What jumps into your head when someone mentions Syracuse, New York? The rich history, including the Erie Canal and how it fueled this Central New York city’s population growth? Syracuse’s role in the Underground Railroad? The famous Syracuse University? Maybe all of those things? Here are five fun things to do in Syracuse with kids.
I live in San Antonio, Texas. We have two seasons: summer and hot summer. Hot summer begins in about April and can last until the end of October. True story – I was sweating while I took my kids trick-or-treating this past year.Syracuse, New York, is just the opposite. They also have two seasons but instead of summer and hot summer, it’s winter and not winter.
I’m very excited I had the opportunity to visit Syracuse in February during the city’s Winterfest. Winterfest is one of 29 festivals taking place in Syracuse annually. These people really know how to par-tay. Prior to my visit, my knowledge of New York was limited to New York City. Both are fun, but Syracuse has a different vibe entirely.
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You might consider a side trip to Syracuse if you’re visiting Niagara Falls or the beautiful Finger Lakes Region. However, Syracuse can be a destination all on its own. There’s certainly enough to keep you busy for at least a weekend. Syracuse is a clean, beautiful, friendly college town with historic architecture, lots of family-friendly activities and delicious food.
I’m excited to tell you about five things to do in Syracuse (although there are really so many more).
1. Erie Canal Museum
The Erie Canal no longer runs through Syracuse, but the canal left a stamp on the city of Syracuse. The city flourishes today because of the history associated with the Erie Canal. The Erie Canal Museum will show you all the things involved with this famous canal, starting with the brainstorming behind the idea to build a waterway that extended from Albany to Buffalo. Thomas Jefferson called the idea “little short of madness” and it was definitely way ahead of its time.
The engineering and construction that went into this massive build hold some appeal for everyone. Even younger kids will enjoy the interactive exhibits in the museum and the fun photo opps aboard a model of a working canal boat. The best part? The Erie Canal Museum is a totally free activity. Donations are welcome, but not required. There’s also a really cute gift shop with some fun and unique gifts. If you’re looking for fun in Syracuse, don’t miss this!
The museum is self-guided, so you can take as much time or as little time as you want. You can breeze through and do a quick looky-loo in about 30 minutes, or take your time and read all of the exhibits and easily spend three hours. Check the museum’s website in advance of your visit to see if they have any special events.
2. Onandaga Historical Association
This museum gives you a good look at the history of the city of Syracuse and its people. You’ll find info on the city’s extensive involvement in the Underground Railroad, items invented in the city (did you know the penny loafer and the metal thingy used to measure your foot in the shoe store originated in Syracuse?) to notable businesses and citizens.
There is also a fabulous display of vintage dresses on the second floor. If you’re a Downton Abbey buff like me, you won’t want to miss this one. We all need to channel our inner Lady Mary, right?
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Admission is free but you can (and should!) book a guided tour, starting at $5 per person. There’s also an amazing gift shop that sells all kinds of fun items, such as vintage dinnerware to quirky jewelry made of vintage typewriter keys. Did I mention the typewriter was invented in Syracuse? It was!
The gift shop offers a varied and unique selection of gift items, including Syracuse China.
Oh, and that thingy used to measure your foot in the shoe store? It’s actually called a Brannock Device, but I’ll probably always refer to it as “thingy.” But, the more you know, right?
3. Clinton Square and the Surrounding Area
Syracuse is a combination of beautiful, historic buildings and quirky, trendy places to eat and drink. A walk through Clinton Square and the surrounding area will get you an up close and personal look at some of the monuments that commemorate Syracuse’s role in the Underground Railroad. We associate “Underground Railroad” with Harriet Tubman because that’s what we learn in school. Did you know there’s fantastic history behind the Jerry Rescue? Syracuse was one of the last stops on the Underground Railroad before Canada, and the region was full of strong supporters of the abolitionist movement. The history behind the Jerry Rescue is worth checking out, even if you don’t visit Syracuse (but you should totally schedule a time for fun in Syracuse because it’s awesomeness).
During the winter, there’s also ice skating on the one slice of the Erie Canal that hasn’t been filled in. During the summer, you can visit the farmer’s markets. Syracuse is very open and friendly to visitors, but there’s also a keenly felt sense of community. As visitors explore Clinton Square and the surrounding area, this sense of community is very evident.
If you’re looking for a place to grab some good grub or great beer and wine, the streets around Clinton Square offer you a ton of choices. Whether you’re a “plain foods hearty” kind of person or more willing to experiment with some trendy and adventurous eating, you will find something to please your palate. I promise.
4. Destiny USA
Destiny USA is the sixth largest shopping complex in the United States. I’ve never been to Mall of America (bucket list!) but I’ve heard Destiny USA described as a mini Mall of America. Destiny USA has something for everyone. The entertainment options include a movie theater, indoor rope climbing course, bowling alley, escape room, carousel and more. Plus endless shopping and dining options.
My favorite part was the Central New York Welcome Center. This is a great place for visitors to go and learn about the opportunities to explore Central New York. It’s cute and quirkyand the people are super friendly and welcoming. And there’s also a place to buy yummy gifts like chocolate pizza!
5. Rosemond Gifford Zoo
Full disclosure: I haven’t been to the Rosemond Gifford Zoo (yet) but I wanted to offer this as an option for families during warmer months. The zoo is open 362 days a year and while this might not be a practical choice on a cold day, it might be a great outdoor space for your kids to burn off some energy.
My hometown of San Antonio has an amazing zoo but living in a perpetually hot and muggy climate, I don’t feel like we get the best out of some of the animals during hot weather. I’m not saying you’d want to drag your crew to the zoo in negative temps, but if you’re visiting Syracuse during milder temps – whatever that might mean to you – the zoo is an option.
I love that the Rosemond Gifford Zoo has a “plan your day” page that includes other attractions in Syracuse. You definitely have options when visiting this city.
I’ve listed five things you can do in Syracuse but there’s so much more to explore. I hope this sparks your interest and gets you researching this gem of a town in Central New York. Visiting Syracuse was an awesome experience that I want to share with my family.
You should do the same. Trust me…it’s amazing. For more information on things to do in Syracuse, check out the Visit Syracuse website.