A great day trip from Syracuse is a visit to nearby Rochester. Many people would agree that the best time to go is in May, during their Lilac Festival. The FREE festival lasts for ten days each May in Highland Park and consists of so much more than lilacs! It’s by far the best thing to do in Rochester in the Spring.
Post originally published on March 30, 2017. Updated and republished on May 10, 2019.
The Lilac Festival
The Lilac Festival has something there for everyone – arts & crafts, food trucks, rides, craft beer & wine, music, exhibits, and lots of gardens of course!
By far the best part of the lilac festival is strolling through the gardens. In addition to the thousands of lilacs, you’ll find field of tulips, pansies, and more to explore. There is even an arboretum with a wider variety of flowers, but there is a small fee to enter.
Of course it gets even better because there is a nursery with plants for sale. So yes, you can visit the lilac festival and go home with your own lilac bush(es)!
Lilac Festival Events
The Lilac Parade
While the festival technically starts Friday, it officially begins on Saturday morning with the lilac parade. If you can’t make it, it’s even streamed live on the local news station.
Art in the Park
My favorite part of the festival happens during both weekends. Arts & Crafts vendors from near and far set up booths to showcase and sell their work. There are also stands for local food vendors (like the flavored peanut butters that I love!) so you can stock up on local favorite snacks. Artists can also choose to compete in a juried art & craft show as well.
Another favorite of mine, local celebrities sign up to compete in a garden battle to see who can design the best 15′ x 15′ plot of soil. It’s so cool to see what they create! Amidst the battles, you’ll also see displays from local gardens, nurseries, and landscaping companies.
Free music everyday. What more can you want? Bring your lawn chair or a blanket and hang out on the lawn while enjoying the tunes.
You never know who you might see at the festival. A few years ago, my husband and I got to meet Brett and Wayde from Animal Planet’s Tanked! They were just as awesome in person and we got some fishy tips from them.
In addition to all of the fun, free things to do during the ten days, there are also a handful of extra events at a price. These include expos for wine tasting, craft beer, and Bloody Marys. The last day of the festival kicks off with a fun run/walk.
Parking can be a bit tough, and usually costs, so plan to get there early and be prepared to walk! If you arrive on a weekday before 3pm, you won’t have to pay; after 5pm and all day weekends parking is $5. Please pay attention to the street parking signs because cars that are parked illegally will be ticketed or towed! As an alternative, on the weekends you can park for free at Monroe Community College and take the shuttle to Highland Park for $2 per person.
The lilac festival enforces a child escort policy. This means that children 16 and younger will not be allowed on festival grounds without a parent or legal guardian. As a side note, if you look young, make sure you have ID to prove you’re old enough!
Lilac Gin @ Black Button Distilling
Once you’ve explored all you can at the festival, I highly recommend a visit to Black Button Distilling. Black Button is only a few years old, but has quickly become a favorite with our friends. The craft spirits that they make are excellent and have been known to catch the attention of people who don’t typically choose to drink gin or whiskey. A tour of the distillery is only $5; a tasting is another $5. They have three different tasting ‘flights’ you can choose from. If you’re unsure which to try, go with the classic! It never disappoints.
The bar also sells cocktails made from their products and beer from Rohrbach Brewing, which shares the building with Black Button (visit the beer hall too if you have the time). If you’re lucky enough to be there during the lilac festival, be sure to try Black Button’s lilac gin. It is a seasonal special and is delicious! On our last tour the guide told us that for the past few years they have repeatedly doubled the production of the lilac gin, and each year they sell out just as quickly as the year before. If you can get your hands on a bottle, grab it!
PS – My favorite way to enjoy the lilac gin is mixed with lemonade. It’s the perfect summer drink!
A bar for the Nerd in You
Another Rochester find that I enjoy is a small cocktail lounge called Nox. I can only imagine that the name comes from the Harry Potter spell of the same name (evidence is also in the bathroom with the lumos/nox light switch), and inspiration for the menu seems to have come from a wide variety of science fiction and fantasy movies.
The atmosphere of Nox is very cozy, with eclectic furnishings and sci-fi movies shown on TVs behind the bar in black and white. The menu contains comfort foods, all with clever names based on scif-fi and fantasy movies and TV shows. It’s a great spot to stop in with some friends!