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11 Top-Rated Things to Do in Albany, NY

Written by Lisa Alexander
Oct 23, 2021

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Albany gets the short shrift when it comes to tourism hype. The city is often overlooked, even though it is the capital of New York State and boasts top-notch cultural attractions. The must-see list includes several excellent museums and stunning architectural landmarks.

Albany is also a worthwhile place to visit for those who want to learn about New York State history, art, and government. Albany also offers friendly, unpretentious vibes and a lively atmosphere. The city's diverse population enjoys a vibrant restaurant scene with a wide array of ethnic options and many casual cafés.

As an added bonus for travelers, there are many worthwhile tourist destinations just a short drive away. For instance, it's easy to take a day trip to Saratoga Springs farther upstate or to Stockbridge, one of the top places to visit in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts.

Plan your sightseeing in this cosmopolitan capital with our list of the top things to do in Albany, New York.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Take a Tour of the New York State Capitol

New York State Capitol in Albany
New York State Capitol in Albany | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

Even if you have visited many other state capitols previously, be sure to take a tour of the New York State Capitol. The unique architecture of the NY Capitol building sets it apart from every other state capitol in the country.

Replacing a small state house, the New York State Capitol was built over a period of 32 years, beginning in 1866 and inaugurated by Governor Theodore Roosevelt in 1899. No expenses were spared in the extravagant building project, which cost more than 25 million dollars (exceeding the cost of the U.S. Capitol).

This distinctive 19th-century monument features a Neo-Gothic facade constructed from solid granite masonry. Unlike most state capitols, the New York State Capitol has a Mansard roof (typical of French architecture) instead of a dome. Although the exterior is quite elegant, it does not hint at the exotic magnificence of the interior.

Stepping past the entrance lobby, visitors are shocked by the surprising architecture. The building blends Moorish Gothic and Romanesque Revival styles, recalling the architecture of Venice or the Andalusian region of Spain. Design motifs include rounded arches, elaborately hand-carved capitals, and ornate geometric patterns. The exquisite craftsmanship and grand spaces give the interior a sumptuous yet inviting feel.

Guided tours (available Monday through Friday at 10am and 12noon) allow tourists free entry into the building. This includes a one-hour tour led by a knowledgable docent, and access to roam the public areas of the building after the guided tour concludes.

Visitors will see the Assembly Staircase, a marvelous Moorish Gothic confection crafted from sandstone and granite, as well as the opulent Great Western Staircase, known as the "Million Dollar Staircase," which features portraits of prominent New Yorkers carved into the stonework (look for Abraham Lincoln, Frederic Douglass, Walt Whitman, and Susan B. Anthony).

Senate Chamber
Senate Chamber | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

The tour also takes visitors to the chambers where government officials work. The lavish Senate Chamber features Siena marble columns, mahogany wood desks, Spanish leather-upholstered chairs, stained-glass windows depicting the State seal, and gold-leaf wallpaper. Because the chamber has superb acoustics, senators call out "yay" or "nay" votes in a regular speaking voice. Two ornamental fireplaces double as alcoves for private conversations.

In the slightly less lavish Assembly Chamber, legislators cast their votes electronically.

Other highlights of the Capitol's interior include the Hall of Governors, a portrait gallery that displays the likenesses of New York's governors along with a timeline that shows key historical events of each governor's term; the Hall of New York, a gallery of paintings that depict the cities and landscapes of New York State including works by Hudson River School artists; and the Flag Room, which contains battle flags dating back to the War of 1812.

After touring the interior, visitors may want to spend some time in West Capitol Park next to the Capitol building. Tourists and government workers alike enjoy this pleasant, shaded spot for picnic lunches or relaxing on park benches beneath the tall leafy trees. Food trucks are found next to the park on Washington Avenue.

Across the street from the Capitol is the Empire State Plaza, a long esplanade with an ornamental pool and picnic tables. From the Capitol building, it takes about 10 minutes to walk across the esplanade to the New York State Museum.

Address: Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York

Official site: https://empirestateplaza.ny.gov

2. Admire Hudson River School Landscape Paintings

Hudson River School Paintings, Albany Institute of History and Art
Hudson River School Paintings, Albany Institute of History and Art | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

Visit the Albany Institute of History & Art to see the famous American landscape paintings of the 19th century, created by a group of artists known as Hudson River School.

Beginning around 1850, New York artists began capturing the picturesque landscapes of the Hudson River Valley on canvas. Thomas Cole, considered the founder of this art movement, inspired many other painters.

It's easy to recognize his influence in the stylistic similarities of Hudson River School paintings. The paintings depict bucolic images that reveal an appreciation for wilderness, attention to detail, and sense of realism. Many paintings focus on idyllic farmland scenes, such as grazing animals. Kids will have fun counting the number of cows in the paintings.

The Albany Institute of History & Art has over 90 works in its collection of Hudson River school landscape paintings (displayed in the Hearst Gallery on the third floor). For visitors, this collection is one of the museum's most-loved ongoing exhibitions.

Some of the noteworthy Hudson River School landscape paintings include View on the Hudson by Robert Havell, Jr.; A View of the Catskill Mountain House by Sarah Cole; An Old Man's Reminiscences (circa 1845) by Asher B. Durand; Mediterranean Coast Scene with Tower (circa 1832-1836) by Thomas Cole; Morning, Looking East Over the Hudson Valley from the Catskill Mountains (circa 1848) by Frederic Edwin Church; and Study of Nature, Dresden, Lake George (circa 1870) by David Johnson.

Besides the Hudson River School artworks, the Albany Institute of History & Art also displays a collection of art and historical objects of the Upper Hudson Valley from the 17th century to the present day. Visitors learn about the history and the artistic and craft traditions through exhibits of paintings, drawings, furniture, ceramics, and other artifacts.

The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10am until 5pm and on Sunday from noon until 5pm. Facilities include a gift shop, a research library (open by appointment only), and a café that serves lunch and snacks.

Address: 125 Washington Street, Albany

Official site: https://www.albanyinstitute.org

3. Discover New York State's History and Environment

New York State Museum
New York State Museum | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

Designed for young students, as well as lifelong learners, the New York State Museum offers an immersion into a wide variety of educational disciplines. The collections have a special focus on the history and natural environment of New York State.

The New York State Museum was created in 1836, which makes it the oldest museum in the state. The museum also boasts the largest exhibition space in the state and impressive collections, with 16 million specimens in its natural science collection and a million objects in its history and anthropology collections.

Visitors will be amazed by the range of exhibits within the collection's art, anthropology, archaeology, science, and history collections.

New Netherlands Exhibit, New York State Museum
New Netherlands Exhibit, New York State Museum | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

Highlights include the "Birds of New York" ornithology exhibit; the New York Metropolis exhibit; and the Historical Archaeology exhibits about the 17th-century Dutch fur (beaver-pelt) trade and about the New Netherland colony of Fort Orange (present-day Albany). Several archaeology exhibits compare artifacts (such as fragments of a clay tile or Roemer glass) with the same items pictured in Dutch paintings of the contemporary era.

Opening hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 9:30am until 5pm. Admission is free of charge. The museum has a gift shop, café, and an outdoor terrace.

Address: 222 Madison Street, Albany, New York

Official site: http://www.nysm.nysed.gov

4. Stroll through Washington Park

Washington Park Statue during the Tulip Festival
Washington Park Statue during the Tulip Festival | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

Take a stroll, relax on a park bench, or enjoy a picnic at Washington Park. This expansive tree-shaded public park provides refreshing open space in the center of Albany.

Washington Park was created between 1870 and 1880 by landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted, who created Central Park in New York City. The landscaping appears to be natural (almost like a pastoral landscape), which is one of the hallmarks of Olmsted's design aesthetic.

The park features English-style gardens with spacious lawns, a five-acre lake with a lake house (which has restrooms), a children's playground, benches, and walking paths shaded by leafy oak trees.

Local residents enjoy the park year-round as a place for relaxation and recreation. It's a popular spot to socialize with friends, toss frisbees, and play tennis or basketball. You can even go cross-country skiing here in the wintertime.

Tulip varieties in Washington Park
Tulip varieties in Washington Park | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

To honor the city's Dutch heritage, Washington Park hosts a fabulous Tulip Festival throughout the month of May (although the tulips start blooming in mid April). Visitors flock to a specific area of the park that's devoted to tulips to see the dazzling array of over 100,000 colorful blooms. Placards placed in front of the tulips identify the varieties. The festival kicks off with a traditional Dutch "Street Sweeping" ceremony and continues with tulip tours, music concerts, and a tulip sale.

At the end of November through January 3rd, Washington Park brightens with Capital Holiday Lights. To help visitors get into the holiday spirit, over a hundred festive light displays and illuminated scenes decorate the park.

Tourists should also explore the charming historic neighborhood around the park, where the tree-shaded streets are lined with old brownstone townhouses. Lark Street near the park is especially bustling, with many locally owned stores, eclectic boutiques, cozy cafés, takeout pizza places, and ethnic food eateries. For a leisurely meal, head towards the corner of Lark Street and Madison Avenue. In this area, you'll find a good selection of casual dining options and trendy restaurants.

Address: Washington Park, State and Willet Streets, Albany, New York

5. Go on a Hudson River Cruise

Albany skyline from the Hudson River
Albany skyline from the Hudson River

Today the Hudson River looks calm, with its gently flowing currents and forested backdrop, but this waterway has seen a dramatic array of historical events over the past 400 or so years.

In 1609, the English explorer Henry Hudson went on a voyage sponsored by the Dutch East India Company with the goal of discovering a trade route to China. Instead, Hudson found the river that has been named after him. He sailed up the river to the area that is the present-day city of Albany, where the Dutch East India Company created a trading settlement.

The Dutch called the area Beverwyck (Beaver Town) because the river was full of beavers, which made the location profitable in the fur trade. When the New Netherland colony was taken over by the English in 1664 as the New York colony, the city's name was changed to Albany in honor of James, the Duke of York and Albany, who became the King of England (James II).

An important moment of history occurred in 1825 when the Erie Canal was completed, providing a link of transportation between the Hudson River in Albany to Lake Erie farther upstate. The Erie Canal made Albany the commercial hub of upstate New York and allowed the city to grow and flourish.

Tourists can learn more about the history of the Hudson River and enjoy its picturesque scenery by taking a sightseeing cruise. The Dutch Apple Cruises offer a chance to glide down the Hudson while listening to a historian provide insights about the river and the region. Inspired by 19th-century Hudson River ferry boats, the Dutch Apple II was crafted from Adirondack White Cedar with a deck made of teak. The cruises depart from Quay Street in Albany.

Other things to do along the Hudson River include biking or hiking on the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail. Tourists could try the portion of this waterfront path that stretches for 10 miles from Albany to the town of Cohoes. Visitors can rent bikes from CDPHP Cycle!

6. See the Historic Homes of Prominent 18th-Century Citizens

Schuyler Mansion
Schuyler Mansion | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

The renowned and wealthy Revolutionary War general Philip J. Schuyler and his wife Catharine Van Rensselaer lived at Schuyler Mansion in Albany from 1763 to 1804. (Their daughter Elizabeth married Alexander Hamilton in 1780.) The original 80-acre hilltop estate included a working farm, orchard, and formal garden. The Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site (32 Catherine Street) is open to the public for guided tours from mid-May until the end of October, Wednesday through Sunday from 11am until 5pm. Tours are available by advance reservation only.

Recently reopened after a decade-long refurbishment project, the 18th-century Historic Cherry Hill house was built for a prominent local family and has been converted into a museum that displays the original interior decor, books, clothing, diaries, and photographs dating from 1787 to 1963. Tourists may visit the Historic Cherry Hill house by taking a guided tour (June through November on Fridays from 1pm to 4pm and Saturdays 10am to 4pm); reservations are required.

In a historic neighborhood of Albany, Ten Broeck Mansion (9 Ten Broeck Place) is a handsome Federal-style house built in 1797 to 1798 for General Abraham Ten Broeck. The estate features resplendent formal gardens with colorful flower beds. To see the interior of the house, visitors must sign up for a guided tour in advance. Tours are available from mid-May until mid-October on Fridays and Saturdays. The lovely gardens of Ten Broeck Mansion are open to the public, free of charge, beginning at the end of March until early November (from dawn until dusk).

It's worth taking a short drive (three miles from Albany) to the town of Rennselaer to see the Crailo State Historic Site. This 18th-century manor house contains a Museum of the Colonial Dutch in the Hudson River Valley. The Crailo State Historic Site is open to the public for guided tours mid-May through October, Wednesday through Sunday. Tours are offered on the hour from 11am until 4pm. Reservations are not required.

In the town of Cohoes (10 miles from Albany), the Van Schaick Mansion was built in 1735 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The mansion played a role in both the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. Most notably, the mansion was used as a military headquarters during the American Revolution and is where the Battle of Saratoga was planned. The Van Schaick Mansion is open on the second or third Sunday of the month, from 1pm until 4pm. To see the interior of the mansion, visitors must take a guided tour.

7. Learn about the Underground Railroad

New York State abolished slavery in 1827. Around this time, many residents of Albany began to support the anti-slavery movement, and the city of Albany became a stop on the Underground Railroad that stealthily transported enslaved people from the South to Upstate New York.

From 1830 until the years of the Civil War, Stephen and Harriet Myers (African-American residents of Albany) were involved in the anti-slavery movement. In the 1850s, they provided refuge for Black freedom seekers. Their residence was also the meeting place for the Vigilance Committee and a center of Underground Railroad activity.

Today, the Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence houses the Underground Railroad Education Center and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Underground Railroad Education Center is open Monday through Friday from 5pm until 8pm and on Saturday from noon until 4pm. Tours are available and must be scheduled ahead of time.

Address: Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence, 194 Livingston Avenue, Albany

Official site: https://undergroundrailroadhistory.org

8. Visit the New York State Education Building

New York Education Building
New York Education Building | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

Sign up for a guided tour and get ready to be awe-inspired by the larger-than-life architecture of the New York State Education Building. Constructed between 1908 and 1912, the building has grand proportions and neoclassical elements that recall the monuments of Washington, D.C.

The most impressive aspect of the building is the front facade, which is the world's longest colonnade. The 36 columns are crafted of Vermont marble, each of which is 90 feet tall.

The New York State Education Building is open to the public for 45-minute guided tours, free of charge. Tours are available on Saturdays at 12:30pm. and 2:30pm. Reservations are required.

Guided tours are led by the knowledgable staff of the New York State Museum. Tour guides take visitors to the ornate chandelier-illuminated Chancellors Hall; the limestone-clad Regents Chamber meeting room; and the Rotunda (domed hall), which is adorned with 36 murals that speak to the importance of education.

Address: 89 Washington Avenue, Albany, New York

Official site: http://www.nysed.gov/nysed-building/tours-state-education-building

9. Attend a Performance at The Egg

The Egg, Empire Plaza
The Egg, Empire Plaza | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

Visitors might ask themselves "is it elegant or is it an eyesore?" Whatever the verdict, this ultra-modern landmark makes an impression and cannot be ignored.

Albany's Center for the Performing Arts is affectionately known as "The Egg" because of its oblong shape. Built between 1966 and 1978, The Egg hosts music concerts, comedy shows, dance performances, and lectures.

There are two theaters within The Egg performing arts center: the Lewis A. Swyer Theatre, which seats an audience of 450, and the Kitty Carlisle Hart Theatre, which seats 982 people. New York State owns the center, and it is managed by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza Performing Arts Center Corporation.

The Egg looks out onto the Empire State Plaza, a hub of urban activity at the center of Albany. The area is full of shops, restaurants, and cafés.

Address: Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York

Official site: https://www.theegg.org

10. Marvel over the Views from Corning Tower

Corning Tower in Albany, New York
Corning Tower in Albany, New York

A top attraction at Empire State Plaza is the Corning Tower Observation Deck on the 42nd floor of Corning Tower. The enclosed observation deck features floor-to-ceiling windows, which allow visitors to admire the sweeping vistas.

Panoramas include the Hudson River, the Hudson River Valley, the Catskill Mountains to the south, the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts to the east, and the foothills of the Adirondacks to the north.

The landscape looks particularly spectacular during the fall when the leaves are changing color. Because the tower affords views of the scenery from a distance, it's a unique place to admire the autumn foliage.

The Corning Tower Observation Deck is open Monday through Friday from 10am until 4pm.

Address: Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York

11. Walk in the Footsteps of Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, spent a good amount of time in the city of Albany during his lifetime. He married Elizabeth Schuyler, the daughter of the Albany-based Revolutionary War general Philip J. Schuyler.

The Historic Albany Foundation offers guided "Walking in Hamilton's Footsteps" tours. The foundation also provides maps for a self-guided walking tour, which features several historic locations associated with Alexander Hamilton.

Among the stops on the self-guided tour are The First Church, where Hamilton's in-laws were members of the congregation, and the location of a historic home at 50 State Street, where Alexander Hamilton argued with his rival Aaron Burr, which led to the fatal duel that ended Hamilton's life.

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