The “Springs” part of the name often gets dropped in conversation but the actual waters are integral in the history of the town. Once rail arrived in the 1830s, tourist flocked to the area for rejuvenating mineral bath treatments. Horse racing and other gambling followed, helping to fuel a heyday that lasted well into the 1900s. Today, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., thrives once again and you can partake in that excitement whether it’s horse racing, mineral baths, music, fermented beverages, the great outdoors, history or all of the above.
If you have any doubts about what makes the town tick, just read their motto: “Health, History, Horses.” Read on for a great lineup of ways to get to know Saratoga Springs, aka “Spa City” or just “the Spa.”
Despite the show placement in the motto, horses remain a focal point for locals and tourists with the town’s population tripling during the race meet each summer. The grounds are sprawling with plenty of areas to investigate and lots of room to wander. There is a popular breakfast tour available but the website will also help you learn how things work. Bring a picnic, including your own beverages (no glass) for an inexpensive day at the races. Placing your belongings, including newspapers/racing forms, at a picnic table is apparently enough to save your spot, but go early if you want one. You can read more of the rules and regulations here. You can also splurge and reserve seats at the Turf Terrace or other dining options (be sure to adhere to the dress codes). Taste NY is an inexpensive way to experience local products on certain days, featuring local beers, ciders, wines, spirits and food, depending on the theme. While you’re visiting, be sure to find Big Red Spring and taste the mineral water, which leads us to No. 2 on this list.
The racetrack boasts one outlet for mineral water but there are plenty more, including some in the Spa State Park and Congress Park (be sure to look for the “Spit and Spat” water feature). See, smell and taste the differences, some smell of sulfur, others taste metallic and some even have a light, natural carbonation but you will quickly be able to tell you’re not drinking standard tap water. You can also find spas to partake in a full immersion in the healing waters. As a bonus, Spa State Park includes the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (see below for more) and the Automobile Museum is nearby. Waterfront Park offers a beach, great views and picnic spots, though swimming is not allowed.
3. Keep your eyes peeled for horses; pictures and statues are everywhere.
You will be amazed by the amount and diversity. There are different painted versions of the same statue, avant-garde sculptures and even one horse standing on the roof of a now-defunct diner. Also look for statues of ballet shoes en pointe around town which honor the National Museum of Dance and Hall of Fame. One of these, despite being a clear homage to something completely unaffiliated with horses, received an embellishment of horseshoes.
4. Taste wine
Most of the wine featured in Saratoga Springs comes from the Finger Lakes region. You could drive there if you want, about 3 ½ hours west, or you could stay in town. Swedish Hill (New York wines) is in the heart of downtown, Thirsty Owl is less than a mile away, perhaps a bit far to walk, but there is also great food to eat and lots of wine to sample (drink). Saratoga Winery is on the western outskirts of town but too far to walk (four miles). Bonus suggestion: There are lots of tap handles around town with examples of the thriving brewing scene in New York. Be sure to taste some local beers as well. (See also No. 1 above for Taste NY.)
Just off Broadway, downtown, is a street that packs a lot of action into a handful of blocks. A proliferation of bars and restaurants fill the area, including many with live music. Saratoga City Tavern has bars on each of their five floors, including a rooftop view of downtown, Congress Park and other bars in the area. Drinks are more expensive up there but it’s worth a stop. You will also find lots more establishments a block or so off the beaten path. Go ahead, wander, follow a hunch ... or just let your phone tell you what’s nearby. With everything from a dive bar to upscale pubs and fine dining to fried snacks, you’re bound to find something to delight you.
While most of the calendar revolves around classical music and ballet, you will also find blues, pop, metal and classic rock scattered in the lineup. Reserved seats are available under the roof of this amphitheater, listed on the National Historic Register, but consider the sloped lawn, ideal for a good view ... and picnics (water is OK to bring, alcohol is not permitted but available for purchase).
7. Visit the Saratoga Springs History Museum and see artifacts and pictures of local days gone by.
Located in Congress Park, inside the Canfield Casino, the building itself is worth a visit. For nearly 40 years, mostly the late 19th century, well-to-dos and ne’er-do-wells rubbed elbows while eating, drinking and gambling. The admission price is reasonable but if historical museums aren’t your thing, at least check out the videos on their website that shine some light on local landmarks. If you enjoy the videos, consider making a donation if you don’t visit in person.
Yes, this list is closing out with a little more horse racing. There is a movie (preempted by NYRA and Saratoga simulcasting occasionally), a racing simulator (extra charge and no opentoed shoes allowed), paintings, pictures, trophies, a Triple Crown gallery and plenty of memorabilia and mementos. Group tours are available and so are iPad tours (both for extra fees) that give you more detail and background on the exhibits.