The Bad: No real sights to see or do
The Basics: Stiflingly average, Syracuse, New York is a good place to live, but a dull place to visit.
I have been living near Syracuse, New York for over a decade now and it only now occurred to me to review the city. Almost simultaneously with that idea came the thought to my mind that there is little to recommend about Syracuse. The place is safe and comfortable, generally clean, but it is remarkably lacking in history, significance and anything truly unique to do. We are a very average northeastern city with little distinct and in truth the college (Syracuse University) dominates the city. We are a test market for new products and the standard of living here is pretty good, but the setting, the people, the sights are all remarkably average. This is a city near everything good, but it is more a transit point than a destination.
Syracuse, New York is located in pretty much the geographical center of Upstate New York. When I write "Upstate New York," I'm referring to actual Upstate New York, not the definition of denizens of New York City (for whom anything beyond the subway lines is considered Upstate). There is an entire state outside of New York City and Syracuse, New York is a part of that. Syracuse is located at a very convenient location mid-state at the juncture of Interstates 81 and 90. 81 is a major north-south arterial from Canada down to Washington, D.C. 90 is a major East-west interstate that goes from Boston out to Seattle! Syracuse has six exits off 90 and several off 81, making it very easy to find for travelers.
Syracuse is located just an hour southwest of the Adirondack Mountains and while the city has an urban vibe to it, it is surrounded by farmland, horse ranches and undeveloped hills covered with trees. Fifteen to twenty minutes from virtually any point in Syracuse will find a visitor out in nature, away from the city proper.
Syracuse has a temperate climate, though lake effect from Lake Ontario keeps the city cooler than some of the outlying areas. In the winter, average temperatures range in the 20 degree Fahrenheit range and we get pounded with some of New York State's greatest quantities of snow each winter (we have a race with Buffalo each year to see who gets more). We average several feet of snow in the winter, but because we know it is coming, the plows are almost always out early and in force. In the summer, our average temperatures are in the mid-80s and throughout the Spring and Fall, we have a lot of rainfall. This makes the flowers grow well and home gardens are especially popular around Syracuse and the suburbs. In the fall, we are a destination for leafers.
Ease Of Local Transport/Parking
Syracuse is easy for drivers to get around, though there is little rhyme or reason to the arrangement of the city. While many city locations are designed in a grid pattern, Syracuse appears to have been assembled using a Rorschach ink blot as the blueprint. Still, almost all of the streets have two lanes, there are very few one-way streets and pedestrian traffic is only high near Syracuse University. Rush hour traffic is minimal on the major arterials and the worst I've ever heard of is a one hour delay for travelers coming through the State Fairgrounds during fireworks! Generally, though, the average workday involves no more than fifteen minutes of slow traffic transit, which might be why the air is so clean around Syracuse.
On-street parking used to be easily available everywhere save the campus district, but in recent years, local legislators have turned to parking to raise revenue and now there are almost no places in Syracuse, save business parking lots, where parking is free. Metered parking dominates most Syracuse streets now and there are paid parking lots as well.
By and large, Syracuse is a college town and as such, the campus district downtown is packed with hotels, some of which are multistory national chains that are packed only for graduation weekend. Outside the campus district, the hotels become more sparse, but virtually all of the national chains are represented. The average hotel room off-season runs in the $50 range and in high travel times $75 - $100/room. The thing is, it is hard to discuss accommodations in Syracuse with much in the way of specifics; hotels go out of business or change hands with disturbing frequency here.
The prime example of this is the historic Hotel Syracuse in downtown Syracuse. Every few months for the last few years, it has been sold, then forced into bankruptcy and then sold again. Luxury hotels are not, apparently, a viable business in Syracuse. Similarly, on the outskirts of Syracuse, I know of at least one locally-owned hotel which teamed up with a national chain, upgraded as demanded in order to meet the chain's standards, then dumped the chain when the licensing requirements became too prohibitive. It was, apparently, more economically viable to run without the brand-name association here.
The point of all of this is that if one is not staying with friends or family when they visit Syracuse, I'd highly recommend checking your reservation up to the day of arrival to make sure the hotel is still in business and honoring the old reservations.
Here is where I usually fill up a review with loads of fun activities to recommend a place. Alas, though, in the case of Syracuse, I'm coming up dry. Syracuse is a fine place to live, but we tend to make our own entertainment here. When it comes to things to see or do, there is very little.
What I can say that is positive are these things: 1. We are a test market for new products and movies. As a result, those looking for places to get movie screenings and try the latest products from Keebler and the like, Syracuse becomes a great place to live. 2. We have Green Lakes State Park (reviewed here!), which is one of the most beautiful places on the entire planet. and 3. We have a college sports team that seems ridiculously popular. Actually, we have two, but they are both called the Orangemen, so football and basketball season pretty much blend together for those who do not care about sports and only hear them peripherally.
Syracuse also has the New York State Fairgrounds, so every year for two weeks in summer the city is inundated with visitors from all over the state who are coming for the state fair. The New York State Fair draws popular musical artists, like Britney Spears, Kid Rock, Def Leppard and country acts that I don't even remember now. Outside that, the city is pretty spartan when it comes to concerts or anything remotely cultural. There is a theater which has plays sporadically, usually after they fall out of the Toronto market.
Outside that, Syracuse is a place where people work, work, and work and when they want to do something fun, they abandon Syracuse for other places. My ex- informed my current partner that the city has a very active Goth population, but that's not my scene.
I love to eat and Syracuse has some very reasonably-priced places to eat. Our most famous local restaurant is the Dinosaur Barbecue, which is a very popular rib joint, especially with the biker crowd. Also in downtown Syracuse is a wonderful Japanese Tea House which serves only tea and it is a nice place to escape to for a few hours with friends to sit, drink and be merry. Also downtown are a slew of bars, but as I don't drink, there are none I could or would recommend. Dinosaur is our most recognizable name and the best surprise is the Japanese Tea House.
That said, there are two delightful surprises in Syracuse for the open-minded diners. The Retreat is a bar and grill which has some of the best American food one will ever taste. In the heart of Liverpool (one of the Syracuse suburbs), it makes the best salads, burgers and fries anyone coming to Syracuse is likely to find. And for ethnic food, the Little Thai House is an amazing find right near the Shoppingtown Mall. The meals there are delicious and the prices are quite reasonable.
And if you travel like me, which is to say cautiously, there are the usual chains of fastfood restaurants. Syracuse is populated by Dunkin' Donuts (reviewed here!), Panera Bread (reviewed here!), Pizza Hut (reviewed here!) and Arby's franchises. There are the usual McDonalds, Burger King and Taco Bell franchises as well.
As for the trendy, hip places to go, I plead ignorance. College towns with their drinking clientele, overpriced fried foods and loud music stopped interesting me well over a decade ago. However, Syracuse has a wonderful free resource for visitors in the Syracuse New Times (reviewed here!) which can be found at virtually any hotel in the area. That informs visitors of all of the happening places each and every week and they have everything from the latest visiting musical acts to weekly drink specials listed!
Syracuse has become an epicenter for generic shopping in the form of two malls (three if one counts the mall in Clay, which is adjacent to Syracuse). We no longer have little cute boutiques, instead the bulk of the shopping here is done in strip malls or the two malls, Shoppingtown or Carousel. Shoppingtown has turned into a virtual ghosttown in the shadow of Carousel Mall, which is being remade as the world's largest mall, DestiNY USA. This lame attempt to cash in on the shopping market has been a sporadic endeavor which is in the works now (construction resumed this summer when the contractors realized the gimmick for the mall was going to be that it was a green mall, outfitted with its own windmill park generating electricity from wind power). The thing is, Carousel was built on swamp land and was sinking and DestiNY is being built atop it with no real gimmicks or draws other than the sheer size of the mall, so we'll see how long it lasts.
In other words, the shopping that might be done in Syracuse is pretty much the same shopping that could be done anywhere else in the United States.
Syracuse, New York is a very average college city with few opportunities for those starting out and little to recommend it to travelers.
For other places to visit, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Aquarium Of Niagara – Niagara Falls, NY
Turning Stone Casino Resort – Vernon, NY
For other travel reviews, please visit my Travel Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the travel-related reviews I have written.
© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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