Albany, New York: Exploring the City and the Waterways


By Emily Grund

The Assembly Chamber at the New York State Capitol
The Assembly Chamber at the New York State Capitol. Photos by Emily Grund.

People often look ahead at the forecast before they head out on a trip or vacation, and I am no exception. So when I saw rain predicted through my weekend trip to Albany in June, I was a bit nervous considering much of my itinerary included boat rides or being outside.

Thankfully for me and prospective travelers, the capital of New York has plenty to do on a rainy day and when the skies let up a little I was still able to experience the activities planned on the Hudson River and Erie Canal.

Although New York City is one of the most visited cities in the country, and even the world, Albany should not be overlooked if you’re planning on visiting the state.

Why? Because not only is it the oldest city in the state filled with history and culture, it is also a hub for great entertainment and recreational activities (not to mention a lot less expensive than a trip to NYC).

So whether you’re a budget traveler, a history buff, a fan of the arts, or a family that loves the outdoors, Albany is worth checking out. As a twenty-something year old traveler, I can honesty say I enjoyed every part of it. Even in the rain!

Serving up some great grub in Albany, NY. Sheila Keirney, our waitress at the Bayou Cafe
Serving up some great grub in Albany, NY. Sheila Keirney, our waitress at the Bayou Cafe

Great Food and Entertainment

My boyfriend and I arrived at our boutique hotel, 74 State on State Street, after a long drive from Massachusetts ready to relax. The friendly receptionist told us where to park, and we were checked in quickly.

The building, originally a clothing factory, had a luxurious lobby and original elevator doors that gave the hotel a historic feel. The room was beautiful, comfortable, and overlooked the impressive architecture of downtown Albany that consists of new and old buildings coexisting together.

The plush pillows on the bed made it difficult to get back up for a night on the town, but it was something to look forward to when we returned.

A musician at the Bayou Cafe
A musician at the Bayou Cafe

After getting settled in, we headed downstairs to the Bistro/Bar at 74 for a few drinks before heading to our dinner reservations. With a piano facing the floor-to-ceiling windows, a hotel manager boasted “It has the best view in the hotel.” The great view plus a friendly bar staff and I could see why it’s a popular spot for guests to unwind at the end of a long day.

Thankfully the weather held up for us and we were able to take a nice stroll from the hotel down to the Bayou Cafe on North Pearl Street where we enjoyed a southern style dinner with live music. The Bayou Cafe has a casual feel with booths surrounded by brick walls and New Orleans inspired decorations.

In the next room is a bar where live music is performed on weekends, and often draws a large young crowd at night. If you’re a fan of spicy food like me, you should definitely try the Cajun Combo. The delicious dish includes red beans and rice, blackened catfish, and jambalaya for $14.95.

Our waitress, Sheila Keirney, was very enthusiastic about Albany and all that it has to offer. “I moved here for school, but the nightlife is great and all of my friends have moved here so it made sense to stay. A lot of great entertainment comes through here too, so there is always something fun going on.”

The famous Million-Dollar Staircase at the New York State Capitol
The famous Million-Dollar Staircase at the New York State Capitol

Speaking of entertainment, after dinner we hopped over next door to the Capital Repertory Theatre to see The Marvelous Wonderettes. The musical production took place in 1958 for the first act, as four girls performing for their school prom sang popular hits from the time such as “Lollipop” and then jumped forward ten years for the second act that takes place at their high school reunion where they sang late sixties tunes such as “It’s My Party.”

The play was fun and interactive with the audience which fared well with the intimate setting of the theater. A man sitting next to us in the front row even got pulled on stage which left him and his wife smiling throughout the show.

Culture for Free

The theatre had a mixed crowd from old to young and formal to casual attire, making it the perfect place for anyone to go see a broadway quality show for a quality price ($27-$52 depending on the seat and day).

George Houk conducts a tour of the New York State Capitol
George Houk conducts a tour of the New York State Capitol

After a restful sleep, we woke up to find the weather wasn’t cooperating, so before we braved the weather we had breakfast at the 74 State restaurant Marché.

After a filling eggs benedict, we got out our umbrellas and rain jackets to prepare for the trek over to the New York State Capitol. Thankfully we were able to get a ride over, because although it’s a walkable distance, our shoes weren’t the best fit for puddles.

We arrived at The Plaza Visitor Center happy to discover the underground level connects to the Capitol and the New YorkStateMuseum which meant we were safe from the rain for the next few hours.

The Plaza Visitor Center is a great place to check out on it’s own because of the modern art that decorates the concrete walls. According to a New York State website, “Art historians have called the Empire State Plaza Art Collection the greatest collection of modern American art in any single public site that is not a museum.”

The New York State Museum in Albany NY.
The New York State Museum in Albany.

During the week, shops and restaurants are open and tours of the upper levels are available too. So whether the weather isn’t favorable or you’re looking for a free activity to break up the day, coming to the visitor center is your best bet.

NY Capital Tour

About twenty other visitors joined in on the New YorkState Capitol tour led by George Houk. He asked everyone where they were from and visitors ranged from Texas to Massachusetts and all the way from England.

As he took us floor to floor he explained the extensive history of the building and the political influences that came through it. The beautiful architecture had people taking pictures at every turn and his dry humor kept people smiling.

On this free tour you’ll get to see the vast Assembly Chamber, the Senate Chamber, the Million Dollar Staircase, the Flag Room, and much more. The tour is approximately an hour long, so it is long enough to give you a wealth of information on the building, city and state while also being short enough to bring small children who might get restless.

The Pump Station Burger
The Pump Station Burger

Once we got back to the visitor center, without ever having to go back out into the rain, we were able to enter the New York State Museum. This museum is also a free attraction with a lot of history and culture to explore. Throughout the museum, every part of the state is represented by different exhibits for an overall look at how the state was formed and how it came to be what it is today.

The most chilling exhibit is also the most popular, and that is The WorldTradeCenter: Rescue, Recovery, Response exhibit. With actual pieces of the World Trade Center buildings and the planes that crashed into them on 9/11, it gave me the feeling that I was standing at ground zero soon after it happened.

All of the artifacts and videos of people recounting their experiences playing in the background brings the history to life right before your eyes.

Robert Wolfgang - Albany Aqua Ducks
Robert Wolfgang – Albany Aqua Ducks

On a lighter note, the museum also features a Sesame Street display and an old wooden carousel that visitors can ride for free, made between 1912 and 1916 by the Herschell-Spillman Company of North Tonawanda, New York, one of the leading manufacturers of carousels in America.

And if you’re more of a hands-on kind of person you can head over to Discovery Place where kids and their families can dig for fossils, look at bugs under microscopes and more. Overall, this museum has a lot to offer especially with free admission and should be checked out even if the weather isn’t forcing you inside.

If the weather is nice for you, be sure to take an Empire State Plaza Tour. Outside of the visitor center you’ll be able to see such sights as the famous theater The Egg and other impressive sculptures and architecture.

Lunch at the Pump Station

For lunch we headed over to the Albany Pump Station. Historically, the building really used to be a pump station in the 1900s that drew water from the Hudson River and into the Bleecker Reservoir.

Funky Restaurants

This casual restaurant is family friendly and has a bar for customers coming in to watch sports so it is the perfect pub for lunch. I ordered the Pump Station Burger and my boyfriend ordered the Pulled-Pork Sandwich both for $9. Our meals paired with a nine-beer sampler that hit the spot as we watched the US play in the World Cup.

For a fancier atmosphere and elegant entrees check out the Hollywood Brown Derby. Originally a popular restaurant in Hollywood, created in 1927, it has now been relocated to Albany. Famous actresses, directors, producers and more frequented this spot where popular caricature artists would draw their picture and the paparazzi was never far behind to eavesdrop on all their conversations.

USS Slater viewed from Albany Aqua Duck Tour
USS Slater viewed from Albany Aqua Duck Tour
Dutch Apple Tours
Dutch Apple Tours

Now the walls are covered with these drawings and instead of celebrities and reporters, Albany’s location is more likely to see politicians and tourists. Be sure to dress up for this occasion while you enjoy fine dining at its finest.

The service was truly outstanding and made me feel like the celebrity for the evening. We ordered shrimp cocktail, a bottle of wine, and Lobster Risotto. The final bill was a bit steep, but it is definitely worth splurging in you’re in the area.

After lunch at the Albany Pump Station, the rain had let up a little and we were on track to check out the Albany Aqua Duck Tours. Sure enough, the rain didn’t get these guys to cancel, so a full Duck boat of us headed out with our quacking necklaces and scavenger hunt bingo cards.

From the Empire State Plaza to the First Church and Washington Park our informative tour guide, Robert Wolfgang educated us nonstop but kept the jokes coming as we eventually we headed out on the calm river.

The rain got a bit heavier as we passed sights such as the USS Slater, a train going over the Railroad Bridge, and Hudson River Way, but was still beautiful to see.The top of the Duck is covered and there were side panels they could let down, but the captain Harry Van Wormer advised we brave it out because we wouldn’t be able to see as well and it would get very hot inside the Duck. Everyone was in good spirits and didn’t mind getting a little wet, so we agreed to keep them up as we learned about historical landmarks throughout the city.

Ten Year Vamp on Dutch Apple Cruise
Ten Year Vamp on Dutch Apple Cruise

This company operates the only amphibious tour in Upstate New York and for $28 adult tickets and $16 for kids, it’s an affordable way to learn all about Albany in a fun and entertaining way. Although I highly recommend this tour, I advise you try to take it when the sun is shining!

Alive at Five

If you’re looking for live entertainment with a waterfront view, Alive at Five, Albany’s free summer concert series on Thursday nights can be seen from the water or on land as artists perform at Riverfront Park.

Cohoes Falls
Cohoes Falls, NY.

When it’s raining the concert is performed under an overpass at the Corning Preserve Boat Launch, so again, all is not lost if it rains during your stay.

Unfortunately, I came in on a Friday so I missed the concert, but locals and tourists raved about their experiences when I asked about it. Bands such as Boyz II Men and Gin Blossoms have played so far this summer along with local artists.

For over-21 entertainment check out the Dutch Apple Cruise Ship’s Hudson River Party Cruise offered on the weekends. Aboard this ship two bachelorette parties, a few birthday parties, and a live band, Ten Year Vamp, all came together for a joint celebration as the cruise traveled slowly down the river.

Inside a lock on the Erie Canal
Inside a lock on the Erie Canal

Owner Anthony Renna said, “People come out here to have a good time and we do everything we can to make sure that happens.”There is a covered section where cruisers can dance and order drinks if they need to take cover from the rain, but thankfully for us the rain stopped and people were able to go out on the open deck and enjoy the spectacular views.

Bridesmaid Allison Leahey said, “For the bachelorette party we wanted to do something fun and different, so we did a lot of searching on the internet. My friends and I have seen Ten Year Vamp many times, so when we saw they were performing on this cruise we felt it would be the perfect fit.”

Dutch Apple Cruise Ship also does private chartering, dinner, lunch, and sightseeing cruises for all ages, so be sure to check them out even if you can’t make the party cruise.

Sunday Funday out on the Erie Canal

On our final day we were fortunate again to get little to no rain and just clouds on our journey up the highway to see CohoesFalls and take a Erie Canal Lock Tour.

Cohoes Falls is the largest falls in the north after Niagara Falls and is a very impressive sight to see. A popular spot for fishermen and bicyclists riding along trails, it is a breathtaking scene surrounded by old mill factories and quaint houses originally built for the factory workers.

Historic plaques can be found around the town to educate you about the falls and the mills, so it’s a great spot for a Sunday stroll. Just keep in mind you have to drive to get there.

Down the road a bit in Waterford, we drove past beautiful parks and bridges before arriving at the Waterford Harbor Visitor Center. We were fortunate enough to see a farmer’s market that lined the canals edge and was bustling with art and fresh food. The farmer’s market takes place every Sunday through October 10, and the town puts on special events, such as a Tugboat Round Up, throughout the summer.

Our purpose for being there that day, however, was to take a canal tour on a canal boat through the Erie-Champlain Canal Boat Company. Captain Richard Powell and Captain Nick Powell run a charter service for their four boats to experienced boaters but recently have started day tours for people interested in relaxing boat ride while learning more about the canal and it’s history.

For $15 for adults and $10 for children 4-10, you will get a very informative two-hour excursion on the river while also experiencing the impressive locks that allow boats to travel smoothly through uneven terrain.

I had never seen a lock before, so I was blown away by the engineering and technology of it all. It is quite the experience. The captains were knowledgable and incredibly hospitable. With beautiful sights, intriguing history, and a calm river to cruise along, it truly is one of the most relaxing ways to spend a Sunday.

So although the weather wasn’t ideal, it by no means ruined any of the activities we had planned. We were lucky we were able to get out on the river, but if we hadn’t there was lots more to do indoors that we didn’t get a chance to see.

If the weather is nice during your stay, getting out on the river is an absolute must. Albany is more than just a city with tall buildings, it offers beautiful nature, unique culture, and fun entertainment too.

Emily Grund

Emily Grund is a former Editorial Assistant at GoNOMAD at our office in South Deerfield, Massachusetts. She now lives in Boston, MA.

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