & Brewery
The Finger Lakes region is incredibly well known for their locally grown wines. And don’t get me wrong. I love good wine.
However, did you know that this area also has a thriving craft beer scene? You ought to sample a variety of local craft beers at Prison City Pub & Brewery in Auburn.
Personally, I’m a fan of “hoppy” beers and really enjoyed their IPAs. You can also purchase canned beers “to go” at the restaurant.
Keep in mind that Prison City Pub & Brewery does not take reservations, and due to its popularity, you will want to show up early to get a table. As a solo traveler, I loved relaxing at the bar, snacking on fish and chips (highly recommend those), people-watching, and sharing stories with the bartender.
You can find Prison City Pub & Brewery at 28 State Street.
Day Trip to Cayuga Lake
In addition to its history, Auburn also provides an easy base for visiting the Finger Lakes stunning natural beauty. Like I already mentioned, Cayuga Lake is only a half hour drive away from downtown Auburn.
I suggest driving to the small town of Aurora to see the stunning lakeside views. Just the drive itself is one of the fun things to do in Auburn NY.
When you’re in town, Fargo Bar & Grill is a wonderful casual option to grab lunch in between snapping pictures of Lake Cayuga. Don’t skip their Loaded Tots with bacon, cheddar, green onions, and malt aioli if you’re not planning on counting calories. The seared tuna is another great (if not lighter) option for lunch.
In addition to stunning lakeside views, Aurora and Cayuga Lake also have historical ties to both the Abolitionist and Women’s Suffrage movements.
On your drive, you will want to stop at Howland Stone Store Museum and Opendore Project. These sites work together, and their small volunteer staff will ensure that you learn a great deal about the Howland family.
As a teacher, I loved learning about the women in the Howland family. For instance, Emily Howland was not only a leader in the women’s rights movement, but also founded over fifty schools for freed African Americans! Isabel Howland (Emily’s niece) was also a teacher and graduate of Cornell, and she founded Sherwood Library, Museum and Hospital.
In the Howland Stone Store Museum, you will see the items that the Howland woman collected on their own worldly travels. As a solo female traveler, I have so much to thank these intelligent and brave pioneers for.
Eat at a Classic Dinerant
As a Jersey Girl, I’m a huge fan of diner foods, especially for breakfast. Fresh diner coffee and eggs make me smile like crazy in the early morning hours.
In Auburn, Hunter’s Dinerant is a perfect spot to grab a classic diner-style breakfast. In addition to breakfast, if you crave something sweet, then I recommend trying their homemade pies and cakes. Delicious.
As a fun political fact, Joe Biden has visited this diner in the past, because it was owned by his late wife’s father. Seeing the framed newspaper clippings was pretty cool.
You can find Hunter’s Dinerant on 18 Genesee Street.
Explore NYS Equal Rights Heritage Center
At the core of Auburn’s downtown, you’ll find Auburn’s Welcome Center, also known as NYS Equal Rights Heritage Center. The center is 100% free for visitors to explore. The staff is very welcoming and eager to help you learn more about the region.
At the Welcome Center, take your time and read all about New York’s historical strides toward equality at the interactive displays. I loved seeing the political art and reading about the “movers and shakers” behind the Abolitionist and Women’s Rights Movements.
If you’re hungry, grab a snack at the Taste NY Market where only local products are sold to visitors. I got the nicest lip balm here!
And, last but certainly not least, don’t miss the the beautiful statue of Harriet Tubman in the courtyard. She’s seriously amazing.
For example, I parked at the garage right across the street, and the very first thing I saw stepping out of my car was a view of the courtyard (and Harriet Tubman) from above. Just seeing her statue made me so excited to be here! I’m sure Harriet Tubman’s likeness will evoke similar feelings within you, too.
Follow the Sweet Treat Trail
Okay, so, it’s no secret that I have a wicked sweet tooth. I always need to have chocolate in my apartment, or otherwise I transform into a Grade A Grouch.
Luckily for me, the Sweet Treat Trail is a big part of visiting Cayuga County. You’ll discover many of these sweet treats right here in Auburn.
I personally loved Gretchen’s Confections. This small chocolate shop is exquisite, displaying several homemade speciality chocolates, and I purchased a couple pieces of The Tubman aka dark chocolate with a mouth-watering layer of honey caramel and white chocolate malted milk ganache.
In addition, I love New Hope Mills for breakfast. I had banana pancakes with chocolate syrup, but if you come for lunch, you ought to try the Strawberry Mint Milkshake created in honor of Tubman.
Your stomach will seriously fall in love in Auburn NY. No doubt about it, haha.
Kayak on Owasco Lake
Obviously, the best attractions in the Finger Lakes region are in the Great Outdoors, and Auburn is no exception! One of the most fun things to do in Auburn NY is to kayak on Owasco Lake, especially on a sunny afternoon with a gentle breeze.
I am not a fitness guru or boating expert, but let me tell you, kayaking on Owasco Lake was one of the loveliest travel experiences I’ve had in a long time.
If you don’t have your own boat, then I recommend renting one at Owasco Paddles and then kayaking along the lake’s perimeter. I personally loved checking out all the lakeside cabins and watching the ducks gracefully float along the top of the water. Owasco Paddles has reasonable hour rates and a very helpful staff too!
Lastly, I know you don’t want to think about dieting, but Owasco Paddles will help you burn off the Sweet Trail’s calories.
Of course, if you’re feeling hungry again, then take a quick drive over to Seb’s Green Shutters for a hearty and filling lunch. The buffalo chicken on my mixed salad was perfection.
Learn All About Harriet Tubman’s Legacy
Harriet Tubman is an American saint. This incredibly brave, kind, and intelligent woman also made Auburn NY her home. You can’t visit Auburn and not learn about the brilliant contributions that Tubman made in our history.
In Auburn, a few tours are available to help give meaning to the many Harriet Tubman sites around you.
One suggestion is to take a quick drive to The Harriet Tubman Home at designated times (10:00 and 2:00 Tuesday-Saturday at the time of this posting) to learn all about Harriet Tubman’s life and accomplishments.
As part of Harriet Tubman National Historical Park, a park ranger will give meaning to sites around you.
You can’t go inside the Harriet Tubman home. However, seeing the home’s exterior (and placing your hand on the outside wall) is powerful due to Tubman’s impact in the United States.
Another recommended site is AME Zion Church – which is currently under restoration, but is still wonderful to see from the outside. This was Harriet Tubman’s church, where she felt at home, and her funeral was even held here in 1913.
Last but not least, you want to visit Fort Hill Cemetery to see Harriet Tubman’s final resting place. The cemetery is located across the street from AME Zion Church. At Tubman’s grave, you’ll see many people leave her flowers, gifts, and other tributes. To say this experience is heart-warming would be an understatement.
Support the Arts at Cafe 108
I’m very passionate about the arts. I was in choir all throughout high school, which gave me a strong circle of friends and a love of Broadway musicals, and so it’s no surprise that I do whatever I can to support the arts on my adventures around the world.
And in Auburn, you’ll discover many ways to support the local theater scene. One (delicious) way to spend your money is at Cafe 108 in downtown Auburn. Cafe 108 was established as a community space for enjoying sustainable and healthy meals. I personally loved the pork sliders and salad. They were “melt in your mouth” good.
The best part about dining at Cafe 108 is that every dollar spent goes to support APT or Auburn Public Theater. As a traveler, it’s always important to know where exactly your money is going, and supporting the local community is always for the best.
You can find Cafe 108 on 108 Genesee Street.
See a Show at Merry-Go-Round Playhouse
Furthermore, if you’re passionate about theater and your schedule works, then you ought to see a performance at Merry-Go-Round Playhouse. This venue is inside a building that used to function as a carousel, making it a very unique spot to watch a play.
The summer season shows are very high quality. I personally attended a spectacular performance of Catch Me if You Can and had the best time! The costumes, singing, props, lightening, absolutely everything was perfect.
Merry-Go-Round Playhouse is known as “The Broadway of the Finger Lakes,” and I agree! As someone who goes to Broadway a lot, this performance was the same mind-blowing caliber.
And, obviously, it’s always a good idea to pair a show with a dinner, right? My recommendation is Osteria Salina, which is a fine Italian restaurant right in Auburn. Their filet mignon is to die for.
Visit the Seward House Museum
Last but not least, you really should visit the Seward House Museum in Auburn NY. William Henry Seward was a very prominent politician in United States history. I personally remember his purchase of Alaska, haha, but Seward and his family have contributed much more than buying a brand new state.
For example, William H. Seward was morally opposed to slavery. However, his wife, Frances was an abolitionist who deeply believed in emancipation of all enslaved people. Frances was also a support of the Women’s Rights Movement, and offered her kitchen as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Guided tours at the Seward House Museum are one of the best things to do in Auburn NY. These guided tours occur on the hour, and without a doubt, are the best way to learn about the history of the Seward Family.
On my own tour, the guides were knowledgeable and welcoming, and really made this prominent family come to life. Even though the rooms are beautiful, the tours taught you the history behind each space, and just made the overall visit so much more impactful. For example, I loved learning about the tragic history and artistic choices behind the stunning portrait of Fanny Seward.
You can find Seward House Museum on 33 South Street.
Where to Stay in Auburn NY
Auburn is a small city with plenty of accommodation to choose from. To enjoy all the fun things to do in Auburn NY, you will need a good base to rest your head at night.
On my visit, I stayed at Holiday Inn Auburn-Finger Lakes Region, which worked fine for my trip!
At the Holiday Inn, the rooms were spacious and clean and quiet, and if you’re so inclined, bring a bathing suit to swim in their indoor pool. Apparently the burger restaurant on site also has good food, but sadly I didn’t have a chance to eat there!
Keep in mind, though, if you’re visiting at the height of Wedding Season, you will want to book your room well in advance!
You can find Holiday Inn Auburn-Finger Lakes Region on 75 North Street.
I hope you enjoyed reading about all the fun things to do in Auburn NY! What would you like to experience most in Auburn? Share with me!