When most people think about the Finger Lakes region, they immediately think of wineries and gorgeous views. And they’re not wrong! The Finger Lakes are full are beautiful scenery and delicious wine and beer. But you can also find plenty of hidden gems, and a lot of history. So when you’re planning your next weekend getaway, consider these unique things to do in Elmira, New York.
A special thank you to Chemung County Chamber of Commerce for hosting me on my trip to Elmira.
First, let me tell you a little about Elmira. Nicknamed as “The Queen City”, Elmira was rumored to be named after the daughter of a local resident. Unfortunately, accounts of whose daughter exactly vary throughout history. The area was originally home to the Cayuga tribe, but was settled by European soldiers during the Revolutionary War. The town of Chemung was established in 1788 before being renamed in 1808. The City of Elmira was incorporated in 1864.
Elmira was booming through the Industrial Era, with their canal system and railroads helping to move people and goods throughout the state.
Famous People from Elmira
Quite easily the most famous Elmira resident is Mark Twain, the incredible American author. Then there is Ernie Davis, the first black man to win the Heisman Trophy. One of the most important members of Elmira’s history is John W. Jones. If you don’t know who he is, keep reading to learn about his role in the Underground Railroad.
Iconic fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger was born in Elmira. Brian Williams, national news anchor, also called this city home. People from Syracuse will recognize the name Eileen Collins. As the first woman to pilot a space shuttle, her name is on the road leading to Syracuse’s Hancock Airport.
Retrace the footsteps of Mark Twain
Mark Twain (née Samuel Clemens) is known for his stories about life along the Mississippi River, inspired by his home in Independence, Missouri. But did you know that Twain spent the summers with his family in Elmira, New York?
Samuel Clemens married Olivia (Livy) Langdon on February 2, 1870. Starting the following year, Sam and Livy spent every summer, from March through September, in Elmira. They stayed with Livy’s sister, Susan, and her husband, Theodore Crane, at Quarry Farm. All three of the Clemens’ daughters were born in Elmira, and the family continued summering there for over 20 years.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
— Mark Twain
In 1874, the Crane family built Twain his own study on the property, where he could focus on his writing. It’s actually where he wrote some of his most famous (and my personal favorite) work: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He said that the Chemung River Valley reminded him of the Mississippi River. He spent his summers in his study, overlooking the beautiful hills and valleys of the Chemung County landscape.
Quarry Farm is closed to the public, but you can take a virtual tour to see where Twain spent his summers.
Mark Twain & Elmira College
Mark Twain’s legacy lives on at Elmira College. His ties to the school start with his wife, Livy. Olivia was an alumna of Elmira Female College, the first in the US to grant degrees to women that were equivalent to those granted to men. The college became co-ed in 1969.
Twain’s family donated his famous octagonal study to the college in 1952. It now stands near the entrance to the campus, and is often open for visitors on tours. When you visit, you can sit at the table and imagine how Twain spent his days writing there.
You’ll find references to Mark Twain, and his birth name – Samuel Clemens, throughout Elmira. Hiking trails, street names, and replicas of his study are found all over the city.
Go shopping at The Christmas House
If you’re driving down Maple Ave in Elmira, you can’t miss The Christmas House. The Queen Anne Victorian mansion was built in 1894, and now is Elmira’s most colorful building. The house was purchased by Elaine and Tony DiBiase in 1983, who then turned it into a 3-room Christmas shop. Ten years later, Mark and Julie Delgrosso purchased the property and expanded the shop.
So what is The Christmas House? It’s just the best shopping spot in Elmira! And no, it’s not just Christmas items – though there are many Christmas rooms. Each room throughout the house has a different theme – and it’s truly an experience to wander through them and browse all the goodies! Of course there is a room dedicated to Christmas villages – and Halloween villages and Harry Potter villages… Then there are literally thousands of Christmas ornaments. Yes, thousands! There are displays dedicated to local history and souvenirs. The kitchen room was one of my favorites – full of quirky cooking gadgets and yummy food. There’s also clothing, home decor, puzzles and games, gifts, and so much more.
The best part? Julie is such a hospitable host! She’s happy to answer any of your questions and guide you to various recommendations throughout the shop. She is just so passionate about her business.
Also, there’s a fun photo app in front of the building, where you’ll find a mini replica of Mark Twain’s study.
The Christmas House Weekly Events
Before you visit The Christmas House in Elmira, check to see what their schedule is and if there are any shopping specials. Mondays: RAIN jewelry is buy one, get on free. Tuesdays: Open by chance – if the door is unlocked, go inside! If you want a guarantee, call ahead: 607–734–9547. Wednesdays: Check their Facebook page at 9:30 when they announce the daily special for the online store. Thursdays: Get a FREE chocolate truffle with any purchase. Yum! Fridays: Watch their Facebook Live at 9:30 to find out what new items are in stock. If you visit the store in person, you’ll get a free stretchy bracelet.
There are also various events happening throughout the summer, including concerts in the park. So keep an eye on their Facebook page for updates. It shouldn’t be a surprise that their biggest event is Christmas in July!
Learn about the life of Ernie Davis
Before Ernie Davis made his way up to Syracuse University, he was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Elmira, NY. If you’re a fan of football, the name Ernie Davis is legendary. At the position of halfback with the nickname “The Express”, Ernie was an incredible football player. He is best known for being the first African-American to receive the Heisman Trophy. Shortly after, he was the first overall pick in the 1962 NFL Draft.
Though he was drafted to the Washington Redskins, he was quickly traded to the Cleveland Browns in a controversial turn of events. The founder and owner of the Redskins at the time, George Preston Marshall, was a fierce racist and wished to keep an all-white team. Facing an ultimatum from the city to either draft a black player or lose their stadium, the Redskins manager drafted Davis. But Ernie refused to play for them. Instead he went to the Browns and signed the highest paying contract a newly drafted player has ever received up until then.
Sadly, he died before ever playing for the Browns. Unfortunately, Ernie was diagnosed with Leukemia the same year that he was drafted. He was just 23 years old.
Ernie Davis is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira. Anyone who is a fan of football, black history, or is just interested, can pay their respects by following the markers to his gravesite.
Just like the rest of Upstate New York – and the world – Elmira is home to some great craft breweries. You can’t come to town without grabbing a pint or two!
Horseheads Brewing Co was originally opened in 2007 by Ed & Brenda Simchelson and later bought by the Lilly family in 2019. As you might suspect, many of the beer names pay homage to horses, connecting the beers to the village of Horseheads where it is located. That theme continues throughout the taproom, where guests can sit on saddle stools at the bar. With a variety of beer styles to choose from, there is something for everyone.
Award-winning Upstate Brewing Company has made a name for itself around the state. And for good reason! After 10 years in business, they know how to create great beer. Their brews are fresh and flavorful, and the service is incredible. IPA lovers will have lots of hoppy choices to choose from, and their rotating DSRT SZN stout is another great option.
Take a glider ride at the Soaring Capital of America
Did you know that Elmira is the Soaring Capital of America?! Neither did I until I visited last summer. But it’s true! Elmira has been known for ages to be a prime place for gliders. The high peaks and low valleys make for the perfect conditions for soaring. And when you’re visiting Elmira, you can experience a glider ride for yourself.
While not the most budget-friendly activity, it’s one of those times where I encourage you to splurge. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience! (Unless you’re a glider pilot, of course.) Glider rides are offered at Harris Hill Soaring Park and cost $110 per person – one person at a time.
When you’ve finished soaring, or if you’re waiting to go up, check out the Soaring Museum located at the park. Inside you’ll find several gliders from around the world and learn all about the history of soaring.
Watch the ospreys during lunch at Finger Lakes House
When you’re visiting Elmira, lunch at Finger Lakes House is an absolute MUST. The tavern features local wine and beer from around the Finger Lakes region in addition to a small, but flavorful menu.
The owners, Bill and Karen, spent several years in western New York before moving to Elmira. They were surprised to find that there weren’t many bars or restaurants dedicated to the local craft beverages. So the couple opened up their own place to share their love with their customers!
If you go, here’s what I recommend: Grab a table on the back deck. Order a flight of beer or wine and the Mexican street corn dip. Ask Bill for a pair of binoculars. Then watch the ospreys in their nests along the Chemung River while you sip and eat.
I highly recommend the Mark Twain Trail, marked with famous quotes on the sign posts along the path. You already know that Mark Twain spent a lot of time in Elmira, and the views along this trail inspired several of his books. The Chemung River Valley reminded him of the Mississippi River from his childhood.
Please note that the trails at Tanglewood are NOT dog-friendly as to not disturb the native animals.
Discover Elmira’s role in the Underground Railroad
Upstate New York played a very prominent role in the success of the Underground Railroad. And while many people recognize the names of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, there were so many more people whose names need to be known. One of those names? John W. Jones.
His legacy extends beyond the UGRR too. He was responsible for respectfully burying nearly 3,000 confederate soldiers in the military portion of Woodlawn Cemetery.
Visitors to Elmira can learn more about John W. Jones and pay their respects to him at the John W. Jones Museum.
Connect with nature at Crow Calls
The best place to connect with nature and get in touch with your spiritual self in Elmira is at Crow Calls Nature Sanctuary. Following the tragic death of their teenage son, Martha and Bill Benedict wanted answers. They spent a great deal of time in Lilydale, New York, home to spiritualism. They studied for years, hoping to find new and different ways to connect to the world. After being ordained as spiritual ministers, they founded Crow Calls as a place to share their spirituality with others.
The different points of interest in the sanctuary offer different places to connect with nature. The Benedicts are some of the most hospitable hosts you will ever meet. They will guide you through their property, explaining the various activities and trails. Bill and Martha offer to do day sign readings while you wander the sanctuary. They believe every aspect of nature around you represents meaning – the animals crossing your path, the strength of the wind, the direction in which each occurs.
Crow Calls has several different places worth noting in the sanctuary. First, do a forest cleanse through the trail behind their house. Forest bathing first became popular in Japan by the name “shinrin-yoku” in the 1980s. It was, and remains, a way for people to escape from technology to the natural landscape around them. It’s a meditative experience intended for self-reflection.
Then head over to Chickadees Labyrinth to seek an answer to an internal question while you walk the path. Honeysuckle, milkweed, catalpa trees, ferns, and more vegetation make up the hedges separating the circular paths within the labyrinth.
If you’re looking for more, check out the reflection pool, medicine wheel or meditation area. And if that’s not enough, consider a longer stay with one of their spiritual retreats.
If you want an easy way to see all of the main attractions in Elmira, and get an in-depth history, take a trolley ride! Trolley rides are typically offered Thursday through Saturday in the summer, departing from the Chemung Valley History Museum. Admission for the guided tours in the old-fashioned trolleys is just $8 for adults and $4 for children. Be sure to check Chemung County’s social media for any updates or changes to the trolley schedule.
A Weekend in Elmira, New York
With so many interesting things to do in Elmira, where will you start? Hiking or biking the trails? Sampling the local beer, wine, and spirits? Or maybe diving into the history of the area?
One of my favorite things to do in Elmira is to drive around looking for historical buildings and markers. Plus, the area is so beautiful!