New York: silver skyscrapers looming over bustling rivers of humanity, the finest example of a modern city that ever existed. At least, that is how everyone typically pictures New York. But another meaning for that renowned name is the state of New York and not New York City. And in that grand state with the Big Apple sharing the name are small towns that are worth your while. Around the Catskill Mountains and in the Hudson Valley are quaint dwellings like Skaneateles, natural wonders like Lake Placid, and historically relevant locales like Auburn, all waiting to be explored. When you go to New York, head north of the Big Apple, away from the smoggy bustle and traffic hassle, and give yourself a break in the many charming settlements in Upstate New York.
One of the 11 narrow-shaped Finger Lakes in Upstate New York, Skaneateles Lake supports the bountiful town of Skaneateles, whose Iroquois name means "long lake." Fuzzy lambs graze between rows of lavender-purple bushes at the Lockwood Lavender Farm in European-style pastures. The Bahar Nature Preserve and Carpenter Falls boast plentiful activities for trekking and camping. As for the Skaneateles Lake, referred to as "the Roof Garden of the Finger Lakes" since it is the highest (rising at an altitude of 863 feet above sea level), it is one of only six natural water sources in the country that offers unfiltered water for the townsfolk and visitors. You can take a solo or group boat ride along those pure, languid waves of the second-cleanest lake in the US.
Once satisfied with the nature treks, consider touring Genesee Street, a historic district that showcases the town’s Revolutionary Era backstory, or visit the Skaneateles Historical Society and Research Center to learn more about the town’s inception. And when you are content with your adventures, take a break at Finger Lakes Lodging, Hobbit Hollow House, or Sherwood Inn.
Cold Spring is home to the Hudson Highlands State Park Preserve, a 7,400-acre region along the east bank of the Hudson River where travelers can rejoice in the great outdoors. Among the many activities in the Preserve is hiking along the Breakneck Ridge (a tricky hike) or kayaking with Hudson River Expeditions. Alternatively, visitors can explore the contemplative abstract artworks at the Magazzino Italian Art Museum, and because the town was declared a Federal Historic District in 1973, you can also explore the town’s historic 19th-century buildings and sites like the spot where once stood the West Point Foundry, a factory which provided ammunition for the Union Army during the Civil War. Once your feet start getting weary from traveling, look for lodgings at Hudson House River Inn and Pig Hill Inn.
Saratoga Springs is more than a beautiful small town in the Adirondacks; it is also one of the most haunted villages in the region. If you are brave enough, venture into Canfield Casino, for example, once a meeting place for New York elites in the late 1800s. After all, the 1800s building was featured on Ghost Hunters, and they lived to show the tale. Or, you can opt out and head to the National Museum of Racing to learn more about the town’s three centuries of horse racing before witnessing the Saratoga Race Course.
Most importantly, nine miles south of Saratoga Springs was the site of the historically vital Battle of Saratoga, a turning point in the American Revolution for the Americans against British rule. One can learn about that fateful battle in the Saratoga Springs History Museum. There is also Saratoga Springs’s famous mineral springs, which attracted the New York elites in the first place, adjacent to the Saratoga Spa State Park. To lengthen your stay, try out the Adelphi Hotel or Embassy Suites.
From the Tuscarora word meaning “The Chosen Spot,” Canandaigua is a good spot to choose for an opulent lakeside visit. The historic town, once called "Ganondagan" by the Seneca tribe, is on the northern end of Canandaigua Lake (one of the famed Finger Lakes) and, as such, presents a bevy of kayaking, boating, and paddleboarding opportunities.
Historical attractions include the stunning Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion, the Ontario County Historical Society Museum, and the Granger Homestead and Carriage Museum, the latter having a collection of over 100 antique carriages. Spend your moments in lodgings like the Bella Ella Bed and Breakfast, and enjoy the town that was once a summertime vacation spot for Humphrey Bogart, an American actor well known for his role in Casablanca.
Watkins Glen is the gateway to two national and natural attractions: Watkins Glen State Park and Seneca Lake, the largest of the fabled Finger Lakes. From iridescent waterfalls to creeks rife with rainbow trout, you will want to search for pots of gold along the Southern Rim Trail, the Indian Trail, and the Gorge Trail. The Gorge Trail, specifically, winds through the 19 waterfalls of the Watkins Glen State Park.
Or you can enjoy the Watkins Glen International race track, or "The Glen" as it is called, considered to be one of the United States’ most exclusive automobile road racing tracks. It has hosted the NASCAR Cup Series, the Formula One United States Grand Prix, the IndyCar Series, and the IMSA SportsCar Championship races in previous years. Book a room at the Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel, Lakeside Resort, or The Hotel Laurel at Seneca for a spectacular trip through Watkins Glen.
Peace and love were in the air when the Woodstock Festival sang for the end of the Vietnam War in 1969, where more than 30 performances from big-named artists like Janis Joplin, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix promoted the hippy crowd. Except for one misconception: the festival wasn’t held at all in the town of Woodstock; rather, it was held about 60 miles southwest in the village of Bethel.
Notwithstanding this head-scratcher, the plain little Catskill hideaway of Woodstock continues to promote the hippy culture of peace and love through the placid Catskill Park Trails, where one can meditate on the magnificent vantage from Overlook Mountain, and the Kaaterskill Falls, where waterfalls sing endless cycles of joy and contentment. If you still wish to seek enlightenment, visit the Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Tibetan Buddhist Monastery for more Eastern tranquility and a different musical experience. Lastly, find a nice place to relax in the Hotel Dylan, The Inn on the Millstream, and Woodstock Way.
The town of Bethel, fellow hipsters, is where the strangely named Woodstock Festival took place for three days in 1969. In Bethel, there stands the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, whose location was once the 600-acre pasture where approximately 500,000 people gathered for the Woodstock Festival. This center is a good place to learn all about the famous festival and the contributions made by farmer Max Yasgur for allowing hippies and singers around the country to perform on his dairy farm.
The Museum at Bethel Woods similarly provides context and information from the 1960s, chiefly the cultural and social changes that gave rise to the historic music festival. If you happen to be there at the end of May, attend the Woodstock Festival's endearing scion, the Mountain Jam, a multiday, multistage event held at the site of the original Woodstock.
Few towns in the world are named after a beautiful poem. Auburn, sitting on the north end of Owasco Lake, the sixth largest of the Finger Lakes, earned its name from "The Deserted Village" by Oliver Goldsmith. In this "loveliest village in the plain, where health and plenty cheered the laboring swain," as Goldsmith described it, stop by Harriet Tubman’s house or the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park to pay homage to one of the greatest American heroines, a woman who helped liberate 700 enslaved Americans during the Combahee Ferry Raid, and the first recorded American woman to lead an armed expedition in the American Civil War.
You can also visit William Seward’s home or the Seward House Museum to pay your respects to President Lincoln’s Secretary of State, or explore the Cayuga Museum and the Case Research Lab, where Theodore Case's invention of sound film revolutionized the film industry and formed motion picture titans like Fox Films (or as it is commonly known, 20th Century Studios). Amidst all these poetic sights and historical marvels are fine establishments like the Holiday Inn Auburn-Finger Lakes Region, Inn at the Finger Lakes, and Hilton Garden Inn Auburn, where you can rest and reminisce.
The unique town of Lake Placid is one of the few destinations that have hosted the Winter Olympics more than once. In addition, history enthusiasts will enjoy the Lake Placid Olympic Museum for a recount of that epic clash between two superpowers from the period. Lake Placid is no stranger to nature, and the surrounding area has 2,000 miles of marked hiking trails and 46 high peaks in the Adirondack Mountains. Climb Wallface Mountain, where New York’s biggest cliff hovers, or hike to the renowned tarn, Lake Tear of the Clouds, the highest source of the Hudson River. There is also snowboarding or skiing at Whiteface Mountain, and when you feel exhausted from the extreme journey, rest awhile at Warner’s Camp, Haus on Mirror Lake, and Mirror Lake Inn.
On the southern tip of Otsego Lake is America’s Hometown, Cooperstown. It is famous for being the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame (legend also has it that Abner Doubleday created the sport here in 1839), and the entire setup is reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting. Cooperstown is also known as the Village of Museums: the Fenimore Art Museum boasts a collection of American Indian and folk art, while the Farmers Museum is one of the country’s oldest living museums that hosts maple sugaring Sundays, livestock shows and a harvest festival. Around Otsego Lake itself, hike through the Sleeping Lion trail to Hyde Hall Mansion Museum for a splendid view of Otsego Lake, the source of the Susquehanna River. And remember to get a good night’s sleep in the Lake Front Hotel or the Otesaga Resort Hotel.
On the west bank of the Hudson River, about 10 miles from Woodstock, the little Catskill town of Saugerties shares attractions with its popular neighbors, Woodstock and Bethel. From the Woodstock Museum that houses memorabilia from the 1969 music festival to artist Harvey Fite’s magnum opus, Opus 40—a 60-acre park sculptured from an abandoned quarry whose artworks were inspired by ancient Mayan and Aztec architecture—Saugerties is a small town with big surprises. Consider visiting the Saugerties Lighthouse, a red-brick beacon over 170 years old sitting beside the Hudson River. Rent a kayak or paddleboard on Esopus Creek or walk along the Esopus Bend Nature Preserve. No need to be worried because you can find yourself safe and happy in the Diamond Mills Hotel & Tavern.
Most people move far south when the winter winds descend from the north. But the village of Ellicottville, about 52 miles south of Buffalo, is the perfect winter wonderland to enjoy in Upstate New York. The Nannen Arboretum is a relaxing retreat where you can view unique trees and shrubs or contemplate nature. The Holiday Valley is a marvelous ski resort that offers a plethora of winter-themed activities. And even the village’s 19th-century charm is lovingly preserved in its snow-draped homes. But if the weather gets too cold at the end of the year, warm yourself up in The Inn at Holiday Valley, Ellicottville Lofts, Edelweiss Lodge, and Tamarack Club at Holiday Valley.
No odyssey is complete without going back home, and Ithaca creates a near-perfect atmosphere of home. Boasting the prestigious universities of Ithaca College and Cornell University, the town provides its students and townsfolk with opportunities to build friends and tighten family bonds in places like the Ithaca Commons, where unique events are hosted. For newcomers on their final odyssey across Upstate New York, you can visit the deep gorge of Robert Treman State Park, stroll along the shores of the fathomless Cayuga Lake, where the town rests, and contemplate many beautiful waterfalls like Taughannock Falls, Lick Brook Falls, Buttermilk Falls, and Triphammer Falls. Then, like a weary seafarer finally returning home, rest blissfully in Canopy by Hilton Downtown, Fairfield Inn & Suites, or The Hotel Ithaca.
When you think of New York, do you still think of silver skyscrapers and streets streaming with rivers of humanity? And if so, would you want to go away from it all yet still be within driving and commuting distance to the Big Apple? Then, give yourself a break by visiting all these top-rated towns in Upstate New York, each with its style of East Coast uniqueness and New York charm. In a region cradled by the Catskill Mountains and caressed by the Finger Lakes, you will be swept away by the dynamic and mesmerizing abundance of nature, simplicity, and community a decent ride north of one of the greatest cities in the world.