On a gray morning in early April, the hollowed-out buildings of Buffalo’s Central Terminal slid silently past the narrow window of my Syracuse-bound Amtrak train.
I was en route to cover a small exhibition of American modern art in Syracuse’s I.M. Pei-designed Everson Museum, and my plan was to head out and return while the sun was still in the sky. And the train – a mode of travel that has become all but impractical in this automobile-addicted region – turned out to be the perfect way to do it.
To most Thruway-savvy commuters in Western New York, the idea of stepping aboard a train seems as anachronistic as the rusting Central Terminal itself. We tend to view train travel as a feature of denser, busier cities like Toronto or New York City, or as a quaint luxury for nostalgic old-timers in no big hurry to get anywhere.
But there are at least two instances for which train travel – even in Buffalo, and even in 2013 – remains ideally suited to travelers’ schedules and budgets. These are trips to two culturally flourishing points east: Rochester and Syracuse.
Beyond the Salt City, some 150 miles to the west, train travel becomes one of two prohibitive things: too expensive or too slow. But we happen to live in a sweet spot of cost and speed when it comes to visiting Buffalo’s closest cultural competitors via rail.
My trip to Syracuse wound up being shockingly cost-effective. With a discount available through the New York State tourism website iloveny.com and a AAA discount on top of that, the grand total for a round-trip ticket to the Salt City rang up to a whopping $54. The ilovenewyork.com discount is available to everyone at least through May 31, and will likely be extended.
Short bus rides into and out of the city from Syracuse’s Regional Transportation Center increased that total by a full $4. And in total, for an eight-hour day that included plenty of time to check out the Everson, roam around downtown once the sun broke through the clouds and grab a bite near the Syracuse University campus, I dropped a cool $66.
Which is to say: Training it to Syracuse for a satisfying day-trip is not only doable, but a practically irresistible deal for any curious cultural consumer.
If you extend your trip to just a few hours longer by taking the 6 p.m. train back, you’ll find that Syracuse has much more worthwhile culture, cuisine and fascinating architecture than you can pack into a single dirt-cheap, daylong and fully refreshing mini-vacay.
Here’s one possible itinerary for a train-based trip to Syracuse. (Check Amtrak.com for actual departure times and prices, which vary from weekdays to weekends.):
7:43 a.m.: Depart Buffalo’s Exchange Street Station on the Empire Service train. Depending on the day, the trip ranges from 2 hours and 32 minutes to 2 hours and 47 minutes – roughly the same amount of time as driving. After a pleasant ride along suburban backyards and endless farms and a brief stop in downtown Rochester, you’ll end up at Syracuse’s clean and modern Regional Transportation Center.
If any shoppers tagged along for the ride, you can drop them off next-door to the transportation center at the sprawling shopping complex known as Destiny USA. This consumer dreamland, a kind of Walden Galleria on steroids, does not rank first on my list of reasons to visit Syracuse, but the 29 million annual visitors it receives from around the country will surely disagree.
10:30 a.m.: Take the bus or a cab from the RTC to Armory Square, the cultural heart of downtown Syracuse. At this time of the morning, it’s liable to be a bit sleepy. But check out Freedom of Espresso, a cute local coffee shop just off the square at 144 Walton St. Once you’re properly caffeinated, a stroll around the neighborhood will reveal plenty of cultural activity. There’s the kid-friendly Museum of Science and Technology (closed Mondays and Tuesdays and open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday) and the edgy Red House Arts Center, where you can catch art exhibitions and performances. Around the corner is Syracuse University’s Warehouse Gallery (350 W. Fayette St.), where you can typically catch a highbrow art installation.
Before you leave Armory Square, make sure to check out Sound Garden (310 W. Jefferson St.), the city’s coolest record shop. Every inch of its walls is plastered with the requisite poster art, and the store boasts an impressive selection of new and used vinyl along with a colorful staff that wouldn’t seem out of place in Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity.”
Noon: Make your way either by foot or cab to the Everson Museum of Art (401 Harrison St.), a little less than a mile away from Armory Square. The museum, a hulking, otherworldly cube of a building designed by I.M. Pei that seems from both inside and out to be hewn from a single block of stone, opens at noon most days and is closed on Mondays. Right now, “American Moderns, 1910 to 1960: From O’Keeffe to Rockwell” is the show to see, through next Sunday. Next up is “An American Look: Fashion, Decorative Arts and Gustav Stickley,” from June 15 to Sept. 22.
2 p.m.: By this point, expending your mental energies on the Everson’s fine collection will probably have you famished. You can either head back to Armory Square, where dining options abound (two perennial favorites are Pastabilities, 311 S. Franklin St.; and Lemon Grass Restaurant, 238 W. Jefferson St.). But if you’re willing to take a pleasant milelong walk, you’ll come across the city’s famous Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (246 W. Willow St.), a place where the bite and sizzle of the food matches the wonderfully sassy attitude of the servers.
After lunch, head a few short blocks to 300 W. Erie Blvd., where the stunning art deco Niagara Mohawk Building, built in 1931, towers over the street.
3 p.m.: If you’re digging the vibe of Syracuse at this point – and it’s tough to see why anyone wouldn’t be – you can take a bus up to the lovely Syracuse University campus, where activities abound. Or you could just as easily head back to the RTC to catch the 3:53 Amtrak back home, as I did. (The next train usually heads back at 6:48 p.m.) Either way, it’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ve gotten your money’s worth.