Photo: Vanderbilt Museum + Planetarium
Is there anything better than finding a secret treasure? Our state is filled with a wealth of spots unusual, unexpected, exceptional, puzzling, funny, and/or perplexing. It seems every time we walk through the streets of Manhattan, we discover a strange little gargoyle peeking slylybelow at the clueless pedestrians scurrying about their business, eyes straight ahead. Hiking through Adirondack Park, we come across stunning, abandoned copses between towering pines, unvisited and unsung.
The same goes for many of the halls of the Empire State’s thousands of less, shall we say, boldfaced museums and destinations. We all know the Met, Dia, Storm King. But when’s the last time you tasted the sweet, straightforward pleasure of the Jell-O Museum, or danced down the Yellow Brick Road?
Below, our favorite under-the-radar, but highly intriguing destinations in New York State.
Photo: Visit Genesee County
Who doesn’t like a brightly hued dessert that jiggles? The Jell-O Gallery Museum in Le Roy (about 30 minutes southwest of Rochester), harkens back to a more innocent era when feeding one’s children organic farm-to-table fare (even at dessert!) wasn’t synonymous with good parenting. The gallery introduces visitors to the Technicolor world of gelatinous desserts, plus trivia. Did you know, for example, that this sweet treat was invented in 1897, offers 60 flavors (including Melon Fusion, Seasoned Tomato, and Sparkling White Grape) and managed to talk art legends like Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish into creating paintings for their ads? You will find out all of this, and more, and get to watch endless loops of deliciously kitschy old Jell-O ads.
23 East Main Street, Le Roy, NY | (585) 768 - 7433
Photo: Tinker Nature Park
This so-called living museum is simultaneously simple and complex in the straight-forwardness of its design. The ever-evolving Fairy Village is housed within the bounds of Tinker Nature Park, which sprawls across 68 acres of land in Monroe County. The park features a series of rotating exhibits, a taxidermy collection, beekeeping exhibits, snake hibernaculum, a meditation maze, wildflower meadow, a boardwalk with seating, a handicapped accessible 1.2 mile trail and a Tinker Homestead Museum located in a historic cobblestone home. In 2014, the mysterious band of fairies invaded, adding intrigue to already dynamic space. They left traces of their presence, in the form of miniature homesteads and small doors, mostly along one section of the trail. Some of the dwellings feature swings, others hover high above ground, others are right down on the path. Their identities remain mysterious, which is why it has become such a popular draw for conceptual art aficionados, mystics, and fairy fans of all ages. Open all year.
1525 Calkins Road, Henrietta, NY | (585) 359 - 7044
Photo: All Things Oz Museum
Chittenango is the birthplace of Lyman Frank Baum, and the town goes all out in celebrating the man and the iconic Wizard of Oz tale he created. What is there? A more appropriate question may be: what isn’t? The house Baum was born in on May of 1856 is gone, but many fans still make their way to the site of his former estate. A trot up the street, and you’ll find Upstate New York main street charm in all of its glory, with the benefit of...yellow brick roads and Wizard of Oz-themed signs. Then there’s the aptly named All Things Oz Museum, which is really just a gussied up gift shop (not that we’re complaining), with displays of collectibles and costumes from movies, TV, and stage shows of the original, and its various spinoffs (including Broadway’s Wicked). The truly hardcore can hit up the Yellow Brick Road Casino, featuring more than 400 slot machines, Oz-themed eateries, and a bingo hall that can hold up to 500 people.
Photo: Village of Speculator courtesy of a local lifeguard
Perched on the auspiciously named Lake Pleasant, Speculator offers Hollywood’s idea of what the Adirondack experience should be, minus the cheesy pretense. The village is a deftly constructed and designed “all-season vacationland” set in the midst of pristine wilderness. There’s the Kunjamuk Cave, harboring mysterious depths for newbie and experienced spelunkers alike, in addition to biking and hiking trails, paddling and golfing opportunities, plus endless options for boaters, fishers, and trekkers. The only incorporated village within Hamilton County, there were just 324 full-time residents at last count.
Photo: Roycroft Campus
This is about as meta as you can get in the world of crafting. Nestled in East Aurora, The Roycroft Campus is where the Arts and Craft movement was born, and presents itself as “the country’s best preserved and most complete complex of buildings devoted to craftsmanship and philosophy”. It was designated a National historic Landmark district in 1986, and contains nine of its original 14 structures, including the Inn, Chapel, Print Shop, Furniture Shop, and Copper Shop. It’s almost like Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters never left. In addition to seeing where the roots of craft began, you can summon your inner creative with workshops, classes, and interactive events all year round.
5 South Grove Street, East Aurora, NY | (716) 652 - 5552
Photo: Akin Free Library
You have to embrace the offbeat to enjoy the offerings in Pawling’s gracious looking, but inwardly odd, Akin Free Library. It offers two museums — one in the attic, the other in the basement — brimming with compelling curio of dubious import. It will deeply please your inner Middle Schooler. There are the 19th century shop ledgers to parse, a first edition of The Hobbit, taxidermy specimens, seashells galore, an intimidating large moa egg, and Quaker pamphlets with a Utopian bent.
378 Old Quaker Hill Road, Pawling, NY | (607) 684 - 3785
Photo: The Whaling Museum
Long Island was built on the backs (not to mention sperm oil) of whales. This Cold Spring Harbor Museum celebrates the terrifying, awe-inspiring sea mammal, without shying away from the uglier aspects of the historic tale of man vs. beast. The museum offers the usual child-wowing displays of whale bones, with a fascinating archive of ship’s logs and journals that will keep parents and grandparents absorbed for hours. The museum offers a rotating roster of educational and interactive events that help illuminate the region’s riveting and often tragic relationship with these great maritime creatures.
301 Main Street, Cold Spring Harbor, NY | (631) 367 - 3418
Photo: Vanderbilt Museum + Planetarium
Rich, eccentric people build cool collections. The Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport is a prime example of this truism. Housed in a mansion home to William K. Vanderbilt II (he’s the great-grandson of Cornelius, who created the New York Central Railroad), it features the considerable booty picked up over the life of a globe-trotting playboy with deep pockets. Outside, there are stunning grounds occupying 43 acres of prime, highly cultivated landscape; then there’s the gorgeous Spanish Revival mansion (nicknamed the Eagle’s Nest) itself to admire. Inside, visitors will find a well-rounded insect collection, taxidermy (including a 3,000 year old mummy), a “Hall of Fishes” featuring marine life of all sizes from every corner of the globe, and the bric-a-brac only members of the leisured class have the time or opportunity to hunt down. Don’t miss the 147-seat Charles and Helen Reichert Planetarium, where a spectacular sky show disguised as an astronomy lesson awaits.
180 Little Neck Road, Centerport, NY | (631) 854 - 5555
A mall for bibliophiles? Count us in! This Catskills compendium of eclectic shops devoted to books has become a destination within a destination. The Catskills region is beloved for its mixture of high and low culture, inside and outside activities, understated sophistication, and self-consciously garish grit. The Book Village was conceived abroad in rural Wales in 1961, as a place for independent booksellers to sell high-quality second-hand and antique books, plus prints and other paper goods to unabashed word-nerds. The notion moved to the Catskills in 2005, and now harbors five indie book shops, plus art galleries, home stores, and antique shops.
600 - 698 Main Street, Hobart, NY
Tell us where we should go next: do you have a lesser known, quirky New York treasure we need to check out?