The potato chip. Delightfully crunchy, salty and, as the story goes, originated in Saratoga Springs.
While most people probably don’t associate upstate New York with the world’s most perfect snack, legend has it that back in 1853, an unhappy patron sent his potatoes back to the kitchen at a local restaurant, not once, but twice, complaining that they were too thick and soggy.
In response, the exasperated chef vengefully sent out a plate of potatoes, deep-fried and sliced paper thin.
Instead of being properly chastised, however, the customer was enamored with the crispy potato “chips,” and soon they became all the rage. The rest, as they say, is history.
Steeped in far more than just snack food glory, the graceful city of Saratoga Springs, roughly 30 minutes north of Albany in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, has long beckoned visitors with its array of attractions.
The area lies along a fault line, and Native Americans were the first to discover and utilize the mineral springs bubbling out from cracks in the earth.
Word eventually spread of the potential health benefits of the springs, and before long, Saratoga Springs became a thriving spa town, earning the nickname “Queen of Spas” and drawing wellness-seekers from far and wide to “take the cure.”
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, as many as 100 springs scattered throughout the city each boasted its own unique remedy for any number of ailments, as well as spa treatments.
While fewer than 20 remain today, they continue to be a popular draw for folks who want to either drink or bathe in the naturally carbonated mineral water.
The Gideon Putnam, a spa and resort in Saratoga Spa State Park, offers guests the opportunity to enjoy a private, effervescent soak in the historic Roosevelt Bathhouse.
Floating in rusty, mineral-rich water, warmed to the perfect temperature with fresh, hot water, is not only the ideal way to forget about life for a while, but also to treat arthritis and heart disease — or at least that’s what scientists claimed back in the 1940s.
Massages, facials and other spa and wellness treatments are available at the resort, making it a popular choice for girlfriend trips and couples looking for a restful retreat.
Anyone interested in sampling or bringing home some of the chilly, 55-degree mineral waters (and supposedly they all taste just a bit different), can do so by taking a self-guided tour of the city’s mineral springs.
Detailed information on the location of the various springs and their benefits can be found online (saratogaspringsvisitorcenter.com) and is available at the Saratoga Springs Heritage Area Visitor Center at 297 Broadway St.
Located in a former trolley station and subsequent drink hall, the visitor’s center warrants a stop all on its own simply to admire its impressive architecture, a Beaux-Arts design that distinguishes the building as a city landmark and earned it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Beyond its famed mineral springs, Saratoga Springs is best known for the Saratoga Race Course.
The city’s first thoroughbred meet, staged by John Morrissey, a local gambler, casino owner and later congressman, was held in August of 1863 and met with such rousing success that not long after, a permanent grandstand was built on Union Avenue to host the sport.
In the century and a half since, the course has become synonymous with fine thoroughbred racing, having hosted equine greats like Secretariat, Gallant Fox and Seattle Slew, and is one of the oldest organized sporting venues in the country.
Sports Illustrated named the illustrious track one of the world’s greatest sporting venues, and it’s easy to see why.
Drawing nearly 1 million fans each year to its historic racing grounds, there’s a little something for everyone including sports enthusiasts, gamblers, spectators and families.
Beginning at the end of July and running through Labor Day, the season is a short one, lasting merely 40 days. So visitors tend to make the most of it while they can, and there are a variety of options in which to take in all the action.
Reserved seats are available in the Grandstand and the upscale Clubhouse, while more casual seating is available at picnic tables throughout the track’s bustling “Backyard.”
To score one, most people show up first thing in the morning and lay claim to a table by putting a tablecloth or newspaper on it, and as Saratoga tradition holds, it’s theirs for the day.
Coolers are welcome, and most everyone brings one filled with their favorite food and drinks, including alcohol, as long as it’s not in glass bottles.
It’s a carnival-like atmosphere with vendors, musicians and throngs of people filling the area, along with jockeys and their thoroughbreds, who come through on their way from the paddock to the course.
With admission tickets starting at only $5, it’s a lively, entertaining day on the cheap.
And as at any civilized horse race, many attendees show off their personal style by wearing a hat.
From fancy fascinators to elegant plumes, they are everywhere. Don’t have one? Don’t worry, Hatsational, a local hat shop, sells men’s and women’s hats, along with accessories and clothing at its flagship store at 510 Broadway, and seasonally at satellite stores at The Gideon Putnam hotel and Saratoga Race Course.
Beyond horses and health, Saratoga Springs boasts a thriving cultural scene. Skidmore College, a renowned liberal arts college in town, is home to the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery.
Offering a diverse array of innovative, contemporary art, The Tang makes full use of its dramatic exhibition space to display all kinds of distinctive works, including the building’s expansive elevator which presents shows to riders commuting between the first and second floors.
Consisting mostly, but not entirely, of sound installations (Elevator Music, get it?), the elevator shows often utilize sound and visuals to create an immersive experience for riders.
On Thursdays at noon (through Aug. 24), free curators’ tours of the exhibitions are offered to the general public along with rooftop concerts hosted Thursday nights at 7 p.m.
Yaddo, a 400-acre country estate established by financier Spencer Trask and his wife, Katrina, back in the late 1800s, has long served as an artists’ retreat for authors, painters, sculptors and musicians, including notable residents like Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote and Langston Hughes.
Yaddo, a 400-acre country estate in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., established by financier Spencer Trask and his wife, Katrina, in the late 1800s, has long served as an artists’ retreat for authors, painters, sculptors and musicians.
While the main property is off limits to the public, its gardens are open to visitors year-round, and more than 50,000 people come annually to enjoy the pastoral setting, rose garden, sculptures, fountains and woodland rock garden.
Docent-led tours of the gardens are available on weekends and Tuesdays (the only day of the week the Saratoga Race Course is dark) through Labor Day and cost $10 per person.
Congress Park, located along Broadway, Circular and Spring Streets, is a popular place to picnic, stroll or enjoy a turn aboard the historic wooden carousel, costing just $1 per ride.
It’s also home to Congress Spring, the centerpiece of the park and one of the most prominent mineral springs found in the city. Bottled and sold around the world at one time, the spring still flows and is thought to benefit gout and skin ailments.
Also within the park, the Saratoga Springs History Museum, in a former, 1870s gambling casino, features three floors of exhibits. Notably the museum was one of the locations used in the filming of the 2003, Oscar-nominated film “Seabiscuit.”
In July and August, Congress Park becomes a stage for the Saratoga Shakespeare Company, which performs some of the famous writer’s most memorable plays including “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Winter’s Tale.”
The Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), located in Spa State Park, hosts the New York City Ballet and Philadelphia Orchestra throughout the summer months, along with other high-caliber performers, festivals and concerts at its 25,000-person amphitheatre.
Guests have the option of purchasing covered seats or spending a little less to spread out a blanket and sit out on the lawn. Folks attending classical events like ballet and orchestra performances are allowed to bring in alcohol, and many do, enjoying a picnic dinner and bottle of wine beneath the stars.
Considered the oldest continuously operating folk music venue in the country, Caffè Lena at 47 Phila St. in downtown Saratoga Springs, is an internationally renowned coffeehouse that’s been around since 1960.
Lena Spencer founded the cafe in a former woodworking shop with her then-husband, Bill, to provide a stage for up-and-coming musicians, and in the process, ended up hosting some of folk music’s most legendary singer/songwriters, including Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie and Emmylou Harris.
Today the tradition of showcasing talented musicians, good music and other creative presentations, like poetry readings and open mic nights, continues with events most nights of the week.
Scores Of Restaurants
Saratoga Springs is filled with scores of good restaurants including 15 Church, a trendy, refined eatery that serves dishes like Tuna Tartare Tacos and Moroccan Lamb Loin, in a restored historic building on, you guessed it, 15 Church St.
The Mouzon House (1 York St.) is another. Set inside an 1883 Victorian home oozing with grace and charm, the restaurant offers locally-sourced farm-to-table dishes, oysters, risotto, seafood entrees and housemade mac and cheese.
On the whimsical side, the Circus Cafe at 392 Broadway and offering casual dining, is exactly what it sounds like — a fun, colorful restaurant, decked out with circus accoutrements, as well as a grown-up bar, karaoke nights and cotton candy for dessert.
Finally, there’s no shortage of quaint shops and fabulous boutiques in Saratoga Springs, including Impressions of Saratoga, a souvenir shop at 368 Broadway.
From horse-race-themed cups, mugs, playing cards and coasters to just about anything else you can think of related to horse-racing and the city itself, they’ve got it.
And, not surprising, they carry the one thing no one should ever leave town without: Saratoga’s original potato chips.