One of the most famous sights in the world, the Niagara Falls are a quick trip upriver from Buffalo. They’re not the biggest or most powerful waterfall in the world, but they’re easy to reach and very easy to get up close and personal with. Once you venture underneath the falls on the famous Maid of the Mist boat ride (716/284-8897, $18), or even stand on the brink at Prospect Park or Goat Island, you won’t soon forget the awesome force of the water tumbling in twin torrents. One is 167 feet; the other is 176 feet.
Much to the despair of the tourism authorities on the U.S. side, where the surprisingly postindustrial town has long suffered from economic decline, the best views are across a bridge on the Canadian side, where all the major hotels join the Las Vegas-scale Fallsview Casino Resort (888/325-5788, $165 and up) among a barrage of wax museums, water parks, and a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum, fronted by a 25-foot statue of King Kong.
There’s plenty of culture in the sprawling Genesee River manufacturing center of Rochester (pop. 208,880), and the best of it is of the vernacular variety, making the 25-mile detour off US-20 well worth your time and effort. With impressive High Falls, a mini Niagara right at the center of town; numerous historic sights (the Erie Canal passed right through Rochester, and Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass both lived here for many years); and an expansive Lake Ontario shoreline boasting long beaches, Rochester is a fine example of how much fun one can have in a smaller U.S. city. The best road trip-worthy attraction is historic Seabreeze Amusement Park (585/323-1900, around $30), which sits on the Lake Ontario shore, complete with the ancient wooden Jack Rabbit roller coaster, the third oldest operating in the USA, and a fun water park.
Start your visit with the vast holdings of the Americana-rich Strong National Museum of Play (585/263-2700, daily, $14.50), clearly marked off I-490 downtown. This impressive collection includes Victorian-era toys, appliances, dolls, perfume bottles, marbles, salt-and-pepper shakers, and classic board games. It’s a must-visit for closet pack rats, pop culture fanatics, and anyone with children in tow. Just inside, but accessible without paying admission, is a lovely circa-1918 Herschell hand-carved carousel (made in nearby North Tonawanda), as well as a fully restored 1956 Skyliner diner, serving lunch all day.
The George Eastman House (900 East Ave., 585/271-3361, Tues.-Sun., $15) is a 10-minute drive along Rochester’s fashionable mansion-lined main boulevard. In addition to relaying the Horatio Alger-like story of workaholic Eastman’s success and philanthropy as the founder of the Eastman Kodak Company, the 50-room Colonial Revival mansion in which he lived before his 1932 suicide also houses a fascinating exhibit, Enhancing the Illusion, on the history of photography.