SARATOGA SPRINGS IS EASY TO GET TO. IN FACT THE sportswriter Red Smith once offered a succinct set of directions: “From New York drive north for about 175 miles. Then turn left on Union Avenue—and go back 100 years.” To be more specific, the town is about twenty-five minutes north of Albany on Interstate 87. It’s less than half a day’s drive from both Boston and New York City, a bit farther from Montreal. For nondrivers, both Amtrak (1-800-872-7245) and Greyhound (1-800-231-2222) make regular trips to Saratoga Springs from Manhattan.
From September to May Saratoga offers a variety of attractions without the crowds of summer. Fall is the best time for antiquing and apple picking. Winter features speed-skating competitions and a Victorian Street Walk festival. Springtime visitors can enjoy the Dressage at the Saratoga Horse Show as well as a folk-music festival.
At any season the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce is your best source of information for planning a trip. It may be contacted by mail at 28 Clinton Street, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866; by phone at 1-800-526-8970; or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Once you are in town, you can stop first at the Saratoga Springs Urban Cultural Park Visitors Center, where a variety of maps, brochures, and walking-tour routes is available. The Center may be reached by phone at 587-3241 (the area code for all numbers in Saratoga Springs is 518).
Where to Stay
ALUMBERMAN NAMED GlDEON PUTNAM OPENED SARA toga Springs’s first boarding house in 1803, and the town has been distinguished by its fine accommodations ever since. The ornate Adelphi Hotel, built in 1877, is still open for business, and it gives its guests a chance to experience the kinds of comforts that attracted so many visitors during the Gilded Age. Rates for the rooms (many of which have adjacent sitting or conversation areas) run between $90 and $200 during June and most of July and jump to from $155 to $320 during the racing season, when weekend visits require a minimum stay of three nights. Call 518-587-4688 as early as possible for reservations; the Adelphi gets booked as much as eighteen months ahead. You can get Victorian style without quite the pomp at the town’s many bed-and-breakfast inns. Prices range from $90 to $360 during peak season. (As a rule of thumb, reduce prices by 40 percent for rates from October through April.) A couple of minutes from downtown is the current Gideon Putnam, a neo-Georgian-style resort and conference center right in Spa State Park. It offers a range of outdoor activities and is a short walk from the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and bathhouses. During August its rates run from $255 to $455.
Predictable but reliable accommodations may be found at the town’s Sheraton (where much of the racing set stays) and Holiday Inn, and less expensive family-style motels are easy to find on the outskirts of town or even a fifteen-minute drive away on the pretty Saratoga Lake. You can get a very extensive list of accommodations from the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce.
Where to Eat
OUR GASTRONOMIC EXPERIENCES IN SARATOGA SPRINGS were almost universally positive. We liked everything from the oat-currant scones at Uncommon Grounds Coffee & Tea to the cold lobster salad at the Inn at Saratoga, not to mention the “Saratoga chips—better known as potato chips, which were invented out at Saratoga Lake.
Fortunately, probably because it’s a college town as well as a tourism center, Saratoga Springs is dotted with reasonably priced eateries alongside the grander places that cater to the Thoroughbred set. We particularly liked as a good middle ground Sperry’s (584-9618), a casual restaurant with a warm, lively bar scene and an appealing patio. For a quieter, somewhat more sophisticated atmosphere, try 43 Phila Bistro (584-2720), around the corner. The Olde Bryan Inn (587-2990) is in one of the town’s oldest buildings, and its ancient atmosphere is complemented by simple, hearty fare.
Siro’s (584-4030), right next to the track and open only during the racing season, is a Saratoga institution. Although dinner reservations are hard to come by, it’s worth stopping by to savor a drink at the piano bar. Or sit in on one of the free betting seminars that The Daily Racing Form conducts here. A highlight of any trip to Saratoga is breakfast at the track, where you can watch the horses’ morning workouts over a muffin and glass of Moët & Chandon. Call 584-6200 for information.
THE SWEEPING SARATOGA RACE COURSE IS THE OLDEST operating Thoroughbred track in the country, and it has retained the easy grace of its early years. Open from late July through Labor Day, the track attracts racing fans from all over the world, particularly for the Travers Stakes, which is run in the third week of August. For any race a seat is a precious commodity. According to Town & Country magazine, the waiting list for private clubhouse boxes is currently twenty years, and advance tickets for seats in the clubhouse and grandstands often sell out by mail as early as the fall before each season. To purchase advance spots during the off-season, write to: Saratoga Reserved Seats, P.O. Box 030257, Elmont, NY 11003, or, for more information, call 718-641-4700, ext. 732. If you’re there during the season and haven’t reserved in advance, you can line up before eight o’clock each morning, when a limited number of the day’s grandstand seats go on sale, or simply bring a folding chair and find a good spot near the rail. For general information, call 584-6200.
Other equine events include the famed Fasig-Tipton Auction, an annual sale of yearlings, which is open to the public and takes place the second week in August. Polo matches are held throughout that month. Call 584-8108 for a schedule. Saratoga’s harness races have gotten a bit lost in all the fanfare surrounding its Thoroughbred counterpart, but the sport is a vibrant part of Saratoga’s history, dating back to 1847. Today the races are held at the Saratoga Equine Sports Center and run from February through November. Call 584-2110 for details.
THE SARATOGA National Historical Park is a fifteen-minute drive southeast of Saratoga Springs. The park’s visitors’ center, with its artifacts and backlit dioramas, gives clear and moving descriptions of the pivotal events that took place during September and October of 1777 and readies you for a tour of the field. A well-marked, self-guided driving route has stops at ten points of interest; you can buy a cassette-tape narrative at the visitors’ center, and it’s quite good, though you will surely have had your fill of fife music before it’s over. The Old Saratoga Carriage Company (695-6193) offers two-hour carriage tours of the field from April through October. For serious Revolutionary War buffs, a series of memorial events is staged on the battlefield throughout the year. Call the park at 664-9821 for a calendar.
THE SARATOGA PERFORMING ARTS CENTER (SPAC), ON the grounds of Spa State Park, hosts a variety of acts in its open-air pavilion from June through August. Performers range from the New York City Ballet, which takes over for most of July (it was briefly interrupted by Aerosmith last year), to the Philadelphia Orchestra, modern dance troupes, and blues, jazz, and rock musicians. The SPAC box office (587-3330) can provide schedules and ticket prices.
A short walk away, both the Roosevelt and Lincoln bathhouses offer wonderful traditional mineral baths and massages in gleaming white facilities that date from the 1930s. You’ll want to reserve far ahead for either of them; they’re often fully booked. Call 584-2011 for the Roosevelt, 583-2880 for the Lincoln.
For a town of its size, Saratoga Springs has an unusual number of fine museums. Heading the list is the National Museum of Racing and Thoroughbred Hall of Fame, which recently underwent a six-million-dollar renovation. The hours vary throughout the year, so call for the schedule, at 584-0400. The Saratoga Harness Hall of Fame (587-4210) offers lively exhibits on the history of these lower-profile horseraces. It’s located on the grounds of the Saratoga Equine Sports Center.
The National Museum of Dance, housed in a light-filled, renovated bathhouse, features a dance hall of fame as well as rotating exhibits. In July and August the public can also view classes at the Lewis A. Swyer School for the Performing Arts next door (phone: 584-2225).
The Historical Society of Saratoga Springs (584-6920) resides in the former Canfield Casino, and its two museums give a good idea of the town’s early history, with an emphasis on gambling. Don’t miss the captioned photographs in the gift shop on the first floor.
SET IN THE FOOTHILLS OF THE ADIRONDACK, SARATOGA Springs has gorgeous scenery—from the hilltops of the Saratoga National Historical Park and the shaded glens of Spa State Park to the pathways of Congress Park and the gorgeous grounds at the Yaddo artists’ retreat. The spots are equally suitable for summer picnics, autumn strolls, or winter sleigh rides.
For those who prefer more strenuous enjoyment of the outdoors, there are golf courses, tennis courts, jogging and bike paths, cross-country skiing routes, and two public swimming pools in Spa State Park (584-2535). On Saratoga Lake, four miles out of town, there are a number of places that rent jet skis, canoes, powerboats, and bass-fishing equipment, among other things. All are listed in the Saratoga Lake brochure, available from the Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce at 584-3255. If you’re willing to drive a bit, you can get a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding landscape on a hot-air trip with Adirondack Balloon Flights (793-6342). There’s no better way to enjoy the fall foliage.