“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.” — Lin Yutang
I’ve been lucky to travel the world — and I’ve always felt equally lucky to have a beautiful city that I was born and raised in to come back to. My hometown of Albany, New York has been New York State’s capital city for over three hundred and twenty years — plenty of time to develop the laid-back charm I love.
And while the city of Albany itself is teeny, with just under 100,000 residents, the larger Capital Region — which includes eleven counties and neighboring cities like Troy, Schenectady, and Saratoga — brings the population to over a million.
I’ve introduced dozens of friends to this area over the years and am still constantly discovering new restaurants, hiking trails, beautiful buildings, weekend festivals, and other hidden gems. With four distinct seasons, a busy event calendar and countless cultural institutions and natural wonders within reach, Albany really does have something for almost everyone. And it’s such a great base – there is so much to do and see within just an hour, including trendy Hudson to the south and laid-back Lake George to the north; but bump that to three hours and you can hit New York City, Montreal, or Boston.
This year has taught me a lot about being an explorer in your hometown and taking pause to appreciate where you are and find what you love about where you live. Whether you’re coming for a day, a weekend or a week — here’s my highlights of what you can’t miss in the Capital Region.
What To Do
• The Empire State Plaza: No first time visitor to Albany should miss the Empire State Plaza, which makes up the iconic Albany skyline and consists of the 19th century State Capital building, the New York State Museum, several modern state government offices and a performing arts center called The Egg. While it’s construction and architectural style remain controversial, it’s definitely unique — some compare the architectural style to that of Brazilian capital Brasilia.
Also in the Empire State Plaza, there is a hidden gem observation deck on the 42nd floor of the Corning Tower, the tallest building in New York State outside of New York City. Along with the panoramic vistas of downtown Albany there is also some historical and architectural context provided. Best of all? It’s free. Worst of all? It’s only open on weekdays from 10am-4pm. I’d love to see this staffed on the weekends, someday!
• The State Capital: Still on my Albany bucket list is to take a tour of the State Capital. Hour-long tours are free and run two to four times per day, Monday through Saturday.
• Museums: Museum lovers shouldn’t miss the New York State Museum or the Albany Art Institute of History & Art. History buffs will love the mastodon skeleton on display at the New York State Museum, where the suggested donation is $5, while art aficionados will appreciate the Hudson River school paintings at the Art Institute, where admission is $10. Look for cool events hosted at both locations, like the thirty minute Brainfood For the Curious lunchtime talks at the New York State Museum and Museum After Dark tours at the Albany Institute.
Further afield: Check out an miSci After Dark event for adults at the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady, offering “libation and scientific exploration for adults ages 21+, offering interacting, drinking, and fun.” Grab dinner at Tara Kitchen before or after.
• CapitalWalls: Albany is so lucky to have the Albany Center Gallery. Not only do they keep a rotating highlight of local artists in their downtown gallery, they also orchestrate local events, ocasional tours, and the outstanding local CapitalWalls mural project.This summer I was lucky enough to attend a bike tour arranged by the gallery with several of the local artists. I’d love to see them make it a more regular offering, but in the meantime check the website for maps and make your own walking tour of the uplifting, thought-provoking pieces that now grace downtown Albany (including my favorite by my high school classmate, local artist Cara Hanley.)
• And More: The Discover Albany Visitor Center is well worth stopping by when you roll into town — it has permanent exhibits on Albany’s history, a helpful visitor’s desk, and is home to the Henry Hudson Planetarium.
• Hiking: Albany is so blessed with beautiful hiking opportunities near and far, and in every direction. My nearby favorite include the lakes and fire towers at Grafton Lakes State Park (don’t miss the nearby Grafton Peace Pagoda while you’re there) and the dramatic views and waterfalls at Thatcher State Park (head to Indian Ladder Farm after for a bite and a drink!). Even closer to the city, Albany Pine Bush Preserve is an oasis from the hustle and bustle — the Colonie LL Bean Outdoor School offers guided full moon night hikes here.
• Biking: I have sadly not done a ton of biking in the Capital Region, but my stepdad, who’s a major enthusiast, would be very unimpressed if I left it out of this post! Check out this article of the top biking destinations in Albany, for an overview. No bike? No problem. Hop on one of the rideshare bikes available around Albany.
• Kayaking + Paddleboarding: The Colonie LL Bean Outdoor School also offers kayaking and paddle boarding tours of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve — they even have SUP with your pup classes in the summer, and fall foliage tours in autumn. There’s also the opportunity to rent kayaks from self-serving hubs along the Hudson, including from the Albany Corning Preserve Boat Launch (I’m super excited to try this in the future.)
Further afield: Go scuba diving in Lake George, about an hour north of Albany. Local dive shop Kraken Scuba in Albany arranges fun dives on Sundays throughout the summer season — they also offer a plethora of courses, if you’re looking to get certified.
• Running: I always refer to 81-acre Washington Park as Albany’s answer to Central Park — and in fact, it has been named one of the nation’s 100 most important parks by the American Association of Architects. A jog is a great way to scope out all of it, from the dog lawn to the Lakehouse and beyond.
Further afield: Go spelunking at Howe Caverns, about an hour west of Albany. I haven’t been since I was a kid, which I think needs correcting now that they’ve added a glassworks studio, too. It’s touristy, but that’s to be expected for the second most visited natural attraction in the state of New York — and it’s well run.
For a region of its size, The Capital Region has a plethora of performing arts centers, movie theaters, and more with incredibly creative programming.
• The Spectrum: Albany is bursting with the big chain blockbuster theaters, but my favorite is The Spectrum, our beloved indie movie theatre. There you can snack on homemade cake and popcorn with real butter while catching a movie that you might not expect to find outside a major metropolis.
• Drive Ins: We are so lucky that there are so many drive in theaters within easy driving distance in the Capital Region — including Jericho Drive-In right in Albany County.
Further afield: There’s also Hollywood Drive-In in Averill Park, and Malta Drive-In in Malta. For a super fun, nostalgic night, fill the car with blankets and pillows or lawn chairs (and your pup!) and head to any of the above (or the half a dozen others within an hour of Albany!). Admission is usually around $10 and the robust snack bars sell full meals.
• The Palace: The historic Palace Theater is an Albany Institution with former headliners as impressive as The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen. Today, concerts, comedians (I saw John Oliver here!) and $5 movies fill a busy community calendar. My favorites are the sing-along and quote-along classic movies! Grab a drink at AdCo. before or after a show.
• The Egg: Site of my senior prom and still one of the most unique building I’ve ever seen with my own eyes, The Egg hosts a highbrow (generally — I also saw Instagram celebrity Girl with No Job do standup here) lineup of ballets, concerts and talks throughout the year.
• Capital Repertory Theatre: Albany’s first and only professional resident theatre, theRep has produced more than 5,000 local performances in their quirky, downtown theater.
Further afield: Proctors, a partner of CapRep, is another historic Capital Region theater, located in the heart of Schenectady. They host Broadway shows, National Geographic Live talks, comedy tours, film festivals, and more.
• Cohoes Music Hall: Hailing way back to 1874, Cohoes Music Hall is now home to funky concerts (I’ve seen The Wailers here) and plays (I loved the local production of Avenue Q). It’s truly a special space. Grab dinner at Caskade or snacks from Cake Street Sweets beforehand.
Further afield: Saratoga Performing Arts Center is a world-renown amphitheater that hosts a-list musicians, festivals, and an annual New York City Ballet and Philadelphia Orchestra residency that was one of the highlights of my summer. For more laid-back shows, snag a lawn ticket and bring your own chairs and blankets and enjoy an outdoor picnic while fireflies dance in front of the stage.
• The Times Union Center: While it has none of the charm of the others on this list, the Times Union Center hosts major international stars (I saw Ariana Grande’s tour there this year) and big stadium shows and sports. The Albany Capital Center is another events and sporting venue — I’ve been dying to catch on of the Albany All Stars Roller Derby matches here.
I’m admittedly not much of a shopper, but Albany has at least one spot I can’t resist — and wouldn’t want to.
• Fort Orange: The swoon-worthy boutique Fort Orange General Store was named for the first permanent Dutch settlement in New Netherland, the present day home of Albany, New York. I’ve described it to fellow Schitt’s Creek fans as the Rose Apocathery of Albany. Not only do they carry an incredible selection of well-curated local home goods and gifts, they also host a regular rotation of incredible workshops — I’m still itching to make it to one of their calligraphy classes and flower crown workshops soon.
Where to Eat
For practicality sake, I restricted this list to Albany County, however, there are so many incredible restaurants around the greater Capital Region. Head across the river to Troy or up to Schenectady or around to some of the local farms and wow, you’ve got a whole new slate of goodness awaiting.
• Dove + Deer: Dove + Deer is my Albany go-to for a dinner that feels like you should have had to hop the Amtrak elsewhere to find. A trendy incarnation of a neighborhood pub, there’s a fresh seasonal menu, a great cocktail list, and beautiful hand painted mural of the Capital Region to admire. It’s buzzy and beautiful — a must eat!
• Umana: A fresh take on global street food, Umana Restaurant & Wine Bar has a vibe unlike anywhere else in Albany. Sit at the bar and watch the bartenders greet the rotation of regulars by name, or come for one of their regular community events and live music shows. Don’t miss brunch on Sunday.
• Post on Lark: Albany’s newest date night destination, Post on Lark is both a chic wine bar and hip dinner or brunch spot. When the weather is nice, head to the back patio for some sunshine.
• Ama Cocina: Albany has plenty of cheap and cheerful hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants. Ama Cocina offers something else — a modern, funky twist on Mexican street food. Keep an eye out for their monthly salsa brunches and other events.
• Cuckoo’s Nest: Craving fried chicken? Cuckoo’s Nest is a charming eatery serving up Southern fare in style. There’s a few tables out front on the street that fill up quickly in the warmer months — and a popular weekend brunch.
• Wellington’s: I love Wellington’s, the chic restaurant inside the iconic Renaissance Hotel and named after the hotel’s original moniker. Seasonal cocktail menus and local nods like a flight of New York whiskeys, cleverly presented on a slate board in the outline of the state, elevate this beyond a hotel restaurant.
• Tanpopo Ramen: I admit it — I boycotted Tampopo Ramen for far too long out of heartache over the closing of the Miss Albany Diner (a loss so notable it was covered by the New York times), a relic from my childhood, and my wish for the space to be repurposed into something that was a nod to the past. Once I got over my grudge, I discovered the best ramen I’ve ever had (try the beef stew version) in a charming setting, with a great sake menu to boot.
• Caskade Kitchen & Bar: On a quaint street in Cohoes, Caskade is a breath of fresh air. With a minimalist design and a menu of innovative small plates and cocktails, it’s well worth the drive — especially when paired with a show or play at Cohoes Music Hall.
The following are less sit down restaurants and more quick easy eats and cafes. If you’re looking for a picnic spot, you can’t beat Jenning’s Landing or Washington Park.
• La Empanada Llama: Truly incredible and clever empanadas and other specialities are made with love by the sweetest Peruvian family at La Empanada Llama. Don’t miss the Nutella banana empanada for dessert! Perfect for dinner before or after a movie at The Spectrum.
• Capital Melts: Creative and delicious grilled cheeses come off the grill at Capital Melts. Grab and stroll up to the Empire State Plaza for lunch on a sunny day.
• Cider Belly Donuts: I’m obsessed with Cider Belly Donuts, who finally brought artisanal donuts to Albany! They do seasonal flavors and donuts for just about every holiday.
• Bare: My favorite smoothie bowls in the Capital Region are found at Bare. Try the Blue Lagoon!
• Stack’s Espresso Bar: While I don’t drink coffee, I love the vibe — and the tea! — at Stack’s Espresso Bars in Albany. They also have a menu of small bites from local bakers and makers. There are always a lot of laptops here — especially at their Broadway location, which has a beautiful and chill coworking space attached called CoLab.
• 3Fish Cafe: Another fantastic place for a cup of tea or a quiet hour with a book or a laptop, 3Fish Cafe is next door to a local bike shop run by the same family. Their cute outdoor space hosts events like Pups on the Patio and Backyard Latte Art Throwdowns.
• Cake Street Sweets: Up in Cohoes on the same block as Caskade, Cake Street Sweets is hands down my favorite bakery in the Capital Region. Don’t miss the cinnamon bun cupcakes!
The best way to sample a wide range of restaurants and get a taste of local history is the take a Historic Downtown Albany Food Tour with Taste of Troy, which consist of six tastes and sips that represent Albany’s culinary and craft brewing scene. Tours last a little over three hours, cost $65, and run Fridays from May through the end of October. Even having been born and raised in Albany, I went places I’d never been and learned facts I’d never heard from Amy, the lovely tour guide and owner. I look forward to taking more of her tours in the future.
Where to Drink
Many of the restaurants listed above are also amazing places for a drink, and many of the bars below are also excellent places for a bite — some were actually pretty tough to categorize. Again, I’m sticking to Albany County here, though those seeking Capital Region nightlife shouldn’t miss Troy, which has a happening scene year round, or Saratoga, which roars to life in the summer.
Albany suffered a huge loss with both beloved local barges the Rusty Nail and the Riverfront Bar and Grille closing their gangplanks this year — I hope something similar takes their places soon! In the meantime, here are my favorite places to grab a drink:
• Speakeasy 518: Marked only by a red light over the door and a small doorbell, Speakeasy 518 is a true throwback to the prohibition era. You’ll get a blank stare when the door opens, and once you ask to come in for a drink, you’ll be ushered in with a rundown of the rules: no phones, no cameras. Reservations are a must on the weekend, when there’s incredible live jazz.
• City Beer Hall: A cozy spot in a cavernous space. Despite its casual moniker and the fact that it’s one of the few spots in town with a late night food menu serving till midnight, City Beer Hall also has a surprisingly sophisticated food menu. (Keep in mind that late night, it has more bar vibes than restaurant ones.) Nab a spot at a communal table next to the fireplace in the winter or the Plaza-peeping patio in the summer, and don’t miss their boozy weekend brunch. If you’re looking for a night out on the cheap, stock up on the free personal pizza tickets handed out with every drink from the bar. Keep an eye on their bustling events page — the weekend brings major dance party vibes.
• Olde English Pub: This historic British pub is housed in the second oldest building in Albany, build in 1730. The real gem, however, is the beautiful back garden. Come on your birthday for a free oversized teacup of booze, or at the holidays for the smell of a real Christmas tree and the sight of the ceiling covered in festive ornaments. (For the full free-booze-on-your-birthday crawl, hit up Bombers for a 60oz margarita and Wolff’s Biergarten for a boot full of beer.) Olde English Pub recently sponsored a cute dog park across the street, making it the perfect place to play and dine or drink with your pup.
• Lost and Found: As you can probably tell by now, I have a major soft spot for anywhere in Albany with outdoor spaces and creative event programming — and Lost and Found has both. It’s in the heart of the Warehouse District, a fun spot to bar hop.
• Fuze Box: Fuze Box, a quirky independent venue in downtown Albany holds everything from 80’s dance parties to burlesque performances.
One thing that’s incredibly special about the Capital Region: the amount of craft and farm-based beverage producers in the area. The Capital Craft Beverage Trail, founded in 2015, was created to celebrate the wineries, breweries, and distilleries that call the Capital Region home. I’m so eager to explore more of this trail, but so far here are a few close-by favorites:
• Nine Pin: What a gem! Albany wouldn’t be the same in my eyes without Nine Pin, producers of one of my favorite ciders in the world — which just so happens to be made down the street from my childhood home. The tasting room offers a rotating menu of their seasonal, creative flavors like ginger and peach tea. They also offer cider-based cocktails, local New York beers and a small but delicious food menu of sourdough personal pizzas, cheese boards, and other small snacks. There are monthly $20 production tours and a heavy events calendar of live music, trivia nights, fun runs, crafternoons, and more. You can also visit their sister farm, Samascott Orchards, where they source their apples and hold many events.
• Albany Distilling Company: The tucked-away AdCo. bar is is possibly my favorite place to grab a drink downtown. With an incredible cocktail menu, a cozy location with a beautiful urban back patio, and a selection of artisan hot pockets to nibble on, it’s a true hidden gem. Weekly tours of Albany Distilling Co. are $10, last one hour, and include a behind-the-scenes look at the production facility, followed by a tasting in The Bottle Shop.
Where to Stay
The choice of where to stay in Albany is easy — the Renaissance Hotel is far and away the most appealing choice, in my opinion. I’ve stayed here twice now on staycations and love the central location, the chic and spacious suites (bathrooms boast a photo wall with artsy portraits of The Egg, pairs of wooden Dutch shoes, or other nods to the Albany area), the views of the Capital, the onsite restaurant, and the well-appointed gym. All rooms have both comfortable beds and living areas, and a TV with Netflix and complimentary HBO Go that swivel between the two — perfect for indulging in room service from the excellent Wellington’s Restaurant downstairs. The best part? It’s primarily used by business travelers and politicians, which means rates drop on the weekend to as little as $149 a night.
Seasonal Activities + Events
New York is a four season state! Your ideal trip to Albany will largely depend on what time of year you come. Luckily, there’s something special about every season. One of the best things about living in or visiting Albany is taking advantage of the incredible number of events in and around the city. Check the events calendar and Discover Albany social media to stay in the loop.
In the fall, don’t miss …
• Apple picking, pumpkin carving, and hay mazes at nearby farms like Indian Ladder Farm, perfect for combining with a trip to Thatcher State Park; Samascott Orchards, where Nine Pin sources their cider apples and often holds events; and Forts Ferry Farm, where there’s fantastic food and regular seasonal happenings.
• Fall foliage explosions making all of the region’s outdoor activities their absolute most spectacular.
• The fall edition of the charming Half Moon Market; LarkFest, a street festival down one of my favorite strolls in Albany; YogaPalooza and PearlPalooza, yoga and music festivals taking place concurrently on Pearl Street; or the Riverfront Jazz Festival, a waterfront concert series. One of these days, I’d love to make it to the nearby Adirondack Hot Air Balloon Festival, the oldest and largest of its kind on the East coast.
In the winter, don’t miss…
• Ice skating at The Empire State Plaza. I think it rivals Rockefeller for the most scenic skating in New York State! Skating is free; and rentals for adults cost a whopping $4. If you’re willing to brave the Saturday crowds, you can even get the rentals free.
• The plethora of ice bars that pop up around Albany, Lake George and Saratoga over the winter. They’re a blast!
• Skiing and snowboarding at mountains like cute Maple Ski Ridge, just half an hour away though admittedly more of a hill; Jiminy Peak, under an hour away with some incredible occasional weekday deals; Hunter Mountain, just over an hour away but super crowded with Manhattanites on weekends; and Gore Mountain, two hours away and absolutely gorgeous.
In the spring, don’t miss…
• Tulip Fest, Albany’s most iconic spring event, a weekend music and arts festival in Washington Park that gives a huge nod to the area’s Dutch history; the once-infamous St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which has become much tamer over the years, but is still a blast; and the spring edition of the lovely Half Moon Market.
In the summer, don’t miss…
• Sinking into the local lakes by beach hopping (my favorite growing up was at Grafton State Park) or scuba diving in Lake George.
• The seasonal buzz in Saratoga, home of the open-air Saratoga Performing Arts Center, The Saratoga Racetrack, and a vibrant summer nightlife scene.
• Enjoying the area’s huge number of nostalgic ice cream stands and local drive-ins theaters.
• Celebrating Fourth of July fireworks at the Empire State Plaza; the free weekly concert series Alive at Five (one of many similar free outdoor summer concert series in the cap reg); and a whole host of nearby county fairs.
The Wanderland Directory to the Capital Region
Where to Sweat
Don’t skip a workout when you come to the Capital Region — there are so many amazing places to celebrate movement! I’ve tried tons of local gyms, studios, and workouts, but these are my favorites.
• Good Karma Studio: My home away from home in Albany! Good Karma offers traditional mat yoga and barre classes as well as classes in aerial yoga, silks, lyra, hammock, and bungee. I can’t emphasize how warm and loving a community this is — or how lucky Albany is to have such an extensive offering of aerial arts. They run regular workshops on a plethora of topics and the owner Jess Lubin and I even collaborate on retreats — we held our first this past summer together in Florida and our next one is coming up in January in the Caribbean.
• Anatomie: I’m obsessed with Anatomie, my go-to for weight training, cycling, and yoga. The forty-five minute classes will leave you sweaty and inspired, as will the zen-like space. I can’t say enough great things about the owners Eileen and Pat — don’t miss the opportunity to train with them!
• Free workouts: On a budget? Check out the regular free fitness events at the Empire State Plaza, free monthly class at Lululemon Albany, ride your bike along the Mohawk Hudson Bike-Hike Trail, go for a run around Washington Park, or hit a local hiking trail. Keep an eye on Albany event calendar for pop up outdoor classes, community events, and donation-based fundraisers like a dog yoga class I attended this year at the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society.
• Yoga in Cool Places: Yoga Care offers chilled out, donation-based classes in galleries, museums, and outdoor spaces around the Capital Region. I’ve loved the classes at the Opalka Gallery and the SUNY Albany University Art Museum, a great excuse to chill out and check out local art. Super chill yoga classes are sometimes offered at The Salt Den, which also offers an infrared sauna, red light therapy and occasional massage events that I’ve also been a big fan of. June Farms offers goat yoga — and trail runs — in season, followed by delicious bites in the trendy barn.
Where to Get Gorgeous
If you need any beauty services while you’re in Albany, here are the tried and true, female-owned and operated businesses I love supporting.
• Nail 7: My go-to for manicures and pedicures. Kick back and enjoy complimentary seltzer, coffee, tea or wine while you get beautified at this super professional spot that’s a step above your average nail salon. The owner, Hang, books out months in advance, but her whole team is excellent.
• UrbaneBrow: Microblading changed my life (and my face!) and I have my friend Ashley of UrbaneBrow to thank for that. (Stay tuned for a full review of my microblading experience.) They also offer waxing and shaping, lash lifts, body waxing, and lip and eyeliner permanent makeup. It’s a super cute spot in downtown Albany — you won’t want to leave when your service is over!
• Smooth Reflections: I was always nervous to make the permanent hair removal leap until I met my girl Jaclyn at Smooth Reflections. She offers laser hair removal, electrolysis, and facial Laser Genesis — check her Instagram account to see some of the photography I did for her this year!
Where to Co-Work
Albany has a plethora of coworking spaces perfect for travelers who might need to catch up on an afternoon of emails mid-trip.
• Bull Moose Club: The views of the New York State Capital from Bull Moose Club are clearly inspiring — I couldn’t believe how productive I was during my day here. Along with all the usual coworking space amenities, there was a notably impressive selection of complimentary beverages (including fun flavored seltzer and liquor from AdCo, should a business call go wrong) and snacks (Goldfish crackers? Be still my heart!). Passes are $30 a day.
• CoLab: A minimalist coworking space at an affordable price, CoLab runs just $20 a day — and Stacks Espresso Bar is right next door for any of your caffeine needs. A bright mural by local artist Rachel Baxter provides a beautiful backdrop for a busy day.
Further afield: I recently visited Saratoga’s brand new Palette, a cafe downstairs and women’s coworking space upstairs. Not only is the space stunning, the founder has big ideas about future business programming and workshops. Memberships include unlimited wine and drip coffee and passes are $35 a day.
Where to Expand Your Mind
There are so many opportunities for constant learning and in the Albany area. Many of them have already been covered — workshops at places like Fort Orange and Good Karma, educational events at our local museums, etc. But here are a few more I’m pretty jazzed about.
• Art: I practically grew up at the Arts Center of the Capital Region, where I worked in their kids camps and took college level classes in every art medium you could imagine from stained glass to writing to metal arts and beyond. They also offer gallery shows, short workshops and regular art events — this year I took a pottery series and went to a bonsai arranging workshop. Also on my list to try is the Albany Art Room, which offers classes and open studio time in pottery, painting, and beyond.
• Cooking: Surrounded by farms with fresh produce, Albany is a fun place to learn a thing or two about cooking. There are classes at the Arts Center, Spoon and Whisk, Different Drummer’s Kitchen, Gio Culinary School, and Market Bistro — I’ve had them all on my wish list for ages.
Heading to the Capital Region? Feel free to hit me up with any questions — I’d be happy to help. And if you’ve already been, leave me your suggestions below, too!
This post was brought to you by Discover Albany, who does an incredible job of promoting all there is to love about living in and visiting the Capital Region. Don’t forget to follow them on Instagram and Facebook for endless inspiration!