The Best River Towns in America: Ithaca, New York

This isn't your classic river town; it's situated on the shores of the Cayuga Lake

Cayuga Lake, New York.     Photo: Stephen Simpson/Corbis

The Stats

Ithaca, New York
Population: 30,014
Median Age: 22
Median Annual Salary: $30,919
Median Home Price: $197,000
Unemployment Rate: 7.2 percent
Votes Received: 1 percent

Ithaca isn’t your classic river town. It’s on the shores of 40-mile-long, 400-foot-deep Cayuga Lake, after all. But all that water is replenished by nine creeks, which create hundreds of waterfalls and geologically stunning gorges along the city’s front stoop—something readers consistently pointed out. “I can carry my kayak half a block from my house, put it into Cascadilla Creek, and head out to Cayuga Lake,” says resident Cat Holmes. There’s also readily accessible kiteboarding, fishing, cliff jumping, road cycling, backpacking, and cross-country skiing. “Shindagin Hollow State Forest is the reason Ithaca is one of the top-five mountain-biking towns in the country,” notes attorney Dick Ruswick. Vineyards and orchards abut organic farms. One hundred and fifty of the vendors at the farmers’ market, on the shores of Cayuga Lake, are from within 30 miles of town. Breweries like the new Bandwagon Brewpub and the Ithaca Beer Company pump out local favorites like High Step Weizenbock, which “won the New York State gold medal this year,” points out Jenny Emerson, a fourth-grade teacher in the Ithaca City School District. While the vibe can be crunchy (“Mate herbal tea is the dominant religious group,” says local Dan Hersky), the place is full of arts, theater, and highly educated individuals, thanks to the two universities that face off above town: Ithaca College and Cornell University, which locals claim is the most beautiful Ivy League campus. Winters can be tough, and so can the job prospects, unless you work in academia. But the appeal of living in the city can be life changing, as longtime resident Nancy Lazarus can attest: “I came to visit friends in Ithaca in 1974. I’ve lived here since.”

BEST NEW TRAILS: “The community is working to establish an Emerald Necklace that would encircle Ithaca with preserved land,” says Ruswick. “For bikers, the Black Diamond trail is scheduled to open this year between Ithaca and Taughannock Falls park, 10 miles away, and more extensions are planned.” Also, the last section of the multiuse Waterfront Trail, connecting Cass Park to Stewart Park via the farmers’ market, should be open soon.

ON THE TOWN: “If music is your thing, bring your lawn chairs and blankets to the outdoor summer concerts at Taughannock Falls State Park,” says Christine Peterson, a veterinary technician at Cornell.

WHAT YOU GET FOR $10: One Ithaca Hour, a local currency developed in 1991 by residents to help keep money in the local economy. Today there are an estimated $150,000 worth of Hours in circulation, redeemable for goods and services at dozens of local businesses.

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