Blake Walsh

15 Best Things to Do in Tompkins County, NY

  • Published 2022/10/30

Stunning waterfalls, panoramic landscapes, and magnificent nature locations are all waiting for you at Tompkins County.

This county is located in New York’s Central Finger Lakes Region, with over 100,000 residents, according to the 2020 census.

It was named in honor of Daniel D. Tompkins, who served as the state’s Governor and later as Vice President of the United States.

The county also comprises the villages Cayuga Heights, Lansing, Groton, Dryden, Trumansburg, and Freeville, along with hamlets namely the Caroline Center, Enfield Center, Etna, and Podunk.

Visit any of the county’s 150 waterfalls and see four state parks in the area.

Aside from various outdoor attractions, you can find several museums, art galleries, cultural stops, and theaters in the county.

Get ready to explore and enjoy the best things to do in Tompkins County.

Enjoy the Great Outdoors at Taughannock Falls State Park

Scenic view of Taughannock Falls State Park

Felix Lipov /

Taughannock Falls State Park is one of the county’s scenic falls in the town of Ulysses, near Trumansburg.

The falls is hailed as the tallest free-falling waterfall with a 400-foot gorge and a 215-foot plunge, making it 33 feet higher than Niagara Falls.

Enjoy majestic views from the Falls Overlook, which creates a natural amphitheater made of shale, sandstone, and limestone layers.

Lower fall at Taughannock Falls State Park


Afterward, hike down the Gorge Trail to take photos of more scenic views of the falls.

You can also take a moderate-level hike at the North and South Rim Trails, which open from April to October.

The spring season offers scenery of beautiful wildflowers on all of the trails.

People enjoying the sight of the majestic Taughannock Falls

Jim Vallee /

Spot various woodland birds among the hemlock forests perched on surrounding hardwood like striped maple, white oak, and sugar maple at the Taughannock ravine.

Enjoy swimming in the waters of Cayuga Lake.

If you prefer a quieter shoreline with a lovely lake view, you can head off to the North Point area.

Lawn at Taughannock Falls State Park

Steve Cukrov /

The marina’s shoreline at the state park is also a great fishing spot with plenty of trout, Atlantic salmon, and yellow perch to catch; you can also rent a boat if you want to go further down the lake.

Seasonal deer hunting with a bow is allowed in designated park areas with a proper state hunting license and hunting stamps.

You can also enjoy winter activities at Taughannock Falls State Park, including cross-country skiing, sledding, and ice skating.

Entrance to Taughannock Falls State Park

Steve Cukrov /

Browse Art Collections at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art

Exterior view of Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art

Lewis Liu /

Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art is found inside the Cornell University campus in Ithaca.

The museum opened in 1973 and was designed by I.M. Pei & Partners.

It got its name from Herbert F. Johnson, a benefactor, graduate, and trustee of Cornell University.

You can view over 40,000 works from different millennia and various cultural art forms at the museum for free.

Among the museum’s highlights are the Asian Art collections, with more than 23,000 photographs, prints, paintings, and drawings from the 15th century to the present.

Archway at Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art

The original uploader was Xtreambar at English Wikipedia., CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Appreciate ancient and modern European art, pre-Columbian ceramic and sculpture pieces, unique African sculptures and textiles, and modern paintings and sculptures by contemporary artists.

Browse through the Decorative Arts collection, which also features over 200 hundred Tiffany glass works like lamps, candleholders, and more.

Moreover, visit the Mixed Media with lines of contemporary works made on non-traditional materials and the Public Sculpture you can see around the campus.

You’ll surely enjoy fascinating art at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art.

See the Colorful Blooms at Cornell Botanic Gardens

Walking trail at Cornell Botanic Gardens

JWCohen /

Cornell Botanic Gardens is located in Ithaca and offers a relaxing view of amazing flora and flower gardens.

You can first visit the Nevin Welcome Center and see various works of art and displays on different plant life and species.

Afterward, visit the 100-acre F. R. Newman Arboretum, voted as the most beautiful college arboretum and famous for its nine tree collections, including oaks, maples, dogwoods, and more.

Autumn trees at Cornell Botanic Gardens

JWCohen /

Stroll the Floriculture War Memorial Trail with boggy areas; the Treman Woodland Walk with detailed scales, hemlock shades, and a streamside garden; and the Sculpture Garden with concrete sculptures on display.

Don’t miss Jackson Grove, where you’ll see the Dorothy Hemp Hill Magnolia Collection; the Schnee Oak Collection with over 50 oak species, hybrids, and cultivars; and the Newman Overlook with its impressive view of the vast arboretum.

Scenic view of Cornell Botanic Gardens

Bimala Rai Colavito, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

At Cornell Botanic Gardens, some of the spectacular gardens you can visit and enjoy are the North Walk which features perennial plants native to North, Central, and South America.

You’ll also find more than 500 herb varieties at the Robison Herb Garden and over a hundred varieties of rhododendrons at the Comstock Knoll and Rhododendron Collection

Finally, enjoy the view of Kienzle Overlook with plenty of perennials, dwarf conifers, and small flowering trees.

Camp out at Buttermilk Falls State Park

Trail along the Buttermilk Falls State Park

Debora Truax /

Buttermilk Falls State Park is among the well-visited waterfalls and state parks in Tompkins County.

You’ll find this 811-acre state park in Ithaca offering rustic camping sites, seven comfortable lodge cabins, and amenities you’ll enjoy with the family.

The park got its name from the foaming water formed by the flowing waters from the creek toward Cayuga Lake.

Falls at Buttermilk Falls State Park

JWCohen /

You can join a summer guided walk or recreation program and enjoy swimming at the foot of the falls during the open season.

Hike the trails through the woodlands and along the rim and gorge areas, playing fields, and picnic areas; you’ll finally reach Larch Meadows, a wetland where the trail winds.

The park has a pavilion for rent that can accommodate a large group of people, playgrounds for little ones, a fishing and swimming beach area, and a designated deer hunting area exclusive to bow hunting.

Have an enjoyable camping experience at Buttermilk Falls State Park.

Stairs along the trail at Buttermilk Falls State Park

Cory Seamer /

Watch Stage Performances by the Kitchen Theatre Company

The Kitchen Theatre Company is the first theater company in the city to have its own space.

It was created in 1991 as a place where young artists can hone their acting talents and skills, led by Tauber and Tim O’Brien, who championed change ideals.

For over 30 years, the company has produced more than 200 plays, which include 34 world premiers by Adam Bock, Tanya Barfield, and Darian Dauchan, among others.

The Ithaca Times hailed the theater as “Ithaca’s Best Cultural Asset” in 2018 and 2019.

Catch thought-provoking and excellent stage plays at the 90-seat performance venue from Wednesday to Saturday evenings.

You’ll surely appreciate the Kitchen Theatre Company a round of applause for its great stage productions.

Discover Natural History at the Museum of the Earth

Bronze statue at the entrance of Museum of the Earth

Paleontological Research Institution, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Museum of the Earthwas established in 2003 by the Paleontological Research Institution, providing visitors with an opportunity to learn about natural history through various displays and interactive science and art exhibitions.

Step inside the 8,000-square-foot museum and go back through four billion years of history from planet Earth’s origin to our modern world.

Explore the institution’s extensive permanent collection of ring fossils, with over seven million specimens, also considered the largest in the country.

Exterior view of Museum of the Earth

Sheryl Sinkow/Paleontological Research Institution, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Learn about the North Atlantic Right Whale and its habitat and see the mural by Barbara Page named “Rock of Ages, Sands of Time,” which presents millions of years of geological history.

Your little ones will be fascinated to see Steggy, the life-sized Stegosaurus paper mache model built in 1904, and Amelia, the 36-foot Quetzalcoatlus model named after Amelia Earhart.

You’ll also see the world’s largest heteromorph ammonites from the Cretaceous era excavated from a suburban home in Dutchess County, New York.

Before you leave the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, don’t forget to drop by the Gift Shop for some plush items, books, and apparel.

Learn about Tompkins County’s History at The History Center

The History Center is situated inside the Tompkins Center for History & Culture in Ithaca’s Gayogohó:nǫˀ Territory.

See the state-of-the-art museum at the Exhibit Hall, which features Tompkins County and the Finger Lakes region’s history with interactive displays and an extensive archive.

Watch the video presentation of the myth on the creation of the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ and the Indigenous people that lived in the ancestral lands of early Tompkins County.

The center’s main attraction is the Tommy Plane permanent exhibit—the aircraft is 104 years old and a Thomas Morse Scout S4-B, manufactured in 1918 by the Thomas Morse Aviation Corporation.

The History Center also offers books on sale, perfect for those interested in local history.

Shop for Various Goods at Ithaca Farmers Market

Entrance to Ithaca Farmers Market

Jing Xiao /

You’ll find an array of fresh goods and produce at Ithaca Farmers Market on Steamboat Landing in Ithaca.

The market is run by more than 130 members of the cooperative, offering homegrown produce and handcrafted items.

It’s available to the public every Saturday from April to December and every Sunday from May to November; the market also operates outside Triphammer Marketplace during winter.

You’ll have plenty of options here, from agricultural products to food and artisan wares.

People shopping at Ithaca Farmers Market

JWCohen /

Pick a variety of baked goods, beverages, or take-out entrées, get free-range eggs, cheese, and meats, or buy fine art and crafts you might like.

Join the Annual International Rutabaga Curl held every last Saturday of the outdoor market season to see fun rutabaga games, contests, and traditions.

If you visit Ithaca Farmers Market during August, you’ll also catch the annual Ithaca Artist Market with over 80 regional fine and functional artists showcasing their works.

Art organizations and food, wine, and beer vendors also grace the event.

Food available at Ithaca Farmers Market

Scott Chimber Photography /

Bring the Kids to the Sciencenter

Sciencenter is located inIthaca and offers interactive and fun science activities for kids of all ages.

Little ones can enjoy exploring while learning at the Curiosity Corner, which includes an infant area, activity table, water table, and wood and foam building blocks at the outdoor playground, all built for learning play.

Let them become a veterinarian for a day in an immersive setting with real animal x-rays and weighing scales for plastic animals; they can also help mend an animal’s broken leg or help clean stuffed animals at the grooming station.

Take them to the Saltonstall Animal Room to learn about unique habitats according to animal classifications.

With its hosts of activities for the kids, the Sciencenter makes for a fun family destination.

Trek the Trails at Cayuga Nature Center

View of Cayuga Nature Center

Paleontological Research Institution, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cayuga Nature Center, located on Taughannock Boulevard in Ithaca, is a 100-acre woodland and field that offers programs and exhibits about Cayuga Lake Basin’s natural history.

It was established in 1981 to provide nature education through youth summer camps and later merged with Paleontological Research Institution with expansion to its programs and exhibits.

Drop by the main lodge and marvel at Finger Lake’s largest public aquarium and exhibits featuring the region’s forest ecology, climate, and wildlife.

You’ll see the lovely six-story treehouse, scenic gorge, waterfall, and more than 5 miles of natural walking trails.

Exterior view of the lodge at Cayuga Nature Center

Rob Ross/Paleontological Research Institution, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

You’ll also discover the White Trillium, one of the plants preserved in the Smith Woods trail area.

Meet the animals at the center, like Oakley, the Great Horned Owl, Banshee, the Grey Fox, Ichabod, the Turkey Vulture, and many more.

Learn about their unique features and natural habitats.

Explore the rich flora and fauna at Cayuga Nature Center.

Enjoy Wine Tasting at Bet the Farm Winery

Tompkins County teems with excellent wineries, and among them is Bet the Farm Winery.

Book an appointment and set up a wine-tasting session here with your family and friends.

On your visit, you’ll see the vast vineyard area and the Big Blue Barn, which houses their Tasting Room.

You can choose four wines with bites of local cheese, crackers, and sausages or try five wines from their wine selection of whites and reds.

Some of their crafted wine flavors include the Dry Rose’ of Gamay, Waterfall, Gamay Noir, and Lemberger.

You can find Bet the Farm Wines in Trumansburg.

Discover Bird Species at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Interior view of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Yerpo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca gives you a unique opportunity to see and learn about various bird species through indoor and outdoor activities.

Get a map at the Visitor Center, join a guided walk, and tour around the Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary, the 230-acre nature preserve that’s equally beautiful in any season.

Trek the four-mile trails and head out to the forest, wide fields, wetlands, and pond areas to sight birds and enjoy the natural surroundings.

You can also join the Weekly Bird Walks and see the egg cairn made by renowned artist Andy Goldsworthy.

At the Visitor Center, you can also enjoy great views of the Sapsucker Woods pond from the observatory.

Enjoy Family Outdoor Activities at Danby State Forest

Danby State Foreststraddles the Town of Danby in Tompkins County and the Towns of Candor and Spencer in Tioga County.

The 7,729-acre state forest is open for the whole year with free admission to the public.

Its vast area makes it a good location for plenty of outdoor activities you’ll enjoy.

Go nature-tripping and see the scenic landscapes of streams, ravines, and forests, particularly the Michigan Hollow, which is exceptionally beautiful during the fall season.

See Diane’s Crossing along Michigan Hollow Creek, or take the Abbott Loop to head west of the forest area towards Thatcher’s Pinnacle, where you’ll catch a stunning view of the glacier valley.

Visitors can also enjoy cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling during the winter months at Danby State Forest.

Visit the Historic A.D. White House

Entrance to A.D. White House

Alex Sergeev, ( Originally uploaded by en:User:Cornell010, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A.D. White House is the historic residence of Cornell University’s first president and co-founder, Andrew Dickson White.

The house was built in 1871 and sits on Presidents Drive, inside the Cornell University campus in Ithaca.

It presently houses Cornell University Society for the Humanities and is used for fellowship programs, seminars, university lectures, and even wedding receptions and dinners.

During summer, it hosts the internationally renowned School of Criticism and Theory.

If you love classic architecture, you’ll appreciate this structure’s High Victorian Gothic design.

The interiors are equally amazing, with intricate designs, old-fashioned woodwork, and stone carvings.

There’s also a carriage house converted to a student lounge called the Big Red Barn.

The A.D. White House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

Other Things To Do Nearby

Have Loads of Exciting Fun at the Outdoor Adventure Center

For some thrilling adventure with the family, go to the Outdoor Adventure Center at Greek Peak Mountain Resort in Cortland County.

Here, you’ll enjoy adrenaline-pumping excitement and action with different adventure activities.

Ride the gravity-fed Mountain Coaster, go on the Guided Zip Line Tour, or try the High Aerial Challenge Course.

Little ones can jump around at the Little Adventurers Playland featuring a Bounce House.

You can also rent mountain bikes and zoom your way for a trail ride.

You’ll enjoy cross-country skiing or snowshoeing at Outdoor Adventure Center during winter months.

Final Thoughts

Tompkins, New York, is famous for its scenic waterfall attractions and panoramic nature reserves.

The county’s unique landscape offers visitors endless opportunities for outdoor activities.

But more than that, the county also offers more laidback attractions like art galleries, museums, and entertainment spots you can enjoy with your family.

Discover more and try the best things to do in Tompkins County, New York.

© All rights reserved.