Free Things to Do in Saratoga Springs
By Beth Osborn Payer
Beth Osborn Payer is a mom of two living in upstate New York. She shares her love of great ideas and parenthood through Olliebop.com, an optimistic blog especially for busy families. Here she shares five free things to do in her hometown, the beautiful little city of Saratoga Springs.
Mornings at Saratoga Race Course: Saratoga Springs and horse racing have gone hand in hand since 1863, making it the oldest thoroughbred race course in the country. A free morning visit to the track shines a special light on this historical venue. Drive through the main gate after 7am with a brown-bag breakfast and choose your favorite box in the clubhouse for peaceful trackside dining. Marvel at world-class thoroughbreds out for their morning run and perhaps even chat with trainers or riders near the rail. Tour the grounds, listen to the trackside announcer’s commentary, and view the rainbow of jockey silks at the ready in the silks room. A free tram ride through the private backstretch adds another perspective, departing from outside the clubhouse every 45 minutes beginning at 7:30am. Don’t fret about the $10-dollar parking fee; it is returned if you exit by 10am. The Saratoga race season runs from the third week in July through Labor Day weekend (closed on Tuesdays). For many, this is the best way to enjoy the track in Saratoga—when it is peaceful and free.
Saratoga Spa State Park: This expansive and varied park embodies Saratoga Springs. Trails wind throughout the 2,200-acre property just south of the city, through pine forests and past the natural springs and geysers that drew first the Iroquois, and later the Victorians, here. In summer, the park is a relaxing venue for picnicking, exercise, and play. In winter, the fun continues with cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and free ice skating. The park is also home to the historic Gideon Putnam Hotel and the renowned open-air Saratoga Performing Arts Center. A summer evening picnic on the lawn just outside the SPAC fence becomes an extra special outing, with the live sounds of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York City Ballet’s orchestra, or the hottest popular music playing free and in the background. A frequent sight is residents filling their jugs with delicious, free Saratoga spring water at one of the many mineral spring pavilions.
Yaddo Gardens: The gardens at Yaddo, a 400-acre estate just down Union Avenue from the Race Course, are part of a creative haven where artists have retreated to do their work since 1900. Over the years, it has hosted over 6,000 artists of every discipline, including Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote, John Cheever, Aaron Copland, Patricia Highsmith, Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Philip Roth and Flannery O’Connor. The main building is private, but the rose garden and rock garden are free and open to the public daily from 8am to dusk three seasons of the year. The gardens at Yaddo have a mystical quality. The rose gardens are formal and anchored by a long rose-covered pergola, while the rock gardens are shady with a touch of zen. A pleasant respite for all ages.
Congress Park: In the heart of downtown, a stroll through Congress Park offers plenty of historical eye candy within a small footprint. A perfect place for a picnic, the park revolves around the Canfield Casino, a former Victorian gambling venue, and surroundings that include a duck pond, mineral spring pavilions and many statues. While not free, a ride on the park’s famous Victorian wooden carousel, whose horses have real horse-hair tails, is a must for little ones. (The carousel is open early May through Columbus Day and costs just 50 cents per ride.) The park hosts many free events throughout the summer, including the fantastic Shakespeare in the Park in July; a Tuesday evening concert series in August; and, for the preschool crowd, the Saratoga Springs Public Library’s Family Concerts in the Park series.
Family Events at the Tang: A vibrant liberal arts college on the northern edge of town, Skidmore College offers a wealth of free public events. One tremendous on-campus resource is the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, which not only features innovative exhibits (there is a suggested donation) but also sponsors the family-friendly Upbeat on the Roof free concert series (Friday evenings, June through early September) and Family Saturday workshops, where children ages 5 and up (with a reservation) are invited to create a hands on project to accompany museum exhibitions.