The locals sometimes joke that the capital city of New York State should be called Smallbany. It seems that everyone is only one or two degrees of separation from everyone else. A “traffic jam” means it takes 20 minutes to get across town instead of 15, and you don’t need to be as rich as Croesus to afford a nice house. But for a relatively small city of just under 100,000 residents, Albany packs in a lot of big and exciting things to do.
Geographically, Albany is perfectly situated, an easy drive to bigger hubs — like Boston, New York, and even Montreal — and to natural wonders like the Adirondack, Berkshire and Catskill mountains. The rest of the Hudson Valley, both south and north, also makes up Albany’s playground. You can even take Amtrak directly from Poughkeepsie; the ride is about an hour and a round-trip ticket can cost as little as $50. And within the city limits, Albany itself offers some truly unique entertainment.
There are one-of-a-kind nature preserves like the Albany Pine Bush, architectural marvels like the State Capitol, cultural treasures like the Albany Institute of History and Art, family-friendly events like LarkFest and the Tulip Festival, and an ever-growing number of fine restaurants and bars. Heck, the capital city even has its own speakeasy these days! The Times Union Center attracts big name entertainment; in May, both Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart — playing with Santana — will be there; while the historic, Art Deco Palace Theatre, home to the Albany Symphony Orchestra, also offers a wide range of cultural performances.
Yes, Albany has — dare we say it — become hip. And, as the population swells, powered by the burgeoning technology industry that is being spurred on by the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering and Saratoga County’s computer chip “fab” factories, Albany may one day even outgrow its Smallbany feel. For now, though, it remains a fun, festive, easy — and affordable — place to enjoy a quick one-of-a-kind day trip or weekend getaway.
The Albany Institute of History & Art
Founded in 1791, the Albany Institute of History and Art is one of the oldest museums in the United States — older than the Smithsonian Institution, the Met, and even the Louvre in Paris. The institute is best known for its collection of Hudson River School paintings and as one of the few museums in the Northeast, besides the Met, to have Egyptian mummies on display. Dating from Egypt’s 21st Dynasty (1085-945 BCE), and purchased from the Cairo Museum by the AIHA in 1909, the two mummies are the subject of a current special exhibition, “GE Presents: The Mystery of the Albany Mummies.” Running through June 8, the exhibit showcases Ancient Egyptian objects brought to Albany from collections around the world. Ongoing exhibits at the museum are devoted to the Hudson River paintings, 19th-century American sculpture, and the earliest days of colonial Albany.
Albany Institute of History & Art
125 Washington Ave.
The Albany Pine Bush
As the last ice age melted away, the glaciers left behind a sandy desert in western Albany County that, if camels had roamed it, would have looked remarkably like the Sahara. Over the millennia, it evolved into a pine barrens; now known as the Albany Pine Bush, this area is recognized as one of the best remaining examples of inland pine barrens in the world. Home to the endangered Karner Blue butterfly (fun fact: this insect was first identified by famed novelist and equally adept lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov), the Pine Bush is now protected land and an outdoor adventurer’s dream. Its flora and fauna include unusual vegetation adapted to sand dunes; dozens of rare and endangered bird, reptile, and insect species — and the more-common white-tail deer; cottontail rabbits; red and gray fox; eastern coyote; and plenty of snakes, frogs, and turtles. Upcoming programs include a full moon hike on May 14 and a celebration for world turtle day on May 24-25.
Albany Pine Bush Discovery Center
195 New Karner Rd.
Every city needs its funky district, and in Albany that’s Lark Street. Lark is the main thoroughfare in a neighborhood that is known as “the Village in the City,” and if it reminds you of Greenwich Village, that’s the idea. Stunning brownstones and townhomes line the side streets and border the Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Washington Park nearby. Bars, restaurants, nightclubs, boutiques, and “alternative” businesses (need a tattoo?) sit below apartments filled with young professionals, college kids, artists, and other downtown enthusiasts. And the area hosts LarkFest, the largest one-day street festival in the state, which draws 80,000 people annually to sample tasty food, browse through craft vendors, enjoy several stages full of national and regional musicians and entertainers, and have fun in the kid-friendly Family Zone. This year, LarkFest is scheduled for September 20.
Lark Street Business
New York State Museum
An underappreciated treasure, the New York State Museum takes you all the way from the state’s prehistory — where else can you find a full mastodon skeleton? — through its permanent display on the tragedy of September 11, 2001. By all means, do not miss “The World Trade Center: Rescue, Recovery, Response,” which details the history of the World Trade Center, the terrorist attacks, the rescue efforts, and so much more. The exhibition includes many objects, such as a crushed fire truck, battered flags, and pieces of the airplanes. Happier exhibits explore the Adirondacks; Harlem; colonial New York; and the birds, minerals, and native peoples of the state. And when your kids get antsy, accompany them to the full-sized antique carousel on the museum’s fourth floor. Made between 1912 and 1916, it features gold-painted decoration and mirrors, 36 horses, two deer, two donkeys, and Neptune’s Chariot.
New York State Museum
Open Tuesday-Saturday 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Carousel hours 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
222 Madison Ave.
Albany Tulip Festival
Albany has an English name now, but it started out speaking Dutch, the language of the nation that made it the very first European settlement in America. The city still celebrates its Dutch roots every Mother’s Day weekend with the annual Tulip Festival. The fest always begins with girls in authentic Dutch costumes scrubbing State Street — a Dutch tradition in anticipation of a large celebration; each year, they also crown a new Albany Tulip Queen and Albany’s Mother of the Year. The party includes several stages of live music, craft vendors, a fine arts show, children’s activities, and food. New this year: the Drawing Up Central Sidewalk Chalk Competition, in which artists decorate Central Avenue’s sidewalks. And of course, Washington Park’s tulips — upwards of 100,000 of them in more than 140 different varieties — will be blooming. It is a tulip festival, after all.
The Annual Albany Tulip Festival
May 10-11, 2014
Washington Park; www.albanyevents.org
State Capitol and the Million-Dollar Staircase
They don’t build anything like this anymore. The State Capitol building took 32 years to construct, from 1867 to 1899, at a cost of $25 million. That’s a mind-blowing half a billion — with a “b” — dollars in today’s currency. Take a tour and you’ll see where the money went. It’s as grand and opulent as a European palace, and as over-the-top. Consider, for example, the Million-Dollar Staircase. Officially called the Great Western Staircase, it took 14 years to build and cost more than $1 million in 19th-century dollars. Expensive, yes, but also stunning; its 444 steps extend 119 feet high, and it features the work of master stonecutters who sculpted the likenesses of Washington, Lincoln, Grant, Susan B. Anthony, and 73 other famous Americans — along with the faces of friends, relatives and strangers — into the walls.
Guided tours of the New York State Capitol are available Monday through Friday (excluding holidays).
Empire State Plaza
518-474-2418 for tour times
The USS Slater
History buffs should also make time to visit this floating museum, because you won’t find anything like it anywhere else. During World War II, the U.S. built 563 fighting ships called destroyer escorts, which battled Nazi U-boats on the North Atlantic to protect convoys of men and material and defend naval task forces from Japanese submarines and Kamikaze air attacks in the Pacific. Today, only one of these ships remains afloat in the United States: the USS Slater, moored downtown on the Hudson River in Albany. After an extensive 15-year restoration, the ship is one of less than a dozen surviving destroyer escorts, and it is the only ship that looks as it did during World War II. The museum offers hour-long guided tours, youth group overnight camping, and a historic location to hold naval reunions.
Broadway & Quay streets
Open to visitors April-November,
Wednesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.