Sidewalk scene in Cold Spring, New York, via Joe Tabacca /

7 Must-See Historic Towns in Upstate New York

New York City is not the only historic must-see in New York State. Throughout upstate New York, beautiful small towns offer up-close views of historic landmarks and historically important sites. While dutifully kept digital records make it a breeze to access historical information, it is simply no match for driving into a centuries-old small town and soaking up the history it still holds on to.

Seneca Falls

Downtown Seneca Falls, New York.
Downtown Seneca Falls, New York. Editorial credit: debra millet /

Seneca Falls is not only a gorgeous town in the Finger Lakes region but also the birthplace of women’s rights. The Seneca Falls Convention took place here in July 1848, the first women’s rights convention in the U.S. This meeting led to the women’s suffrage movement. Seventy years later, women voted for the first time.

Today, people can visit the Women’s Rights National Historical Park to learn more about women’s fight for equality. They can learn more about civil rights at the National Women’s Hall of Fame, which stands at the same place the convention took place.

This historic upstate town has fewer than 7,000 permanent residents, making it a peaceful travel option for those who love historic places. But there is more than history to enjoy here. The area is also home to the Cayuga Lake State Park, where families can enjoy a day of beach lazing and swimming. Visitors who love movies will enjoy the It’s a Wonderful Life museum dedicated to the famous 1946 film.  


Wells College campus, Aurora, New York.
Wells College campus, Aurora, New York. Image credit PQK via Shutterstock

Aurora underwent a complete transformation in the last few decades and is now one of the most stunning small towns in upstate New York. Its postcard charm and historical significance make it a must-see for those who want to explore this part of the state.

Here, once a stagecoach stop for the Wells Fargo Express, the infamous Aurora Inn offers cozy accommodations and views of Cayuga Lake. Another historical building, Rowland House, features a historic Greek temple and rooms decorated by American Girl founder Pleasant Rowland.

Those who hanker for a concert or live show can visit the quirky century-old Morgan Opera House, which once served as a jail and community library. For adventure-seekers, Cayuga Lake offers swimming, padding, and sailing. There are also 23 vineyards around the lake where visitors can go on winetasting tours while enjoying the views of the water and the surrounding hills.


Street view at Skaneateles, New York
Street view at Skaneateles, New York

Skaneateles’s history lies in maritime manufacturing, including sailboats and motor launches. The town’s namesake lake is one of the cleanest in the U.S., making it a huge tourist draw. Visiting Skaneateles during the spring is best for swimming and picnicking. The lake's nickname is The Roof Garden of the Lakes (Finger Lakes) because it lies at a higher altitude, providing gorgeous views for those swimming, relaxing, and having a picnic.

The town also has a nature trail running along an abandoned rail line. The Charlie Major Nature Trail runs along what used to be the Skaneateles Short Line Railroad, which started operating in 1840. Some of the railroad's remains are still visible along the one-mile trail, and there are a few waterfalls. Moreover, the Bahar Nature Preserve has a 100-foot-deep ravine and trees that support winding grapevines.

Back in Skaneateles, on Genesee Street, visitors can browse shoes and clothes. And those who visit in December will find themselves enchanted by the annual Dickens Christmas Festival.

Cold Spring

The main shopping district of Cold Spring, New York.
The main shopping district of Cold Spring, New York. Image credit James Kirkikis via Shutterstock

Cold Spring sprung up in 1818 and got its name from a nearby spring that people firmly believed had healing properties. The town was a supply depot for the army during the American Revolution and became the chosen vacation destination for New Yorkers after the war. When the Hudson River Railroad saw the light in the 19th century, more people flocked to Cold Spring. But long before any of these events, Native American tribes inhabited the site where Cold Spring would stand before they were violently displaced by invading Europeans.

Today, visitors still love this historic hamlet. They hike the popular trails to Anthony’s Nose overlooking Westchester County and Hudson River mountain ranges. Those who constantly search for the chill behind the thrill when visiting small towns will love the Old Cornish Estate Trail that leads to the Cornish Estate. Some believe that ghosts roam here, unable to let go of their past lives. Visitors can also hike to Little Stoney Point where a beach and clifftop views of the Hudson await. There is also the historic Bannerman Castle on Pollepel Island with its superstition-filled Native American and war history. The castle is reachable by ferry or canoe and often hosts special events like dinners, live shows, and movie nights.


Cazenovia Artisans Shoppe
Cazenovia Artisans Shoppe. Image credit Ryan J Long via Shutterstock.

Cazenovia’s founder, John Lincklaen, took one look at Lake Cazenovia and the trees surrounding it and decided to build a summer home in the area. Lincklaen proceeded to build a business center, one of the most historic sites in Cazenovia today. Historical buildings line the streets of the town, especially down Albany Street. The historic Lincklaen House offers colonial-style accommodation, while the weekly Farmer’s Market offers locally-produced foods.

Visitors who want to see what nature has to offer in Cazenovia can explore the Chittenango Falls State Park with its 167-foot waterfall. During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency in the 1930s, the park’s overlook points and trails were developed. In modern times, it is a picturesque site for fishing and picnicking. There is also Stone Quarry Hill to explore, which houses one of the first outdoor sculpture parks in the U.S.

Lake George

Canada Street in Lake George, New York
Canada Street in Lake George, New York, via OlegAlbinsky /

Lake George is another historic upstate town with a lake that has incredibly clear water. There are 109 miles of shore and more than 300 islands to explore. It is the perfect destination for paddleboarding and canoeing. The 200-year-old Lake George Steamboat Company still offers lake cruises for visitors to discover hidden mountains and sandy beaches. There are 44 state-owned islands to choose from for camping and recreation.

For big family fun, there are more than 135 rides and games to enjoy at the Six Flags theme park and a Magic Forest complete with its own Jurassic Park (Dino Roar Valley) where life-sized dinosaurs wait to pounce along a hiking trail.

Lake George is filled with historic monuments and sculptures inside Battlefield Park. These memorials hark back to the days of the French and Indian War and honor those who lost their lives.


Kinderhook, New York: Lindenwald Estate a National Historic Site and the home of the 8th President of the United States Martin Van Buren.
Kinderhook, New York: Lindenwald Estate a National Historic Site and the home of the 8th President of the United States Martin Van Buren, via Steve Cukrov /

Kinderhook is where the Ichabod Crane Schoolhouse still stands. Jesse Merwin once taught here and is believed to be the inspiration behind the lasting ‘Sleepy Hollow’ legend. Kinderhook is also where the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site still holds the secrets of a certain reelection campaign. Visitors can view the bed Martin Van Buren died in, along with other historic furniture pieces.

The Samascott Garden Market offers fresh meat and fruit, and families can also enjoy homemade ice cream from the local parlor. The Samascott Orchards provide ample opportunity to pick ripe strawberries and apples.

Those who want to explore more of Kinderhook’s history can take the short trip to the Luykas Van Alen House, where they will get a glimpse of what life was like on a Dutch farm in the 18th century. Moreover, the historic Kinderhook Cemetery is the final resting place of Martin Van Buren, and visitors can take a breather here as they take in the peaceful countryside views.

In Conclusion

Upstate New York offers something for every kind of traveler. There are historic sites aplenty, ghost stories galore, and outdoor activities to entertain even the finickiest visitor. There are fancy swimming holes and incredible museums. And the magnificent Niagara Falls is another major reason to make upstate New York a must-see travel destination. Start planning your upstate small-town vacation today and experience New York State like never before.

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