A Local’s Guide to Saratoga Springs

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New York’s Spa City is no stranger to strangers. Saratoga Springs has welcomed visitors for three centuries, ever since the Algonquian people settled the area and the British erected a fort there at the end of the 17th century on the Hudson River’s western bank.

Here’s how to make the most of your time in this summer stunner:

> What to Do:

Small-town Saratoga’s cultural offerings are city-size. The National Museum of Racing devotes itself to thoroughbred horse racing. The Saratoga Automobile Museum celebrates the conveyance that put most horses out of business. And the National Museum of Dance features a hall of fame for artists of both classical and popular dance.

Wealthy New Yorkers Spencer and Katrina Trask owned the 55-room mansion Yaddo, which became famous as a home away from home for a roster of artists, writers, and composers including Aaron Copland, Sylvia Plath, Truman Capote, and David Foster Wallace. The public is allowed to visit the estate’s lush rose gardens.

> Where to Stay:

Saratoga’s old resort hotel the Gideon Putnam is seeing competition from a host of new hostelries, from a Hampton Inn to a Courtyard by Marriott.

Two grand inns—the Batcheller Mansion Inn across from Congress Park and Union Gables—re-create the feeling of America’s premier Victorian resort town.

> Where to Eat:

The Thirsty Owl offers Finger Lakes wines with seafood-leaning tapas while Maestro’s delivers hearty, fine dining downtown.

Hattie’s is famed for its fried chicken, and the Triangle Diner features classic diner fare. Caffe Lena is a 1960s-era coffeehouse with a music stage that hosted Bob Dylan.

In the season, horse race insiders breakfast on bacon and eggs at the track’s Porch of the Clubhouse.

> Where to Shop:

Gilded first editions; rare art books; and colorful prints of ponies, birds, and 19th-century Saratoga swells are stacked to the rafters at Lyrical Ballad Bookstore. Located in an English basement just off Broadway, the bookstore and its treasures evoke the resort’s colorful past.

Preppy pink and green are arguably Saratoga’s official colors—visible at the racetrack and the polo field. The hues have their heyday at the Pink Paddock, which sports Lilly Pulitzer designs as well as some men’s offerings.

> What to Read and Watch:

High society and Saratoga are literary pals. Edith Wharton’s last novel, The Buccaneers, opens at the Grand Union Hotel (which was demolished 150 years after its grand opening, in 1953).

The most famous book set in Saratoga Springs is Edna Ferber’s 1941 novel Saratoga Trunk, concerning the adventures of a Creole woman in 19th-century society. The novel was the basis for a 1945 movie of the same name starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.

And James Bond memorably shows up in Saratoga to fix a horse race in Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever.

> Travel Trivia:

  • A full-size bronze statue of the 1930s thoroughbred superstar Seabiscuit stands outside the Racing Museum on Union Avenue.
  • Solomon Northup lived in Saratoga, playing his violin in its grand hotels, before being kidnapped and sold into slavery. He later wrote Twelve Years a Slave.
  • David Hyde Pierce, who portrayed Niles Crane in the hit NBC sitcom Frasier, is a native son.

This piece by Andrew Nelson first appeared in the June/July 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler to accompany a feature story he penned, entitled “Off to the Races: Summer in Saratoga.” Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewnelson.

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