When you travel to central New York, it’s best to come hungry and bring a taste for history.
Food and wine, arising from a rich agricultural heritage, remain the backbone of the Finger Lakes, but the area’s bounty includes abundant museums, theater and outdoor activities. Near the Pennsylvania border in Greater Binghamton, nostalgia awaits in the form of six historic carousels.
Situated along the Hudson River and steeped in more than 400 years of history as a Dutch settlement, the state capital, Albany, applauds the past while celebrating its modern vibe, especially evident as the city celebrates its ties with the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.” And groups can explore the history of the Erie Canal in Syracuse.
A wine and food enthusiast’s dream on the shores of Canandaigua Lake, the New York Kitchen houses a restaurant, a sampling room and a cooking school with more than 240 annual classes. Opening in June, a second hands-on kitchen will accommodate 18 guests in addition to the current capacity of 24 participants. Demonstration classes for up to 45 guests take place in its state-of-the-art theater-style venue. In addition, the town of Canandaigua boasts historic architecture, a bustling main street and proximity to farms and wineries.
“Another must-see is beautiful Sonnenberg Gardens and Mansion State Historic Park,” said Valerie Knoblauch, Finger Lakes Visitors Connection president and CEO. “On-site, the Finger Lakes Wine Center hosts wine tastings, and many special events can be tailored to your group.”
South of Seneca Lake, the Corning Museum of Glass added a contemporary and art design wing several years ago. Its daily schedule includes a “Hot Glass Show” by master glassmakers and Make Your Own Glass sessions. The GlassMarket sells original works by emerging and established artists. Within walking distance, the historic Gaffer District beckons with boutiques, galleries, studios and restaurants.
Exquisitely restored Aurora Inn on Cayuga Lake serves award-winning American cuisine in its Lakeside Room and has developed many group activities, from yoga classes to custom tea blending, cocktail-making and more. Near the village of Aurora, the MacKenzie-Childs design center, famous for its black-and-white check pattern, offers tours of its lavishly restored three-story farmhouse filled with table settings, accessories and whimsical, hand-painted furniture. The gift shop features an artist demonstration and 15-minute film that takes visitors behind the scenes.
Twenty miles northeast of Aurora near Owasco Lake, the city of Auburn offers year-round entertainment in the Auburn Public Theater, plus Broadway-quality shows and start-up musicals during the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival from June through mid-October. History buffs will enjoy the Seward House, home of William H. Seward, who served as secretary of state during the Lincoln and Johnson presidencies. Other historic highlights include the Equal Rights Heritage Center, opened last November, and the Harriet Tubman House, where the abolitionist hero lived the last 50 years of her life.
As the oldest continuously chartered city in the nation, Albany’s history is woven into its architecture, attractions and landmark businesses. Recently, the city’s ties to the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” have garnered attention. In 1780, Alexander Hamilton wed Elizabeth Schuyler at the Schuyler Mansion, which is now preserved as a State Historic Site. Groups can opt for the mansion tour, “When Alexander Hamilton Called Albany Home,” and the Albany Institute of History and Art exhibit, “The Schuyler Sisters and Their Circle,” which runs late-July through December.
“Although tickets will probably sell out for ‘Hamilton,’ which is coming to Schenectady, numerous events will tie into the musical,” said Jill Delaney, president and CEO of Discover Albany. “Beginning this summer, we’ve cultivated a self-guided walking tour called Hamilton in Albany.”
Albany’s walkable downtown features the majestic New York State Capitol, which offers tours. The Empire State Plaza’s Corning Tower Observation Deck affords a panoramic city view. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of Prohibition in Albany. A new walking tour tells the story of the city’s many historic sites during Prohibition; additional events are also planned.
The Erie Canal officially began in Albany. Since 2017, Albany has been celebrating the Erie Canal Bicentennial. At the New York State Museum, the exhibit “Enterprising Waters: New York’s Erie Canal (Phase Two),” showcases this historic waterway. For further exploration, Erie Canal Bike Tours offers cycling adventures for an active add-on to any itinerary.
Craft beverages continue to thrive throughout the Capital Region, and the culinary scene focuses on local ingredients and innovative dishes. Historic homes offer guided tours, meals and receptions. The Federal-style Ten Broeck Mansion, completed in 1798, hosts garden receptions and inside dining. The 1830s Pruyn House sits on five acres and hosts dinners in its barn or manor.
Reigning as the city’s grand dame of entertainment, the Palace Performing Arts Center originally presented vaudeville acts. Today, it’s home to the Albany Symphony Orchestra, world-class ballet, concerts, Broadway productions and more. Extensive renovations replicated its 1931 design.
It’s easy to take a spin in Binghamton, known as the Carousel Capital of the World. Since the 1920s, the city has supported six fully operational carousels. All are listed on the New York State Historic Register and National Register of Historic Places and are free to ride from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The 1923 carousel in C. Fred Johnson Park features 72 figures shaped by elaborate carvings, original scenic panels and beveled mirrors. Another carousel pays homage to “The Twilight Zone,” which was created by Binghamton local Rod Serling.
“For many groups, the carousels are the first place they want to visit,” said Cassie Green, sales and social media manager for Visit Binghamton. “They’re such a treasure right here in our own backyard, and they’re all within a 15-mile radius of each other.”
The city lies on central New York’s craft beer route, Brew Central, which stretches from Cooperstown to Syracuse and Utica to Binghamton. Not to be missed, Beer Tree Brew Co. is a brewery in a woodland setting.
More good eats can be found at the Lost Dog Café, located in a former cigar factory, sporting eclectic decor and a local vibe and serving fresh cuisine. And no visit is complete without sampling a spiedie, marinated cubes of meat cooked on a skewer and typically served in a long roll. Imported as a delicacy from Italy and originally made from lamb, today’s spiedies feature a variety of meats. The ultimate spiedie celebration takes place in August at the Spiedie Fest and Balloon Rally, where more than 100,000 come for the hot-air balloons, the live music and the car show and, of course, to get their fill of spiedies.
Just outside of town, April the giraffe and her growing family — Oliver, Tajiri, and Azizi — live at the Animal Adventure Park. Groups can feed and have interactive experiences with many of the animals at the park.
An urban renaissance in Syracuse’s historic districts makes exploration a delight. In Franklin Square, the walking path borders picturesque Onondaga Creek. Armory Square’s historic buildings, constructed between 1860 and 1890 near the Erie Canal, are now a prime spot for shopping, dining and nightlife.
Hanover Square, the original center of downtown Syracuse, has connections to the Civil War and abolitionist movement. The square’s 1800s European-style buildings house specialty shops, restaurants and pubs. A unique water sculpture stands at the site of the original well and provides an inviting spot to enjoy summer entertainment.
Another popular part of town, Clinton Square began as a major checkpoint on the Erie Canal. The square, which acts as the city center, is within walking distance of numerous sites and serves as the city’s festival area. In winter, an outdoor ice rink sports the city Christmas tree. The remainder of the year, the farmers market, a stage for live performances and a picturesque water fountain grace the area.
Syracuse played a major role along the Erie Canal. This engineering marvel, built by hand from Albany to Buffalo, connected New York City to the Great Lakes via the Hudson River. Housed in the 1850 Weighlock Building, the Erie Canal Museum exhibits artifacts, interactive displays and a replicated canal boat complete with crew quarters, cargo and passenger areas.
If groups want to explore the canal for themselves, the Mid-Lakes Navigation Company offers several options. Cruises include Lockmaster Erie Canal Charters, cruises on the Erie Canal and Skaneateles Lake, and multiday journeys on the canal from May to October.
Back on land, Sampling Syracuse Food Tours offers three-hour walking tours May through October. With a wide range of dishes, from pasta to barbecue and chocolate, many eateries remain family-owned and -operated. Cultural and historic landmarks along the route are pointed out, too.