Best Things To Do in Syracuse: A Local’s Guide

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Syracuse, New York, is a vibrant and historical city in the heart of upstate New York. Known for its rich history and bustling cultural scene, Syracuse is a must-visit destination for travelers who want to experience the best upstate New York state offers.

skyline photo of syracuse ny.
Syracuse Skyline. Image source: Depositphotos

Whether you’re a history buff, an outdoor enthusiast, or a foodie, Syracuse has something to offer everyone. This city is full of exciting things to see and do, from its world-class museums and art galleries to its sprawling parks and scenic trails.

If you’re planning a trip to Syracuse and looking for a guide to the top attractions and activities in the area, you’ve come to the right place!

Erie Canal Museum

Located in the middle of downtown Syracuse, the Erie Canal Museum is a destination that tells the story of the Erie Canal and its impact on Syracuse, New York state, and the nation.

In the 1920s, the Erie Canal connected New York City to the Great Lakes, opening up trade and shipping. Much of Syracuse’s growth from a small town into a vibrant city is due to the Erie Canal.

Visitors can explore the museum’s exhibits and artifacts, watch a documentary about the canal’s construction, and explore a full-scale replica of a canal boat. The museum is housed in the historic Weighlock building, where canal boats were weighed as they traveled along the waterway.

twin baby elephants at Syracuse zoo.
Twin Baby Elephants at Rosamond Gifford Zoo. Image source: Anne Jolly
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Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park

The Rosamond Gifford Zoo has long been a premier attraction in the region, but the surprise birth of twin baby elephants in late 2022 has made it something not to miss. The two boys, named Yaad and Tukada, are the first successful set of twin elephants ever born in the US.

The small but charming zoo has more than just adorable baby elephants. It features siamangs, lemurs, tigers, leopards, penguins, and many other animals, along with interactive exhibits. Spend a few hours wandering the pathways for an enjoyable afternoon.

Everson Museum of Art

The Everson Museum of Art features a collection of American art from the 18th century to the present. The museum’s permanent collection includes works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Jackson Pollock, and other iconic American artists.

The Everson building was designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei and is a work of art in its own right, not a typical building. He created the structure to be seen as a sculpture. From its distinctive shape to its unique features, the Everson is a masterpiece that’s just begging to be explored, even if art museums aren’t typically your thing.

Upside Down Traffic Light

One of Syracuse’s quirkiest landmarks is the upside-down traffic light at the intersection of Tompkins and Milton Avenues. This is in the middle of the Irish Tipperary Hill neighborhood and close to the zoo.

This is the only traffic light in the world that is hung upside down, with the green light on top of the red. According to tradition, it is turned this way because, in the 1920s, the Irish Americans in the neighborhood repeatedly threw rocks at the light to break it.

They supposedly didn’t like seeing the red “British” color over the green “Irish” color. Finally, the city gave in and hung the light upside down. The Tipperary Hill area still has lots of Irish pubs and Irish traditions, especially around St. Patrick’s Day.

Onondaga Lake Park

Onondaga Lake Park is a popular destination for both locals and visitors. This large park features miles of trails for walking, jogging, and biking along the lakeshore, as well as a playground, picnic areas, and a dog park. It is the perfect for anyone who loves the outdoors.

Onondaga Lake has salty water because of salt springs at the southern end. Harvesting salty brine from the lake was a significant industry in Syracuse in the 1800s. So Onondaga Lake Park includes the Salt Museum, which showcases this essential part of the city’s heritage.

Skä·noñh-Great Law of Peace Center

Onondaga Lake was the birthplace of the native American Haudenosaunee confederacy, which includes the Onondaga, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca nations. The Skä·noñh-Great Law of Peace Center is a museum and cultural center dedicated to their traditions.

The museum holds a variety of exhibits and artifacts about the history and culture of the Haudenosaunee people. Visitors can see traditional clothing, tools, and artwork and learn about the history of the Longhouse and the significance of the wampum belt.

Clinton square syracuse.
Clinton Square, Syracuse NY. Image source: Depositphotos: bboyicey

Clinton Square

Clinton Square was the original town center in the middle of downtown Syracuse. It is now a park with a fountain and an ice skating rink in the winter. It is also the location of most of the city’s festivals, like the Syracuse Jazz Fest and Taste of Syracuse.

Just one block west of the square is the Niagara Mohawk building, a stunning Art Deco-style building. Considered one of the country’s most impressive Art Deco buildings, it has an array of sculpted aluminum, steel, glass, and stonework. It is definitely worth a look and an excellent place to take photos.

The Great New York State Fair

Syracuse has been the permanent home of the New York State Fair since 1890. The fair starts at the end of August and runs until Labor day, drawing visitors from everywhere for this end-of-summer tradition.

It has everything from animal barns and livestock exhibits to carnival rides and shows. It also features free live concerts on two stages, hosting well-known acts like Bruno Mars and Nick Jonas, among many others.

But for many people, the highlight of the fair is the food. As Lauren Keating from Healthy Delicious exclaims, “The State Fair is a foodie heaven! It’s only a few dollars to get in, and the food from local vendors is delicious (and not marked up like at our county fair!) The wine slushie is a can’t miss!”

campus of syracuse university.
Syracuse University Campus. Image source: Depositphotos: khairil77

Syracuse University Campus

The Syracuse University campus is an excellent destination for anyone interested in architecture, history, and higher education. Visitors can stroll around the beautiful campus and admire the stunning architecture of the buildings, including Newhouse 1, another building designed by architect I.M. Pei.

The campus has several museums, including the Syracuse University Art Museum. Or catch a game at the Carrier Dome, which hosts events including basketball, football and lacrosse. Whether you’re a student, alumni, or just a visitor, the Syracuse University campus is a great place to explore.

Culinary Scene

Syracuse has a vibrant culinary scene with some unique food traditions. The most famous is salt potatoes, made popular in the region by the Irish immigrants working in salt harvesting. These are a staple of every summer picnic and can be found at many restaurants and grocery stores.

Hoffman hot dogs are another local favorite. These are German all-beef hot dogs, and the best place to find them is Heid’s of Liverpool, located right along the shore of Onondaga Lake.

And no discussion of Syracuse food would be complete without Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. This Syracuse restaurant started as a biker bar but has become an institution that now has six locations across the state. It serves up the best barbecue in the city, with mouth-watering ribs, brisket, and pulled pork.

Sarita Harbour from An Off Grid Life says, “It’s been 20 years since we stopped there for a meal on our way back to Canada, and it’s still hands-down the best BBQ we’ve ever had. “

Wrapping Up

Syracuse is a city that caters to all interests. And while this article has covered many of the attractions in the town, there’s even more to discover in the surrounding areas if you’re planning to stay for an extended period.

Take a trip to the unique glacial lakes of Green Lakes State Park, explore the famous Finger Lakes Wine Trail, or witness the awe-inspiring waterfalls of Ithaca and Watkins Glen. With a range of activities and sights to suit every taste, the surrounding areas are perfect for those looking to extend their visit and make the most of their time in the region.

Anne Jolly is the creator of the food blog Upstate Ramblings. She loves to cook with gadgets like an air fryer, sous vide or pressure cooker. In her free time she enjoys hiking, reading, knitting and spending time with her three kids

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