A Summer Tour of Albany
Ironically, the final two weeks of the first year of my grand world tour were spent hanging around in my hometown of Albany, New York. When I chat about my hometown with people from other parts of the world — and, funnily, people from other parts of the country — they are often surprised to hear that Albany is in fact the state capital. I guess that whole “New York City” thing kind of throws people off. We don’t call it Smallbany for nothin’.
I actually consider both Albany and New York City, two and half hours apart by car, to be home bases for me. After all, I spent four years living in Brooklyn before I took off to travel. Yet there’s nothing like coming back to the place where you first learned how to crash a car, where you bought your first prom dress, and where you have friends who stood by you through that horribly awkward eyebrow stage.
On my travels I often struggle to describe my hometown, and wish that I could bring all the friends I’ve made along the way on a grand tour instead. So, just like my blog buddy Angie Away did with her hometown, I’d like to propose to you the Alex in Wanderland Summer Tour of Albany, New York.
The tour would start when I picked my guests up from either Albany’s International Airport (grandly named thanks to a daily flight to Canada) or at the bus or train station. Our first stop would be my childhood home, located down a leafy street just five minutes outside downtown Albany. There you’d be treated to a grand tour of the house, which would mostly involve my mom showing you embarrassing baby scrapbooks, my dad showing you the pond he build in the backyard, and my dog acting ashamed of us. Hanging out around the Baackes compound is a big part of any visit to Albany. And how could it not be, when there’s an inviting porch beckoning you to read the newspaper, a lovely pool inviting you to jump in, or a big comfy couch just waiting to be snuggled into for a Law and Order marathon?
When I grew up our house was always filled with people, be it visiting relatives, friends crashing on couches, or members of the Albany Symphony Orchestra who my parents put up whenever they were in town. One time we let a homeless guy stay in our basement for a year, but I’ll tell you about that in person. It’s always a little hectic, and that’s the way we like it.
While many of my friends have moved to NYC or elsewhere, I still have half a dozen close childhood buddies and a large network of family friends nearby (our Thanksgiving dinners rarely seat less than twenty!), so there would be tons of people dropping by to say hi. The most important meeting, however, would be between you and Tucker, head of the household. He rules with an iron paw and frequent requests for human food and strolls through Albany’s beautiful parks.
Tucker, in the tan coat, bossing around his buddies
[things to do]
Eventually, we’d peel ourselves away from the house to explore Albany. The first stop would be the Empire State Plaza, heart of the state government and center of bizarre Albany architecture. South American guests may relate to the frequent architectural comparisons to the Brazilian capital of Brasília. The Plaza, which holds offices for 13,000 state employees, took $2 billion dollars and strong waves of controversy to complete. Critics sneered at the so-called fascist architectural style and human-rights activists were horrified when 9,000 low income residents were displaced to make space for the complex.
First I’d point out to you my favorite building, The Egg — the most iconic shape in the Capital District skyline. The Egg serves as a performing arts center, played the historic location of my senior prom, and even inspired a song called “The Egg” by the band They Might Be Giants.
At one end of the Plaza is the State Capital, housed in a 19th century building. On the other end is the New York State Museum, home to an actual mastodon skeleton. If it turned out you were a major museum lover, I’d also take you to the Albany Institute of Art, which once hosted a retrospective of The Supreme’s greatest costumes. No big deal, but my parents then threw a party attended by Mary Wilson. Are you impressed yet? Have you booked your ticket?
The State Capital on the left, Agency Towers 2-4 on the right
From left: The Egg, The Corning Tower, The New York State Museum
The highlight of visiting the Plaza is taking a trip to the Corning Observation Deck. I actually visited this landmark for the very first time this year, and I couldn’t believe I had gone my whole life without knowing about it. From the 42nd floor deck you get stunning views across Albany.
[things to do]
While there are a host of historic homes and other minor attractions available, summer in Albany is less about sightseeing and more about events and things to do. Albany has amazing events year round, like two of my spring favorites, the raucous St. Patrick’s Day Parade, (which I attended in March) and Tulip Fest. But in the summer things really come to life.
If you happened to be here on the biggest summer holiday, the Fourth of July, I’d take you back to the Empire State Plaza, ground zero for fireworks. But really, in the summer no holiday is necessary for a celebration.
One of the Capital Region’s greatest summer events is Alive at Five, a riverfront concert series every Thursday featuring free music, views of the water, and a way to unwind at the end of a long workweek. While the music selection changes weekly, you can always count on local vendors selling food and drinks, a great block party atmosphere, and the co-mingling of state office workers and SUNY Albany students as they both try to hide their flasks from the police.
The summer calendar is bursting with local events, so I’d find out what my tour guests were into. Foodies will love the Albany Food Festival or the nearby Saratoga Beer Fest, while sports fans will enjoy watching the New York Giants training camp. And it’s just not summer if you don’t make it to one of the nearby county fairs and get your farm animal racing and cotton candy on.
[getting out of town]
What Albany residents really love about living here is the proximity to so many other great places. While downtown Albany’s Knickerbocker Arena (which I refuse to call the Times Union Center) hosts some pretty famous names year-round (I recently caught Cirque de Soleil’s Micheal Jackson Tribute there), the best place for summer shows is without a doubt the open-air Saratoga Performing Arts Center, or SPAC.
Saratoga, just 30 minutes north of Albany, is the place to see and be seen in the summer. During the day, everyone flocks to the racetracks the bet on horses and socialize. At night, they head to shows at SPAC or to the upscale bars and clubs downtown.
Lake George, a further half hour north, is another summer hot spot. Those lucky enough to have lake houses or boats, or to have friends with lake houses or boats, spend their weekends on the water. Other nearby diversions include Six Flags Theme Park and even the opportunity to try hot air ballooning.
Feeling active? I can bring you to Howe Caverns, one hour to the west, where we can negotiate underground caverns, or to Bash Bish Waterfalls, one hour south, where can hike up a trail to the New York – Massachusetts border and take funny photos of ourselves being in two places at once. At nearby Thatcher State Park, just thirty minutes away, we’ll find 12 miles of trails, including the famous Indian Ladder Trail and its excellent views.
[eating and drinking]
So, at this point you’re probably a little bit starving. Albany will never be known as a culinary destination, and even if it were I would certainly be no authority on it. I relish just a little too much in the opportunity to hit up my favorite chains such as Boston Market, Macaroni Grill, Chipotle, and Bruegger’s Bagels (started in nearby Troy, New York!) Unfortunately I learned long ago that The Olive Garden is not considered an impressive place to bring guests (though I was amused to learn on my travels that TGI Fridays is a happening date spot in places like Glasgow and Istanbul).
Some of my favorite local finds include the new Dinosaur BBQ restaurant (technically now a New York chain started in Syracuse) situated on the Hudson River, and any one of Albany’s many Japanese hibachi restaurants. Really though, if you’re looking for a definitive guide to local dining in Albany, look no further than Metroland’s Albany Restaurant Guide.
But as my guest, there is one place I would never let you leave Albany without trying — and that’s Bomber’s Burrito Bar, Albany’s strongest bid in its claim to hipness. Not only is the food delicious, but the drinks are great and the atmosphere is amazing. Mexican food with a side of hipster — You’ll be charmed, I just know it.
After we have dinner at Bombers, we’ll take a stroll down to The Spectrum, Albany’s alternative movie theater. Sure, we’ve got all the big box iMAX theaters at our mega malls, but the Spectrum is really something unique and special — and I’m a major movie lover at home and abroad. They play indie films you wouldn’t think would be available outside of New York City, and they serve cake and popcorn with real butter. The only thing better is the occasional trek out to one of the nearby drive-in movie theaters.
Once our movie gets out, it’s time for the nightlife portion of our tour. Albany has two main nightlife districts: Pearl Street and Lark Street. If you are looking for the equivalent of the stilleto and spandex clad Chelsea nightclub scene, look no further than Pearl Street. While many of my friends have outgrown this area, I still love to return every once and a while for an epic night of dancing at Jillians, Legends on Pearl, and Blue 82.
If you prefer a musical selection that does not include the American Top 40 and find groveling in front of a doorman to be demeaning, consider more of an alternative scene. Lark Street, only a few blocks north of Pearl, is Albany’s answer to Williamsburg: A place where people try hard to look like they aren’t trying hard. The street is lined with funky boutiques, tattoo shops, and happening bars. Most nights start at Bombers, then continue on a pub crawl of favorites like Justin’s, Lionheart, and DeJohn’s.
A more recent find for me has been river-based nightlife. In the summer I want nothing more than to spend every moment outside and so recently I’m loving The Rusty Anchor and The Riverfront Barge. Both are floating restaurants/bars that feature live music and dancing on the weekends. Another alternative is a straight up booze cruise down the Hudson on either the Captain JP (site of my Junior Prom!) or on Dutch Apple Cruises. Albany will never rival New York City for nightlife, of course, but I would never let my tour guests get bored.
Do you think my tour will be a hit? I think I might have to come up with one for each season… it’s a whole different city in the fall!
Readers, where do you hail from? Do you love going back as much as I do?
* Alive at Five image courtesy of here
** Horse racing image courtesy of here
*** Popcorn image courtesy of here
Have absolutely NO desire to return to Grand Rapids. Some good memories, but mostly ones I don’t want to resurrect. Have considered trip to Pt. Sanilac to see what changes time has wrought – it could have used a carload.
Maybe instead you should take a trip to Albany and visit us instead! 🙂
Oh, the eyebrow stage. Hahaha got a kick out of that! I’m from Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada. My parents have relocated to Halifax, Nova Scotia where I now consider home and many of my closest friends have left Moncton, so I guess I don’t really have that same “everyone’s around” feeling. I still do get those nostalgic memories, especially about suburbia childhood games, high school bonfires, etc. Thanks for sharing a piece of your home with us!
Lindsey, you’re welcome… and thank you for sharing too! Right now I’m really lucky, I have four friends in Albany that I consider call-at-4am-besties, and others who moved away drop in pretty frequently (I guess I’m in that category!) I definitely wouldn’t have as much fun here without them!
My God–this is the best view and presentation of Albany I’ve ever seen… way better than what Albany is promoting about itself. I’m sending this out–show my pals where I live. You are sooooooo good!
Thanks Diane! I’m hoping to do a post like this for each season 🙂
The Albany Chamber of Commerce will be very proud of you. Does Tucker know he is in only two of the three dog pictures?
Maybe that’s why he’s moping around the house today…
I’d take this tour =)
Thanks Angie, and thanks for the great post idea!
The Albany chamber of commerce should hire you!
I don’t think I stay in one place long enough to hold down that kind of employment 🙂
Looks like a great city.Unfortunately I never made it to Albany when I was living in NYC. We only went to Buffalo for a long weekend to see Niagra Falls. Maybe one day when I visit my family in NYC again I will get a chance to see the capital. I am originally from Weimar/Germany (former east germany) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weimar but I go to university in Heidelberg https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heidelberg. Both are really beautiful cities and always full of tourists!
Well, Albany isn’t really that much of a tourist city but I still love showing around out-of-towners!
What a small world! Who knew Alex had another read from that area – I am from a town just 20 minutes away from Weimar! 🙂
Small world! Caty is one of my readers from way back, so she gets a lot of love from me 🙂
I’ll have to add Albany to my list of places to see 🙂
It’s a particularly great stopover if traveling between NYC and Montreal!
You know, usually I enjoy reading about your travels but this one felt extremely show-offish and pretentious. Seems to me like you just wanted to prove a point that you don’t need to be a traveler and I find it kind of disappointing, honestly.
Hey Steph, I’m sorry you didn’t like this post, but appreciate your feedback! I definitely am showing off my hometown, so you got me there 🙂
I have to be honest I’m not sure what you mean though about me “not needing to be a traveler…?” This was just a visit home, and my travels are far from over! I definitely DO need to be a traveler!
Steph, after so many months and hours of amazing entertainment with this blog….you should think twice about your latest comment…this is Alex life diary, not a Lonely Planet guide….she is honestly writing about her life back in the USA now. If thats not of your interest you dont have to read it. Wait for her to be in the road again. Honestly, your comments are shameful….
Hey Pilar, I appreciate your support! However I want everyone to feel they have a voice on this site, even if it might hurt my feelings… I am always happy to take constructive criticism, though in this case I was a little confused by the comment. I hope Steph comes back and joins the conversation again!
I loved this post! Now I want to visit Albany!
Thanks Dayla! I’m so glad it had the desired effect 🙂
I always forget how many things there are to do in the Capital District. Unfortunately Jillians closed last weekend so Pearl Street is down one attraction. I’d have to vote for the Wolffs Biergarten over Bombers in that entertainment conglomerate.
I heard about Jillian’s being shut down! That’s a shame, I’ve had fun nights dancing there 🙂
My mother worked at SUNY press on Pearl St. when I was younger. Every once and a while when I was at her office after school she would to take me to Bomber’s for the best burrito I’ve ever had and give me a few quarters to pump into the Ms. Pacman table they had there. Once I grew up and had friends at UAlbany, Bomber’s and Lionheart were a college kid with a penchant for craft beer and quick, delicious food’s dream come true! My best friend recently bought a house in Nassau, can’t wait to visit him and make the rounds at the old stomping grounds! Thanks for this awesome post!
Aw, love to hear a heartwarming story about Albany! Bombers is still one of my hometown faves.
Going through all your previous posts (I’ve been on a travel blog reading high since I’ve finally decided I need to create my own) and I totally hadn’t realized you were from Albany! I grew up in Schoharie County, often visiting Albany to indulge in civilization aka the mall. Tulip fest was a mothers day tradition, so it makes my heart happy to see these Albany-related posts now that I currently live on the West Coast far from friends and family. 🙂
Awesome! Love to hear from another 518-er 🙂 I’ll be cruising back into town just in time for Tulip Fest this year. Can’t wait!
love this post as I just moved to Albany from Oklahoma City and feel like we can’t find anything anywhere!! Did you happen to write posts for the other seasons as well?
Hey Chelsea! Actually I haven’t but I’ve been thinking I really need to do a 48 hours in Albany guide for those weekending here or stopping in on road trips. Stay tuned… you’ve motivated me to bump it up on my to-do list 🙂
Love your post- what are your favorite places to shop in Albany? I love local fashion!
Thanks so much!!
Hey Kaliska! I like shopping at the Troy Waterfront farmer’s market. There are tons of local artistans and artists there with fabulous wares. I don’t shop much but that’s one spot I love. I need to do an update of this post!
Just dug into the archives for this post and I’m so glad I did!! My husband and I just got moved to Saratoga Springs for work for three months and in much need of some upstate NY guidance 🙂 as always, Alex delivers!! Thank you!!
Any winter weather tips for the area??
Oh my gosh that’s wild Emily! I’ve been saying I’m long overdue for an updated Albany post, maybe this will motivate me to write one. Winters can be tough up here but if you ski, that definitely helps the season pass. I also love Lights in the Park in Washington Park here in Albany and ice skating at the Empire State Plaza — I recommend hitting both in one festive weekend this winter 🙂 Enjoy!
Will definitely check out those winter options!! Thanks Alex! 🙂
We’re also looking to do a couple Canada trips 🙂 lots of exciting adventures to be had up here!
Hi Alex, my husband, two children, fur children, and I will be relocating to the Albany/Saratoga Springs area beginning of Sept. We are from Texas and are clueless with how to prepare for the weather and knowing what areas are good for families. Any advice you could give us on these topics would be greatly appreciated. I enjoyed your article!
Hey Kally! Yeah, the weather will probably be a shock in the winter, but the good news is Albany really does have four distinct seasons. I love love love the fall and spring and of course the summer (personally I’m just not a winter person, but lots of people in the area adore taking advantage of the winter sports.)
My sister and I attended Shaker High and I can’t recommend that school district more highly. I was really involved in the art department and my sister in the music one and both are top notch, as are many of the sports teams. It really is a private school level of education for free! So if you can move to an area that filters into that school, I recommend it. I attended Loudonville Elementary and also give that two thumbs up. Hope that helps!