New York state encompasses 54,555 square miles. New York City encompasses 305 of those, yet when one talks about New York, or says they are from New York, or visited New York, unless one specifies “upstate,” it’s presumed you’re talking about one of the five boroughs. In part, that makes sense. Whether or not you love it, hate it, or fall somewhere in between, it’s hard to argue that NYC is not the most important city in the country, possibly the world, and I say that who falls decidedly somewhere on the in between scale (I like NYC well enough, I respect it, I’ve had alot of fun there, but I find it way too crowded and think it almost always smells of piss). So, it makes sense. It is however, deeply unfair to upstate New York, which gets a bad rap for being boring (a myth a feel I may have helped to perpetuate by frequently asserting how boring and soul sucking I find the stretch of 88 between Binghamton and Albany, which I am still going to stand by) when in fact it’s quite glorious, and one of my favorite places to visit.
One thing to understand about upstate NY is that it’s big. Depending on who you talk to, upstate starts either at the border of NYC, OR further north past Rockland and West Chester Counties. Some people also claim that “western NY” and “upstate” are two different things. Everyone agrees that Long Island is not included. For our purposes, we’re going to include all of New York that’s not the city, or Long Island, which encompasses the Catskills, Hudson Valley, Finger Lakes, Southern Tier, Adirondacks, 1000 Islands, and the cities of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Albany. See? It’s big.
Because it’s so big, upstate is incredibly varied, and without generalizing, it’s hard to pick what defines it as a whole, so I’m going to fill you in on what I think makes upstate such a great place to check out: it comes down to great food, beer, outdoor activities, and amazing scenery ranging from the bucolic to the breathtaking. Probably because I can literally be in parts of upstate NY in less than 45 minutes if I wanted, I find myself venturing here more and more on both day and weekend trips, to the point where I had to actually sit myself down when planning future posts, and remind myself that it’s PA Weekend Fun, rather then Upstate NY Weekend Fun. Upstate really is the best state (except for that stretch of 88), and somewhere you should be spending more time.
Here are some reasons why:
Scenic Byways- All jokes about 88 aside, NY is a beautiful place to well, just drive, which is good because most of upstate is rural, expansive, and public transportation is practically nil. New York state has three nationally recognized byways, as well as 26 state mandated scenic drives. I can tell you from experience that the Seneca Lake Scenic Byway, Cayuga Lake Scenic Byway, Adirondack Trail, Shawangunk Mountains Scenic Byway, and High Peaks Scenic Byway are all gorgeous. A great part about all these routes, is that they combine great drives with tons of activites; all have multiple stops you can or can’t take to match whatever length you’re looking for. My favorite drive in New York though, is the less flashy Upper Delaware Scenic Byway which takes you from Hancock, New York, to Port Jervis, winding along the Delaware River. Combine it with a camping/rafting trip through Kittatiny Canoes, stop in picturesque Narrowsburg, and make sure to stop at at the newly opened Shrewd Fox Brewery in Barryville.
Catskills- The Catskills are, as the kids say, my new jam, mainly because I very idiotically didn’t realize how close they were to my home. The Catskills are actually very close to a lot of people’s homes, as residents of Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Western Massachusetts, and the New York City Metropolitan area can get here within a 2 hour drive. Because of this, it’ always been a popular tourist destination, and experiencing a renaissance of sorts at the moment,which means it’s easy to plan a trip. There’s plenty of lodging, and plenty to do. Being outdoors is one of the Catskill’s main draws as it’s named after the Catskills Park, with hiking, biking, fishing, camping, skiing, and rafting being popular, but unlike the Adirondacks, which is New York’s other large forest preserve, in the Catskills, you’re never too far from great restaurants, up and coming breweries, and very locally based shopping-it’s outdoor adventure for a more urban set, and I don’t mean that as an insult. The Catskills towns of Tannersville, Woodstock, Phoenicia, Livingston Manor, Roscoe, are particularly popular.
Bethel- Technically Bethel is part of the Catskills, but I’m putting it as it’s own standalone destination, because I think it’s a great town with redeeming qualities all its own, and because, well, this is my blog. Bethel is a Catskill town in Sullivan County most known for being the home of Woodstock. It’s now home to Bethel Woods Center for the Performing Arts, a concert venue situated where Woodstock occurred, and the nicest outdoor venue I’ve ever seen a concert at. It’s an amazing place to see a concert, and the Woodstock Museum is worth the trip in itself for anyone who enjoys music or history-it’s one of the better museums I’ve ever been to, as it doesn’t whitewash and glorify this event into oblivion-it presents a well rounded, warts and all picture of three days of music, free love, and…mud. Bethel’s also adjacent to Kauneonga Lake, White Lake, and Lake Superior (not that one), so there’s tons of outdoor fun to be had, and home to be new favorite pizza place Benji and Jake’s, as well as its own distillery.
Adirondacks- If you had to ask me my absolutely favorite place to visit, I don’t know that I could pick one, but the Adirondacks, and the Adirondack town of Lake Placid in particular, would be in my top 5. The Adirondack Park lies in the northernmost parts of the state wedged between Canada and Vermont, and it an outdoor lover’s dream. The hiking here is phenomenal, with multi-state views, and unique alpine zones. The park is also particularly taken care of, meaning that most trails are highly trafficked, and marked, if you’re not a very experienced hiker. Lake Placid, the tiny village that has twice hosted the winter Olympics is my favorite place to visit because of it’s Olympic history, and its great bars and restaurants (I particularly like The Breakfast Club, Lake Placid Pub and Brewery, and Smoke Signals). It’s also a great base from which to explore the region, and it’s winter full moon parties are unique and worth a trip just to check out. Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, Ticonderoga, and Lake George are also popular, as is the Ausable Chasm, a famous canyon with the requisite water sports, and newly opened Wild Center. The jewel of the Adirondacks (did I just say, the jewel? UGH) are their 46 high peaks, 46 mountains all over 4600 feet in elevation. As of this time, I’m the proud climber of a grand 3. I could wax poetically (wax poetically, really dude?) all day, and yet my words would never do them justice. So, instead, check out some of these photographs, which absolutely could.
Saratoga- I’ve personally never been to Saratoga Springs, but I know people who love it. The main draw here are the horse races, which happen throughout July, August, and September, and because Saratoga Springs is such a horse race driven town, it has all the drinking and fancy shopping to go along with it. If you like Preakness, Belmont, or the Derby, but in a more pastoral, and slightly less ruckus setting, give this a go.
1000 Islands- The 1000 islands are a portion of the St. Lawrence, separating New York and Canada, which is home to over 1700 islands (islands in this case, defined as permanently above water, and supported at least one tree), and is mainly known as the kind of place to rent a house or cottage and just chill out on the water for some time. It’s also known for it’s waterside castles, and the tiniest international bridge.
Cooperstown- Cooperstown is mainly known for being home to the Baseball Hall of Fame. No disrespect to America’s favorite pastime (Is that still accurate? Wouldn’t it be bingewatching?), but nothing bores me like baseball. The reason I put Cooperstown on this list, and the reason I’m planning to visit ASAP, is its beverage trail. The main attraction here is Brewery Ommegang, the famous Belgium inspired brewery that churns out the official beers of Westeros, which should put it on the travel bucket list of beer nerds, real nerds, and just plain old people who appreciate good television and quality beer alike.
Breweries- Like our own Pennsylvania, upstate New York has a great beer scene. Brewery Ommegang, and Southern Tier are probably two of the better known craft beer purveyors, but Genesee is an old standby, and the Matt Brewery in Utica has been operating and churning out Saranac products for years (they also produce Utica Club…Does Utica Club deserve a shout out? NO?). I’m particularly smitten with some of the Catskill breweries, however you could really make an upstate NY beer itinerary anywhere. Check out either of these maps to see New York’s offerings
Finger Lakes- There are eleven finger lakes, the most prominent being Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka, and Canandaigua,and are primarily known for their wineries. I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t much a Finger Lake believer, until I visited them two summers ago and realized what all the fuss was about. They are glorious. Cayuga and Seneca (and Keuka and Canandaigua to a lesser extent) are visually stunning, and chock full of not only wineries, but breweries, distilleries, cideries, dairies, great restaurants, and farmer’s markets. When I went up there I was blown away by the sheer amount of stops you could make on the eastern shore of Seneca. It was literally like a 38 mile party.
Essentially, if you want to get fat and drunk in a scenic location, and most likely sitting on a deck, head here. The other great thing bout them, is being as popular a destination as they are, you could find tons of outfitters who will drive you around (or boat you, if you’d like), so that all you have to worry about, is what vintage tastes best. Bonus, Watkins Glen, and Taughannock Falls are great hiking locales, plus all your typical lake activities.
Ithaca- Ithaca should be included with the Finger Lakes, as it sits on the bottom of Cayuga, but I thought it warranted it’s own shout out for being such a unique town. Home to Ithaca College, and Cornell, Ithaca is very artsty, beset by gorges (Ithaca is gorges, the popular T-shirts remind you), and both the perfect spot to base yourself for a trip to the Finger Lakes, or just visit in general, as there’s more then enough hiking, eating, and shopping in the town itself, as well as whatever water activities you’d like.
Hudson Valley- The Hudson Valley is Catskills adjacent, but not the Catskills themselves, and boasts all the tranquility and scenery of upstate NY, with NYC’s more cosmopolitan influences. The Hudson Valley is great for fans of beer, art, and farmer’s markets, and the West Point Campus, which essentially hangs on the valley’s walls near Newburgh is worth going to see for itself. Hike the Hudson Valley has become one of my favorite points of references for new hikes. Both the Minnewaska State Park, and Mohonk Preserve outside New Paltz are both stunning, and a great mix of beginning and advanced hiking. The Hudson Valley also has a decidedly hi-brow, low-bro thing going on, a juxtaposition I always enjoy; Hyde Park is famous for being the hometown of FDR, while neighboring Poughkeepsie is responsible for the phenomena that is Snooki.
Buffalo Wings- You can really get good buffalo wings all over Pennsylvania, but let’s give upstate NY, Buffalo specifically, some credit for coming up with one of USA’s greatest culinary inventions. Wings are pretty much unofficially my favorite food, so I’ll forever be grateful to upstate NY for this contribution. The Anchor Bar in Buffalo is home of the original, originals.
See? Upstate NY is pretty much the opposite of boring, and one could easily fill up an entire calendar year of just upstate NY weekend trips, an I didn’t even hit on any of the major cities like Syracuse, Buffalo, Albany, Niagara Falls, or Rochester; one of my college housemates is from outside Rochester (shoutout to Spencerport AND Dinosaur BBQ), and when I went up for his wedding I was very impressed with the city, and not only because I happened to wonder into a free Smash Mouth concert.
What’s your favorite part about upstate NY? What’s on your upstate bucket list? What should I definitely add to mine?