SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Walking on the main street here, you could easily say, "Cute place, but I've seen it all before" — possibly as near to home as super-civilized Chestnut Hill.
But a closer look at this longtime summer home of Philadelphia Orchestra — where it has an Aug. 2-19 residency at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center — reveal that's all wrong.
Any Philadelphians thinking about visiting Saratoga Springs during the orchestra's residency need to know that loving Saratoga means embracing the quirks, so we've created this guide to give you a sense of what's in store for you if you take a road trip up. You don't have to become a fan of local rock groups such as Betsy and the ByeGons (which plays at fairs and car shows), for instance, but it sure might be fun.
Once beyond the outdoor seating at the Circus Cafe (392 Broadway) in the heart of downtown, visitors may not be sure whether this restaurant is a gypsy caravan or a stage for some show where you are the accidental star. Even the food feels theatrical. Instead of being served the usual crackers in cellophane, you get a plate of popcorn.
This Victorian-era resort town was built on a rather different foundation from any place east of the Mississippi — underground rock fissures that cause naturally carbonated springs have been a significant attraction for out-of-town spa seekers ever since the 1832 arrival of the railroads. Then came Saratoga Race Course thoroughbred horse racing in 1864. But decades of shifting gambling regulations and declining mineral water springs, threatening the health spas, left Saratoga needing a third economic leg to stand on.
The 1966 opening of SPAC, known as one of the more congenial semioutdoor venues in the Northeast, was exactly that. The Philadelphia Orchestra was a mainstay from the beginning, thanks to then-music director Eugene Ormandy, who stepped in after the closer-by New York Philharmonic opted out of a residency. Now, the orchestra is the grand finale in a high-tone culture scene that includes not just the New York City Ballet but the increasingly talked-about Opera Saratoga, just a lawn or two away at the Spa Little Theater.
The three Saratogas may seem like different worlds superimposed over one another, except when they graciously overlap. The Roosevelt Spa; the posh Gideon Putnam Hotel (39 Roosevelt Drive Extension), where accommodations are about $300 a night (the Downtowner Motel will run you about $200 a night); and much neo-classic architecture are all in the same 2,300-acre Saratoga Spa State Park (19 Roosevelt Drive) as the performing arts center.
The horse track, largely unchanged for decades — with fire trucks semipermanently parked there should the aging wooden structures start to smolder — draws its share of Philadelphia Orchestra patrons for the Backstretch Tour, as well as ad hoc versions of that. Starting around 7 a.m. every day in season except Aug. 26, you can show up at the track, partake of a buffet breakfast and go on the official tour on golf carts. Or don't do any of that stuff and commune with the horses either at close range or from afar with your own coffee and sweet rolls. Parking is $10, but if you're out by 10 a.m., your money is refunded.
Even with such subsidiary pleasures factored in — fine dining, farmers' markets, etc. — the question of value has to be addressed, considering the 266-mile distance from Philadelphia to Saratoga Springs. The orchestra programs are often repeats or variations on programs already heard at the Kimmel Center. SPAC's natural amphitheater creates acoustics that offer an artistic experience nearly comparable to Verizon Hall. However, the years when adventurous guest conductor Dennis Russell Davies presented one act of a Wagner opera juxtaposed against one act of a Philip Glass opera are long over. The current agenda is middle-weight. This season, if you're going to head up, I say target Aug. 19's A Night at the Opera program with music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting three of the Metropolitan Opera's more glamorous stars: Susanna Phillips, Isabel Leonard, and Matthew Polenzani.
The drive up takes a little over four hours, but you can also get there sans car. Amtrak fares run $72 to $241, mostly requiring a change of trains in New York City. Too much of a pain? Greyhound is between $56 and $82. Both take six hours or more, and the stations are about a mile out of town. Ride shares — Uber and Lyft — are available to get you into town and out to concerts. So car-free is doable, though driving makes the most sense, especially considering the optional stops, like the Bard SummerScape at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., which runs through Aug. 20 with a Chopin-centric season. Other great ideas include New Paltz, N.Y., a college town with such a late-1960s counterculture atmosphere you could almost believe Jimi Hendrix is not dead. Kingston, N.Y. is so close to the New York State Thruway you can easily make an hour pit stop to check out the historic buildings and churches dating to when it was the capital of New York State.
Sometimes, though, what actually makes a trip worthwhile is what I call "the haunts." In Saratoga, that would be the Lyrical Ballad Bookstore (7 Phila St.), which has devoted a good deal of its front window to Franz Schubert. The minute you walk in, you catch that smell of vintage paper. Farther back in the store are room after endless room of books, eight in all, with something like 90,000 volumes. When I emerged — glassy eyed and full of questions — the clerk, who was apparently used to seeing people looking like that, was trying to close for the day and just handed me a brochure. I should've hidden in the back and been locked in all night.