SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- This town has always had much to recommend it. Beginning in the mid-1800s, the wealthy flocked to the area just south of New York's Adirondack Mountains for myriad distractions, including horse racing (starting in 1863), gambling, society balls, and healing mineral springs. Once the country's summer playground for millionaires -- rivaled only perhaps by the opulence of Newport, R.I. -- it was said that "everybody who is anybody comes to Saratoga."
You don't need millions to enjoy it today. For all its former grandeur, Saratoga Springs (about a three-hour drive from Boston) is a delightful and affordable place to spend a weekend or a month. Indeed, many settle in for weeks during racing season.
With the arrival of the thoroughbreds, Saratoga comes alive. The six-week meet at Saratoga Race Course, which this year runs through Sept. 6, culminates, as always, with the Travers Stakes this Saturday. The Travers is thought to be the country's oldest stakes race for 3-year-olds, having started in 1864 (the year after the course opened), and its $1 million purse draws a field from around the world.Sit in clubhouse box seats with a superb view of the finish line or picnic on the lawn and watch the races on television sets scattered around the park.
For the city whose promotional line is "Health, History, Horses," it was "health" that put Saratoga on the map in the late 1700s. Springs that run along a geological fault line bubble to the surface with mineral-rich and naturally carbonated water reputed to cure various ailments. Have a sore throat or dry skin? Locals can direct you to the many springs around the city for "taking the cure."
Better even than drinking the water (some reeks of sulfur) is a luxurious soak at either the Lincoln or Roosevelt bathhouses. Relax in a deep tub of soothing, heated mineral water as tiny bubbles gently tickle your back and sides. Consider a massage after the bath.
Broadway, the wide boulevard that cuts through the center of town, is a shopper's paradise. Here you'll find vintage clothing, preppy duds, antique furniture, fine art, diamonds and silver, new and antiquarian books, and plenty of equine paraphernalia.
Along the avenue and down side streets are enough restaurants and cafes to keep even the hungriest tourists fed. Newer places like Springwater Bistro, Chianti Il Ristorante, and The Wine Bar have joined the ranks of old-time favorites such as 43 Phila Bistro, Sperry's, Eartha's Restaurant, and the Olde Bryan Inn.
Any list of Saratoga's culinary treats surely begins with Mrs. London's, a French bakery and cafe, with croissants, pastries, and breads. Eugenio's Cafe Gelato, a relative newcomer on Broadway, churns out creamy gelato in 24 flavors. The chocolate-hazelnut combination called "bacio" is dreamy. For what might qualify as the best fried chicken north of the Mason-Dixon line, there's the steadfast Hattie's. Opened in 1938 by the legendary Hattie as a Southern-style chicken shack, it is now owned by Jasper and Beth Alexander, who have remained true to the original recipes.
Full? Then it's time to take advantage of Saratoga's performing arts offerings, from the basement of One Caroline Street (a handsome restaurant and jazz club) and the second-story Caffe Lena (reputedly America's oldest folk music coffeehouse) to the more prominent venues such as the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (where both the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra summer) and SPA Little Theatre. The Children's Museum will entertain the 12-and-under set, while innovative art exhibits at the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College are designed to make adults wonder.
History buffs should plan to visit the Saratoga Battlefield in nearby Stillwater, the designated "turning point of the American Revolution," where Colonists in 1777 defeated the British Army in two decisive battles.
Of course, there is also Saratoga's National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.
Outdoors, Saratoga Lake has boating and fishing, and golf is available at many public courses. Picnic in Congress Park or tour the gardens of Yaddo, an artists' retreat established by grants from the Trask family. For tykes, it doesn't get much more exciting than the water parks in Lake George Village (up a few exits on the Northway) and, for the physically fit, the greatest challenge might be climbing one of the Adirondacks' 46 tallest (4,000-plus-feet) peaks.
Saratoga Springs, the city of health, history, and horses, should add one more "H" - for hospitality. When the population of about 26,000 swells to two to three times that in summer, locals keep their cool. Saratoga may be a small town in spirit but it has a big heart.
Lisa Zwirn is a freelance writer in Natick.