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Many visitors to New York focus on either Niagara Falls or the New York City area. But there are many places to see and enjoy in-between in the large and varied "Upstate" region.
A small city that has just about everything--good shopping, distinctive restaurants, 19th century mansions, and beautiful parks. Just outstde town is Saratoga Spa State Park--which contains the original bath houses tourists to the area used. This town is best visited before July 4th or after Labor Day, when Saratoga is not running and the town is less crowded and cheaper to stay in. Try Hattie's, a long-time soul food restaurant with photos of scores of famous people who've dined there; or Cafe' Lena, where Don McLean supposedly wrote "American Pie" one afternoon. Take your pick of any of a large number of quailty motels or inns. We've discovered The Grand Union motel on the edge of town. It's very clean and recently renovated, and a very good value. There is a very nice spa at the motel; my wife and I were able to book a massage there the same day, and it was one of the best we've had. It's pet friendly, and you can walk into town on sidewalks if you don't mind walking a few miles.
Known mostly for its auto racetrack, there are many other reasons to come here. Its lakefront on Seneca Lake is a beautiful place to walk in the evening; there are boat tours, and one entrepreneur has started Schooner rides on the lake. Just a short walk away is Watkins Glen State Park, with an amazing walk up hundreds of stairs that circles hundreds of waterfalls and canyons. They have a light show at night during the summer that tells the geological history of the park. Montour Falls, just two miles away has a waterfall running right through the middle of the village, and dozens of old homes--some of which are Italianate mansions. The views driving into town from northern destinations give you a high vantage point to see the lake. And there are loads of wineries to tour in the area. Try the Wildflower Cafe downtown for nice but reasonable contemporary meals. One weak spot of the area is lodging; many motels are a bit dated. But it's still worth a stay here, if you're willing to forego three and four star hotels for a night or two.
Not as flashy or as tourist-oriented as nearby Lake Placid, Saranac Lake is a quieter, but I think more interesting destination. The town once served as a cure commuity for Tuberculosis victims; today, you can still tour the cottage Robert Lewis Stevenson lived in for a time, or stay in composer Bela Bartok's cottage, which is a B&B. Part of the village is on a small lake, and there are plenty of affordable hotels in this part of town. The downtown has the look of an old Northern community, and is fun to walk around. And, if you want outlet shopping, you can drive to Lake Placid in 10 minutes, and then return for the night for a quiet evening walk around Saranac Lake. Lodgings are pretty good for a small isolated town.
An interesting small city on another Finger Lake--Canandaigua Lake. One of my favorite features here is a collection of colorful "Boat Houses" on the lake that look like something you'd see in Holland or Scandanavia. The lakefront is fun to walk around at night--there's a long boardwalk, and many people hang our here to get an ice cream after dinner. Sonnenberg Gardens in town is a first-rate attraction; a mansion you can tour yourself; then you can spend several hours walking around the beautiful gardens. The downtown is not as nice as the lakefront, but there are a few nice shops in this area. There is one nice inn and several decent chain hotels near the lake. Several restaurants near the lake are very nice.
If you want a major city to spend time in Upstate, I think Rochester offers the most. You can stay at one of the large hotels downtown, park the car, and walk to many attractions. I like the "High Falls" area--a neighborhood near the spectacular Genesee River Falls that offers shops, a museum about the area, restaurants, and a brewery tour. A mile or two away is the mansion of Kodak's George Eastman, which includes a nice museum. The downtown has some nice parks by the river that make for pleasant walking in the evening.
I've never been to a small city (30,000 people) with as cosmopolitan an atmosphere as Ithaca. Downtown features a large pedestrian mall with some very unique shops (more bookstores than you'll have time for), and eclectic restaurants like the vegetarian Moosewood Restaurant (famous for its book series). There are state parks in and around town with beautiful trails, particulary Buttermilk Falls south of town; there are many other waterfalls nearby, including a great trail past some right in the City itself; there's a birding center; and Cornell University, which has a great art museum. The approach to town from about any direction is beautiful. The people-watching here is as interesting as in New York City; and locals you meet here are often fun to talk to--friendly, with lots of tidbits about things to do in their town. There are many nice inns, B&B's, and hotels in the area. I like the Grayhaven Motel near Buttermilk Falls for its dog-friendly atmosphere; it's the only place I've ever stayed with its own little dog park with agility equipment!
Troy doesn't offer the attractions of some of the other towns I've described. But it's one of the most interesting cities to walk around I've ever been in. Almost nothing from its 19-th century heyday as a collar-manufacturing city has been demolished. Several hit movies, including Ironweed and The Age of Innocence were filmed here for this reason. There's a downtown visitor's center that offers a film and displays about the area's manufacturing heritage. A statute and the gravesite of the real Uncle Sam are also nearby. I would highly recommend Laporto's on 4th Street--a terrific Italian Restaurant that includes memorabilia from some of the movie stars who've filmed in Troy. We also have been to Daisy Baker's on Second which is in an 1890's Brownstone, and also has good food. The Riverview cafe and several other restaurants are right on the Hudson River. Troy is a good one-night stopover if you enjoy history, and just want a neat place to walk in. Lodgings are not plentiful; currently, the Franklin Square Inn and Suites is the only major hotel in town. Fortunately, recent media reports have indicated investors plan a big hotel and office complex along the Hudson--this city could be a hot spot of the future, because its cost of living is less than many surrounding towns.
Sharon Springs is close enough to Troy that you could see both places in one day--and you'd have an interesting contrast. While Troy has saved many of its buildings, Sharon Springs, which once was a "spa" resort, features scores of old hotels and spa buildings in various states of repair. There are historical markers everywhere--most with pictures of what the original buildings looked like. Some of the old tourist structures have almost disintegrated, but in recent years, investors are beginning to fix up some of these buildings, and a few hotels have re-opened. There are some nice gift and antique shops on the one main street through the village; great bargains in some. It's amazing to walk for blocks and see the remains of what was in the 19-th Century a bustling resort. This must be the Northeast's largest outdoor museum. There are a few inns, but not many motel choices in the area. Cooperstown isn't too far, and offers many inns and motels.
Hudson is another interesting town. I'd estimate that there are at least 50 antique stores lining the main street, Warren Street. More restaurants, bookstores, and eclectic shops are opening there all the time. To me, though, I simply like the ambiance here. It's a little spooky on an evening stroll, with a lot of old mansions that are still mostly in use. The town has kind of a Gothic feel to it. I'd recommend staying in the St. Charles Hotel on Park Place; it's one of those neat, funky old hotels you don't find many places anymore. I like Olana, the nearby State Historic Site that showcases the home of 19-th Century Romantic painter Frederick Church. Several other homes are open for tours nearby. This is a great one-night stop; there's nothing flashy here, but it's another great walking city.
New York has many state parks worth visiting. But Letchworth is in a class by itself. It's so large, it reminds me of Acadia National Park in Maine. It takes half a day to drive around. The park roads feature frequent scenic overlooks or areas to stop; trails are easy to acess. The highlight is the amazing, almost Grand Canyon-Like gorge, as well as a series of waterfalls that are just a short hike from several available parking lots.