Saratoga Springs, NY: A European-Style City in a Uniquely American Setting

George Washington not only slept here, he brought his friends along and partied. “Here” is Saratoga Springs, New York, famous for its mineral waters, horse racing and fashionable culture. Since just after the Revolutionary War, the rich and powerful in American society have been flocking to the Saratoga region. Today, the wealthier classes still gather at the city’s wide variety of social spots, but more frequently they rub elbows with the “average Joe.” Why the sudden appeal to the average tourist?

Before the 1950’s, Saratoga was popular as a gambling mecca. Casinos and horse racing went hand-in-glove with taking the famous mineral baths and dining in fine restaurants. It was a place to see and be seen. Unfortunately, post-WWII Saratoga began to run rife with scandal and corruption. The casinos closed their doors for good. The mineral baths began to decline, along with much of the downtown area. Today, thanks to solid city planning, that has all changed–drastically. The city is now one of the jewels of New York’s Capital District/Adirondack region. The mineral baths are still popular, and the races–both thoroughbred and harness–are drawing crowds in every season. However, new and trendy attractions are continually being added with each passing year. And with these extra incentives, Saratoga has once again become a hotspot for tourists. It now offers a wide variety of enticements, with the bonus of having all the flavor of a European resort–but not necessarily with the accompanying expenses.

Downtown Saratoga is a prime example of urban revitalization. Strollers can walk down the combination of modern and old fashioned streets, and window shop at both upscale merchants and unique local boutiques. Afterward, tourists can dine casually at a sidewalk café, while enjoying the sounds of a street entertainer, or visit a comedy club or dinner/movie theater. Visitors can take a carriage ride around town. They can also check out the lovely Victorian-style Congress Park, with its restored antique carousel, formal gardens and fully restored Canfield Casino museum. Even the local library is popular with tourists, offering a gourmet coffee bar and special lecture programs year-round.

Art abounds in Saratoga: from sidewalk art, to galleries and museums, to art shows. Antique lovers will find a number of dealers in and around the city, as well as flea markets and town-wide garage sales. Music is a special attraction for the area. Besides the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC)–which hosts everything from famous rock bands to classical music–the city’s many bars, clubs and coffee houses offer every type of music imaginable, nearly seven days a week, 365 days a year. Excellent live stage productions can be seen at the Little Theater, located in the historic bath complex in the Spa State Park, and local musical theater is periodically available at nearby Corinth Theater Guild, in this quaint northern Saratoga County village. Dance has a permanent home in the city, thanks to the National Museum of Dance and local dance companies.

There are other museums in Saratoga: the National Museum of (thoroughbred) Racing, the Saratoga Harness Hall of Fame, the children’s museum, auto museum, petrified forest, and a military museum. Outside the city, in the town of Saratoga (near Schuylerville) is the Saratoga Battlefield National Park. After all the activity, visitors can wind down at a local spa or in the mineral baths or pause for a drink from one of the public mineral springs located within the city. If it’s food you crave, you can find a huge variety of tastes to suit your palate here. From haute cuisine, vegetarian, seafood and international flavors, to American BBQ, Southern and Southwestern cooking, you can find something for everyone–even buffets, chain restaurants, local diners and junk food. But cultural and dining pursuits are not the only things drawing tourists to Saratoga Springs. Saratoga has become a horse fan’s paradise.

In 2004, the local night harness racing track, Saratoga Raceway, was re-vamped into a “racino”–a combination Video lottery casino (slots), racetrack and off-track betting parlor. Re-named Saratoga Gaming and Raceway, the beautiful new facility has thousands of slot machines, as well as an upstairs video wagering parlor open 5 days a week, and nightly live harness racing four days a week. Saratoga Gaming and Raceway also offers an affordable high quality buffet as well as a slightly pricey food court. Besides the slot machines, SGR gives regular players a chance to win fabulous prizes–thousands in cash, a trip to an Irish castle with spending money, a Jeep Commander, a Cadillac and other wonderful incentives. The nightly harness racing–held Wednesday through Saturday nights–is exciting and fast-paced, with lively calls by the raceway’s new young and trendy announcer, Mike Sardella, and wire-to-wire action by top drivers and horses. A grand hotel is planned on the site for sometime in the future.

The thoroughbred track, known locally as “the August place to be,” Saratoga Race Course is open from late July until the end of August. Hosting the best in thoroughbred racing for over 150 years, it has been the number one attraction for the area in all that time. Although soon to be under new ownership, the public has been reassured that the track will retain its age-old lovely class and character. Saratoga Race Course is still the high point of the season for the society set–especially the Travers Stakes (which is broadcast live on national TV) and the Whitney Handicap–two of America’s premier summer racing events. Besides racing, there are other equine events to draw horse lovers to Saratoga.

Other equine attractions that draw the horse lover to Saratoga include world-class polo in the summer months, a huge dressage and carriage show (to benefit a local charity) every Memorial Day weekend, a carriage parade during the august racing season, barrel racing events and the St. Clements horse show in the spring–which brings in many top show jumpers to the area, and other local shows throughout the year. There’s even rodeos in nearby Ballston Spa and Lake Luzerne.

The Saratoga County Fair, held in Ballston Spa every July, has horse breeds of many kinds on display. But that’s not all the fun for the horse aficionado. Art galleries, tack shops and western stores, as well as gift shops, display a wide variety of clothing, artwork and gifts for you to purchase. You can even go for a ride at one of the local stables outside the city, in Middle Grove, Ballston Spa or Lake Luzerne. If horses aren’t your thing, don’t worry: other activities are available in the form of golf, bowling, tennis, cycling, walking/hiking, swimming, boating, canoeing, rowing, fishing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and ice skating. No matter what your pleasure, chances are you can always find something going on, either in the city or nearby.

If you can’t get to Europe this season, why not try the Saratoga area? Accommodations in Saratoga can be tight and quite expensive during the August racing season, so be warned and make reservations very early. However, because of its location (halfway between the capital city of Albany and the Adirondack resort area of Lake George), there are literally thousands of places to stay within a fifty mile radius. Lodgings range from upscale hotels and resorts, to most popular chain hotels, smaller local motels, bed and breakfasts, rooming houses, campgrounds and cabin rentals and even a few dude ranches in the Adirondacks. If you’re really flush, you may even find a whole house to rent. The area is easily accessible from New York City or Montreal–via Interstate 87 and the Albany International Airport, and also has bus, train and cab service readily available, as well as car rentals.

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