New York is a state that is known for its big-city vibes. Manhattan, with its towering skyscrapers and busy streets, is often the first thing that comes to mind when people think of New York. However, there is much more to this state than just the concrete jungle. Upstate New York is home to some of the most beautiful countryside in the country. If you’re looking for a change of scenery or want to explore somewhere new, check out some of these amazing spots!
The Difference Between New York City and New York State
When answering whether New York has countryside, the first thing to say is to define what we mean.
For many people not from the eastern seaboard of the United States, when people say they are from ‘New York,’ they live in the metropolis of New York City. However, this is far from necessarily being the case.
New York State contains many beautiful areas of countryside, cities, and small towns, some of which we will explore in this article. Among them are the Adirondacks, the Catskills, and the Finger Lakes Region. In addition, there are many other attractive regions, including Long Island and the rest of New York State’s coastline.
New York State is chock-full of history. The resident Native American peoples, the Algonquians, and Iroquois lived there long before Europeans arrived in 1524 when G. da Verrazzano visited New York Bay. Then, in the early nineteenth century, the construction of the Erie Canal spurred the development of the western part of the state.
In the twentieth century, there was heavy immigration from Europe and Latin America, introducing many new peoples to the state. New York State’s main cities have millions of residents: New York City has more than 8 million people, Buffalo has 4.8 million, Rochester has 4 million, and Albany 3 million.
People usually say, “I am from New York State,” unless they are from the five boroughs of New York City (the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island).
It’s worth mentioning that the differences between New York City (NYC) and New York State even extend to speech. NYC has its distinctive speech, much parodied in movies and literature. In addition, the city is a mosaic of cultures and languages from all over the world.
NYC’s demographics are also markedly different from the rest of NY State, with much more ethnic diversity and low poverty levels.
What Defines the New York Countryside
When it comes to the countryside around New York City, we talking about a series of small towns and villages and surrounding areas to hike, boat, ski, cycle, and so forth. There are many places to unwind and soak up the area’s nature.
New York’s countryside in Upstate New York is known for the Catskills, Hudson River Valley, Adirondack Mountains, Long Island, and the Adirondack Mountains. This massive range contains the highest peaks in New York State.
Some of the lakes in the region are wonderful. The largest body of water is Lake George. However, the Adirondacks contain other lakes, like Saranac Lake.
For the most part, the people in these areas are very hospitable. Significant amounts of inland tourism foster this. For this reason, you’ll also find a range of good eating in the country areas of New York State.
The fertile Hudson River Valley is often considered the most beautiful part of New York State. It contains many charming towns and villages, some of which are in the Hudson River Valley Wine Country.
Let’s take a look at some highlights of the region:
Before we get to Upstate NY, it’s worth mentioning Long Island. This has some good beaches. In addition, it forms a kind of natural sea wall, protecting the mouth of the Hudson and Connecticut from the mighty Atlantic waves.
The Island extends to the east of Manhattan Island, is shaped like a fish, and includes Queens and Brooklyn at the western end. The eastern part juts out from New York City and contains Great Neck and Manhasset Neck, featured in the famous novel The Great Gatsby as ‘West Egg’ and ‘East Egg’.
They both fall within Nassau County and are a repository for old and new money. The Hamptons is on the southeastern tip and serves today as a summer playground for the wealthy. The town of Southampton was founded by the Pilgrims in the 1680s and was a small fishing village back then. These days, it’s preppy heaven.
Long Island has several gorgeous beaches. Southampton, on the north side of the Island, is one of the most popular. Some are arguably nicer than those on the coast of New Jersey, such as Fire Island, which has fantastic views of Long Island Sound.
Bird watchers (we call them ‘twitchers’ in the UK) will have a field day. Try taking a train from New York’s Penn Station to Sayville and then the passenger ferry to Fire Island to get away from it all.
It’s a great place to spot migratory wildfowl at places like the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge on the western side (right next to JFK airport!). At Montauk on the eastern tip, you can catch gulls, sea ducks, and waterfowl. You might spy a rare bald eagle, plover, or osprey if very lucky.
On the eastern edge of Long Island, you’ll find the former whaling village of Greenport. Today, you can take boat tours to see some of Long Island’s lighthouses. The East End Museum and Maritime Foundation shows how the local fishermen used their catch to make fertilizer, following a Native American tradition.
The village is pretty and has a burgeoning arts center and music scene.
Nearby, the last remaining rural area of Long Island is located at North Fork. Located right next to Long Island Sound, you overlook the ocean. Still, you can also witness local traditions such as pumpkin picking and the local wine harvest, including a jazz event called Jazz on the Vine!
Now for Upstate NY, a large and varied region to the north and west of NYC.
By 1830, the small town of Saratoga Springs had become the most famous spa in the United States. As you’d imagine, all manner of fine hotels and restaurants sprang up to serve visitors coming to springs spread out over a 12-mile area. Saratoga is second only to San Francisco for the number of restaurants per capita!
One of the most famous springs in Saratoga is High Rock Spring. It has a fascinating history as the medicine spring of the Mohawk people.
When you need some diversion from the springs and food, check out the local horse racing – it has the oldest track in the entire country – and the excellent Saratoga Farmers’ Market. If an artist, you might want to visit the local Yaddo Estate, which now serves as an artists’ retreat.
There is a growing startup scene in Saratoga, and it might become a tech hotspot. So, fancy living out of the big city while not sacrificing money and lifestyle? Saratoga might be worth checking out!
Spooky legend meets founder history in the Hudson River Valley’s foothills.
‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ recounts how a headless horseman tormented the village. A tale that has been turned to film many times, including a version with Johnny Depp.
There’s also a wonderful old Disney cartoon that you can find on YouTube.
The story goes that Washington Irving based ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ on people and places he knew when hiking and hunting in the area as a boy in the 1790s. The other version is that Irving took the tale from European folklore, where headless phantoms are a thing.
In 1996, North Tarrytown residents voted to rename Sleepy Hollow to boost economic fortunes.
A visit to the local cemetery, the Old Dutch Burying Ground, will be enough to spark your imagination. Look nervously over your shoulder to see whether the horseman is bearing down on you, hooves clattering on the cobbles as he rides!
In neighboring Tarrytown, the Dutch settlers believed witches existed alongside other evil spirits just to the south. Thus sparking the legends that ended up in Irving’s work.
You may want to soak up trips to Irving’s home, Sunnyside, and other buildings of note – such as Lyndhurst Mansion, the Gothic Revival estate. Kykuit, the Rockefeller Estate, is located just to the east.
As with all such attractions, check online or phone ahead to see whether they have re-opened after all the temporary closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.
There is all manner of attractions and outdoor recreation to be had at Bear Mountain Park. Hundreds of miles of hiking trails, swimming, and cycling are among them. Skiing and snowboarding in season, of course.
The city dwellers of NYC head up here in droves on a fine weekend!
If hiking in the area, keep a lookout for rattlesnakes! Beautiful views off the top, though, of the Hudson River from West Mountain.
The Park is a favorite spot for bikers, so Think Bike when driving. Also, make sure you only park in safe locations.
You don’t have to take the car: Circle Line runs a day trip cruise up the Hudson River to Bear Mountain.
If you find yourself in the area during the fall, think about driving over the Bear Mountain bridge through Harriman State Park to see the beautiful colors of the foliage.
Ice cream parlors, cafes, cute stores, antique shops, amenities, boutique shops…
In Putnam County, 50 miles north of Manhattan, Cold Spring is where New Yorkers get away for the weekend.
The multi-colored 19th-century architecture is striking – the buildings were constructed to house workers for the nearby West Point Foundry.
The surrounding countryside has plenty of outdoor pursuits to keep you healthy and happy—kayaking, biking, and walking on the Fjord and Breakneck Ridge trail.
It turns out that John Lennon and Yoko Ono had a place in the area, which they bought on Cannon Hill in 1979. Lennon enjoyed sailing, and the house enabled him to escape New York City.
Despite recent remedial work, the River Hudson may not be the cleanest river in the Hudson Valley to take a dip. However, you could consider a plunge from the north end of Little Stony Point!
Further up the Hudson, the village of New Paltz has a vibrant music scene fed by the local student population.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the village has quite a hippy vibe.
Some of the finest wines in New York come from the area, and in the fall, you can engage in a spot of apple and pumpkin picking.
Nearby Lake Minnewaska is a lovely state park with incredible scenery. The Split Rock swimming hole in the Mohonk Preserve on the Coxing Kill trail awaits those brave enough to take the plunge.
Further up, you’ll find the spectacular Mohonk Mountain House, set in a fantasy castle-like wooden building.
The Catskill Mountains
We’re going to hitchhike up to the Catskills.
The Catskills are famous for their natural beauty; vistas, waterfalls, lakes, and rivers. It’s also got abandoned houses and even an abandoned colossal hotel.
It has a long and celebrated history as a summer retreat. As this rather wonderful collection of archives shows:
You may have heard of it more recently through Dirty Dancing or The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel.
There’s a wide range of trails for those who fancy a real outdoor adventure, including off-grid wilderness hiking in spots like the Slide Mountain Wilderness Area – the largest wilderness zone in the Catskills.
The Catskills also featured a famous music festival – Woodstock, in 1969. Which, somewhat confusingly, was held in Bethel, 60 miles away from Woodstock.
Woodstock was known as a cultural center, and Bob Dylan had a hideaway there. But the festival organizers had to hunt around before they found a place that would accept many festival-goers. Only the proceeds from an Academy award-winning film stopped them from going bankrupt.
This historical truism does not stop Woodstock from celebrating the hippie lifestyle today. You’ll find plenty of stores, cafes, and happenings to celebrate your inner hippy, together with a museum dedicated to the 1969 festival.
Other places you’ll want to check out are:
Known for its connection to auto racing and summer festivals, Watkins Glen has excellent fishing, trekking, and camping.
Nearby Cayuga Lake has lots of shores and gorges to explore. As a university city, Ithaca has a wide range of cultures and cuisine.
Finger Lakes Region
The Finger Lake region is near Rochester. Next stop, Canada!
A beautiful village near Skaneateles Lake in Onondaga County.
Located in the Adirondack Mountains. Full of natural beauty and popular with skiers, hikers, and bikers.
The Adirondack Mountains
Known for its lakes, rivers, and winter/summer activities. Including fishing in beautiful landscapes. Lake George is a great place to rent a boat and explore the lake.
The Adirondacks used to be continental glaciers. When they melted, they left hundreds of circular and very deep ponds, now packed full of fish! Principally lake trout and salmon. A small rowboat with an engine will help! Remember that you’ll need a license!
Where to go if stuck in New York City?
Irish Hunger Memorial
A little slice of the Irish countryside in Battery Park City.
Queens County Farm Museum
A giant, functional farm in Queens.
And, of course, Central Park!