When in downtown Rochester , it’s easy to forget that Lake Ontario is less than 15 minutes away. But indeed, north of the city along Lake Avenue, you’ll soon find a land of wide open spaces, beaches, and parks.
Just before reaching the lake, you’ll pass the 1822 Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse (70 Lighthouse St., at Lake Ave. and Latta Rd., 585/621-6179, 1–5 p.m. Sat.–Sun. May–Oct., adults $2, children under 12 free), now a small museum with exhibits tracing the history of lighthouses and lake transportation. Originally, the lighthouse stood on the lakeshore, but sand deposits have moved it inland.
On the shores of Lake Ontario runs the Ontario Beach Park (Lake and Beach Aves., 585/256-4950), a half-mile-long beach with an aging art deco bathhouse and weathered fishing pier illuminated on summer nights. Around the turn of the century, the park was the “Coney Island of the West,” attracting tens of thousands of Rochesterians to its elephant shows, water slides, and beachfront hotels.
Harking back to those heady days is the park’s still-operating 1905 Dentzel menagerie carousel, one of the oldest carousels in the United States. Stop by the locally famous Abbotts Custard, at the park’s entrance, for sweet, creamy ice cream.
In 1888, Frederick Law Olmsted designed Highland Park (585/256-4950, 24 hours/day), a planned arboretum bounded by Mt. Hope, Highland, and Elm Avenues, and Goodman Street. One of the city’s biggest celebrations, the Lilac Festival, takes place here every May, when the park’s 1,200 lilac bushes bloom.
But lilacs are just the beginning. From early spring through late fall, Highland offers a riotous delight of fragrant Japanese maples, sweet-smelling magnolias, dazzling spring bulbs, delicate wildflowers, and 700 varieties of rhododendrons, azaleas, and mountain laurel.
In the center of the park reigns the 1911 Lamberton Conservatory (180 Reservoir Ave.). Under the main dome grows a tropical forest, while other rooms contain orchid collections, banana trees, cacti, and house plants. Across from the conservatory is the 1898 Frederick Douglass statue, the first public statue erected to honor an African American.
North of the downtown, along the Genesee River, runs the long, skinny Seneca Park and Zoo (2222 St. Paul St., a quarter mile north of Rte. 104, 585/266-6846, www.senecaparkzoo.org , 10 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, adults $9, seniors $8, children ages 3–11 $6, reduced hours and rates in winter).
About 500 animals from nearly 200 species live in the zoo, including polar bears, a Siberian tiger, and reindeer. Don’t miss the aviary, where brightly colored tropical birds fly about free. Younger kids will enjoy the barnyard petting area.