This trip was sponsored by Visit Syracuse. All opinions expressed within are my own.
It’s wonderful to behold a city—the spiritual and geographic heart of New York State—that has reinvented itself. The neighborhoods fringing downtown Syracuse have an amazing range of people hailing from every curve of Mother Earth, and they all towed-in their fabulous dishes. The essence of travel is, and will always be, about the people you meet along the way. And who knew that Syracuse is a booming live-music town? We all dance in the same language.
A lifetime of travel writing has taught me to swiftly locate a region’s best fixers, so I can immediately dive into the best a place has to offer. I was lucky to befriend three amazing Syracuse ambassadors, starting with grassroots City Counselor Joe Driscoll, whose career path includes being a world-touring multi-instrumentalist and singer who fuses the crossroads of folk, hip-hop, and beatbox. Driscoll applies his global street wisdom to local politics.
In that spirit, he led me to The Limerick Pub, where Tuesday nights feature live American roots music, often showcasing Piedmont blues and delta-slide legend Colin Aberdeen, who also fronts soul, funk, and Zydeco bands. Aberdeen, a Syracuse guitar-wizard, who I later saw on a much bigger stage, also raises money for the In My Father’s Kitchen street outreach.
My third Syracuse ambassador was Michael John Heagerty, an urban activator, local historian, and founder and co-owner of the Wildflowers Armory, a multi-vendor marketplace/cooperative that’s a sandbox for handmade artisans. It’s also home to two restaurants, Jamaica Cuse and Aloha (Japanese, Hawaiian, Burmese).
The armory also has a revived underground plaza and event space called The McCarthy Mercantile that now houses several organic indie businesses, including a skate shop and vintage boutiques. The Wildflowers store sells old-time craftsperson creations ranging from rare hardwood furniture and toys to local award-winning hot sauces.
Yeah, this place enjoys a lot of variety, including dozens of historic buildings. Heagerty revels in Syracuse’s recent cultural renaissance, as he actively participates in renovating and reviving more of downtown’s classic late-1800’s buildings. As a former local walking-tour guide, he steered me through the surprisingly opulent Marriott Syracuse Downtown, which was originally the fabled Hotel Syracuse.
When it was built in 1924, it featured the country’s largest hotel lobby, the first hotel to have AC and an interior hospital, and tennis and racquetball courts on the roof. Recently renovated, it drips with mythology, especially in the three ballrooms, with the top-floor grand ballroom sharing epic views of downtown.
The hotel has two ground-level bar/restaurants, including Shaughnessy’s Irish Pub, the ultimate historic sports bar, whose interior flooring is the original Syracuse Nationals’ basketball court. Talk about home-court advantage—the Nationals were among the original seven teams that formed the NBA in 1949.
Syracuse’s unique international culinary scene stands proud inside the Salt City Market, an open food hall featuring authentic cuisine from Baghdad, Burma, Jamaica, Thailand, and Vietnam. There is also a non-membership grocery co-op, a yoga studio, and the stylish indoor/outdoor Salt City Bar. Pockets of international food and culture are tucked away in Syracuse’s small grocers and bodegas, but this meeting place brings them together on a central stage. This town’s specialized gastronomy is made even better because its water is sourced from nearby ultra-pure Skaneateles Lake, one of only six unfiltered water sources in the country.
Across town, the owner of Apizza Regionale learned to cook via his Italian grandmother while growing up in Queens, NY. His otherworldly Naples and New York-style pizzas are cooked in a handmade wood-fired oven imported from Naples, Italy. Antipasti, made in-house daily, includes zucchine fritte (crispy-fried zucchini with lemon-caper aioli). Its impressive, yet affordable wine list also pays homage to Italy’s finest. Across the street sits the first and now legendary Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. Nearby, the Saltine Warrior Pub is where you’ll likely mix with proud alumni from Syracuse University, which offers 200 majors and 100 minors within 13 schools and colleges. Joe Biden graduated from its Law School in 1968.
My initial draw to Syracuse was its 30th annual New York State Blues Festival held on a corner of the 375-acre New York State Fairgrounds complex, which operates year-round, hosting 300 non-fair events, ranging from big-time entertainment and sporting events to various equestrian competitions and community happenings that keep the fairgrounds teeming with people. If everyone in attendance held hands, the Great NYS Fair could stretch all the way to Orlando. While on this assignment, I also took in some barrel racing, as a nearby horse show was happening simultaneously.
Syracuse’s annual, free three-day summertime blues fest provides seemingly endless and amazing regional and world-class talent performing music rooted in but not limited to the blues. The 2022 celebration included the late John Lee Hooker’s backing band, the local Kingsnakes, headliner JJ Grey & Mofro, my introduction to the riveting Jocelyn & Chris (rockin-blues siblings who recently graduated from Harvard), the powerful GA-20, Terrence Simien’s Zydeco Experience, vocalist and rocking saxophonist Vanessa Collier, the fun Clarence Spady Band, and previously noted Colin Aberdeen.
The festival’s director, Eric McElveen, pulled together these hardcore blues and blues-crossover acts, which all remain loyal to this American artform. As the main-stage acts quickly warmed up, a small, peripheral stage featured acoustic artists. The June 2023 lineup promises to be equally epic.
A bit outside of town is Green Lakes State Park. Its two forest-surrounded glacial lakes are meromictic, which means that there is no fall and spring mixing of surface and bottom waters, giving them evidence of ancient plant and animal life. You can rent kayaks onsite. Another feature of the park is the gorgeous 18-hole Green Lakes State Park Golf course (there are 46 in the Syracuse area). Right next to the pro shop is the inviting Yards Grille, which overlooks the course as well as one of the lakes. Also nearby is the Bull & Bear Roadhouse, a neighborhood bar serving comfort food in Fayetteville.
I hung my hat at the cozy Aloft Syracuse Inner Harbor, which is less than a mile from downtown and easily accessible via the pretty Onondaga Creekwalk, a 2.6-mile bicycle/pedestrian pathway connecting urban Armory Square to the shore of Onondaga Lake and six-story Destiny USA, the state’s largest shopping and entertainment complex that costars a nifty food court.
Syracuse is a great place to unfold your vacation like a map, understanding we can’t always refold them the same way. So many festivals, so little time! You’re gonna dig it here.
Roam over to Visit Syracuse, a city of ongoing festivals—including the 2022 New York State Fair—which runs from August 24 to September 5 and showcases many world-touring and classic rock bands.