16 Top-Rated Things to Do in Upstate New York

Written by Lisa Alexander
Updated Jan 21, 2023
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Travelers looking for things to do in Upstate New York are spoiled for choice. Packed with iconic natural landmarks and an array of charming historic towns, the various regions of Upstate New York offer something for everyone.

Fishing in Thayer Park, Skaneateles, NY | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

While Niagara Falls is the most obvious must-see destination, Upstate New York brims with delightful places to visit that are lesser known and off the beaten path. Those who love the great outdoors will want to explore the Catskills region or the Adirondacks, while the Hudson Valley features beautiful pastoral landscapes, quaint villages, and opulent Gilded Age mansions that are open to the public.

Whether you enjoy hiking or fishing, taking scenic drives, or visiting art museums, Upstate New York has endless recreational opportunities and cultural attractions to discover. Keep in mind that many of the activities are available on a seasonal basis, such as the Lake George boat cruises from May through October.

Find the activities that interest you and start planning a fabulous action-packed vacation or weekend getaway anytime of year. Our guide includes a comprehensive list of things to do in Upstate New York.

1. Visit Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

Upstate New York's most famous sight makes a dramatic impression on visitors. Niagara Falls is a thrilling and awe-inspiring natural wonder, the largest of the waterfalls in New York State and one of the most beautiful.

Established in 1885 with landscaping designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Niagara Falls State Park encompasses 400 acres, with excellent facilities: hiking trails, picnic areas, an aquarium, welcome center, gift shop, snack bar, and restaurant that overlooks the waterfalls. Open daily year-round, Niagara Falls State Park tops the list of tourist attractions in the town of Niagara Falls.

Within the park, the Prospect Point Observation Tower provides a viewing platform to admire amazing panoramas of the three falls (American, Bridal Veil, and Horseshoe).

To truly experience the grandeur of the scenery, try a Niagara Falls American Side Highlights Tour or a Maid of the Mist boat tour. Maid of the Mist boat tours begin at the base of the Observation Tower and travel past American Falls and into the basin of the dramatic Horseshoe Falls. Passengers marvel over the thundering cascades, and feel the refreshing mists.

For those seeking accommodations nearby, the city of Buffalo appeals to travelers who appreciate urban destinations. New York's second largest city, Buffalo brims with cultural attractions: top-notch art museums; a National Historic Landmark theater where musicals are performed; and a botanical garden designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who created Central Park in New York City.

Charming places to stay in Buffalo include The Mansion on Delaware Avenue and the InnBuffalo off Elmwood.

Quaint bed-and-breakfast accommodations are available in and around Niagara Falls, such as at the Butler House, the Hanover House, and the Rainbow House.

2. Hike in the Catskill Mountains

Windham Mountain trail in the Catskills | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

The Catskill Park contains thousands of miles of hiking trails and features some of the most iconic scenery in Upstate New York. The Catskill Park's natural splendor has earned it a place among the list of best state parks in New York.

Kaaterskill Falls has been on the tourist circuit since the early 1800s and visiting this spot still ranks among the top things to do in the Catskills region. There are two different options for getting to Kaaterskill Falls: Take a short walk to a viewing platform, or hike down (1.4 miles round trip) to the falls. The trail down to the falls includes a staircase of natural rocks that get slippery from the waterfall spritz.

Note: Steep drop-offs close to the trail make this hike dangerous for those who stray from the path. Caution is strongly advised when hiking this path, as fatalities and injuries have occurred on the Kaaterskill Falls trail. Hikers should stay on the trail, away from the edges, at all times.

The Kaaterskill Falls hiking area (which includes a system of trails) is very popular. The parking lot often fills up. To avoid the crowds, arrive early or later in the afternoon. Additional parking is available off County Route 18 on Laurel House Road or Scutt Road in Haines Falls. It's also possible to pay for parking at the North-South Lake Campground and take a trail from there.

A less-traveled path nearby is the hiking trail to North Point (with trailhead at Scutt Road) despite being just a short drive from the usually crowded North-South Lake Campground, which has a variety of hiking trails with splendid viewpoints along the way.

Other less-crowded hikes are found past the village of Maplecrest in the Windham-Blackhead Range Wilderness.

Accommodation: Top-Rated Resorts in the Catskills, New York

3. See Beautiful Gardens and Landscapes in the Hudson Valley

Hudson Valley

A bucolic landscape of forested rolling hills, small farms, and apple orchards awaits visitors in the Hudson Valley, nestled between the Catskill and Taconic mountain ranges. This picturesque scenery inspired a new art movement in the 19th century.

Thomas Cole, the founding father of the Hudson River School, created glorious works of art depicting the beauty of the Hudson Valley and the neighboring Catskills region. In the charming Hudson Valley town of Catskill, tourists may visit the house where Thomas Cole lived and worked (Thomas Cole National Historic Site), which affords sweeping views of the Catskill Mountains from the porch.

The Thomas Cole National Historic Site displays a permanent collection of Thomas Cole's works and also hosts temporary exhibitions (on art and historical topics) on a regular basis. Guided tours are available on weekdays, and self-guided general admission on weekends (advanced reservations are recommended).

Another Hudson River School painter, Frederic Church built a Persian-inspired villa on a hilltop in nearby Olana. His former residence and 250-acre estate is classified as a National Historic Landmark and a New York State Historic Site. Olana State Historic Site presents the well-preserved interior decor of Frederic Church's home and displays a small collection of Frederic Church's artworks.

To continue the discovery of Hudson Valley art, head north to the Albany Institute of History & Art, one of the top places to visit in Albany, which is renowned for its collection of Hudson River School paintings.

The more adventurous can hike to the viewpoints where the artists created their works. The Hudson River School Art Trail lists these locations. The hikes range from easy to challenging. It's interesting to consider that the artists hiked difficult trails with their art supplies in tow.

Untermyer Gardens

The Hudson Valley also has many public parks and gardens. These include Untermyer Gardens, which includes an ancient Persian-inspired walled garden and terraced gardens; Innisfree Garden, inspired by Chinese and Japanese landscaping, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places; and the 68-acre Boscobel Gardens, a formal garden, apple orchard, and woodland on an elegant historic estate built between 1804 and 1808.

One of the top day trips from New York City, Storm King Art Center in New Windsor is a must-see destination for those who appreciate contemporary art installations. This 500-acre outdoor museum showcases large-scale sculptures along walking paths with views of the rolling hills, meadows, and forests. Storm King Art Center is near the little town of Cornwall, which has a great local coffee shop and a few casual restaurants.

Further north in the Hudson Valley, Art Omi is a 120-acre sculpture park in the town of Ghent. Over 60 art installations by contemporary artists are on display. Admission is free, but advance registration is recommended.

For a gourmet breakfast (including fresh-baked croissants and pastries), coffee break, or lunch, stop by the Bartlett House bakery/café nearby (a five-minute drive from Art Omi).

Accommodation: Top-Rated Resorts in the Hudson Valley, NY

4. Take a Steamboat Ride on Lake George

Steamboat on Lake George

Lake George is arguably one of the prettiest lakes in New York State, in one of the state's most beautiful regions. Densely wooded rolling hills of the Adirondack Mountains frame the glistening 32-mile-long expanse of deep-blue waters, which are dotted with islands and shaped along the contours of small coves and bays.

Since the mid 1800s, Lake George has been a premier vacation destination. Even before that, Thomas Jefferson praised the lake's beauty in a letter written in 1791.

A classic way to discover the beauty of Lake George is by taking a steamboat ride. The Lake George Steamboat Company has offered recreational boat rides for over a 100 years, and their boat cruises still rank high on the list of tourists' favorite things to do in Lake George. The company runs three different boats: the Mohican, built in 1908, which travels the length of Lake George in six hours; the Steamboat Minne-Ha-Ha, a traditional paddlewheel steamship; and the Lac du Saint Sacrement ship, which offers Sunday brunch, luncheon, and sunset dinner cruises.

The Lake George Steamboat Company operates cruises from early May until late October. Cruises on the Steamboat Minne-Ha-Ha are the most popular; during the summer season, the Minne-Ha-Ha one-hour narrated cruises are available daily on an almost hourly basis.

Cruises with the Lake George Steamboat Company depart from the Steel Pier in Lake George Village, which has a lively downtown and top resort hotels. Most acclaimed of the Lake George area resorts, The Sagamore has waterfront restaurants, an outdoor swimming pool overlooking the lake, a pampering spa, and its own small ship (the replica of a 19th-century vessel) that runs sightseeing cruises.

5. Experience the Gilded Age at Hudson Valley Estates

Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park

The Hudson Valley conceals an array of sprawling estates that were created for wealthy New Yorkers during the Gilded Age. Visiting these sites provides a window into the lifestyle of affluence during that era, while staying at nearby luxury resorts allows travelers to further experience Gilded Age opulence.

Set on a leafy 67-acre riverfront parkland, Lyndhurst reveals an appreciation of nature that was influenced by 19th-century Romanticism. This magnificent Gothic Revival landmark was commissioned in 1838 by William S. Paulding Jr. (New York City mayor during the 1820s) and in 1880 was purchased by railroad tycoon Jay Gould who only updated the interior slightly. Similar to Paulding, Jay Gould resided at the country estate part-time when seeking a retreat from NYC.

The Lyndhurst estate is designated as a National Trust Historic Site. The mansion has been well preserved and is still adorned with the original antique furnishings and decorative objects. A noteworthy collection of art is on display throughout the mansion.

Visitors may take a guided Mansion Tour at Lyndhurst to admire the lavish interior. It's also possible to take a Landscape Tour for a guided outdoor walk, or purchase a Daily Grounds Pass to explore the estate's parkland without visiting the mansion.

The Lyndhurst estate is open from April through December. The estate hosts summertime outdoor jazz concerts. During the holiday season, the mansion is magnificently decorated with dozens of Christmas trees.

Kykuit Mansion near Sleepy Hollow | Felix Lipov / Shutterstock.com

Nearby in the quaint historic village of Sleepy Hollow, the Kykuit mansion embodies the essence of Gilded Age grandeur. John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, built the Kykuit mansion between 1906 and 1913. At the time, Rockefeller was America's wealthiest man, and the interior was designed by renowned American decorator Ogden Codman Jr.

The mansion later become the residence of four generations of Rockefellers. Grandson Nelson Rockefeller added a superb collection of modern art (currently displayed in a gallery at Kykuit). The Kykuit estate is still maintained by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, one of the family's philanthropic programs.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has designated Kykuit as a historic site. The Kykuit mansion is open to the public for guided tours from the end of May through mid-November.

Another extravagant Gilded Age country estate is found in the Hudson Valley town of Hyde Park. The Vanderbilt Mansion, a gem of understated Neoclassical architecture, was purchased by Frederick Vanderbilt in 1895 and used as a seasonal residence. As one of America's wealthiest and most esteemed families at the time, the Vanderbilts brought to this summertime retreat their enviable aristocratic lifestyle of house parties and outdoor recreation. The family enjoyed tennis, golf, and carriage rides.

Today this iconic 54-room mansion is designated as a National Historic Site. The 200-acre estate features vistas of the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains. The Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site is open to the public daily year-round, except on holidays. A guided tour is required to visit the interior of the Vanderbilt Mansion. Guided mansion tours are available Thursday through Monday.

6. Escape to Nature in the Adirondacks

Kayaking in the Adirondacks

Nature lovers and outdoor adventure seekers, rejoice! The six-million-acre Adirondack Park, the largest wilderness preserve in the contiguous United States, is packed with breathtaking landscapes: soaring mountains, expansive forests, pristine rivers, rushing waterfalls, sheltered valleys, and thousands of freshwater lakes.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation maintains more than 2,000 miles of hiking trails in the Adirondacks. Other recreational opportunities include boating, kayaking, camping, and fishing.

One of the region's highlights, Lake George draws many visitors for its water sports and outdoor activities, such as camping on the lake's island campsites. Tupper Lake and Saranac Lake are great for canoeing. The Ausable River is renowned for fly-fishing and whitewater paddling.

The Adirondacks region is one of the best getaways in Upstate New York, especially for those who love hiking and camping. For those who don't like roughing it, the solution is simple: Plan to stay at a cozy rustic-chic hotel or an upscale lodge, for welcome accommodations after long days of vigorous outdoor activity.

To get the classic "Adirondack Great Camp" experience, try Great Camp Sagamore, a National Historic Landmark on Raquette Lake. If money is no object, spend the night like Gilded Age houseguests at The Point resort, a sumptuous five-star Relais & Châteaux property on Saranac Lake that delivers the ultimate in Adirondack Rustic luxury and is considered one of the region's top resorts.

Other historic Adirondack Great Camps include White Pine Camp, once the summer residence of Calvin Coolidge and now a lodge that's open year-round, and Great Camp Santanoni, a former private compound (classified as a National Historic Landmark) set on a 13,000-acre forest preserve. Great Camp Santanoni offers guided tours (from July 4th until Labor Day), hiking trails, horse-drawn wagon rides, canoeing, and backcountry camping sites in the summer, and during Winter Weekend events allows access to cross-country ski trails and the main lodge.

7. Learn about the American Revolution at Fort Ticonderoga

Aerial view of Fort Ticonderoga

Fort Ticonderoga brings American history to life in a fascinating way. This 18th-century fort in the Adirondacks region was an important site during the American Revolution and presents special events, such as soldiers' dinners, weapons and musket maintenance demonstrations, and military music that allow visitors to imagine the realities of the war.

The 2,000-acre site includes the historic fort; a farm-to-table restaurant, America's Fort Café, with views of Lake Champlain; take-out food options; picnic tables; the six-acre King's Garden, formerly the military garrison gardens; a corn maze; and a museum with a collection of Revolutionary-era exhibits. From August through October, visitors may participate in apple picking at the orchard of the King's Garden.

From early May through the end of October, Fort Ticonderoga is open from 9:30am to 5pm Tuesday through Sunday. From November through April, Fort Ticonderoga is closed except when living history programs are held here (check the website for details).

Address: Fort Ticonderoga, 102 Fort Ti Road, Ticonderoga, New York

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Ticonderoga

8. Visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown

National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown | Ken Wolter / Shutterstock.com

Sports enthusiasts will not want to miss the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, which opened in 1939 to celebrate 100 years of baseball history in America.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame is known for its display of bronze plaques honoring the most accomplished baseball players since 1936 until the present. Currently 340 baseball players comprise the Hall of Fame collection.

In addition to the Hall of Fame, a museum collection displays baseball photographs and artifacts related to baseball.

Also worth visiting in itself, the village of Cooperstown is one of the top tourist destinations in New York State. The tiny downtown has a classic Americana ambience.

Address: National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, 25 Main Street, Cooperstown, New York

9. Tour the Dia Beacon Contemporary Art Museum

Dia Beacon Exhibit | 1000zen / photo modified

In the charming Hudson Valley town of Beacon, the former Nabisco cookie factory has found a new lease on life as the Dia Beacon museum. This daring contemporary art museum presents a collection of works created from the 1960s until the present day.

Dia Beacon is open Friday through Monday. The museum provides free guided tours (included with the price of admission) on Saturdays and Sundays at 12pm and 1:30pm. The museum also host temporary exhibits and cultural events throughout the year.

Address: Dia Beacon, 3 Beekman Street, Beacon, New York

10. Leaf Peeping in the Autumn

Autumn foliage in Kaaterskill Clove in the Catskills Mountains

Autumn in Upstate New York dazzles visitors with its glorious beauty. From the Catskill Mountains to the rolling hills of the Hudson Valley and the Finger Lakes region, fall enlivens the New York landscape, transforming the foliage into a stunning spectacle of vibrant hues.

The scenery begins to change in late September or early October and continues through October until around early November, with a gradual procession of leaves changing from green to brilliant gold, amber, and rust tones. The profusion of bursting colors is especially marvelous on sunny days and in the countryside.

Beautiful leaf-peeping drives include the 52-mile Scenic Byway on New York State Route 28 from Shokan to Andes in the Catskills; the shorter Durham Valley Scenic Byway on New York State Route 32 and Route 23 from Greenville to Windham in the Catskills; the 30-mile High Peaks Scenic Byway in the Adirondacks; and the Seneca Lake Scenic Byway in the Finger Lakes Region.

Quaint country villages, such as Phoenicia, Fleischmanns, and Margaretville, dot the Scenic Byway on New York State Route 28 and offer some of the best places to stay in the Catskills.

11. Ski at a Resort in the High Peaks

Whiteface Mountain ski resort

In the Adirondacks' Lake Placid Region, the High Peaks offer some of the best alpine skiing in the Eastern United States. The Winter Olympic Games were held here twice, in 1932 and in 1980.

Today, this region boasts some of the best ski resorts in New York State. For instance, Whiteface Mountain at an elevation of 4,867 feet has a top-notch ski resort with 87 downhill runs on superb varied terrain. The Whiteface Mountain slopes feature 3,400 feet of vertical drop.

12. Soak Up the Scenery in the Finger Lakes Region

Skaneateles Lake, Finger Lakes Region | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

With forested rolling hills and a patchwork of farmlands that surround placid crystal-clear waters, the Finger Lakes scenery resembles the images found in landscape paintings. This winsome region is prized for its pristine environment and abundance of outdoorsy things to do.

Driving around each lake allows visitors to discover the scenery. An especially picturesque drive begins in the town of Geneva and follows alongside the sparkling blue waters of Seneca Lake until reaching the village of Watkins Glen. As the largest and deepest lake in the Finger Lakes Region, Seneca Lake reveals dazzling cobalt hues when the sun is shining.

On Route 14, which follows the contours of Seneca Lake from Geneva to Watkins Glen, there are some places to stop for a gourmet lunch while admiring views of the lake: Lancellotti's restaurant, which overlooks the lake and formal gardens at the Geneva on the Lake resort hotel; and the Stonecutter's Tavern, a casual pub-style restaurant at the upscale Belhurst Castle boutique hotel, one of the best resorts in the Finger Lakes Region.

At the southernmost end of the drive along Seneca Lake is a rewarding place to visit: Watkins Glen, a lovely waterfront village with a historic downtown. At the harbor, visitors can dine with lake views (at Seneca Harbor Station restaurant) or embark on a boat tour with Captain Bill's Seneca Lake Cruises. Franklin Street, the main street, has many restaurants and pizzerias. Watkins Glen is also home to a spectacular nature site, Watkins Glen State Park.

Another driving route (and walking path) is the Keuka Outlet Trail, which begins at Keuka Lake and leads to Seneca Lake. This trail can be approached as a short drive or a walk along the seven-mile path through a woodland.

Another popular place in the Finger Lakes Region is the town of Skaneateles on Skaneateles Lake. This quaint community is known as a holiday haunt for movie stars and famous politicians.

Besides scenic drives, the region offers endless opportunities for hiking along the Finger Lakes Trail that traverses various areas of the region. This trail system includes 1,000 miles of well-maintained footpaths, allowing for a variety of hikes, from short half-day excursions to overnight backpacking trips.

13. Be Inspired by Suffragist History in Seneca Falls

Statues at the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls

Seneca Falls in the Finger Lakes Region is a must-see destination for anyone interested in the history of women's rights.

On July 19th and 20th of 1848, the country's first Women's Rights Convention took place in Seneca Falls. Today, the Women's Rights National Historical Park pays tribute to the 19th-century movement for civil rights and equality.

Adding to the town's educational exhibits, the National Women's Hall of Fame presents the stories of noteworthy women who have changed the course of history.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Seneca Falls

14. Watch a Horse Race in Saratoga Springs

Horse racing at Saratoga Springs

A prestigious horse racing heritage and a continued tradition of thoroughbred horse races gives Saratoga Springs a special allure. The Saratoga Race Course holds the horse races during six weeks every year from mid-July until Labor Day.

The Saratoga horse races draw crowds and are known for the old-fashioned ambience. Many horse-racing enthusiasts get into the spirit by wearing stylish outfits and flamboyant hats.

Opened in 1863, the Saratoga Race Course track facility has retained its Victorian architectural details. Of course, the facility has been updated with modern amenities such as snack bars and well-maintained restrooms. Several clubhouse restaurants offer a sit-down dining experience.

For those who'd like to learn more about the Saratoga Race Course and its history, Walking Tours are available several times a day during race season. Tourists can also visit the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame located near the race course at 191 Union Avenue.

To really get into the spirit of the horse races, tourists can head to Broadway in Saratoga to purchase a hat at one of the retail stores such as Hatsational. The downtown also has excellent restaurants; several lively casual cafés; and locals' favorite, Mrs. London's, a refined café/boutique bakery modeled after traditional French pâtisserie shops.

Considered one of the best cities in New York State, Saratoga Springs has been a vacation destination since the 19th century thanks to its horse races and mineral water springs.

Address: Saratoga Race Course, 267 Union Avenue, Saratoga Springs, New York

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Saratoga Springs

15. Go Fly Fishing on the Beaverkill River

Fly Fishing the Upper Delaware River in Deposit, NY

As the birthplace of fly fishing in America, the Beaverkill River in the Catskills region offers an incomparable experience for anglers. This legendary trout stream has been a destination for fly fishing since the 1800s. The peaceful scenery provides an idyllic backdrop for fly fishing, while wading through the crystal-clear riffling waters.

Other excellent places for fly fishing in the Catskills region include the Neversink River and the Willowemoc Creek.

The West Branch of the Delaware River in the Catskills is considered a premier fly fishing spot in the Northeast. However fly fishing here generally requires a boat, as wading access is limited.

For those spending time in this area of the Catskills region, lodging and dining options are found in Roscoe (known as "Trout Town USA.") which has many restaurants and fly fishing outfitters, and Livingston Manor, which has a small downtown packed with gourmet grocery stores, cafés, and casual restaurants. Livingston Manor is also home to one of the best resorts in the Catskills and a famous fly fishing outfitter, Dette Flies, established in 1928.

16. Check out the "Grand Canyon of the East"

Letchworth State Park

One of the best state parks in New York, Letchworth State Park holds the title of "Grand Canyon of the East" thanks to its breathtaking landscape created by the force of the Genesee River. The dramatic scenery makes this park one of the most beautiful places to photograph in New York State.

The park encompasses an enormous gorge that extends for 17 miles and has three spectacular waterfalls. Trail 1 (the Gorge Trail) provides access to the park's most impressive waterfall, Middle Falls.

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