Sliced and diced by a half-dozen freeways at the I-90 Thruway junction with I-81, and just a short side trip from US-20, Syracuse (pop. 142,749) embodies the ups and downs of upstate New York’s connections, both literal and creative, with the wider world, mainly via transportation infrastructure. Start your visit where it all began, with an informative tour of the fascinating Erie Canal Museum (318 E. Erie Blvd., 315/471-0593, daily, $5 donation) in the shadow of I-690. Facing City Hall, the museum is housed in a delicate 1850s “Weighlock” building straddling the mostly paved-over original route of the Erie Canal, which now sadly cowers in the shadow of I-81. The museum is the primary repository of objects related to the original canal, displaying a restored 65-ft-long (19.8-m) canal boat and numerous interpretive exhibits. A short film describes the staggering impact of the canal’s 1825 opening on the city, still visible in the cast-iron commercial districts of its historic, still lively downtown. Walk two blocks west from the museum to Clinton Square, where a shallow fountain (and winter ice-skating rink) reflects the former canal, the surrounding architecture, and the Sailors and Soldiers Monument.
West of downtown Syracuse, the sizable Irish immigrant population of the Tipperary Hill neighborhood insisted that traffic lights in their neighborhood be turned upside-down so that the “British” red did not sit above the “Irish” green. One traffic light is still “upside down,” and a statue at the corner of Tompkins and Milton streets evokes the whole story.
In downtown Syracuse, treat yourself to a plate of some of New York’s finest ribs at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (246 W. Willow St., 315/476-4937), a biker-friendly haunt housed in a brick tavern dating from the last days of the Erie Canal. This is the original incarnation of what is now a major East Coast institution. Another local culinary landmark sits 5 mi (8 km) north of Syracuse, along the shores of Lake Onondaga in the hamlet of Liverpool: Heid’s of Liverpool (305 Oswego St., 315/451-0786), where grilled pork-and-veal “Coneys” and traditional “Franks” hot dogs are served up in one of America’s oldest drive-ins, dating from 1917.
East of Syracuse down the I-90 Thruway, hilly Utica (pop. 60,100) is another good detour. Beer fans in particular will want to make the trip: Since 1888, the old West End Brewery, now Saranac Brewing Co. (830 Varick St., 800/765-6288 or 315/624-2490, $5 tours), on Brewhouse Square, has pumped out barrels of Francis Xavier Matt’s trademark regional beers alongside its soft drinks and premium microbrews. In-depth tours of the compact family-owned facilities take you through the entire production process and drop you off in a velvet-lined Victorian tavern for your complimentary glasses of frothy root beer.