This Small New York Town Is Less Than One Square Mile — and It's Home to the State's Best Resort

Aurora, New York, in the Finger Lakes region, also has the longest-established wine trail in the country.

Chairs by the lake at Inns of Aurora

Inns of Aurora

You may think a tiny village like Aurora, New York, would be gritty and dull. Having spent my first 21 years in the Finger Lakes region, I confess that plenty of towns fit that mold, but Aurora isn’t one of them. While this village on the eastern shores of Cayuga Lake — the longest of the 11 Finger Lakes — spans only about one square mile, it’s small but mighty. Not only will you find the longest-established wine trail in the country here, but you can also stay at the highly regarded Inns of Aurora, ranked the best resort in New York by Travel + Leisure readers in 2022.

But that’s not all that makes Aurora stand out. The town is forever connected to philanthropist Pleasant Rowland, who has led its restoration for more than 20 years. Having spent her formative years at Wells College, a private liberal arts university in Aurora, Rowland felt a special connection to the area. So much so that, after selling her American Girl doll company to Mattel for a whopping $700 million in 1998, she invested much of her personal wealth (to the tune of more than $150 million) into buying and renovating a number of properties in the village.

Soaking Up Aurora’s History

Howland Stone Store Museum

Howland Stone Store Museum

Today, in large part due to Rowland’s vision, strolling through the village feels like being transported into one of her American Girl storybooks. But this isn’t fiction — the history is real and, much of it, protected. The entire village of Aurora was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. The Aurora Steam Grist Mill, one of the first steam-powered flour mills west of the Hudson River, and Mosher Farmstead are also included on the list.

The Morgan Opera House was built in 1899 and, believe it or not, originally housed Aurora’s town hall, library, theater, and jail (there’s still a single-occupant cell in the basement). The original Tudor-era structure remains in pristine condition, and visitors can peruse its public library or attend a performance in its restored Victorian opera house. Additionally, a short drive east of the village lies the Howland Stone Store Museum (yes, also on the National Register of Historic Places), built in 1837 by Underground Railroad conductor Slocum Howland, who used his shipping connections to move Black freedom seekers to points north.

But the village isn’t stuck in the past. Fans of MacKenzie-Childs, a whimsical modern-day manufacturer of handmade ceramics, furniture, lighting, and other furnishings, flock to Aurora to tour the three-story farmhouse perched on the bluffs overlooking the lake.  

Best Things to Do in Aurora, New York

Natural swimming pool with the waterfall at Robert H. Treman State Park

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Beyond soaking up the local culture and history, my personal Aurora itinerary looks something like this: Sports, spa, sip, repeat.

There are plenty of options for fitness, from robust to relaxed, with a number of notable hiking trails accessible on both sides of the lake. These include trails at Robert Treman State Park, Great Gully Falls, Watkins Glen, and the stunning Taughannock Falls — one of the highest falls east of the Rockies.

I was surprised to discover that, despite its tiny size, Aurora also has a nine-hole golf course on the grounds of the bucolic Wells College campus that's open to the public from dawn until dusk (March through November). The clubhouse, which includes a bar and grill, is also a popular hangout for locals and visitors.

But in warmer months, the most popular activities in Aurora take place in and around the lake. Sure, you can fish and swim, but you can also paddle your way along the public Blueway Trail, a waterway created for kayaking, canoeing, paddleboarding, and other nonmotorized water sports.

"People are always interested in getting out on the water while they’re here," says Matt Bianconi, who was born and raised in Aurora and is now the proprietor of Bianconi Tours. Bianconi offers three boat tours during peak season: History on the Lake, Sunset Celebration, and Wineries by Water.

"Our wine tours include visiting three wineries along the lake, and we spend about 45 minutes to an hour at each so guests can relax and taste our local wines," Bianconi says. "I believe the Finger Lakes is one of the only places in the U.S. where you can access wineries by boat," he adds, noting that his pontoon boats motor directly up to the winery docks.

Sipping and Snacking Around Town

Finger Lakes Vineyard with beautiful Autumn Colors on Cayuga Lake

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While many wineries along the 40-year old Cayuga Lake Wine Trail fall on the west side of the lake, there are a handful of distilleries, cideries, and breweries a short distance from Aurora. These include Long Point Winery, Bright Leaf Vineyard, Quarry Ridge Winery, Heart & Hands Wine Company, Treleaven Wines, and the Aurora Brewing Co., a nanobrewery that also hosts live music, comedy, and trivia nights.

Aurora Brewing Co. also offers dine-in and to-go lunch and dinner menus (kudos for recently adding a wood-fired pizza oven), which is welcome given there aren’t many dining options in Aurora beyond the restaurants at the Inns of Aurora, the Fargo Bar & Grill, and the bar and grill at the Wells College golf course.

Aurora’s Luxury Spa Retreat

View of spa pool at Inns of Aurora

Inns of Aurora

Make sure to reserve a day at the Spa at the Inns of Aurora, which opened in 2021 to rave reviews. The 15,000-square-foot wellness retreat features an indoor-outdoor tranquility lounge with views of Cayuga Lake and surrounding lavender and alfalfa fields, as well as 10 treatment rooms (four with fireplaces) and saunas and steam rooms. There are also hydrotherapy facilities, which include a hot spa, a cold plunge, and hydrotherapy circuit spa pools. A spa cafe with a grazing table providing light fare and snacks at no extra charge awaits, too.

Best Places to Stay in Aurora, New York

Since the Inns of Aurora opened 20 years ago, it has become nearly synonymous with the village itself. Comprised of five distinct and historic properties, the inns were developed by and remain owned by Rowland, whose touch is evident in each. They include the Aurora Inn, E.B. Morgan House, Rowland House, Zabriskie House, and Wallcourt Hall. Each one has been restored to reflect the historical era during which it was built and features its own innkeeper. Guests (12 and over) also have access to a number of on-site activities such as cooking classes, coffee tastings, lakefront painting, and stargazing.

Dining room at Inns of Aurora

Inns of Aurora

If the Inns of Aurora isn’t quite your vibe, or you’re traveling with young children, there are other choices in or near the village. Aurora Main Stays coordinates the rental of several houses, suites, and rooms in the area. These properties can accommodate groups of various sizes and are managed by a local couple. There are also plenty of hotels around the north end of Cayuga Lake, if you don’t mind the drive.

Best Time to Visit Aurora, New York

When it comes to western New York, seasons matter. The Finger Lakes are beautiful year-round, but most people visit May through mid-October when the weather is (usually) more cooperative and predictable. Summer is peak time, with many New Yorkers escaping the heat of Manhattan. So, whether you’re eyeing a stay at the Inns of Aurora or elsewhere, it’s wise to book early.

Come fall, when school is back in session, the crowds thin out just as Mother Nature’s autumnal beauty takes center stage. I find this the most appealing time in the Finger Lakes because the fall foliage rivals that of New England, there are far fewer people around, and sipping wine by an evening fire is about as cozy as it gets.

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