Albany and the Capital District

Why Albany:

Albany is the capital of the state of New York. It also happens to be the oldest European settlement in the state (yes, it is older than New York City).

As a resident of New York, visiting the capital has been on my radar for quite some time – it is nice to see where the laws are passed. Additionally, I am somewhat of a state capitol enthusiast – I have visited more than half of the buildings. While many places in the Northeast are seasonal destinations, Albany´s main attractions are indoors and therefore year-round. 

Another consideration is that the government buildings are only open during weekdays. I didn´t want to take a vacation day, so I planned my trip around a light period of work so I could take an extended lunch. The date that worked was late March/early April. 

March 31, 2022: The Train Up

I arrived at New York City´s Moynihan Train Hall, less than a 10-minute walk from my apartment. Ride took 2.5 hours and I arrived at Albany-Rensselaer Station directly across the river from downtown Albany but technically in a different county. Since there were no car rentals at the train station, I took an Uber to my Airbnb. I was staying in an enormous mansion. The family´s kids all had moved out and they wanted to do something with the giant house. So, they rented out bedrooms to Airbnb. It was late, so I went to bed. 

April 1, 2022: Albany

I worked all morning, but (as planned) I had very few meetings, so I was able to take an extended break in the middle of the day and make up the time later in the afternoon. At around 11:30, I walked over to the capital complex. I say complex because the capital is one of many government buildings in downtown Albany. The capital itself is of mixed Renaissance Revivalist style, but the surrounding Empire State Plaza is modernist, almost dystopian.

Empire State Plaza

Tourists enter the building through the underground mall underneath the plaza. After clearing security, I waited in the lobby for my 12:00 guided tour.    

The NY Capitol

The tour guide explained that the New York State Capitol is unlike all the rest and not just because it does not have a dome. Construction started in 1867 just after the Civil War. While supposed to cost $4 million. 32 years and $25 million later (2022 equivalent of nearly $900 million), the building was still not finished. To stop a further overrun, Governor Theodore Roosevelt deemed it done. By this point, the building had gone through three architects who each had different visions for the building. The original team built the first two floor in a Romanesque style. The second team built the next three stories in a Victorian-Romanesque style.  The roof of the building resembles a French chateau.

The legislative chambers are on the 4th floor. The Senate´s walls are covered in gold. Many of the stone features were not finished by the architects when the construction was deemed complete. So, while the room is incredible, there are noticeable flaws. 

The NY Senate

The House chamber looks Romanesque with Mudejar elements. The weirdest feature are the boardrooms in the back corners of the chamber. 

The NY House of Representatives

The grandest feature of all is the “Million Dollar Staircase” officially the Great Western Staircase. Completed in 1894 at a cost of $1.5 million, the New York Times described the staircase as the “Greatest architectural work on the continent”. While I am not so sure about that claim, the 4-story staircase is quite impressive. 

Top level of the Million Dollar Staircase

After the tour, I wandered around the building for a bit longer before heading out to lunch. Along the way, I stopped outside the State Education building, which controls all the public schools in the state. The building contains a colonnade of 36 Corinthian columns, one of the world´s longest. Unfortunately, the building was not open to tours. 

The NY State Education building

After a delicious lunch of cauliflower steak (not a steak) at the Iron Gate Cafe, I headed back to the underground mall. The mall was packed with government workers and people from all over the state here for a conference.

From the mall, I was able to visit an observation deck on top of the tallest building in Albany, the Corning Tower. From 42 floors up, I had unobstructed views of Albany, the Hudson River Valley, and the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. 

View from the top of the Corning Tower

Next, I visited the New York State Museum, also accessible via the underground mall. This dated museum showcases all that New York State has to offer. About half of the museum covers the natural history of the state and focuses heavily on minerals, trees, and animals from the Adirondack Mountains in far northern New York. The second half focuses on New York City. While the city of New York contains 40% of the state´s population, the metro area which extends into New Jersey and Connecticut actually has a larger population than entire the State of New York. Its hard to criticize a free museum, especially one of this size. However, the exhibits felt dated and the layout was confusingly non-linear. 

It was now time to head back to work. On the way back, I stopped at Cheesecake Machismo, which reportedly has the best cheesecake in the entire state – a big statement in THE cheesecake state. The shop opens 5 days a week until they sell out, which usually is around 2pm. By the time I arrived, they had only 2 flavors left. Luckily, it was their most popular flavor, the matcha chocolate. I am personally not a chocolate fan, but this cheesecake was really good. Was it the best in the state? Hard to say outside of a side-by-side taste test. 

Typical street in downtown Albany

After work, I headed to the airport to pick up my car since this was the only place to get a car. The ride was $30. Uggh. 

Once I had the car, I drove to a farm-to-table restaurant for my 20:00 dinner. The meal was stupendous. Next door was a craft beer bar with $5 brews! Wow the prices here are so much better than downstate. 

My amazing dinner in Albany

On Saturday, April 2, I took a day trip to Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. This is for another blog post. 

April 3, 2022: Parts West

At the last minute, I decided to visit Howe´s Cavern, one hour to the west of Albany. 

The cavern describes itself as New York State´s second most-visited natural landmark (with the top slot obviously going to Niagara Falls). 

Before getting to the cavern, I stopped at a farm shop to get breakfast. The area is known for carrots, so I got a healthy breakfast of carrot cake and cider donuts. The caverns were just 10-minutes away. 

Annoyingly for April, it started to snow as I waited for my tour to begin. Luckily, there is no snow inside the underground cave. 

My 10:00 tour of Howe´s Cavern started in the visitor center, which is a ski lodge sort of structure. After a cheesy but cute intro video, we got into an elevator and descended into the earth with our tour guide, a senior girl at the local high school. She made all the required jokes but was NOT in the mood to give a tour. 

The cave itself was a single linear passageway above an underground river. There were a few formations, but nothing impressive. Luckily for our guide, everyone else on the tour was from the region and hadn´t seen a good cave and were thus impressed. 

After a half-mile walk, the walkway ended, and we reached the underground river. The guide boarded us into a boat. She moved us down the river by pushing along the sides of the cave.  After 5 spectacular minutes, we reached furthest accessible point in the cave. Our guide then turned off the lights to give us a chance at experiencing the cave in its natural state. 

The underground river in Howe´s Cavern

On the way back, we stopped at an underground wedding chapel and a narrow slot canyon feature. 

While the cave tour started out slow, the river and the maze at the end made it distinct and worth the visit. 

I then drove back towards Albany. The only town of reasonable size nearby is Schenectady. The mid-size town has certainly seen better days. I drove over to check out Union College where a couple kids from my high school went. The campus is built around a humongous grassy quadrangle. At the center of the quadrangle is the Nott Memorial a unique dome-shaped chapel that is a national historic landmark. 

Union College

As I was leaving town, I received a conveniently timed Instagram message from my high school classmate Evan. He strongly suggested I visit a deli called Adeeb´s that he used to frequent during his last two years at Union. The deli is run by Yemenis and despite Ramadan, they were cranking out sandwiches. Per Evan´s suggestion, I ordered the West Coast sub. I usually am skeptical about sandwiches where mayo is the main sauce, but this sandwich knocked my socks off. Truly a hidden gem and the staff could not have been nicer. 

All hail Adeebs

I still had some time and drove to the center of Schenectady. The Sunday farmer´s market was happening, and the town was as busy as it probably ever gets, which is to say not busy but there were people! To the soundtrack of an off-tune version of Jimmy Buffet´s Margaritaville, I wandered down the pedestrian alley past a packed restaurant and hippie stores. The town had a funny collection of people. I certainly appreciate the effort of the town to try to get people together. The center is really nice and has a lot of potential. 

Town center Schenectady

I then drove back to the Albany airport to catch my Uber to the train station to catch my train back to New York City. 

Final Thoughts:

Albany the Capital Region is not the most exciting destination you´ve ever visited, but it still has plenty of draws for a tourist! The capitol complex is the obvious highlight and is seriously impressive. I also really liked the food scene around town. 

Nearby, Howe´s Cavern was a pleasant surprise with the underground boat ride. I really enjoyed it. 

Cooperstown, just 90 minutes west of Albany is also a spectacular destination. 

I did not have quite enough time, but everybody in Albany was talking about Saratoga just 30 minutes north. And 45 minutes east are the Berkshires in Massachusetts.  It seems like Albany is the perfect base for exploring the interior Northeast. 

The train from NYC was super easy and cheap ($30-60 depending on when you purchase). I really just wish you could rent a car from the train station – personally I think there could be a market. 

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