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3 Hours North of New York, a Historic Little City Made for Strolling

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I drive a minivan outfitted with 4 car seats, each of which is often occupied, the oldest passenger 6, the youngest 18 months. But even when my spaceship is at maximum capacity, I have no fear—no matter the time of day, no matter the time of year, be it race season or July Fourth weekend—of cruising into Saratoga Springs, New York, finding street parking, and walking to our first destination, which invariably is Mrs. London’s.

The impressive pastry selection at Mrs. London's.
The impressive pastry selection at Mrs. London's. Photo by Alexandra Stafford

In a 1983 New York Times article, Craig Claiborne described Mrs. London’s as a “landmark bakeshop,” one-fifth of the Saratoga story, the other four being the racetrack, ballet, sparkling water, and symphony. Located on Broadway, the city’s main artery, Mrs. London’s continues to draw a crowd day in and day out with their breads and pastries, which many claim rival the best in Paris. My favorites include the almond croissant, cream scone, Brittany (kouign amann), and pecan Danish, and I find it impossible to leave without a baguette or a loaf of whatever is left on the shelf—they sell out quickly.

For lunch I love the croques, all of which are made on their pain de mie (a white bread baked in a pullman pan with a fitted lid that ensures the loaf will emerge as a perfect rectangle) or their grilled classics, especially the Virginia ham with cheddar, apple, and raisin-walnut spread made on their farm bread.

Left, the inimitable Mrs. London's. Right, one of the choice panini. Photos by Alexandra Stafford

As Claiborne noted, horse racing and natural springs are synonymous with Saratoga Springs, but there’s so much more: Union Avenue, which runs through the racetrack property, is a wide street lined with Victorian mansions fitted with turrets, verandas, bay windows, beautifully manicured lawns, and elaborate gardens. This grand, historic feeling continues throughout the downtown area, too, especially on Broadway, which is lined with independent shops and restaurants—it always feels bustling and lively. The many restaurants and bars certainly draw a young crowd (including those from the Skidmore College). The Saratoga Performing Arts Center and other venues, as well as many festivals, also make Saratoga a great cultural destination.

Just a 3-hour drive north of New York City (and an easy stop en route to Montreal, Lake George, or Burlington, Vermont,)—and with the racetrack's 6-week season ending this weekend—the fall is ripe for exploring this historic little city.

Here are a few more places worth checking out the next time you find yourself upstate:

Just south of Mrs. London’s on Broadway is Northshire Bookstore, which not only boasts an impressive cookbook section, but also devotes an entire floor to children—books, coloring, model villages. It’s one of the nicest bookstores I’ve ever visited, equipped with cozy nooks and comfy couches as well as a thoughtfully curated selection of stationery, calendars, vases, candles, indoor gardening kits, and the like. It’s a great spot for gifts.

The dreamy cookbook section at Northshire Bookstore.
The dreamy cookbook section at Northshire Bookstore. Photo by Alexandra Stafford

And if this isn’t reason enough to visit, Berkshire Mountain Bakery (featured prominently in Michael Pollan’s documentary Cooked) is opening up a storefront in the same building, (opening date TBD). Steps away from Northshire is the Children’s Museum at Saratoga (currently closed for renovations until further notice, sadly), an engaging, hands-on spot that similarly will keep children entertained for hours.

When it’s time to get some fresh air again, consider having a picnic lunch in Congress Park, a beautiful space designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (architect of New York City’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park). With sweeping lawns, Grecian pavilions, Italian gardens, ponds, ducks, fish, a wooden carousel, and natural springs, from which you can fill up a cup or water bottle (or, as the local children like to do, drink directly from the spout), Congress Park is a great spot to set out a picnic blanket, and bring food from many a nearby shop:

This could be you, enjoying a picnic in Congress Park!
This could be you, enjoying a picnic in Congress Park! Photo by Alexandra Stafford
  • Uncommon Grounds sells delicious coffee roasted daily in small batches on site (and in sight—the large roaster sits in the café among the tables where patrons tap away on laptops and chat with friends) and classic bagels, which are baked on the premises. I love the jalapeño bagel.
  • Putnam Market has a great selection of sandwiches, salads, and soups, which can be ordered ahead of time online or over the phone. You can also pick up crackers, nuts, bread, wine, and a few wedges of cheese, which you can sample before purchasing in a dedicated cheese room—so fun!
  • Four Seasons Natural Foods Café on Phila Street, an offshoot of Four Seasons Natural Foods (an incredible health food market located a few blocks away, also worth visiting), offers a wide selection of vegan and vegetarian fare, cold and hot options served buffet-style. They also sell juices, shakes, and smoothies.
Lunch at Ravenous, heavy on the pommes frites.
Lunch at Ravenous, heavy on the pommes frites. Photo by Alexandra Stafford

For a dine-in lunch, the charming café Ravenous serves sweet and savory crepes, lightly sweetened Moroccan iced tea, irresistible pommes frites with various dipping sauces (I like the classic aioli), and a nice selection of local beer and cider as well as wine. The prix fixe menu is a steal.

For an afternoon pick-me-up, stop into Saratoga Coffee Traders, creators of Death Wish Coffee, which you may recognize from a commercial which debuted during this year’s Super Bowl, the airtime for which they won from an Intuit small business contest. In addition to Death Wish, “the world’s strongest coffee,” you can find cold-brew nitro coffee, which, news to me, you pull from a tap. It looks like beer, with a foamy head, and tastes creamy and slightly sweet without any cream or sugar—a miracle!

Dinner at Hattie's and something to drink at Druthers. Photos by Alexandra Stafford

For a pre-dinner drink, head to Druthers Brewing on the city's main drag, which brews its beer on the premises and whose outdoor patio is particularly inviting. The Henry Street Tap Room, a few blocks away, is a nice space as well, offering craft brews on tap.

Dinner at the adorable Hattie’s, which has been serving southern food in Saratoga since 1938, is a must. Start with a mojito, their signature drink, and a plate of the fried green tomatoes, then share a plate of fried chicken and collard greens or a bowl of jambalaya—the portions are large.

I must confess I have yet to explore much of the fine dining options, but I have friends who have, and Max London’s (owned by the folks behind Mrs. London’s) and 15 Church come highly recommended. I love Karavalli’s, an Indian restaurant—especially their vegetarian fare, such as palak paneer, aloo gobi, dal makhanni, and tarka dal. The garlic naan is spectacular.

Local musicians busking away, left, and a must-stop ice cream spot, Dairy Haus, right. Photos by Alexandra Stafford

And for something sweet:

Across the street from Hattie’s and a few yards from Congress Park is a Ben and Jerry’s shop, which made history in 1984 when it became the first outside-of-Vermont location to host Free Cone Day. A scoop of their mint chocolate chip (anywhere in the country) is always a treat, but if you feel like jumping in the car and driving 5 minutes north, you’ll find Dairy Haus, which serves a variety of soft-serves, which swirl to twice the height of the cones they're served in, as well as a host of hard ice creams, all homemade on the premises (chocolate and cookies and cream being two of my favorites). The kids favor vanilla soft serve with rainbow sprinkles. Warning: Cash only, though there is an ATM on site.

Photo by Alexandra Stanton

Fall up here, as you might know or imagine, is beautiful, and a favorite pastime of locals and visitors alike is apple-picking and apple cider donut-eating. You don’t have to travel too far to find a country store making their own apple cider donuts, which, when fresh out of the fryer, are a treat no matter where you are. Saratoga Apple, 10 miles outside the downtown area, a fifth-generation operation, offers it all: pick-your-own apples, wagon rides, live music, apple cider, pies, and, of course, donuts, which are some of the best in the area.

In sum, Saratoga is a walkable, beautiful, historic city that you can familiarize yourself with in a morning. Grab a coffee and a croissant, and start strolling.

Alexandra Stafford is a writer, photographer, and occasional stationery designer based in upstate New York, where she is writing a cookbook. You can read more of her work on her blog.

Ever been to Saratoga? Share your recommendations in the comments!

This article was originally published in 2016.

Tags: Tips & Techniques, Travel, Restaurants