Albany, Hamilton and Downtown Rejuvenation – Oh My!
Albany is Energized by new Eateries, History and a new production of Hamilton
By Maria Myers
Looking from the outside in, most people would agree that New York City should be the state capital of NY; it’s one of the largest cities in the world with access to hundreds of restaurants, historically significant landmarks, and touristic hotspots.
While all that’s fine and dandy, if you travel just an hour or two north, you’ll find the overlooked city of Albany. It may be smaller than its cousin but it’s culturally and historically significant.
And the city is expecting an extra boom of tourism as they plan to welcome the Broadway hit Hamilton to their performance halls this upcoming August.
Albany History Today
Because of Lin-Manuel Mirandas’ play’s runaway success, most people know that the brilliant politician himself was born on the island of St. Kitts and Nevis, while his beloved Elizabeth was born into one of the richest families of New York, State, the Schuyler family.
Tours of the families brick mansion, now a registered historical landmark, are open to the public.
The tour largely centers around Liza, moving away from a focus on historical men and honing in on the ladies.
What’s that saying? Behind every great man is a great woman?
Liza proved this ten times over, providing Hamilton with her high social rank, connections within the political game and ensuring that after his untimely passing his life would not be forgotten (Liza had her late husbands life documented in seven books written by one of his sons).
I learned all this history and more from the interactive house tour that will have you reading love letters from the past and debunking some common misconceptions about Hamilton’s political alignment, all in a manageable hour-and-a-half.
The Albany Institute
The Albany Institute of History and Art is also preparing for the arrival of Hamilton.
Diane Shewchuk, a curator for the institute, informed us, “We don’t collect anything unless it has a story . . . it makes things human.” She has been working for months to gather artifacts for the upcoming exhibition, again, centered around the woman surrounding Hamilton.
In the institutes’ research library Diane showed us a commonplace book from a member of the Schuyler family, requested from another museum. Its looping cursive contains everything from eel recipes to how to relieve your horse of constipation.
This and other exhibitions are uniquely assembled.
A current exhibit (closing June 9) features jewelry and personal adornments throughout the ages, some including metals from generals, silver “chains” that carpenters use for carrying scissors and measuring tape, and bracelets and necklaces made from human hair.
You know, for memories sake. Permanent exhibitions include a section on Egypt, features on Albany’s history, and an expansive collection of a little over 80 landscapes from the Hudson River School. This institute will definitely take more than a day to explore.
Something that won’t take more than a day, for legal purposes more than anything else, is a tour of the City’s capital. This expansive building is known as one of America’s most beautiful capitol buildings and it’s not hard to see why.
$25 million dollars was spent on the structure, the equivalent of $753 million by today’s standards.
Aspects of the tour include the meeting rooms for the house of representatives and the Senate, the hall of past governors, the war room and three fantastic staircases made from Scottish red sandstone and modeled after the Paris Opera House.
If you look closely near the bottom of one of these three staircases you’ll find a bust of Alex. Hamilton, his name shortened as the mason who was carving out his likeness ran out of space.
If you’re a fan of Halloween, haunted capitol tours are given surrounding the month of October.
From Classics to Cuisine
Maeve McEneny, the Program Coordinator of Albany Discover (Albany’s official Tourism Programming Agency), is very familiar with this haunting tour; she was one of the team members who designed it.
Her passion for the city she grew up in is palpable from across the dinner table as we chowed down at a local restaurant, Navona, known for their wood-burning oven pizzas.
Maeve told me how tourism to Albany has really picked up in the last few years, how the new events and activities have been made possible through collaboration across all kinds of “tourism mediums”. “It’s like being on a playground.”, she explains, “It’s not fun to just hold the ball – you gotta play.”
Nowhere is this clearer than on a tour we took earlier in the day; a walking food tour by Taste of Troy, now affiliated with Discover Albany.
Our guide, Amy, designed the program herself and has been successfully running small tours for around three years.
The tour is an assortment of the best restaurants Albany has to offer within walking distance of the historic downtown.
Experience signature beers made in house at the Albany Pump Station paired with warm doughy pretzels, pork and avocado tacos at Ama Cocina, and the addicting donuts from Cider Belly Donuts, a local business known to sell out of their sweet sugary goodness regularly.
‘Legs’ Diamond in Albany
Amy always makes sure to order some donuts and set them aside, just in case. As you walk off the samples from restaurant to restaurant, enjoy fun facts and historical background of the city, including bits on Legs Diamond; also known as Gentleman Jack, an Irish American gangster involved in bootlegging.
Diamond was a celebrity in upstate New York during the Great Depression. He managed to survive dozens of bullets during his crime career, and he was murdered in an Albany boarding house in 1931.
You’ll pass by the restaurant he was last seen at with his family before he was shot if you take the tour.
The Iron Gate
Eateries not on the food tour but just as notable include the Iron Gate, housed in an old brick mansion first built as a school and then converted into a home for a wealthy industrialist.
One of the owners of the restaurant still lives upstairs with his wife and kids. In the summer the brick patio leading up to the front door is a popular hangout.
Weekends are packed but the key to a good breakfast – arrive early. – and get the cornbread!
Traditional breakfast meals such as pancakes, eggs benedicts and something called a John Denver; a heavenly mix of cornbread scrambled eggs and bacon, topped off with a pepper jack hollandaise sauce.
Meals come out quickly and are whisked onto Tulip adorned tables by the young, tattooed staff, blending past and present.
If you’re looking for more of a variety just a few blocks away is Umana Restaurant and Wine Bar.
This is my personal favorite restaurant in the city, this joint is vibrant and friendly, with clientele ranging from college students looking for a taste of home to city judges and doctors.
Fitting, as the name of the restaurant directly translates to “Meeting place of the people”. Visitors can experience Ethiopian, Haitian and Dominican dishes (just to name a few) on the dinner menu.
Brunch is usually more of a southern style with options like chicken and waffles or shrimp and grits.
I even found something from my own culture; sweet plantains paired with a garlic ginger sauce and a Cardamon honey, two of the best bleeping sauces I’ve ever had in my life.
Strewn throughout both the morning and evening menus are dishes from the owners’ home country of Guinea in Africa.
As we’re handed a dessert menu at Navona, a couple enters the restaurant; turns out it’s the mayor of Albany, Kathy Sheehan, and her husband. The woman greets Mauve warmly. If I didn’t know better I would have thought this political official was her mother or aunt; they’re so familiar.
The topic of dessert comes up. Mauve mentions that there’s Stewart’s convenience store right next door and they’ve got better ice cream and more options than any other joint around. Or so it’s said.
Mayor Sheehan catches the tail end of our conversation as we head out the door “My favorite is Peanut Pandamonium,” she tells me, “you should definitely try it – it’s fantastic.” I do – and it is. She’s got my vote.
Nothing But the Best
Mayor Sheehan embodied the good vibes that seem to permeate the streets and the people of this city, while governors of the past have provided must-see venues and attractions for visitors and locals alike.
I’m specifically talking about the performing arts venue, The Egg.
One morning over breakfast way back in the ’60s, then governor Nelson Rockefeller took his coffee cup and half a grapefruit, placed the fruit on top of the cup, tilted it, and presented it to his architects, saying, “I want something that looks like this.”
Thus The Egg was born, and the Empire Plaza surrounding it. The Egg itself houses two theatres and the underground passageways threaded throughout the entire plaza are large and long enough that the unknowing passer-through has the potential to get very lost.
Don’t worry, maps marked with “You are HERE” are strategically placed throughout the blindingly white passages.
Not but a few blocks away is a local bar that Mauve so generously cued my partner and me into; the Excelsior Pub. When we arrive the narrow bar is crowded with concertgoers — Elton John is in town for a performance, on his last World Tour of his career. Albany is indeed on the list of concert venues!
Locals sit in the back near the pinball machine, waiting for the rowdy crowd to leave so they can commence with their neighborly drinking activities. Despite the hustle and bustle the owner, Joe, makes time to talk. “I love it.” Joe booms over the racket as he pours a beer on draft for a waiting customer.
“I always wanted there to be an ounce of tourism to this whole thing. If you look at the back of the menu I literally have local attractions within walking distance and then the driving attractions as well.” And so he does.
The map is interesting, but I’m distracted by Joe’s back wall of liquor. All the alcohol in the pub is (except for one bottle of Tullamore D.E.W. and a few Miller Lights for the clientele looking for a familiar beer and shot) made in New York state. My eyes fall on a bottle of Ironweed.
Whiskey, Cider and those who are Inspired
The brand of whiskey is instantly familiar; earlier that day we had taken a tour of the facilities where the bourbon is made, right here in Albany at the Albany Distilling Company, complete with an in house orange tabby cat to ward off any other four-legged creatures.
John Curtain, the founder, brought us around the facility, explaining how the whole process worked.
The grinding of the corn, taking that grain and converting the starch to sugar, throw in some yeast to help break down the sugar into ethanol and CO2 and – Voila! Booze.
Besides the IronWeed Whiskey, John and company also make a lovely ALB Vodka and a coffee flavored vodka called Death Wish Coffee. The distillery does tours twice a month, every first and third Saturday. Times and hours can be checked on their website website
Down the road in the warehouse district is another alcohol-centered commodity; the Nine Pin Cider Works. website
We were fortunate enough to be in town during the companies yearly event, The Gathering of the New York Farm Cideries.
Since the company’s conception and first cider gathering in 2014, the event has expanded from six or eight local cideries to around fourteen, and they’re looking to expand every year.
“We’re inviting our ‘competitors’ here to come and sample and sell in our own facility because we believe that a rising tide raises all ships,” said Josh, director of marketing and business development at Nine Pin.
He goes on to justly boast about the leaps and bounds NY states first farm cidery, how they were the first facility to make use of the farm cidery law passed in 2014.
This affirmed that cideries could have their own tasting room to sell retail if they source 100% of their palm fruits (apples and pairs) from NY state, something the founder, Alejandro, had been cued into for quite some time.
“When I was little my dad would plant apples from seed all over our 10 acres.”, Alejandro told me as he waved good-bye to the last of the guests from the 2019 Cider gathering.
Alejandro grew up just thirty minutes outside of Albany and many of the flavors he and others work into the ciders are inspired by the unique apples he grew up with, NY state also being the no. 1 state for variety in apples.
Learn all about the distilling process at one of their once a month tours (hours for tours of the facility and other events can be found on The family feel carries over into the business, Josh being Alejandros cousin and Josh’s and Alejandros mother work in the cideries offices.
Alejandros father is still felt as well. Whether it was fate or coincidence, Alejandro bought the warehouse his father had been commissioned to create a rose (NY’s state flower) on, fifteen years after the fact.
Art and Community
Murals such as these aren’t uncommon in Albany, especially since the pop-up initiative taken by the Albany Center Gallery.
Tony Ladicicco, the Galleries Executive Director, explained moveable murals; “ – with boarded-up buildings, there’s a vacancy in the city so instead of looking at something gnarly and not very nice we asked the city if we could get money to do artwork.”
From this jumping off point, the gallery has worked on larger murals with largely local artists, along with some international artisans thrown in.
The gallery itself contains everything from photography to sculpture to mixed media installation work. There is a portion of the business that sells handcrafted jewelry and smaller pieces, for your shopping convenience.
Albany; a beautiful city with beautiful, passionate people. They carry themselves with natural contentment – and it shows.
So even if you’re not into Hamilton – get over to Albany!
This trip was sponsored by Discover Albany but the opinions are the author’s own. Check out their website at www.albany.org