Skip the Horse Races in Saratoga Springs

1. Where to Stay

The Saratoga Arms is a charming alternative to nearby chain hotels in the city center.Photo: Courtesy of the Saratoga Arms

Take a quiet retreat away from the center of town at the Springwater Bed & Breakfast (from $120), a family-owned-and-operated inn that serves as a welcome alternative to the city’s rather seedy-looking motels. This new construction opened in 2010 with five spacious, individually decorated rooms featuring conveniences like towel warmers in the large marble and tile bathrooms and private porches on the second floor.

Experience a bygone era at the Gideon Putnam Resort & Spa (from $185), the city’s sole remaining historic hotel now that the iconic Adelphi is indefinitely closed for renovation. Open for more than 70 years, the Georgian-style property’s rooms have been given a contemporary facelift in recent years, but you can still experience “taking the waters” at the adjacent Roosevelt Baths & Spa, where you soak in naturally effervescent mineral water ($30 for 40 minutes) in the WPA-era bathhouse.

Surround yourself with genteel style at the Saratoga Arms (from $239), an impeccably restored, 1870 Second Empire brick mansion filled with toile wallpaper, vintage equestrian art, family antiques, winding staircases, and other period details including a beautiful wraparound porch. Located on the city’s main drag, it combines the personal touches of a B&B with the high standards and non-invasiveness of a boutique hotel, making it a better option than the characterless chain properties you’ll find nearby.

2. Where to Eat

The Mouzon House serves farm-to-table cuisine in a remodeled Victorian home.Photo: Courtesy of the Mouzon House

Make a reservation for dinner at ever-popular Max London’s, where exposed brick walls, Edison bulbs, and artisanal cocktails give this five-year-old spot an urbane sensibility. The kitchen prides itself on making everything from scratch, and the attention to flavor combinations on the Mediterranean-inflected menu is uniformly impressive; recent standouts included an apple salad of arugula, marcona almonds, Manchego cheese, and Serrano ham ($10); hamachi and tuna tartare with grapefruit gelee ($14); and Colorado lamb chops served over chickpeas and lamb merguez ($36).

Dine in a remodeled Victorian home at The Mouzon House, where a series of uniquely appointed rooms lined with paintings create an intimate, dinner-party ambiance. The menu spans genres and countries—you can have poutine ($10), jambalaya ($24), or lobster Thermidor ($38)—and changes daily, since the kitchen sources many of its ingredients from more than 25 local farms.

Taste the fruits of Saratoga’s nascent beer scene at the city’s best spots for hop lovers. Make a stop at Olde Saratoga Brewing Company for a 64-ounce growler ($15) of Saratoga Lager, which won the gold medal last month at the TAP New York festival. At three-month-old the Merry Monk, you can choose from more than a dozen drafts and nearly 100 bottles while you share a duck “reuben,” a combination of duck confit, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and fig jam ($12) that provides the right balance of sweet and savory. Druthers Brewing Company, which opened last summer, serves roughly a dozen of its own remarkable beers on tap at any given time, plus gut-busting sandwiches including a Cuban made with pulled pork that’s smoked in-house, capicola ham, and pickled jalapeños ($13). You can also plan your visit to coincide with the fourth annual Saratoga Brewfest on June 15 (from $45 per person), when more than 40 regional breweries will be pouring.

Grab a table on the columned patio overlooking Broadway for prime people-watching at Maestro’s at the Van Dam, an upscale American bistro housed in a former hotel that predates the Civil War. The outdoor seats are highly coveted in the summer, so it’s best to have an early dinner or late lunch for an array of small plates like hoisin-glazed lamb lollipops ($19) and duck confit bruschetta, layered with brie, caramelized onion, and green apple ($15).

3. What to Do

An exhibit inside the renowned Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College.Photo: Courtesy of Tang Teaching Museum

Enjoy a wide variety of live performances that enliven the city every summer. Most popular is the annual New York City Ballet residency in July at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, a semi-outdoor venue with an expansive lawn where you can have picnics during shows. Beyond dance, the venue is also hosting Opera Saratoga, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and big-name acts like the Dave Matthews Band and Phish this summer. Aside from SPAC, you can see famed Broadway performer Ben Vereen and Cuban jazz outfit Tiempo Libre as part of this year’s Saratoga Arts Fest (June 6–9), for which a $40 pass includes entry to most festival events as well as museums including the National Museum of Dance. Finally, there’s the Saratoga Shakespeare Company, which will perform The Merry Wives of Windsor July 16–28 for free in Congress Park.

Take advantage of the evening readings featuring authors like Claire Messud, Rick Moody, and Michael Ondaatje as part of the New York State Summer Writers Institute, hosted by Skidmore, July 1–26. All readings are free and open to the public, but they only take place during the week, which still gives you the opportunity to catch Joyce Carol Oates (Friday, July 12) and Phillip Lopate (Monday, July 8) during a long weekend trip.

Skip the underwhelming galleries on Broadway and Beekman Street and stick to the area’s two major art museums. For contemporary exhibitions, head to the Tang Teaching Museum ($5 admission) on the campus of Skidmore College. The angular building, designed by renowned architect Antoine Predock, houses four galleries that have recently featured the work of Yoko Ono and Nancy Grossman; the summer lineup includes a collection of work from female photographers who have resided at Yaddo, and TRANSFORMer, a collaborative sculpture that changes over time as viewers participate in its construction (both shows open June 8). With a 3,300-piece permanent collection including works by Seurat, Degas, Botticelli, El Greco, and others, The Hyde Collection ($8 admission) in nearby Glens Falls appeals to more traditional tastes; its summer exhibition features the work of Georgia O’Keeffe.

4. Insider’s Tip

Hattie's Chicken Shack serves one of the city's favorite recipes away from the crowds.Photo: Courtesy of Hattie's Chicken Shack

Hattie’s Restaurant is justifiably famous for its crispy, non-greasy fried chicken, which it’s been serving since 1938, but in the summertime it becomes a tourist trap with endless waits. Side-step the crowds by heading to sister establishment Hattie’s Chicken Shack, hidden a ten-minute drive away in strip-mall territory, where you can dine in or take your order to go. The chicken here is nearly the same quality without the wait, and it costs less, too.

5. Oddball Day

The roses in the Yaddo Gardens peak in late June and July.Photo: Courtesy of Yaddo Gardens

Take a break from contemporary culture to explore the city’s historical sites and green spaces. Start your day with expertly baked almond croissants ($3.50 each) at Mrs. London’s, then stroll north on Broadway to gawk at the well-preserved Victorian homes that line the blocks north of Van Dam. Once you reach Skidmore’s campus, make a left and then walk back into town on Woodlawn Avenue to see former carriage houses that have been converted into modern dwellings. Next, drive fifteen minutes north to the untouched-by-time Grant Cottage ($5 admission), where President Ulysses S. Grant completed his memoirs shortly before dying of throat cancer. While you’re there, walk the short path to the Eastern Outlook, where you can take in a wide view of the Hudson Valley, bordered by the Adirondacks, the Catskills, and the Green Mountains. Head back to Saratoga and pick up lunch at Roma Foods, where you can find a selection of imported goods and order hefty sandwiches stacked with Italian meats and cheeses. See the landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in Congress Park, where you can eat on one of the benches next to the carousel. If you dare, sample the mineral water—an acquired taste, to put it lightly—that trickles up at various springs dotting the seventeen-acre park. Then spend at least a half-hour perusing the labyrinthine Lyrical Ballad Bookstore, where eight rooms house more than 100,000 titles, including a good selection of local history books. Hop back in the car and drive a few minutes to until you reach the Yaddo Gardens (free admission), where you can roam the sprawling, landscaped grounds at the famous artists’ colony that has hosted Truman Capote, Langston Hughes, and many others (docent-led tours every Saturday at 1 p.m.). Drive east another twenty minutes to Saratoga National Historical Park ($5 fee for cars), the site of a decisive battle during the American Revolution, where you should set aside an hour to travel the scenic tour road that winds through the park. Head back west to Saratoga Spa National Park, once the home of a mighty bathhouse complex, and drive down the stately Avenue of the Pines before wandering the brick arcades that connect the Roosevelt-era buildings, taking a soak at the still-operational Roosevelt Baths, or having a swim in the massive Victoria Pool ($8 admission). Get cleaned up for dinner and have an old-school meal at Sperry’s, open since 1932, where the kitchen turns out dishes like filet of Dover sole ($26) and steak au poivre ($30). Afterward, wander around “The Gut,” four square blocks east of Broadway that gets as crowded as Bourbon Street in July and August. There’s history here, too: Bob Dylan used to play and sleep on the floor at Caffè Lena, and Don McLean was believed to have written “American Pie” at Tin & Lint (2 Caroline Street; 518-587-5897) before he debunked the rumor. End the night at Esperanto to try Saratoga’s favorite late-night snack: the dough-boy ($3.75), a slender calzone of sorts, stuffed with chicken, scallions, cheese, and a secret blend of spices.

6. Links

Saratoga Arts is plugged in to the local arts community, and is the best resource for finding out about upcoming gallery shows and other cultural activities.

The Times Union’s restaurant blog, Table Hopping, covers the food scene in Saratoga Springs and the surrounding region.

Read Skidmore Unofficial for details on in-town and on-campus events that are open to the public.

Find out about all the events taking place to celebrate the Saratoga Race Course’s 150th anniversary at Saratoga 150 Festival.

The Saratogian, the local newspaper, covers cultural news and lists events.

Skip the Horse Races in Saratoga Springs