The New York state capital, Albany (pop. 308,846) was founded in 1609 when Dutch traders traveling up the Hudson River from New Amsterdam on Henry Hudson’s ship Half Moon went ashore and established a fur-trading post. As the gateway between upstate New York and the increasingly powerful New York City port, Albany remained an important trading center through the 1820s and 1830s, extending its reach with the opening of the Erie Canal and the city’s growth as a central railroad terminus and manufacturing center. Nowadays, the legendary canal has long since vanished, and the glamorous New York Central railroad’s French renaissance-style, turn-of-the-20th-century Union Station, at Broadway and Clinton Street, has sat mostly empty since being bypassed in favor of a lonely platform on the opposite side of the Hudson River.
As the seat of the New York state government, however, Albany still wields major political power, most visibly in the towering granite slabs and flying saucer-like structures of the 98-acre Empire State Plaza government center, home to exhibition halls, theaters, a 42-story observation tower, and the excellent New York State Museum (518/474-5877, Tues.-Sun., free). The State Museum, Albany’s main attraction, includes a sensitively organized exhibit on the state’s Iroquois and Mohawk Native American cultures, centering on a reconstructed longhouse, and a fully functioning (and rideable!) Herschell-Spillman carousel. The huge area devoted to the history of New York City is as good or better than anything in “the city that never sleeps,” with a recreated Upper West Side Hispanic barber shop, a Horn and Hardart Automat food dispenser, a restored 1940s car from the A-train subway line, and a solemn gallery documenting the September 11, 2001, destruction of the World Trade Center.
If all the high culture and power politics leave you hungry for a back-to-basics road-food experience, head west from downtown to Jack’s Diner (547 Central Ave., 518/482-9807). This New Jersey-built 1930s chrome-plated diner car attracts a diverse batch of families, local crazies, beat cops, and fellow travelers who come for its hearty breakfast and burgers, bottomless cups of coffee, and friendly, loquacious staff.
In between Jack’s and the downtown museums, the blue-collar bohemian Lark Street neighborhood is Albany’s answer to Greenwich Village, sporting several cafés and a number of good international restaurants.
Albany’s motels congregate off the I-90 Everett Road exit.