If you think wellness vacations are a new phenomenon, a trip to Saratoga Springs will prove you wrong. Travelers have been heading to the charming city in upstate New York for more than 200 years, drawn by the purported healing powers of the area's mineral springs.
In the mid-1800s, Saratoga was known as "Queen of the Spas," frequented by JP Morgan, "Diamond Jim" Brady, the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys and other high society figures, who came to "take the cure."
By the end of the century, horse racing was also part of the draw and the Saratoga Race Course was attracting high rollers who came to see, be seen and bet on the thoroughbred ponies.
These days, the city's slogan is "Health, History, Horses," reflecting the three assets for which Saratoga continues to be known. Andrew Nelson, editor and writer for National Geographic Travel (nationalgeographic.com/travel) says the area is welcoming a new generation of tourists who are re-discovering Saratoga's spas, mineral springs, polo matches, horse racing, world-class museums and performing arts center, trendy wineries, eateries and spectacular Victorian architecture.
"The whole town is a Victorian fever dream," says Nelson. "There are about 1,000 buildings listed on the Historic Register. People can 'take a bath' at the historic Roosevelt Bath and Spa. They can go to one of the oldest race tracks in the country. Saratoga has the face of yesteryear, but behind it all, it's very 21st century. It's a unique combination."
Summer is high season in Saratoga Springs, so if you're planning a visit, experts recommend you plan ahead. Accommodations range from historic inns and bed-and-breakfasts to chain hotels and independent motels — or you can go for a total Saratoga experience with a stay at the town's iconic Gideon Putnam hotel.
The hotel is located in what could be called the town's crown jewel — Saratoga Spa State Park (parks.ny.gov/parks/saratogaspa). Each year, close to 2 million tourists visit the 2,700 acre- property, which includes the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (spac.org), a golf course, the Victoria Swimming Pool, Saratoga Automobile Museum (saratogaautomuseum.org), and the Roosevelt Baths and Spa (facebook.com/RooseveltBathsAndSpa).
Park manager Mike Greenslade says the elegant green space is also home to eight mineral springs, each with its own chemical content and flavor.
"We offer 'tasting tours,'" says Greenslade. "People can taste the different waters, fill their bottles and hear the history of the park."
If you'd rather soak than swig, you can schedule an immersion in the effervescent waters in one of Roosevelt Baths' pre-World War II deep tubs. (Don't be put off by the rust-colored water.) The spa also offers additional treatments, massages and therapies.
Summer in Saratoga mean horse racing — lots of it. Thouroughbreds race six days a week, July through August, at the Saratoga Race Course (saratogaracetrack.com); there are polo matches at the Saratoga Polo Association (saratogapolo.com) every Friday and Saturday through Sept. 3; and harness racing takes place throughout the year at the Saratoga Casino Hotel (saratogacasino.com).
Nelson says breakfast at the Saratoga Race Course is a time-honored tradition. Most racing days of the summer, breakfast is available at the track's restaurant and you can watch the horses go through morning workouts while you eat. You also can bring your own breakfast and sit in the stands for free.
For more no-cost fun, take a free tour of the track's historic stable area. (Trams bring visitors to the stable area every 15 minutes from 7:30 to 9 a.m.) There's a fee for trackside parking during breakfast hours, but if you leave before 10 a.m., your fee is refunded.
Natalie Flint, director of overnight operations at Friendship Tours (friendshiptours.net), a Bloomfield-based travel company, says taking time to explore on foot is an important part of any Saratoga Springs visit.
"There's so much to see and do," says Flint. "Saratoga is a great walking town. Sign up for a tour with a local guide. They'll tell you about the town's history as well as its secrets and scandals over the years, which is great fun."
You can stop by the Saratoga Springs' Visitors Center (saratogaspringsvisitorcenter.com) to pick up maps, information and self-guided walking tours of the area.
Nelson says book lovers will want to put aside time for browsing at Lyrical Ballad, a book shop housed in an old bank, that specializes in rare and antique books, prints and maps. (lyricalballadbooks.com). Kids will like a stop at Congress Park's vintage wooden carousel.
Gardens, Food and Drinks
Those who love off-the-beaten path destinations should add Yaddo to their list. The artist colony itself, established in the early 1900s and still operating today, is closed to visitors, but the grounds, modeled after classic Italian gardens and filled with statuary and sculpture, are free and open to the public all year. (yaddo.org)
When it's time to break for food and drink, Nelson suggests The Thirsty Owl (thirstyowl.com), with its extensive selection of Finger Lake wines; or Hattie's, (hattiesrestaurant.com), known for its Southern cuisine.(Don't miss the fried chicken.)
If you love casual eateries where the locals gather, stop by the Country Corner Cafe (countrycornercafe.net). In 2016, the Food Network named it one of the best "mom and pop" restaurants in the country.
Get a sixties vibe and get mellow at Caffe Lena (caffelena.org). One of the oldest continually operating folk music coffeehouses in the country, Caffe Lena was one of Bob Dylan's first performing venues and also featured Arlo Gutherie, Don McClean and other folk music legends. It still offers a full calendar of performers and events.