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This charming town in the capital region of Albany, NY, has captured our family’s heart. It’s strange how certain towns can do that while others that are just as charming don’t. Our first experience with Saratoga was almost 8 years ago. We were planning a long fall weekend to the Berkshires, and I was looking for somewhere new to explore. We have been hooked on Saratoga Springs ever since.
Native Americans who lived near modern-day Saratoga Springs lived near natural mineral springs which they believed held mystical and medicinal properties. European settlers arrived in the late 1700s but Saratoga remained relatively small and obscure until the early 19th century. The advent of the railroad line to Saratoga brought flocks of visitors to the newly appreciated springs. Doctors began to prescribe visits to the springs to wealthy Manhattanites and Bostonians. Hotels cropped up all over, and the mineral springs made Saratoga the place to be in the summer months. The famed Saratoga Springs racetrack was built in 1863 and cemented Saratoga as a summer playground for the wealthy.
Today Saratoga retains much of its Victorian charm, and tourism continues to boom thanks to a very active tourism council. There is no end of things to do year round. When we first went to Saratoga we wandered into the visitor center across from Congress Spring. This small visitors center offered up an entire days’ worth of activities with its daily calendar. I recommend this as your fist stop as well.
Visiting the springs-
The springs are still sputtering in Saratoga. You can visit the vast majority of the active ones and have a drink from each of them. Most have some sort of spigot for drinking or filling water bottles, but some are still in their natural state. They all have quite different tastes to them. Some taste like cold tap water while others are metallic, some highly carbonated, and a few are downright vile.
Congress Springs is probably the most visited spring. It is situated in a pavilion downtown in Congress Park. This spring is my oldest son’s very favorite. Every time we visit he brings empty jugs to fill up and take home. Continue your spring tasting tour with Columbian Spring and Deer Park Spring. They are steps away, and you can taste what we mean about metallic tasting spring water.
Cross the street and you will find Hathorn Spring One. This spring is lovingly dubbed “fart juice spring” by my boys and they love to watch unassuming people try it. It is fairly carbonated and has a very strong sulfur flavor and smell.
My personal favorite spring water is Hayes Well Spring located in Saratoga State Park. It must be a popular one with the locals as there are always cars lined up near it filling up large water jugs. It tastes like good old-fashioned tap water, but I imagine all the minerals in it must be good for me.
If you want to visit all the other springs you can find a map of them at the visitors center.
Saratoga State Park-
Very tall pine trees line the entrance to the park, and bike and walking trails line both sides of the street. As you enter the park, there are lots of signs to direct you to different locations. The Gideon Putnam hotel, baths, geysers, and more.
We have made use of the park for fall bike rides, winter snowshoeing, mineral baths, and our favorite fall walk to the Geyser Island Spouter.
The spouter is one of the few springs left in its natural state. You can walk on a path near it and see the minerals that have hardened on the rock over the centuries.
This experience is a good one for adults and older kids only, but it is so much fun it might be worth finding a sitter. The Roosevelt Baths and Spa were built in 1935 as a way to preserve Saratoga Springs and keep visitors coming during the Great Depression. These baths are situated in Saratoga Stake Park and the architecture is the same as it was when it was built, so it feels like you are stepping back in time.
While there are many treatments offered at Roosevelt Bath and Spa, I really recommend the mineral bath.
When you enter you are directed to a changing room and given a robe. After you change you are directed to the lounge to await your turn in the bath. You can enjoy lounge chairs, fresh fruit, and tea while you wait. When it’s your turn, you are led down the hall to a private room with a bath. Water is already running and calm music is playing. You receive instructions on how to use the tap and are then left in blissful quiet for the next 40 minutes. The water comes out of the tap clear, but as the minerals hit the hot water the water turns reddish-brown. So the bathtub doesn’t look as inviting as you might like, but trust me, it is glorious.
The bathtub is much deeper than one would expect, and since you can’t see the bottom due to the color of the water take a careful step in. The water from the tap is naturally carbonated so you will feel little bubbles tickling your skin. The bath stays warmer than a normal tub due to all the minerals, and the minerals are said to help with things like digestion and swelling, among others. I’m not sold on that, but I am sold on how relaxing those baths are.
The Saratoga Race track can only really be visited during race season which runs from the end of July through the beginning of September. You can watch the races from the club house or the Grandstand, but you will have to pay to get a seat. At the time of this writing it was between $20 and $30 but you can sit in a bench seat for just the price of admission to the track.
I recommend before you go that you visit www.saratoga.com for lots of good information about your visit. It is crowded and confusing the first time you go, but if you read up on what to expect you will do just fine.
The first thing you will notice as your enter the track area is that there are lots of women in very large hats. The hat tradition of old is still in effect, and it is disconcerting to see ladies in extravagant hats wearing flip flops and tank tops. But it does lend a festive atmosphere. (Keep in mind that there are dress codes for certain seating areas.) You will find that info here: Racetrack dress code
As you move toward the tracks and find your seating, you can watch various races, place a bet, eat from various vendors, bring a picnic and make a day of it, and visit the playground with your little ones.
This is one of those things that is a truly different experience and one not to be missed if you can manage it.
An independent bookstore is a rare enough thing in this day and age to write about it. But this store does their kids section so well. The entire top floor is filled with delights in every nook and cranny. Your kids will enjoy the trains, the swing and story hour. The books are well displayed with catchy descriptions, and you could find yourself spending hours here.
This is a restaurant that takes classic comfort food and puts a spin on it. We have eaten here on most visits to Saratoga, and have never been anything but impressed. We really like their pulled pork mac and cheese and their comfort burger. Seating is plentiful and the kids love their tater tots.
You come here for the french fries (or pomme frites) and stay for the crepes. This place is sure to please even your pickiest eaters. The fries come piping hot with your choice of dipping sauces, and they are the fluffiest, yet crunchiest fries you will ever eat. This place does get crowded and we often view it as a good place for an afternoon snack instead of lunch or dinner.
The International Flavorfeast-
Although this is merely a festival and not an actual restaurant, it bears mentioning. This yearly festival is comprised of 25-30 downtown restaurants. These restaurants offer a “tasting” for $1. The tasting may be something like a taco, bread pudding, pulled pork, beef stew, or peanut soup. The tastings vary in size but on average 5- 6 tastings makes a pretty great meal. We have been doing this since we wandered upon it 5 years ago in its inaugural year. We haven’t missed one since! The kids love it because we give them $5-10 and they can pick whatever they want to eat. Sometimes it’s nothing but sugar! Truly, the food is first rate, and there are no disappointing bites. We look forward to it every year!