Albany Capitol Building. Photo: Discover Albany
The Empire State’s Capital City has long been put down and dismissed as a small town backwater by unenlightened culture snobs near and far, though the loss is theirs. In Albany, one can find historical, cultural, gawkable, walkable, edible, and sippable gems that make a trip to New York’s Capital well worth it.
ALBANY HISTORY LESSON
As a backdrop to any trip to Albany, a brief history lesson is in order because, despite its sometimes diminutive reputation, it has an outsized place in our state and our nation’s founding.
State capital since 1797, the city now known as Albany was inhabited by Mohican and Iroquois tribes when claimed for the Dutch by Henry Hudson in 1609. Fur traders established the first European settlement there in 1614. Tragically, the Dutch dubbed it Beverwijck, a fact residents are still trying to live down. Nearby Fort Orange was built nearby to protect it. When the Brits took over in 1654, they (blessedly?) renamed it Albany, in honor of the Duke of Albany, a.k.a. the future James II of England and James VII of Scotland. Albany was officially chartered in 1686, making it the oldest effective city charter in the nation and, some say, the longest-running municipal government in the Western Hemisphere.
Albany came to be state capital after the British first burned New York City and, after the merchants fled north and Kingston was named capital, the British followed and burned it, too, so industry and merchants relocated farther north. The British intended to take Albany as well, but were defeated at the Battle of Saratoga.
During the colonial era, Albany played key roles as the locus for the first inter-colonial convention in 1689 and then in 1754 another congress that laid groundwork for the Continental Congresses.
In the 18th and 19th century, Albany was sitting pretty on the northern end of the Hudson River, a growing hub for transportation, becoming the terminus of the Erie Canal; the destination for the first steamship; and railroad travel. Shipping and industry thrived, with Albany serving as home to iron foundries, stockyards, and hordes of immigrants eager for relatively well-paying jobs.
In addition to building on its political power base, Albany became an intellectual hub. The city was bested only by Boston in terms of the number of books it produced in the 19th century. Albany was also — thanks largely to its high population of Dutch and German immigrants — a major center of beer brewing in the U.S. Transportation, power, books, booze. What else do you need?
By the beginning of the 20th century, however, Albany’s size and relative socio-political power decreased precipitously, as a newly unionized workforce headed west for better jobs that paid more, and families emptied out of cities into the ’burbs.
After decades of decline, one New York Governor (who went on to become Vice President by appointment during the Ford Administration) Nelson Rockefeller, tried to revive the city’s former majesty via monumental, state-funded public works. Rockefeller, of course, is one of the most noted philanthropists and public art bigwigs in American history, serving in many roles, including as the president of the Museum of Modern Art.
Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Art Collection. Photo: albanyinstitute.org
In 1957, he opened the now-defunct Museum of Primitive Art (the art collection, devoted to the early work of indigenous cultures in Africa, the Americas, Europe and Oceania, was transferred to the Metropolitan Museum of Art). From his gubernatorial perch between 1959 and 1973, Rockefeller oversaw the construction of SUNY Albany’s uptown campus, the Empire State Plaza, and, more to the point, what has been called “the greatest collection of modern American art in any public site that is not a museum” -- the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Art Collection. (And by public site, we mean free.) The collection is beautifully represented in a book, The Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Art Collection And Plaza Memorials, written by Dennis Anderson, director and curator in charge of the Empire State Art Collection from 1988 - 2012, and Glenn Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).
Have the hordes taken heed and flocked to Albany to gawk at the masterworks by Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Alexander Calder? No, probably at least in part, because art lovers do not understand the rich collection that is there.
These days, Albany’s population hovers around 100,000. Notably, the city’s metropolitan region, which encompasses nearby cities and suburbs of Troy, Schenectady and Saratoga Springs, makes it still the third-most populous in the state, clocking at around 1.1 million.)
Not the numbers one might reasonably expect..especially considering the treasure trove of historical, cultural, gawkable, walkable, edible, and sippable gems also on the menu in Albany. Below, we created our idea of our perfect day -- or weekend -- in Albany.
24 HOURS IN ALBANY
Below, we have created our idea of our perfect day in Albany. (Rest up; it’s a long one!).
A rigorous day of touristing should be tackled with a stomach full of Cider Belly Donuts (25 N. Pearl Street). The donuts here are not mere bits of fatty dough dressed up with sugar; they are fresh, springy orbs of artisanal goodness that must be tasted to be appreciated. Old school donut-heads should opt for the classic Sugar Daddy, a traditional New York cider donut fancified with powdered sugar, while the more adventurous may warm to The Mutha’ Pucker, a vanilla cake doughnut dressed in lemon glaze. The truly decadent will want to sink their teeth into Mocha Latte, a Venetian with a chocolate fudge drizzle. Mmmmmm...
Where were we? Time for culture! Visit the New York State Capitol, at the corner of Washington Avenue & State Street. You can’t miss the grandiose Romanesque Revival-Italian Renaissance structure looming over Albany from on high. The building was completed (well, sort of; a dome and tower were never finished because the weight of the building was creating stress fractures and other construction concerns, as well as cost) in 1899 for what would be north of $735 million today. Three architects (Thomas Fuller, Leopold Eidlitz, and Henry Hobson Richardson) contributed to the design, a fact that some historians blame for its visually, er, bracing symphony of styles. There are free tours Monday (with some cool secrets to be learned about the building) through Saturday. Call (518) 474 - 2418 to reserve a slot.
The New York State Museum, nearby on the Empire State Plaza, is a perennial family favorite, with an outstanding children’s room, the (regionally) famous Cohoes Mastodon, rooms of stuffed New York birds and animals, and of course, a carousel on the fourth floor. Entrance is free, the donations are gratefully accepted.
While you’re at the Plaza, hop over to Rockefeller’s collection, which has strong ties to the MoMA (his mother Abby Aldrich Rockefeller founded the museum in 1929 with two other women). He recruited Rene d’Harnoncourt, then-director of the MoMA, to help him select the artists whose work would be on exhibit. Grounded in Abstract Expressionism, as the decades have passed since he initiated the effort in 1961, the collection has become ever more well-regarded. Before you go, you can explore the exhibit online.
Time for lunch! The City Beer Hall at 42 Howard Street serves an incredible roster of farm-to-table American comfort food, alongside a phenomenal locally-minded, rotating tap list. Favorites include Pickled Brussels Sprouts followed by Duck & Dumplings (duck leg confit, sweet potato dumplings), paired with Artisanal Brew Work’s Woke (a mixed fermentation ale conditioned with Blood Orange, lactose, and honey malt).
Work off the confit ice-skating in the Empire State Plaza, a charming must throughout the winter! Admission is free; just pay for skate rental (or bring your own).
Washington Park Lake. Photo: washingtonparkconservancy.com
Can’t skate? Take a walk through Washington Park, an 81-acre park surrounded by gorgeous 19th century residential homes. First laid out in 1869 by John Bogart and John Cuyler, the park features an enchanting mixture of formal gardens, fields for picnics and play, several stunning fountains and monuments, multiple sprawling structures and a large lake. The park hosts many annual events, the most beloved of which are The Tulip Festival (when 200,000 tulips bloom) and, more relevantly for this time of the year, the Capital Holiday Lights festival, in which 125 enormous holiday-themed structures go up and illuminate the dark winter nights.
Or, if you’re in the mood for a real hike, the fossil-rich Helderberg Escarpment, about 11 miles west of Albany. Long an object of fascination and study for paleontologists and geologists from around the world, it resides within John Boyd Thacher State Park. The limestone escarpment rises 1,100 feet above the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys, offering stunning views of the entire region, including the nearby Berkshires, Greens, Taconics, and Adirondacks.
Or, if ships and history turn you on, visit the USS Slater DE-766, the last World War II 563 Destroyer Escort afloat, and walk the decks where sailors walked, lived, and worked.
One other interesting destination is the first Shaker community in the US, where Shaker founder Ann Lee is buried. Called "Wisdom's Valley," it is a very short distance from the Albany airport and a walk back to a very different time and perspective from that of our culture today. In freezing weather, you will especially feel the simple and stark nature of the Shakers in your bones! This spot does not take long to visit, but is fascinating from a historical and spiritual perspective.
Nine Pin Cider. Photo: ninepincider.com
If all of the exploring has worked up a bit of a thirst, hit Nine Pin Cider (929 Broadway) or Druther’s Brewing (1053 Broadway), or better yet, both (they’re practically neighbors) for a pint of locally made cider or suds before indulging in one of Albany’s signature gourmet feasts.
Yono’s Restaurant (25 Chapel Street) has been an Albany institution since the Purnomo family opened it in 1986, serving world class cuisine (try the pan-seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras with a black mission fig gastrique, followed by slow-cooked Washington County Pork Belly, with pickled fuyu persimmon) and next-level vino (ask sommelier Dominick Purnomo what to order, he won’t steer you wrong) that has been lauded by the James Beard Foundation, Wine Spectator, and others.
If you’re on the run, go to the Cheese Traveler at 540 Delaware Avenue for their incredible roster of artisanal cheeses (100+), superb adult grilled cheeses, and snacks, then pop into neighbor Bake for You for handmade brownies, cookies, cupcakes, and scones. Albany, frequently frigidly cold from early November to late March, is deeply committed to comfort food.
If you are still rarin’ to go, check to see what performances might be playing or events happening at the 17,500-seat capacity Times Union Center, the Palace Theatre, Capital Repertory Theatre, the Center for the Performing Arts, known to most as “the Egg” because of its distinctive shape, the most prominent piece of the Albany skyline, or -- for the intellectuals among us -- The Writers Institute at the State University at Albany, set-up by Pulitzer Prize-winner William Kennedy, where the best writers in the world give readings and seminars (and again, like much in Albany, it's free)!
While the Smallbany critic swims in her/his britches, we’ll be here, drinking the local cider, taking in the world-class masterpieces, strolling through emerald gems laid out by a genius, and stopping for the occasional perfect craft or momento and seasonal fried dough (sometimes lowbrow can be the ultimate highbrow).See also New York Makers 2014 article Insider’s Guide: Albany Isn’t Smallbany.