It may seem incongruous to call a company town “quirky.” But in Ithaca, the “company” is Cornell University and the student population of 21,000 roughly equals the number of permanent residents, resulting in an eccentric, hippie haven where it’s easy to feel forever young.
Enough Cornell students hail from New York City, 175 miles southwest, to make parts of Ithaca feel like the Upper West Side. Cornell’s sprawling campus marches up East Hill and dominates the skyline; Ithaca College (enrollment 6,949) perches on the South Hill; and West Hill is a quiet residential neighborhood. At the northern edge of town is Cayuga Lake, a glacial trough 38 miles long. Downtown Ithaca sits at the south end of the lake and, because of the water, is usually a tad warmer than the hills — small consolation in February, when the average high is 34 degrees.
The economy is relatively solid here. At 7.6 percent, unemployment is slightly lower than the U.S. average, but many jobs don’t pay well. Retirees have other advantages: You can withdraw $20,000 a year from a qualified private pension without paying New York State tax, and all withdrawals are free for retired soldiers and government workers.
The town’s arts and entertainment scene is small but power-packed. The historic State Theatre, a 1,200-seat movie palace downtown that opened in 1928, hosts dozens of musical, theater and community events yearly. Local musicians with New York City and Boston connections keep the stages at local bars hot. Cornell’s Johnson Museum of Art (free) has strong collections of Asian and contemporary art. There are also a lot of painters and sculptors working here, plus an Arts Partnership that coordinates studio tours and fairs.
The Ithaca Farmers Market, on the lake shore, is a packed Saturday morning social hour. Fresh produce is big among the region’s many wineries, organic farms and talented chefs.
For outdoorsy types, Ithaca is surrounded by state forests and nature preserves that draw hikers, mountain bikers and cross-country skiers. Waterfalls abound.
Ithaca scores well in health and safety, thanks to low crime rates, the highly ranked Cayuga Medical Center and admirable preventive care community programs. Locals enjoy a long life expectancy, in part because of low rates of obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes.
The bleak weather in this laid-back town can’t be too dispiriting: Ithaca boasts a very low score on our stress index, which measures the rates of suicide, divorce, poor mental health, unemployment and crime, among other things.