Sooth your soul in ‘Spa City’ Saratoga Springs: Journey east packs history, arts, culture

Saratoga's famous racetrack is just one of Spa City's many attractions. Courtesy www.saratoga.com

Saratoga’s famous racetrack is just one of Spa City’s many attractions. Courtesy www.saratoga.com

Famous for its racetrack, outdoor summer concerts and mineral springs, the city of Saratoga, less than four hours from the north country, makes a great getaway year-round. Known for a robust arts scene that includes the Opera Saratoga and Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the city’s downtown also bustles with art galleries, boutiques and restaurants. And, only about a 30 minute drive from the Capital Region, a weekend trip to Saratoga will also make it easy to jaunt into the state’s capital for a wider range of shopping or to take a detour for a hike in the Adirondacks coming to or from.

Friday, 4 p.m., arrive and settle in

Start your weekend off with a stroll through Saratoga’s quaint downtown district, which offers a range of unique shops, eateries and boutiques. Of note is Lyrical Ballad Bookstore, which has eight rooms that house more than 100,000 new, used and rare books, antique prints and maps, many on New York and local history; Crafters Gallery for a variety of unique gifts, many of which are Saratoga-specific; Spoken Boutique for designer clothing; and Saratoga Olive Oil Co. where you can sample more than 60 different flavors of olive oils, balsamic vinegars and sea salts.

If you’re looking to unwind, the Saratoga Winery & Tasting Room, four miles from downtown, is worth the visit and has live music and food every Friday night from 6 to 9 p.m. Its Melomel wines are made with 12 percent local honey and 88 percent grapes and have no added sulfites or preservatives.

A good option for quaint lodging with spacious bedrooms and breakfast is Longfellows Hotel, Restaurant and Conference Center, a former dairy barn in a pastoral setting, located at 500 Union Ave. Longfellows’s restaurant is also a popular eatery known for its seafood and steak, with a Wine Spectator award-winning wine list. Saratoga Arms, a 31-room concierge-style hotel located at 497 Broadway in Saratoga Springs, is an elegant, historic place to stay that makes another good option for a place to stay within short walking distance of the downtown district.

If you’re looking for something on the less expensive side, the Saratoga Downtowner Motel has relatively cheap, nice rooms in a two-story brick building around an indoor pool atrium, as well as a free continental breakfast.

Longfellows Hotel, Restaurant and Conference Center, 500 Union Ave., Saratoga Springs, (518) 587-0108. Saratoga Arms, 497 Broadway, Saratoga Springs, (518) 584-1775. The Saratoga Winery & Tasting Room, 462 Route 29 West, Saratoga Springs, www.thesaratogawinery.com

Saturday, 10 a.m., talk a historic walk

The Saratoga National Historic Park offers beautiful rolling hills with spectacular views, and is rife with the history of one of the 15 most important battles in world history. The battlefield Visitor Center overlooking the battlefield, about two miles from the entrance on U.S. Route 4, is open year-round. Inside you can watch an orientation film, read about the battle, search a database for ancestors who fought at Saratoga and buy souvenirs in the gift shop. The center also has maps for a self-guided tour of the battlefield, which includes 10 exhibit stops spread over nine, tree-lined, cannon-dotted miles. The battlefield’s walking paths are also a fantastic place to cross-country ski or snowshoe in the winter months, as the hills are not too steep.

About a 15-minute drive from the battlefield is the Saratoga Monument, which is open Wednesdays through Sundays during the summer season and commemorates the place where British General John Burgoyne surrendered. Here you can listen to a ranger talk and climb to the top of the 155-foot granite monument for spectacular views of the picturesque countryside.

Saturday, 12 p.m., place your bets

If you visit Saratoga in the summer, braving the crowds at the hallowed grounds of the Saratoga Racetrack is well worth it, especially on special days like the annual hat contest. The six-week season begins in mid-July and runs through Labor Day weekend. Some of the most accomplished thoroughbreds have raced on Saratoga’s track, which is the oldest racetrack in the U.S. and also the oldest sporting venue of any kind nationwide.

Even if you’re visiting in the off-season, a stop at the track is worth it just to bask in the grandeur of history and, of course, make you want to visit again in the summer.

You can also grab a late lunch at Beekman Street Bistro, known for its signature clam appetizer and located in what’s known as the Art District on Beekman Historic West Side. The restaurant, which is known for its “farm-to-table” philosophy, is open seven days a week in track season and Tuesday to Saturday the rest of the year.

Saratoga Racetrack, 267 Union Ave., Saratoga Springs, www.saratogaracetrack.com. The Beekman Street Bistro, 62 Beekman St., Saratoga Springs, www.thebeekmanstreetbistro.com, (518) 581-1816

Saturday, 3 p.m., a luxury spa or take a ride on the wild side

It wouldn’t be a visit to Spa City without visiting Saratoga’s famous mineral springs and spas. Saratoga has seven public, naturally carbonated mineral springs in various locations, each of which has its own flavor based on its mineral composition and all of which are said to have famed health properties. You can pick up a brochure with a locater for the springs and self-guided tour (bring your own cup or bottle) at the Saratoga Visitors Center or online at www.saratoga.com. The State Seal Spring in Spa State Park is the most popular place to fill up bottles, using drawing thongs of locals.

If you want more than just a sip of the healing draught, however, Saratoga also has two remaining open locations for bathing in effervescent mineral baths: Spa State Park and Crystal Spa on South Broadway in downtown Saratoga Springs. The bath houses have individual rooms for private soaking in the spring’s 55 degree waters. Spa State Park is also a great place to enjoy the outdoors and has numerous nature trails, tennis courts, two pool complexes (one of which, the Victoria Pool, was the first heated pool in the U.S.) and picnic sites. The state took over the state 800 acres of Spa State Park in an effort to preserve the mineral springs, which were being tapped by more than 200 private springs at the height of the bottling boom in the early 1900s.

If you visit Saratoga in the warmer months and are feeling in the mood for more aquatic fun, Saratoga Lake, about five miles long and two miles wide, is only a few miles south of the city of Saratoga Springs and offers numerous opportunities in the way of boating, rowing or ice fishing. The boat launch on Route 9P has parking for up to 100 trailers. The shoreline also has an abundant supply of cute restaurants where you can refuel after the outing, including Harvest & Hearth for artisan pizza or Mangino’s Ristorante for numerous Italian and seafood dishes and lake views.

If spring water and bathing isn’t your thing, you could also consider taking a train ride on the Saratoga and North Creek Railway, which two years ago started service between Spa City and North Creek, a small, quaint Adirondack village where Gore Mountain ski resort is located. The two-hour ride is well worth it, especially in the fall, if you have the time. The train runs seven days a week July 1 through Oct. 31 and also has a meal service that makes the scenic trip that much more enjoyable. Once you arrive, you can hike or take Gore’s gondola to the top of the peak for more scenic vistas of the High Peaks and Southern Adirondacks. Check its seasonal hours at www.goremountain.com. In the spring, the train runs Saturdays and Sundays March 23 through May 30 and May 24 through June 30.

Spa State Park, 19 Roosevelt Drive, Saratoga Springs, www.nysparks.com/park/saratogaspa

Saturday, 8 p.m., dinner & opera

While Caroline Street is peppered with bars and pubs, check out PJ’s Bar-B-QSA at 1 Kaydeross Ave. West and sample the best in regional barbecued cuisine, including NY “State Fair” chicken and Saratoga chips — fried chips topped with cheese and bacon bits.

Entertainment opportunities abound in Saratoga, particularly in the summer when you can see productions ranging from frequent performer Dave Matthews and rap acts like Lil Wayne to the New York City Ballet at SPAC, whose sloping lawn and amphitheater makes it a truly unique and fun venue for outdoor concerts.

Opera Saratoga also has numerous fantastic performances, including the upcoming 54th Summer Opera Festival in June at the Spa Little Theater in Spa State Park featuring productions of The Elixir of Love by Gaetano Donizetti and The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

A good way to experience Saratoga’s arts scene is the three-hour monthly “First Saturdays” that allows visitors to attend artist receptions or openings on Broadway, Spring and Beekman streets via a free trolley service.

Local businesses and restaurants also often offer drink and dinner specials. Call the Saratoga Arts Council at (518) 584-4132 for more about the event. A list of art galleries can be found at www.saratoga.com/hotspot_galleries.cfm.

Opera Saratoga, www.operasaratoga.org. Saratoga Performing Arts Center, 108 Avenue of the Pines, Saratoga Springs, (518) 584-9330, www.spac.org

Sunday, 10 a.m., take in brunch and a museum

A good brunch spot is Ravenous, located at 21 Phila St., a family-run business that serves a huge variety of delicious and creative sweet and savory crepes.

Saratoga County is home to 10 museums, which means there’s something to appeal to the whole family before you skip town.

Particularly pertinent to the area is the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, 191 Union Ave., which has a collection of equine art, trophies, silks and racing memorabilia.

The Children’s Museum at Saratoga, 69 Caroline St., is also a fun way to kill a few hours with children, and has unique and fun exhibits for children to play and learn in, including a tree house, Saratoga trolley, grocery store, post office and school house.

On a more specialized note, the National Museum of Dance & Hall of Fame, created in 1986 and located in the historic former Washington Bathhouse in Saratoga Spa State Park, is the only museum in the nation focused exclusively on dance. A hub for research on all types of dance, the museum is home to a collection of photographs, videos, costumes, biographies, artifacts and more.
Ravenous, 21 Phila St., www.facebook.com/pages/Ravenous/30021187140, (518) 581-0560

Getting there

From all points north, take Route 12 south to Utica, then take Interstate 90 east to Albany. Use exit 27 for NY-30 toward Amsterdam, then take NY-67 East for about 20 miles. Follow Ballston Avenue to Broadway and into downtown Saratoga Springs.