WHY GO: Due to its “port” status, Syracuse NY has always been sophisticated and open to the outside world despite its remote Central NY location. The Erie Canal once coursed right through downtown – old photographs convey a Venice-like panorama – but was paved over in the 1920’s.
Syracuse has been going through a renaissance as of late, with the reopening of a fancy Prohibition-era hotel, renewed interest in an I.M. Pei designed museum in its central plaza, the honoring of Native American history that informed our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the rediscovery of a Women’s Rights leader who happened to be the model for Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and whose name was lost to history. Oh, we don’t forget the great places to eat. Or drink: like the fantastic distillery that doubles as the Best Apple Orchard in the USA.
If you come to Syracuse just to drop your kid off at the University, plan to stay a day or two. You’ll be surprised at what’s new. Read on….
Things to Do in and Around Syracuse NY
GO/TASTE/EAT: Beak & Skiff Orchards and 1911 Distillery, Lafayette. For several years in a row, USA Today named Beak & Skiff, now run by the 4th and 5th generation of its founding families, the “Best Apple Orchard in America.” (In 2018 – #2).
That would probably come as a surprise to those who go there strictly for the 1911 Distillery where apple-distilled flavored Vodka, Gin, and now Bourbon (the first product that is not made with apples) flow into tasting cups and employed in the creation of smash-hit cocktails like the “Tipsy Cow” (Cold Pressed Coffee Vodka, Chocolate Milk, Coffee, topped with Whipped Cream and half a Cider Donut), the “Orchard Palmer” (made with Honeycrisp Vodka), and where bottles and cans of Hard Cider and Wine pressed from home-grown fruit soar off the shelves.
Families flock to Beak & Skiff each fall for “Pick Your Own Apples,” an annual tradition for many around here. The “campus” of B&S on Apple Hill has been expanding over the years, with each generation of Skiff adding something new, and there’s no end in site. First Generation, George Skiff and Andrew Beak planted apple seeds in 1911. Third Generation, Marshall Skiff, added the popular U-Pick. Fifth Generation, Eddie Brennan (whose mother, Debbie, is a Skiff), now manages the 1911 Distillery and Cidery, and has his eyes trained on a wedding business and upgrading the 1911 Store and Tasting Room for year round events.
Sure, you can jump on a hayride out to the orchards, and of course try sips of distilled beverages before buying. But you can also have a quick meal at the Café and Bakery (those cider donuts! Or fantastic Apple Pie), purchase orchard related knickknacks in the General Store, bypass the “picking” and go for any of 20 varieties of just-picked apples in the Apple Barn.
If you’re into hard cider, wine, and spirits sampling, but want to avoid all the Orchard crowds, head a minute down the road, take a right on Rt. 20, and you’ll find the 1911 Distillery and Rickhouse – for now, a less frenetic place to sip on the best of Beak & Skiff’s boozy offerings.
VISIT: Erie Canal Museum. Did you know that the Erie Canal cut straight through downtown Syracuse? In fact, the older part of the Erie Canal Museum was, in 1850, the Weighlock Building – a pull out where canal boats were weighed for tolls, like semi-tractor trucks are today. It stands as the last remaining canal boat weigh station in America.
Since the museum first opened in 1962, it doubled in size with a new 2016 first floor exhibit showcasing “functional interactives” (read: phone stations where you can listen to stories) amid text panels and artifacts. Between 1817 and its completion in 1825, the building of the Erie Canal was a shot in the dark done by workers with no formal engineering training. Hacking out a 363-mile long ditch of water, linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes through the New York wilderness, joked many, “was it’s own School of Engineering.”
The decade of the Canal’s construction happened to align with the heyday of postcards – and fortunately for museum visitors, there were plenty of pictures taken to document each phase. Enlarged and on display, these tinted photographs impart both a realistic and romanticized version of the historic “Wedding of the Waters.” Some visitors get so caught up in these photos, signage, and artifacts, they completely miss the walk-on canal boat, which is definitely a museum highlight.
In the back, walk past the Weigh-master’s office, and hop onto to a full sized replica of a Line Boat (used by a shipping line) that carried cargo, passengers, and maintenance workers. Canal work was a family affair, and each family lived in the back of the boat. The middle section was generally used for storage and cargo, and the bow area accommodated very, very basic passenger quarters consisting of three salami-sized hammocks one above the other (overnight train sleeping compartments seem luxurious in comparison). Look behind and ahead of the boat, and get a sense of where the Canal ran through town – now a paved city thoroughfare.
Don’t miss a ride up in the multi-media elevator to the second floor where you’ll find vignettes of life in a Canal Town: a Tavern, General Store, and Guild Theater. More sophisticated than you’d expect, by dint of canal-town status, goods and people came to Syracuse from all over the world. Open Mon-Sat 10-5, Sun 10-3, free but $5 suggested donation.
VISIT: Everson Museum of Art. This was I.M. Pei’s second commission in Syracuse (after S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse U), and befits the focus of the Everson Museum – Ceramic Art. Boxy and weighty like a bomb shelter – the durable concrete structure that sits in the city’s central plaza is nothing like the delicate projects Pei would subsequently design. But inside, the architecture is in itself art, its muted grey textural walls and curvy staircases counterpoint to vividly colored ceramic installations.
The newly opened gallery downstairs contains glass cases in the center of the room and mirrored shelves along each wall displaying dozens of clay art pieces in novel fashion.
Two paintings, purchased with funds raised by the community and school groups in the 1970’s however, always remain on view: an original Gilbert Stewart portrait of George Washington, and one of 62 variations of The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks. Don’t miss the boutique-like gift shop, which has great, affordable contemporary ceramic art and jewelry for sale, among other artful gifts. $8 adults, kids under 12 free, open Wed-Sun noon – 5, Thurs. till 8pm.
VISIT: SUArt Galleries, Syracuse University. With a focus on American Prints, and a permanent collection that rotates every semester, the SUArt Gallery on the Quad is worth a look even if you are not an art student – or even a student – at Syracuse University. The encyclopedic art collection of 45,000 objects from the 15th to 21st centuries runs the gamut from 2-D to 3-D, many from important world-renowned artists. Recently, sculptures by Rodin from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Collection were on view.
Holdings include Burchfield, Avery, Man Ray – and, much to my surprise, a Salvador Dali portrait of Col. Jack Warner, founder of Warner Bros., who looks so much like Walt Disney, many viewers mistake one entertainment mogul for another.
Warner hated Dali’s depiction of him so much, he installed the painting in his doghouse. Ask to see the myriad prints in Study Cabinets –a series of cases within cases constructed with engineering precision by campus Physical Plant mechanics. The Print Room – containing over 20,000 renderings in architectural drawers – is open to all for perusal or study. Open Tues-Sun 11-4:30, Thurs till 8, free.
VISIT: OHA – Onondaga Historical Association. I’m always on the lookout for the most profound or strangest things in any local history museum, and the OHA did not disappoint. Perhaps the most important exhibit is of the sculpted clay faces discovered in a small tunnel under the former Wesleyan Methodist Church (now The Mission Restaurant), that date to the mid 1800’s most likely created by runaway slaves hidden by abolitionist parishioners. Like many in this region, the Church openly participated in the Underground Railroad, which had “stations” throughout upstate NY.
You’ll also find Native American artifacts and stories of the Five Nations that constitute the Iroquois League – Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk – now referred to in their native name, the Haudenosaunee; and not-so-native-American stories like the three Jewish Eastern-European born Shubert Brothers, who moved with their family to Syracuse in 1882, purchased their first theater in Manhattan in 1900, and established NYC’s Broadway District as the hub of American Theater that we recognize today.
My favorites among the items invented and still manufactured in Syracuse: the Brannock Device, known to all as the slidey thing that measures your foot size in shoe-stores; and the manufacturer of every single candle used by the Vatican – Cathedral Candle Co. (get yours in this gift-shop – the only place to buy them retail in the USA). Syracuse based Marsellus Casket Co., which closed in 2003, was the preferred coffin-maker for the Kennedy family and Nancy Regan, who was one of the last to be buried in one.
Don’t leave before finding the enlarged photo taken at the opening of the Hotel Syracuse at the height of Prohibition in 1924. Look carefully to see many revelers with hands under tables, or barely hiding flasks – a snapshot of the reality of the day. Open Wed-Fri. 10-4, Sat/Sun 11-4, free.
TOUR: Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation Center and Museum, Fayetteville. Matilda J. Gage was the inspiration for Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, and was also one of the three founders of the National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA) with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, yet we never hear of Gage today. Why? With her insistence of separation of Church and State, her views were even too radical for a faction that sought to create coalitions with the religious fundamentalists of the Temperance Movement. Gage believed that the Church kept women at heel, and the bond of the trio broke down over the religious issue: after 20 years agitating for Women’s Rights (1869 – 1889), Anthony and Stanton kicked her out and wiped her name from most documents. It took some journalists’ sleuthing to bring Gage back to the fore.
The Matilda Joslyn Gage Center is in her own home a few miles from Syracuse, renovated and opened as a museum in 2010. A sign at the entrance insists that you “Check your dogma at the door,” and “Think for Yourself.” You can actually sit at Gage’s own desk in the back parlor where she worked and write notes to her if you wish. Rooms serve as galleries addressing Social Justice issues (Women’s Rights, Underground Railroad, Religious Freedom) and Gage’s history.
Matilda’s father, Dr. Hezekiah Joslyn, was a well-known abolitionist, and the Joslyn home in Cicero NY served as a station on the Underground Railroad. Matilda grew up around the Native American Nation of the Haudenosaunee – a Matriarchal society that regarded men and women equally. The exposure to this kind of non-violent gender equality informed her life’s work.
Matilda married Henry Hill Gage in 1845 and moved to Syracuse, where the couple raised four children. In 1848, Gage was unable to attend the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, but in 1852 when the 3rd Convention came to Syracuse, she became a noted speaker and writer on Women’s Suffrage. While the Movement was concerned primarily with Voting Rights, Gage focused on Equal Rights for Women, using her tribal experience as guide. In the 1870’s Gage was an advocate for the Native Americans at a time when the US Government treated them poorly, and to honor her, the Mohawk Tribe adopted her into their Wolf Clan.
By all accounts, Gage was a “good wife and mother” and Henry was supportive of his wife’s work, taking care of the kids when needed. One of their four children, Maud, married a dreamer of a man 8 years her senior against her mother’s wishes. That man was L. Frank Baum, who years later wrote The Wizard of Oz, using his Mother In Law as model for Dorothy, the book’s strong, speak-truth-to-power main character, at a time when women were generally portrayed as damsels in distress. Baum and Maud were married in 1882 in the front parlor of this home, and the room now serves as “The Oz Room” decorated as it was when Gage lived here.
Matilda J. Gage was Dorothy’s “spiritual ancestor,” teaching women to be brave, speak up, speak out, and use the power of their convictions: a message that still resonates today. The epitaph on her gravestone reads: “There is a word sweeter than Mother, Home, or Heaven; that word is Liberty.” Open Tues-Fri 10-3, first and last Sat of each month 10-3, free for individual drop-ins, Groups: $8 adults, $6 kids.
VISIT: Ska.Nonh Great Law of Peace Center, a Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Heritage site. Man, do we need a Law of Peace Center right about now. This museum tells the story of the indigenous peoples of Central New York from the perspective of The Onondaga Nation with a focus on oral history traditions and importance of language in maintaining a culture.
An interpretive museum with video, text panels and artifacts, the Ska.Nonh Center’s exhibits start on the first floor with the “Words that come before all else” – the Thanksgiving Address – which might be different from person to person (crops, weather, health), but uniformly conveys gratitude to the “Creator” aka “The Great Peacemaker.”
You’ll learn about the Haudenosaunee Creation Story (involving a pregnant Grandmother who fell from the sky, a goose that caught her, and the turtle upon which she landed), and the significance of the Great White Pine Tree; a symbol of peace between the Five Nations (Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk).
In 1744, Benjamin Franklin, then the owner of a profitable Printing Press in Philadelphia, sat in on a Haudenosaunee meeting to learn about decision-making in a Democracy rather than under a King. He was inspired by the way the five nations of the Haudenosaunee made treaties with each other and with the Europeans. This meeting informed Franklin’s decision to found the United States as a Democracy rather than a Monarchy, as was originally and vigorously discussed.
Upstairs, there are a number of exhibits about the Onondaga Tribe over time. One, in particular, intrigued me – involving a 550 year old law, a recent land claim, and, of all people, Ruth Bader Ginsberg. In 1452, King Alfonso V of Portugal issued a Papal Bull – the Doctrine of Discovery – that sanctified the seizure of non-Christian lands: allowing Portuguese explorers to “invade, capture, vanquish and subdue all pagans.” In 2005, the Onondaga Nation filed a Land Claim for territory in Central NY: a case that made it all the way to the Supreme Court. In the case of Sherrill v. Onondaga Indian Nation, Justice Ginsberg cited the Doctrine of Discovery in the majority decision against the Native American claim. Open Wed-Fri 10-4, Sat/Sun 11-4, $5 adults, children 8 and under free.
VISIT: MOST – Museum of Science and Technology. Until the 1980’s this vast building was repository for Military vehicles as a U.S. Armory in the center of town. Now, you’ll find dinosaurs where tanks and jeeps used to be, and plenty of interactive exhibits covering “nanoscience to dark matter.” MOST encompasses the only domed IMAX Omni Theater in NY State, an amateur radio station that made contact with the International Space Station (visitors spoke to an astronaut for 9 minutes), a multi-level crawl-through Playhouse, a fully functional Flight Training program in the cockpit of an F-16, a Planetarium (with a countdown clock that shows when the Space Station passes overhead), a walk-through heart, Energy and Health Exhibits, and an abundance of other hands-on learning opportunities. $17 Adults Museum and IMAX Combo, $15 kids, open Wed-Sun 10-5.
Where to Eat in Syracuse NY
EAT: Eleven Waters @ Marriott Syracuse Downtown. The trendy-contemporary 11 Waters (referencing the 11 Finger Lakes) made a splash when it opened a couple of years ago, and it’s still a popular place for an upscale meal at very reasonable prices: Onion Soup $7; Bistro Cesar $8; Puttanesca $15; Roast Half Chicken $25, Rigatoni Bolognese $16, and more.
The Eleven Waters Bar, carved out of the hotel’s former barbershop, features shampoo sink faucets on one wall, and cocktails named in the spirit of the place: Clean Shave (a “clean” version of a Moscow Mule), Undercut (rum, lime juice, grapefruit and maraschino liqueur), and Mullet (a classic Mint Julep).
EAT: Locals recommend Dinosaur BBQ – the first one ever – for amazing Q; Funk ‘N Waffles, first opened by entrepreneurial students on the SU Campus and now off campus offering any kind of loaded waffle you can think up; Pastabilities for homemade pastas and “stretch bread;” Kitty Hoynes – an authentic Irish Pub on Armory Square; Lemongrass Restaurant for upscale white-linen Thai cuisine, and Modern Malt – a tweaked Malt Shop with a full bar rather than milkshake machines and Tater Tots instead of fries.
Where to Stay in Syracuse NY
STAY: Marriott Syracuse Downtown. Renovated and reopened recently, this Marriott is once again a city landmark. Walk in on the ground floor, head up the stairs, and the lobby wows as its 20 ft. stenciled plaster carved ceiling comes into view. The Terrazzo floors and crystal chandeliers are all original to 1924. This place is so fantastic, it’s a Maven Favorite with its own complete write up here.
STAY: Jefferson Clinton Hotel. If you want to feel cared for in the cozy, elegant ambiance of years gone by, the Jefferson Clinton, a Historic Hotel of America, is your best bet in Syracuse. Wonderfully situated on Armory Square, across the street from MOST (Museum of Science and Technology), and next door to the highly recommended Lemongrass Restaurant, this small establishment doesn’t scream “fashionable,” “chic,” or “stylish,” as do some other boutique hotels. Instead, it whispers “understated luxury.” And most of all “personal, amiable service”.
This genuinely good-natured service was on view in the morning, when the small lobby turned eatery was packed with dozens of business people (on a weekday), enjoying a buffet breakfast that includes an omelet station. The omelet chef was one of the friendliest I’ve ever met. He executed each order quickly, and even brought plates to the guests with a smile. The whole vibe was so upbeat, one patron remarked, “so this is The Place where everyone goes for breakfast in Syracuse!”
Leave some time to get up to your room: there is only one elevator. While waiting, grab a fresh-baked cookie (afternoon) or apple (anytime) from the reception desk.
Rooms are done up in maroon and gold, with new earth-brown carpeting, ecru-colored grasscloth wallpaper and, a mix of contemporary and traditional furnishings (glass desk, wingback chairs). Tiled bathrooms are clean and bright, with a good amount of lighting over a Corian sink, and tub showers. Bedding is so dreamy-comfortable, I actually slept through the night for a change. Rooms from $155 per night include hot buffet breakfast with made to order omelets, free wifi.