Blessed with stunning scenery, drenched in history, and providing shopping opportunities from antiques to handicrafts, Columbia County has a lot to offer visitors. Besides the obvious points of interest (Olana, Clermont, Lindenwald, Hudson’s Warren Street), lesser-known attractions are also worth your time.
David Colby, the outgoing head of the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce, offered his insights. This is no means a definitive list, merely a dive into some of what Columbia County has to offer.
Let’s start with the above-mentioned historical heavy-hitters. Olana, the majestic Greenport home of the Hudson River School painter Frederic Church (1826-1900), is a state historical site showcasing the artist’s Middle Eastern-inspired home and the designed landscape Church carved out of a rugged hilltop as part of his grand artistic vision. The house tour shows off several of his landscape paintings adorning the walls. His studio gives a glimpse into the atmosphere in which this famous painter worked. Tons of trails offer gorgeous views of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains.
Clermont, the home of the Livingston family, is a state historical site in the southern end of the county that shouldn’t be missed. Robert R. Livingston (1746-1813), the home’s most famous resident, was on the committee that helped draft the Declaration of Independence. He administered the oath of office to George Washington, and helped make steamboats viable through his work with Robert Fulton. Like Olana, Clermont offers trails through which to explore woods and riverfront.
Lindenwald, the home of eighth U.S. president Martin Van Buren (1782-1862), is a national historic site located near Kinderhook, in the county’s northern end. The 36-room mansion and grounds give visitors a taste of the early 19th century.
Hudson has consistently been included in a number of magazine lists of the coolest small towns in America (even though technically, it’s a small city), thanks in part to the well-preserved buildings from a variety of periods. Walking down the city’s main drag, Warren Street, is like flipping through a living architectural encyclopedia. There’s the bonus of shopping for antiques and art, and the lure of a variety of eateries that offer farm-to-table fare, including Grazin’ Diner, the first animal-welfare-certified restaurant in the world (read: the cow that went into your burger had a good, healthy life.)
“A lot of people are coming to the county from places that don’t have cool, intact downtowns. We have Hudson, Chatham, Germantown and Valatie,” said Colby. “They all have great little downtowns that are historic, picturesque, and have a lot of shopping opportunities.”
Many Columbia County towns indeed have downtowns that Disney’s Main Street USA only wished it could compete with, unlike numberless communities across the country where 1960s “urban revitalization” meant bulldozing any building over 20 years old. In some cases the same can be said for many historic structures. Not so in Columbia County.
“What draws lots and lots of people here are the historical sites: Clermont, Olana and the Martin Van Buren home. They each have their own very unique story,” says Colby. “There are other things that are off the beaten path. We find people really enjoy the Fireman’s Museum. It’s just fantastic. I think it’s one of the gems of Columbia County.”
The Firemen’s Association of the State of New York’s Museum of Firefighting, located in Hudson, has an amazing collection of antique equipment — including beautiful fire engines — photographs and fine art related to the fire service. Colby calls it a “very cool, unique spot” and was surprised to learn that it averages just 8000 visitors a year, considering what a great , kid-friendly museum it is.
Another sometimes overlooked historic site is Steepletop, the Austerlitz home of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), where you can peek into the life of this famous writer (the house still looks pretty much how she left it when she died) and tour the gardens that helped inspire her work.
Colby also highlighted some of the many scenic spots across the county, from the Hudson Waterfront Park, where you can have a leisurely picnic and watch boats float down the river, to Bash Bish Falls, a state park straddling New York and Massachusetts, with its scenic beauty and breathtaking views, to the Greenport Conservation Area, a great place to enjoy nature without a lot of strenuous hiking.
“There are a lot of those opportunities throughout the county,” said Colby. “I’m seeing more and more people coming to do that. It’s kind of unique because you can do the downtown thing but can also connect with nature. You can see an amazing show at Club Helsinki in Hudson and are still only five minutes away from beautiful and scenic nature spots.”
Ann Cooper, tourism administrator for Columbia County, directed me to the county’s tourism website. There’s also a free app that you can download to your smartphone from iTunes or Google Play that provides information on what to see and do, accommodations, restaurants, and a calendar of events.