Rochester Lilac Festival – Rochester, New York - Atlas Obscura

Rochester Lilac Festival

One of the largest festivals of flowers in North America takes place, appropriately, in the Flower City. 


What began with a few thousand people gathering to look at flowers one Sunday in May of 1898 has turned into one of the largest festivals of flowers in North America. Appropriately, it takes place in the Flower City.

Highland Park in Rochester, New York was designed by famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, of Central Park fame. It features winding paths, rolling hills, a few wide-open spaces, and more than a thousand lilac shrubs.

The land was endowed to the Rochester community by George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry, whose seed business was one of the many such businesses that caused Rochester’s nickname to be changed from the Flour City (because of flour mills along the Genesee River) to the Flower City, around 1850.

In 1892, horticulturist John Dunbar, who came to be known by some as Johnny Lilacseed, planted 20 varieties of lilacs in the park, some of which were descended from flowers brought to America by early colonists from the Balkin mountain range, where lilacs are native. Today there are more than 500 different varieties of lilacs in the park, and 1,200 individual shrubs.

The festival, first officially organized 10 years after 3,000 people descended on the park to see the blooming lilacs in the spring of 1898, takes place over the course of 10 days in early May. Today, it features live music, arts and crafts, food, 5k and 10k races, and a competition for the title of Lilac Festival Queen.

The park also boasts plants like rhododendrons, cherry blossoms, and Japanese maples, and is topped by a huge reservoir, from which you can see for miles. Across Reservoir and South Avenues, in the Highland Bowl, are a statue of Frederick Douglass, one of Rochester’s most famous historical figures, and an amphitheater at which Rochester’s Shakespeare in the Park performances take place every summer.

The blossoming of the lilacs does not always coincide perfectly with the dates of the festival, so those planning to visit should take that into consideration. The brightly colored flowers and the scent they give off make the experience a truly immersive natural wonder.

Know Before You Go

Take I-490 to South Goodman Street, head south to Highland Avenue, turn right or left and start looking for a place to park. When you're done with the lilacs, you can take a stroll around nearby Mt. Hope Cemetery, where you can visit the graves of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.

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