Blake Walsh

15 Free Things to Do in Albany, NY

  • Published 2022/11/14

Albany, best known as the capital of the State of New York, is also the largest city and county seat of Albany County, situated about 150 miles north of New York City.

Albany evolved over the course of the last four centuries from a small Dutch colony into the state’s capital in the center of a booming tech industry.

Albany was designated as New York’s capital in 1797, several years after the foundation of the United States.

Enjoy the city’s rich history with world-class art exhibits, historic buildings, and interesting architecture.

Learn about downtown Albany’s vibrant culture, and explore beyond the city to find picturesque views, exhilarating outdoor adventures, and more!

Experience the city with these free things to do in Albany, New York:

Wander around the Empire State Plaza

Scenic view of Empire State Plaza

Sean Pavone /

The Empire State Plaza, also known as the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza, is one of the most beautiful capital centers in the nation, composed of various state government buildings in Albany’s downtown district.

The plaza was built in line with Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller’s vision and determination to build “the most electrifying capital in the world.”

Adjacent to the New York State Capitol, the Plaza’s construction started in 1965 and finished in 1978.

Scenic view of Empire State Plaza

Sean Pavone /

Since it was completed, the Empire State Plaza has developed into a popular tourist destination, drawing thousands of visitors every year.

The Empire State Plaza features a variety of steel and reinforced concrete buildings in abstract and geometrical forms covered in imported stone, except The Egg, which reveals its entire concrete structure; Wallace Harrison was the entire project’s supervising architect.

Some structures that make up the Plaza include The Egg (a performing arts theater), the Erastus Corning Tower (the tallest building in the State outside of New York City), the Cultural Education Center (houses the State Archives, State Museum, and State Library), and at least 15 memorials.

Scenic view of Empire State Plaza

Alizada Studios /

Learn History at the New York State Museum

Front view of New York State Museum

debra millet /

The New York State Museum is the state’s center of the arts, sciences, and humanities devoted to studying natural and human history.

Founded in 1836 and run by the New York State Education Department’s Office of Cultural Education, it’s the nation’s biggest and oldest state museum.

Since it opened, some of the top researchers in the country have called the museum home, including the pioneers of American botany, ethnology, mycology, and paleontology.

The museum’s collections are among the best in several fields, which include over 16 million scientific specimens and a million cultural artifacts.

Front view of New York State Museum

Ritu Manoj Jethani /

Previously housed in the State Education Building, the museum is now located in the 10-story Cultural Education Center, a 1.5 million-square-foot building that also houses the New York State Library and New York State Archives.

The museum is located on the first four floors of the center, and its 100,000-square-foot gallery space hosts several new exhibits every year in addition to its permanent exhibits.

The popular exhibits you can see here are the Adirondack Wilderness, Beneath the City, Birds of New York, Native Peoples of New York, Minerals of New York, Black Capital: Harlem in the 1920s, and The World Trade Center: Rescue, Recovery, Response.

The New York State Museum is open to the public for free and welcomes thousands of students and visitors from all over the world every year.

Front view of New York State Museum

Big Joe /

Tour Inside the New York State Capitol

Front view of New York State Capitol

Sean Pavone /

The New York State Capitol has stood as New York’s seat of government since the 1880s.

Five architects hand-built the solid stone of the Capitol over the course of 32 years, resulting in the 19th-century structural masterpiece.

In 1971, the Capitol was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1979 was given the status of a National Historic Landmark.

Front view of New York State Capitol

Sean Pavone /

Located on State Street and Washington Avenue, the Capitol offers guided tours several times a day during weekdays, starting at the Capitol Information Desk or at the Empire State Plaza (Concourse Level) Visitor Center.

Tours last 45 minutes, highlighting the Hall of Governors, Hall of New York, Governor’s Reception Room, legislative chambers, carvings, and historic staircases.

A special tour, called the Hauntings Tour, is available in October, where you’ll see carvings of a “demon” by an alleged enraged stoneworker.

You’ll also hear chilling stories about the night watchman Samuel Abbott who died in the 1911 fire and whose spirit is believed to roam and haunt the capitol halls and grounds.

Front view of New York State Capitol

Sean Pavone /

Hang Out at Washington Park

View of Washington Park

Raymond B. Summers /

Washington Park on Quackenbush Square is Albany’s most popular park and the site of many concerts, festivals, and special events.

Although the 81-acre park was built in the 1870s, it has been used for various purposes since the city was established in 1686, such as a cemetery, a square, parade grounds, and gunpowder storage.

Because of the architectural and historical importance of Washington Park and its surrounding neighborhood, both were added to the Washington Park Historic District in 1972 and were included in the American Association of Architects’ 100 most important parks.

View of Washington Park

Ritu Manoj Jethani /

Visitors frequently engage in games like badminton, basketball, bocce, tennis, and volleyball in the park’s open spaces, and even ice skating on Washington Park Lake.

Since 1949, Washington Park has hosted the annual Tulip Festival, highlighted by the blooming of 200,000 tulips across the park.

This must-see springtime celebration is a beautiful way to honor the city’s strong Dutch heritage and the season’s vibrant colors.

Explore the Outdoors at Albany Pine Bush Preserve

Scenic view of Albany Pine Bush Preserve

William Jaeger /

The Albany Pine Bush Preserve, famous for its gently sloping sand dunes, is home to a diversity of rare flora and fauna, including one of the best remaining pitch pine-scrub oak barrens on the planet and the nearly extinct Karner blue butterfly.

This 3,350-acre preserve, nestled between the magnificent Adirondack and the Catskill Mountains, provides visitors of all ages with an experience rich in ecological, geological, and cultural history.

The Discovery Center is the best place to start when visiting the area.

Scenic view of Albany Pine Bush Preserve

fandangle /

Learn about the preserve through its interactive displays or speak with its staff to get the most recent information on trail closures, conditions, and maps.

You can explore the area in many ways—on foot, on a bike, with a dog, or more!

From hunting to snowshoeing to hiking and mountain biking, the preserve provides a wide range of recreational options, with its more than 20 miles of trails.

Albany Pine Bush Preserve is a fantastic place to explore the outdoors any time of the year.

Scenic view of Albany Pine Bush Preserve

William Jaeger /

Enjoy Views of the Hudson River from Corning Preserve

Corning Preserve is a park next to the Hudson River that features an amphitheater, a boat launch, and hiking/biking trails.

Jennings Landing, a portion of Corning Preserve, is home to the amphitheater, which can accommodate about 1000 people and hosts events from spring to fall.

The amphitheater features big talents during the yearly summer concert series “Alive at Five,” the Water Music New York concert, and the Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival.

Located farther is a public boat launch, home to the City of Albany Boat Shed and the Albany Rowing Center.

Set out and take in Albany’s diverse waterfront scene on foot, on a bicycle, or on a kayak!

Corning Preserve is thestarting point of the paved and pet-friendly Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trai, which includes a playground for children and numerous spots ideal for picnic stops.

Stroll around Lark Street

Lark Street is commonly referred to as Albany’s “Greenwich Village,” so if you’re planning a trip to the city, you shouldn’t miss this hip and lively district.

Lark Street, which is close to Albany’s business center, combines residential and commercial properties similar to Manhattan’s famous and vibrant districts.

Brownstones from the 19th century line the streets, many of which are occupied by long-term commercial tenants, giving the area a retro vibe.

You can also shop for various items here, such as antiques, jewelry, contemporary art, books, flowers, and wines.

The fact that many storefronts are hidden inside basement-level shops adds to their charm.

Lark Street is the venue of some of Albany’s major yearly events, including Art on Lark, which takes place in the summer and showcases local artists.

It also hosts Larkfest, one of the most awaited festivals of the year, which usually attracts approximately 50,000 people.

Go Biking at the Albany County Helderberg-Hudson Rail Trail

The Albany County Helderberg-Hudson Rail Trail (ACHHRT) on S Pearl Street is a local treasure that offers wonderful recreation options, physical activity, zero-carbon transportation, and breathtaking outdoor views.

The trail connects the areas of Albany, Bethlehem, Voorheesville, and New Scotland.

The 9.8-mile rail trail is a shared-use track that allows for non-motorized transportation.

The Albany County Helderberg-Hudson Rail Trail is directly connected to the South End Bikeway, which links to the Mohawk-Hudson Bike-Hike Trail and Downtown Albany.

The Albany County government is in charge of managing and maintaining the rail trail.

Spend an Afternoon at Lincoln Park

The grounds of Lincoln Park

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Lincoln Park is a significant historic park that covers 68 acres of greenery and recreation facilities in downtown Albany.

The park serves as the main outdoor recreation space for Albany, originally master-planned by Charles Downing Lay, a landscape architect, in 1914.

Lincoln Park has a distinct past, from being the location of a fight between the Mohawks and the Dutch in 1626, to being the first public playground in the city.

The park includes the only non-wading outdoor swimming pool in Albany, as well as several tennis and basketball courts, ball fields, playgrounds, and a youth fitness center; during winter, visitors can enjoy sledding down hills.

Aerial view of Lincoln Park

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Located in the park are the elementary school Thomas O’Brien Academy of Science and Technology (TOAST) and the James Hall Office, which is a National Historic Landmark.

Lincoln Park houses a full calendar of sports, exercise, and play programs, making it a thriving active recreation center.

The park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2018.

Have a Picnic near Buckingham Lake

Buckingham Lake, also known as Buckingham Pond, is next to Buckingham Lake Park, a recreation park near a residential area in Albany, equipped with a playground and picnic tables.

The lake spans 5 acres with an average depth of three feet.

In the summer, three fountains aerate the lake; in the winter, ice skating is popular on the lake’s frozen surface.

Some wildlife you’ll find around the lake are the Great Blue Heron, Red-winged Blackbirds, Canada geese, and Bald Eagles.

Visitors to Buckingham Lake and Buckingham Lake Park can enjoy numerous free activities all throughout the year, including biking, running, walking, fishing, wildlife viewing, and picnicking.

Discover New Culture at the Shaker Heritage Society

The Shaker Heritage Society, a non-profit organization stationed on the site of the First Shaker Settlement in America, provides educational programs on the Shakers, their spirit of innovation, and their impact on American culture.

In the past, the Shakers separated the area into four “families” that were distinct geographically and economically.

The Society’s main attraction is the fourth group, the “Church Family,” which is open to the public and includes nine historic buildings, the remnants of a gristmill, and a significant Shaker cemetery where Ann Lee, Shaker founder, is buried.

Start with a visit to the museum, take a self-guided tour of the premises (the Shaker buildings, a barnyard, a heritage herb garden, walking trails of the Ann Lee Pond Nature Preserve, and the Shaker Cemetery), and end with a trip to the gift shop!

Visitors can also enjoy craft fairs, picnics, and concerts or even unwind and take in the ambiance of the beautiful setting.

Aside from entertaining activities for children and adults, the Shaker Heritage Society also offers a stunning barn wedding location in Albany.

The Shaker Heritage Society is close to the Albany International Airport, making it a must-visit after you arrive or before you depart the city.

Drop by Crossgates Mall

Crossgates Mall, the top shopping destination in the Capital Region, is a must-visit if you enjoy exploring city malls.

It’s the third-largest indoor shopping mall in New York State and the largest in the Capital District.

Opened in 1984, Crossgates Mall was constructed near the Albany Pine Bush, one of the 20 largest inland pine barrens in the world.

The mall underwent an expansion in 1994 that more than doubled its size to about 1.7 million square feet and added room for up to 250 retailers.

Anchor stores at Crossgates Mall include Burlington, Best Buy, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Forever 21, JCPenney, Macy’s, and Primark.

Admire the Albany City Hall

The Albany City Hall is the prime center of Albany’s local government.

Renowned architect Henry Hobson Richardson designed the building.

It was completed in 1883 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

Critics have praised Albany City Hall as one of the country’s most stunning structures.

It’s built with Rhode Island granite and features many arches, a pyramid-shaped roof tower, and a 49-bell carillon, the country’s first municipal carillon.

The structure is regarded among Richardson’s most Romanesque creations and includes many distinctive design elements, such as beautifully patterned brickwork, extravagant flower carvings, and ornate gargoyles and finials.

Everyone is invited to visit Albany’s City Hall and get a sense of the city’s distinctive culture.

Watch an Outdoor Performance at Park Playhouse

Park Playhouse, together with the Playhouse Stage Company, is proud to serve the Capital of New York with free summer theater shows, low-cost performances all year long, and the largest and most active pre-professional arts program for children in the region.

Park Playhouse, founded in 1989, started producing free outdoor musicals and plays in Washington Park, making theater an accessible art form for people from all walks of life.

After only a few years, Park Playhouse drew large crowds, so the City of Albany built an amphitheater that could hold 1,500 spectators on the hillside close to the park’s Lake House stage.

The Park Playhouse II Youth Theatre Training Program was established in 1995 to assist in the growth of the community’s young theater artists.

In 2019, the company changed its name to Playhouse Stage Company, a driving force behind the cultural revitalization of the Capital Region of New York and the growth of the local economy.

Join a Program at the African American Cultural Center of the Capital Region, Inc.

The African American Cultural Center of the Capital Region, Inc. (AACCR) is a non-profit group and community center open to the general public, offering enrichment programs, art exhibits, and outdoor green space.

The AACCR raises public awareness of African Americans’ rich and dynamic culture, history, and contributions through innovative programs, activities, and exhibits in the performing, visual, and literary arts.

The African American Cultural Center of the Capital Region was established in 2012 to promote community involvement and development.

The Center, owned, built, and managed by African Americans, strives to improve the standard of living for African Americans and other people of the Capital Region.

Both adults and children can enroll in AACCR’s free educational programs.

Final Thoughts

New York State’s capital, Albany, can sometimes be overshadowed by the bigger New York City.

Nevertheless, it’s a top tourist destination and a stunning place to explore with family and friends.

With so much to see and do here, which can be overwhelming, this list of the best things to do in Albany, New York, effectively sums up all the attractions you shouldn’t miss on your trip!

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