Saranac Lake, nestled in the Adirondack Mountains in far upstate New York, started drawing visitors in the late 19th century.
But they were looking for more than just a travel escape from crowded East Coast cities in the United States – many had tuberculosis, and in the days before antibiotics, the standard treatment was the “fresh air cure,” or sitting outside in the clean mountain air for extended periods in the hopes of recovering.
Given the constant influx of outsiders from New York City and beyond into the town, there has long been a cosmopolitan feel to Saranac Lake, despite its relatively small size.
Among those who “chased the cure” or came for a rest included many in the arts and entertainment sphere, including Robert Louis Stevenson, Béla Bartók and Mark Twain, as well as countless vaudevillian performers (who had their own dedicated sanatorium) – and their artistic vibe remains today.
Though it was tuberculosis that originally brought visitors to Saranac Lake, it’s the area’s rich history, natural beauty and burgeoning local food scene that continues to attract people today.
Here’s what you need to know before you travel there.
Despite its location in fourth most populous state in America, Saranac Lake is not the easiest place to visit using public transit. The nearest Amtrak station is in Westport, New York, and you can book a connecting shuttle to nearby Lake Placid via their website.
Once in Lake Placid, it’s about another 20 minutes to Saranac Lake, which can be done via local taxi services. Flying into the Adirondack Regional Airport from Boston via Cape Air is another option, as, of course, is driving (it’s about a 5 ½ hour trip from New York City).
Arts, crafts and supplies
Back when many of the visitors to Saranac Lake were seeking their health in sanatoria and cure cottages, they had to get accustomed to spending hours each day staying relatively still and resting – so many turned to arts and crafts.
In fact, classes were offered in handicrafts ranging from woodworking to jewelry making, which also provided patients with a skill they could use to earn a living once they recovered.
Today, this tradition continues, with various art-related shops and galleries lining the town’s main streets, including Northwind Fine Arts Gallery, Ampersound music shop and the Adirondack Artists Guild Gallery.
In addition to The Book Nook (which is as charming as it sounds), The Community Store – New York state’s only community-owned department store – is also worth a visit.
Beyond to the basics (it exists so locals can get what they need without having to drive to the nearest big-box store), The Community Store also carries an array of locally made products including candles, jewelry and specialty foods.
Adirondack Artists Guild Gallery, 52 Main Street, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, +1 (518) 891-2615
Ampersound, 52 Main Street, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, +1 (518) 891-3114
The Book Nook, 7A Broadway, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, +1 (518) 354-8439
The Community Store, 97 Main Street, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, +1 (518) 354-8173
Northwind Fine Arts Gallery, 11 Woodruff Street, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, +(518) 354-1875
Maple, meat and more
When visiting a rustic, woodsy locale, expect to find food that reflects that, and draws heavily upon seasonally available local produce and game – not to mention incorporating maple syrup into everything from condiments to cocktails.
The Campfire Adirondack Grill + Bar is attached to the historic Hotel Saranac, but don’t let that put you off – it’s anything but your average hotel restaurant.
If you’re there for breakfast, try the Mountain Power Jacks – the chef’s own creation of pancakes made from a blend of ancient grains and oats with peanut butter mixed in, served with local maple syrup.
Later in the day, the smoked beef sandwich (with maple mustard) and braised lamb ragout are solid choices – as are their hand-cut fries, which come with homemade maple ketchup.
Celebrating a special occasion, or just the fact that you’re on vacation? Be sure to make reservations at Fiddlehead Bistro – it tends to fill up every night with locals and visitors alike.
The menu changes on a daily basis, depending on what is in season, and features vegetarian options like a mung bean and eggplant curry, and meatier fare, like honey-glazed pork belly and a grilled ribeye. If you don’t make it there for a full meal, at least try and stop by for one of their homemade signature desserts like lemongrass ginger crème brulee.
If you’re in the mood for elevated pub grub, Bitters & Bones is a safe bet. With a vast selection of beers on tap and a varied menu featuring everything from chili maple wings to specialty burgers to meal-worthy salads, there are plenty of options (get the duck if it’s available).
A small town in the Adirondacks may be the last place you’d expect to find a tasty French café, but bearing in mind how close it is to Montreal, it’s not surprising that the culinary tradition found its way to Saranac Lake via the Left Bank Café.
Make time to stop by for a chestnut puree crepe with a café au lait. But the main place in town to grab some java is Origin Coffee, which features high-quality coffee from African and Central American growing regions on a rotating menu.
Left Bank Café, 36 Broadway, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, +1 (518) 354-8166
Bitters & Bones, 65 Broadway, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, +1 (518) 354-8270
Campfire Adirondack Grill + Bar, 100 Main Street, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, +1 (518) 891-6900
Fiddlehead Bistro, 33 Broadway, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, +1 (518) 891-2002
Origin Coffee, 77 Main Street, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, +1 (518) 354-8102
History and nature abound
The Saranac Laboratory Museum is not your typical small-town museum, limited to a hodgepodge of local memorabilia. Sure, that’s there also, but beyond that, it provides a fascinating look into the town’s past as a place to cure from and study tuberculosis.
Tour the first laboratory built in the United States for the research of tuberculosis, dating back to 1894, but don’t skip the rotating exhibits about what life was like in the many local sanatoria for the thousands of tubercular patients that called Saranac Lake home – at least temporarily.
If you’ve come to the Adirondacks to hike, you may want to consider becoming a Saranac Lake 6er – someone who climbs all six peaks in the area and earns a badge upon completion. Start with Mount Baker – it’s close to town and a relatively easy, short climb that provides stunning panoramic views of the surrounding High Peaks.
If less strenuous outdoor exploration is more your speed, check out The Wild Center in nearby Tupper Lake – a picturesque 20-minute drive from Saranac Lake.
Though the Wild Center has many impressive components and educational programs, most people come for two reasons: to see the otters playing and to do the Wild Walk – an elevated treetop walkway that’s the Adirondack’s answer to New York City’s Highline.
Another 20-minute drive (in the opposite direction) will bring you to Lake Placid, home of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics.
Even if it’s not cold outside, fans of the Games will love their Olympic museum and exploring the area that was home to major sporting events like 1980’s “Miracle on Ice” hockey game. A quick drive down the street will take you to the Olympic ski jump, where you can take a chairlift and then elevator to the top and survey the Adirondacks from above.
Saranac Laboratory Museum, 89 Church Street, Suite 2, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, +1 (518) 891-4606
Lake Placid Winter Olympic Museum, 2634 Main Street, Lake Placid, NY 12946, +1 (518) 302-5326
Saranac Lake 6ers, 39 Main Street, Saranac Lake, NY 12983
The Wild Center, 45 Museum Drive, Tupper Lake, NY 12986, +1 (518) 359-7800
It’s impossible to miss the Hotel Saranac and its iconic neon sign as you approach Saranac Lake.
The last remaining of the grand stately hotels that used to line the streets of the town, the Hotel Saranac first opened its doors in 1927 and recently reopened earlier this year after an extensive restoration to its original Art Deco glory.
Everything from the ceiling paintings in the wood-paneled Great Hall Bar on the second floor to the specially commissioned vintage-inspired travel pop art in each of the guest rooms makes staying at the Hotel Saranac feel a bit like time travel.
It’s not hard to imagine guests 90 years ago strolling through the ground floor arcade or sipping craft cocktails on a veranda overlooking the town’s main intersection – no time machine required.
Hotel Saranac, 100 Main Street, Saranac Lake, NY 12983, +1 (518) 891-6900
Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer. You can follower her on Twitter at @elizabethics and on Instagram at @elizabethyuko.