The state of New York is known as the Empire State, and with good reason. As one of the original thirteen colonies that formed the United States, it has long been counted among the most populous and most influential states.
New York is a state of superlatives. Of course everyone knows the most celebrated city in the world, New York City, and it's certainly a premier travel destination, but the state is so much more than just one famous metropolis. Go beyond the concrete canyons of Manhattan and you'll find a large state with a variety of attractions.
From the magnificent Niagara Falls, to the farms and wineries of the Finger Lakes; from the untamed wilderness of the Adirondacks, to the large and small cities scattered throughout the state; every corner of New York has something you can't find anywhere else.
Before European settlement, the area now known as New York was home to a number of Native American tribes. The Iroquois Confederacy (or Haudenosaunee), comprising the Cayuga, Onondaga, Seneca, Mohawk, Oneida, and Tuscarora tribes, was a major early exercise in representative democracy.
European settlement of New York began at New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island. From there, Dutch and then English settlers expanded northward along the Hudson River to present-day Albany, then west along the Mohawk River. Sites in this area of New York were pivotal in the Revolutionary War, especially at Saratoga north of Albany, and New York City served briefly as the nation's first capital. Settlement further west was impeded by poor terrain and Indian territories, but by the early 19th century, even those areas were becoming well settled.
A true population explosion was brought on by the construction of the Erie Canal from Buffalo to Albany, completed in 1825. Cities like Rochester grew up almost overnight, able to ship their goods easily to points both east and west, and New York City at the mouth of the Hudson became the young country's busiest and most important harbor.
New York grew and thrived for decades, its cities serving as centers of industry, business, and culture for the entire nation. Even as more and more western areas opened up and began to be settled, New York remained the Empire State. New York Harbor served as the point of entry for countless immigrants after the Civil War, which contributed to a diverse, energetic population.
New York held the title of most populous for over 150 years and has counted numerous important and influential figures among its native sons and daughters. Since the middle of the twentieth century, New York's influence has waned somewhat as California, Texas, and Florida have swelled in population, but New York remains one of the most dominant states in the nation.
New York has four distinct seasons.
Upstate New York is well known for its brutal winters. Although temperatures don't get as low as they do in areas like Minnesota and North Dakota, thanks in part to the giant heat reservoir known as Lake Ontario, that same lake serves to generate plenty of lake-effect snow. That being said, it is not unheard of for temperatures to drop into the single digits or even below zero, especially in areas of the Adirondacks and North Country, away from the Lake. The major upstate cities compete each year for the "coveted" Golden Snowball Award for most total inches of snow—one small measure of pride for a city digging itself out from piles of snow several feet deep.
Snow is especially heavy to the east of Lake Ontario. Clouds pick up moisture as they travel over the lake's longest dimension, then dump it all on Watertown as they are forced to rise by the Tug Hill Plateau.
New York City is downright tropical by comparison. With the Atlantic Ocean to the southeast, the Big Apple benefits from the warm Gulf Stream waters without having to deal with ocean-effect snow.
Spring in New York tends to start out cold and damp, especially in areas near Lake Ontario, as the Lake's waters have by then been thoroughly chilled by winter. True springtime comes around May, segueing quickly into summer.
Summer features brilliant sun that is only rarely scorching, with occasional heat waves. Humidity is often high but the months are punctuated by spells of lower humidity that bring everyone outside to enjoy the weather.
Leaves start to turn color in September; at their peak, New York's leaf scenery is among the best in the country. By late October, though, it's all over but the raking, and winter begins to set in, with snow often falling by Halloween.
International travelers will almost certainly come in via one of New York City's airports; while the major upstate cities have airports that can accommodate international flights, they are now fairly rare. Domestically, travelers will usually be coming from hubs such as Chicago, Atlanta, Charlotte, Philadelphia, or Boston. Flights into the smaller airports will likely connect through the larger ones.
Jamestown (IATA: JHW), Saranac Lake (IATA: SLK), Plattsburgh (IATA: PBG), and Niagara Falls (IATA: IAG) have very small airports with only a few scheduled flights each day. General aviation airports are scattered throughout the state.
There are many trains that go through New York, especially through Pennsylvania Station in New York City.
New York is a big state, but it's not so big that driving isn't feasible. Even the trip from Buffalo to New York City is only about seven hours—too long for a day trip, certainly, but a weekend trip is doable for the dedicated. An alternative is to take a small regional jet from one of the upstate cities into New York; more expensive, but the trip is only 45-90 minutes in the air. Amtrak also runs trains that connect the five major cities for an in-between solution. If you're headed someplace more out of the way, though, you'll probably need to drive.
Major areas of the state are served by an adequate network of Interstate Highways, supplemented by state routes that run between all but the smallest villages. Expressways are mostly limited to Interstates with a few exceptions.
Expressway exits are numbered sequentially in New York, a fact unremarkable to New Englanders but potentially confusing for everyone else. If you're at Exit 2 and looking for Exit 28, you have a lot farther to go than just 26 miles.
The most important highway in New York is the New York State Thruway, which runs on I-90 from the Pennsylvania border in the west, northeast to Buffalo, then east past Rochester, through Syracuse, and to Albany. I-90 continues to Boston while the Thruway picks up I-87 south to New York City. The Thruway, a toll road for most of its length, is the primary route between the major upstate cities and is often used to get to and from New York. Expect to pay about four cents a mile ($13.10 from Downtown Buffalo to Downtown Albany for a car with no trailer, for example). Most New Yorkers grumble at the price but pay it anyway for the efficiency the route offers.
To allow travelers to avoid leaving the highway (and paying a toll) before they reach their destinations, the Thruway is dotted with large service plazas every 35–50 miles or so. Each contains two or three restaurants/snack stands (at least one restaurant will be open all night) and a gift shop/convenience store. Burger King, Tim Horton's, Roy Rogers, and TCBY are among the more common vendors. Vending machines, free wi-fi, and of course gas pumps are available as well. Gas prices are high, but such are the benefits of having a "captive audience".
A cheaper but slightly slower route to New York City from the west is along I-86, the Southern Tier Expressway. State Route 17, which I-86 is supplanting, is still in the process of being upgraded to Interstate standards; east of Binghamton you'll encounter a few at-grade intersections, but it's still a quick route, and it's toll-free. Be warned, however, in Binghamton near the interchange with I-88 and I-81 blasting is currently being done to widen and straighten the route so traffic is occasionally stopped for a few minutes during construction months. NYDOT and regional news will report blasting schedules several days in advanced.
The slowest but most "interesting" route across the state is U.S. Route 20. As a route stretching coast-to-coast across the northern U.S., it covers much of the same ground as Interstate 90 does today. U.S. 20 is much older, though, traveling right through the middle of countless old villages that lie south of the Thruway. It's a simple two-lane highway for most of its length in New York, but if you have the time and the patience, it can be more interesting than the long stretches of nothingness along the Thruway or the Southern Tier Expressway.
I-81 and I-87 are the major north-south routes. I-81 travels south from the Thousand Islands at the Canadian border through Syracuse and Binghamton into Pennsylvania. I-87 (known as the Northway north of Albany) connects Montreal in Quebec with Albany and New York City. I-88 travels diagonally northeast-southwest, providing a connection between Binghamton and Albany. The only significant east-west route across the top of the state is U.S. 11, which diverges from I-81 in Watertown and heads northeast, then east.
In Western New York, Rochester is connected to points south via I-390 to Corning. From Buffalo, travelers can head southwest along I-90 or south along U.S. Route 219, which is currently being upgraded to expressway. (Those heading southeast will take the Thruway to I-390.)
New York has a good network of state routes, supplemented by county routes in some counties. Most villages are at the intersection of two or more state routes, and signage is usually clear, making it relatively simple to find your way to a particular place. You can be fairly confident that numbered state routes will be well maintained (including plowed in the winter) and rarely too far from civilization. Some interesting itineraries can be devised just by following a particular route wherever it leads.
In general, one- and two-digit state routes will be primary routes, although plenty of exceptions exist; you shouldn't assume anything just from the number. Major cross-state routes include 3, 5, 7, 17, and 104.
Municipalities in New York are well prepared for winter weather, but it can get so severe at times that even their expert crews can't keep up. Pay attention to travel advisories; in New York, if they say stay off the roads, they really mean it! During less severe winter storms, drive slowly and carefully. Follow a snowplow (at a safe distance!) if you can, though watch out for ones dropping salt.
Cell phone service can be spotty in the northern part of the state; be aware that you may not be able to easily call for help on the highways in that region.
A few miscellaneous traffic laws:
Amtrak provides passenger rail service primarily among the "Big Five" cities. Anything outside of the Erie Canal/Mohawk River/Hudson River corridor, though, and you're probably out of luck.
The Lake Shore Limited from Chicago has stops in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Schenectady, and Albany; from there riders can switch trains to Boston or continue (with a stop in Croton-on-Hudson) to New York City's Penn Station. The Empire Service starts in Niagara Falls but follows the same route as the Lake Shore Limited once it gets to Buffalo, with some additional stops along the way. The Maple Leaf is identical to the Empire Service except that it continues across the Canadian border to Toronto.
Look around (looking up makes you look like a tourist).
From the top of the Empire State Building to the bottom of a glass in a Manhattan nightclub, New York has it all. For a closer look at the city, wander through Times Square and the streets of Greenwich Village and Soho, check out the Wall Street super traders, or hop on a ferry to Staten Island.
Three days can give you a healthy start on a New York state of mind. Get a small dose of all the major tourist spots, plus the lay of the land, by taking a double-decker bus ride around the city on your first morning. Go for a late-afternoon hot chocolate and snack at City Bakery, stroll through the Union Square Greenmarket and hit a gallery opening or two in nearby Chelsea. Get a late-night feast at Florent or Paradou followed by some sophisticated drinking at Rhône or another nearby watering hole.
On day two, splurge on breakfast at Balthazar, then pick one of the diverse neighbourhoods of downtown - the meandering streets of the West Village or the recently gentrified Lower East Side - and wander, checking out boutiques and parks and local characters. By mid-afternoon, head up to Central Park and watch New York jog by or - if the weather turns bad - check out the Guggenheim nearby. Follow up with a live-music venue of your favorite genre.
On your third day, venture out to one of the outer boroughs - relax in Prospect Park in Park Slope, Brooklyn, then visit the nearby Botanical Gardens and just-renovated Brooklyn Museum, followed by dinner at a (Park Slope) Fifth Avenue hotspot; or take the N, W or R train to Astoria, where art and film museums and Greek food galore await. For a dose of nostalgia, head down to Coney Island and stroll the boardwalk.