The 6 Best Places to Live in Upstate New York
We love our great city and, despite the headlines, NYC is still very much alive (see exhibits A, B and C). But since COVID-19 hit, many city dwellers are dreaming of wide open spaces, spare bedrooms and a cheaper cost of living...and yeah, we get it. While Idaho tops the list for the most popular state to move to, we’re not quite ready to decamp out west just yet. Instead, we’re considering a visit or move just a couple of hours away from the greatest city on Earth, where we can enjoy more space, beautiful vistas and tasty farm-to-table eats. Whether you’re looking for a weekend away or perhaps the chance to relocate, here are the best places to live in upstate New York.
1. Albany, NY
The state’s capital took the top spot in the U.S. News annual ranking of best places to live in New York, a report that takes into consideration various factors including good value, desirability, job market and quality of life. And this bustling city, located about 150 miles from NYC, definitely ticks all the boxes.
With more than four centuries of history (Albany was declared the state capital in 1797), the main attraction—and employer—here is the group of government buildings around the Empire State Plaza, situated in the heart of downtown. This is also where you’ll find the fascinating New York State Museum, as well as many displays of modern public art. Other attractions in Albany include the many leafy parks, Hudson river cruises and craft beverage trails.
Albany also enjoys a desirable location as the gateway to Hudson Valley in the south and the Adirondack Mountains in the north, meaning that you’re never too far from the slopes or delicious eats (same goes for wine, thanks to Albany’s proximity to the Finger Lakes in the west). While we’re on the subject of food, locals rave that Iron Gate Cafe has the best avocado toast in the city, while The Albany Ale & Oyster’s Sunday happy hour is not to be missed. Oh, and in case that’s not enough to convince you to check out this upstate spot, consider the fact that the many brownstones in Albany are significantly cheaper than their Brooklyn counterparts.
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2. Rochester, NY
This welcoming town south of Lake Ontario was known as Flour City in the 1800s, thanks to many flour mills located along waterfalls on the Genesee River. Then, when nurseries and seed production replaced the grain industry, it switched monikers to the very lovely sounding Flower City. And here’s another fun fact: Rochester was once home to trailblazers Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.
These days, this upstate town is best known for its world-class educational institutions (like the University of Rochester), many parks and frequent festivals. Locals enjoy a low cost of living, with U.S. News giving Rochester a score of 7 out of 10 in its value ranking, noting that “Rochester offers a better value than similarly sized metro areas when you compare housing costs to median household income.” The organization also ranked Rochester as number two in best places to live in New York, and last year, realtor.com ranked the city number six on its list of hottest real estate markets in the country. Not too shabby.
Some things to look forward to if you visit or move here: Seabreeze amusement park, baseball games at Frontier Field and the Buffalo Bills’ training camp in Pittsford (about 10 miles southeast of the city), and summers spent sailing or fishing on Lake Ontario. In non-COVID times, locals also rave about the arts scene in downtown with frequent theater, music, visual arts and film events. Again, you’re only an hour or so away from the Finger Lakes wine trails, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to toast to your brand new home, should you choose to make the move.
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3. Buffalo, NY
Located on Lake Erie, the second-most populous city in New York State was once a booming industrial town and still maintains some of those “grittier” vibes (although the redeveloped waterfront is now a family-friendly hotspot). According to local legend, the French dubbed Buffalo “Beau Fleuve,” or Beautiful River, when they settled here in the mid-18th century, and its proximity to the water is a big draw. Situated only 20 miles away from Niagara Falls, many visitors pass through here on their way to view the popular tourist attraction, but Buffalo has plenty to offer those who call this upstate town home. But don’t take our word for it—Buffalo ranked number three in the U.S. News annual ranking of best places to live across the country.
Buffalo is a sports town, whether you’re into football (Bills) or ice hockey (Sabres). Outdoor enthusiasts will also enjoy the many ski trails located less than an hour from downtown, as well as multiple hiking trails in the area. Other major attractions include world-class architecture (like Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin D. Martin House) and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
We can’t talk about Buffalo without mentioning America’s favorite bar snack: Buffalo wings. If you’re looking for some of the very best, check out local favorites Duff's Famous Wings or Anchor Bar. And with a thriving craft beer scene, it’ll be easy to find something to wash your wings down with. Buffalo also offers upscale dining options, like Bacchus Wine Bar and Restaurant that offers tasty seasonal fare and the Italian-style Lombardo Ristorante.
Like many other spots on this list, Buffalo has a low cost of living (Buffalo scores 7.8 out of 10 on the U.S. News value scale). And something else that differentiates it from NYC? Its moniker— the “city of good neighbors.”
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4. Syracuse, NY
Calling all snow bunnies: Residents of Syracuse get more than 120 inches of flurries per year. But because the region is so used to the weather, the authorities are excellent at removing it in a timely and efficient manner (you know, unlike the gray slush that lingers on New York City streets for days). And the weather doesn’t stop locals from enjoying the Great Outdoors. The warmer months bring boating, kayaking, swimming and white-water rafting, while winter is for skiing, snowshoeing, skating, snowmobiling and sledding. And the gorgeous hikes through the beautiful landscape? Well, those are an ideal pastime any time of the year.
Here’s what else you should know if you’re considering making the move: Locals bleed orange, taking their support for their college men and women’s basketball teams at the Carrier Dome seriously (Psst: It happens to be the largest domed stadium in the Northeast). But if sports aren’t exactly your thing, there’s plenty else to keep you entertained in Salt City, including live music, festivals (the Great New York State Fair is a summer highlight) and great eats (Syracuse is home to the original Dinosaur BBQ).
Affordable housing, highly ranked schools and short commutes make Syracuse an especially family-friendly place, and U.S. News ranked it as the fourth best spot to live in New York.
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5. Ithaca, NY
This charming town located on the southern tip of Cayuga Lake is popular with both college kids (it’s home to Cornell University and Ithaca College) and free-spirited artists (it’s known as a hippie hangout) alike. Partly thanks to these two groups, Ithaca is largely known as a progressive town that offers a sense of community. The main draws here are the arts venues, delicious eats and beautiful hiking. Speaking of the pretty landscape, if you’re wondering what all those bumper stickers saying “Ithaca is Gorges” are all about, we’ve got the answer: The city boasts more than 100 gorges and waterfalls that offer striking vistas throughout the year. Oh, and here’s another reason to check out Ithaca: It’s home to the Cayuga Wine Trail (known as America’s first wine trail, spanning 14 wineries).
Business Insider ranked Ithaca as the 25th best place to live in America after the pandemic is over, noting that it has the seventh-highest total spending per student in elementary and secondary public schools, as well as the fact that the metro area also has the third-largest share of residents with a bachelor's degree or higher, at 56.9 percent.
Ithaca may be charming, but it’s certainly not snoozy. Case in point: If you move here in the month of February, be prepared to honor Charles Darwin’s birthday, in its Darwin Days celebration that includes activities and special exhibits at the Museum of the Earth. File this one under weird but wonderful.
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6. Binghamton, NY
Located in the Southern Tier section of New York state (near the Pennsylvania border), Binghamton is probably most famous as the birthplace of the spiedie sandwich. Pronounced “speedies,” this sandwich comes courtesy of the Italian immigrants who arrived in the 1920’s and consists of cubes of marinated meat (usually chicken, but also lamb, pork, beef and venison) cooked on a skewer and stuffed into a soft Italian roll. Try this local delicacy out at Spiedie and Rib Pit or Sharkey’s Bar and Grill.
Business Insider ranked Binghamton as the fifth best place to live in the Northeast after the pandemic ends, noting that Binghamton has the fifth-lowest average housing cost out of metro areas in the Northeast, at $802 a month. “Across all US metro areas, the city has the 10th-highest total spending per student in elementary and secondary public schools, where the school district in the metro area with the most students enrolled spends $20,358 per pupil,” the article adds.
Another great reason to move to Binghamton? It’s known as the “carousel capital of the world” to locals, which is pretty freakin’ adorable. Indeed, the city has six antique carousels (out of the remaining 150 antique carousels in the nation) that are just as charming as you would expect. Locals also enjoy cycling and hiking, and the city was ranked 9th best Green City by Better Homes and Gardens.
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