I have a weird fascination with visiting state capitals, so when I found myself working in Albany for several weeks, I knew I needed to visit the New York state capitol building. When a previous business trip took me to the Albany area a couple of years ago, I wandered around the building, but since I hadn’t done any research, I was unaware that regular people like me could explore inside the capitol building. In fact, guided tours of the New York Capitol are available daily, and visitors are free to explore the building on their own. And a bonus for business travelers who are busy during the day: it’s open until 7 pm on weekdays.
The New York Capitol is a beautiful historic building with a very European feel, plus a little touch of Hogwarts.
The Empire State Plaza
The Empire State Plaza in front of the capitol is a mixture of quirky, yet fascinating buildings. Most notable is The Egg, a performing arts venue shaped like an egg/flying saucer hybrid. I don’t quite get it, but it’s cool to look at.
During my previous (warm-weather) visit, the plaza was filled with a pretty pool and fountains. There was also a family of ducklings wandering around. In winter, however, the pool was drained and had been replaced by a small skating rink. It wasn’t crowded on that particular Wednesday evening, but there were a couple families with young children who looked like they were having a blast out there. Skate rental was offered nearby, and they also had little plastic stabilizers that kids could hold onto for balance.
Also in the plaza, is the Corning Tower. It has an observation deck at the top with limited hours during the day. I thought about going over on my lunch break one day, but I decided that the bleak winter landscape wouldn’t be that pretty from above.
I was a little hesitant walking into the capitol building even though I’d read that visitors were welcome. There wasn’t any info about which entrance to go through on the website and there were no signs marking a visitor entrance anywhere. I’m not really one to just walk up to government buildings like that and try the doors.
Touring the New York State Capitol
Once I was inside, there was a sign directing me to a visitor security entrance and the guards were very friendly. I had to put my bag through an x-ray scanner and walk through a metal detector, but the whole process was pretty easy. One of the guards commented on my camera and when I told him that I was testing it out because it was new, he assured me that I was in the prettiest building he’d ever seen and I couldn’t help but get great pictures.
There are free guided tours offered periodically throughout the day, but none were available in the evening. The guards at the entrance had given me a brochure and map with highlights pointed out. I was pretty much free to roam the building, except that the guards requested that I not wander into people’s offices. It seemed like a reasonable request.
The famous staircases of the New York State Capitol
The self-guided tour brochure didn’t really have a set order to visit things in, so I decided to head toward the southeastern end of the building to see the Senate and Assembly staircases. Each was done in a different style, but both were gorgeous. They both paled in comparison to the main staircase on the other end of the building though.
The Great Western staircase was the last major highlight that I saw on my visit. It’s stunning. The ornately carved, pinkish stone is lit by chandeliers and other pretty light fixtures. Landings in the middle of each level spin off to each side, giving it a winding feeling that reminded me of Hogwarts. I wanted to just sit down on one of the steps and take in the view, but I thought that would look a little weird.
The Governor’s Reception Room
The other must-see part of the building is the governor’s reception room. It has a small domed ceiling covered with elaborate murals depicting different wars (the most recent is WWI) and famous New Yorkers. I had the whole room to myself, so I was able to wander around and enjoy the artwork at my leisure. According to the building information, the floor of the room was supposed to be removed to create a dramatic two-story domed rotunda, but the Great Depression happened and plans were halted.
The reception room led to the Hall of Governors, which features portraits of every New York governor. I wandered the whole length of the hall skimming the information about each one, but I probably would’ve found it more interesting if I was a New Yorker myself.
The House and Senate Galleries
The Senate and House galleries appear to be accessible during certain times only. They were marked on my tour map, but were closed off while I was there. I would imagine that they’re open to viewers while the legislative bodies are in session. The House chamber has windows, so I got a peek in there, but was unable to see the Senate.
I was able to walk through the Senate waiting room. It was dim and dark in there, and I quadruple checked my map to make sure it was somewhere I was allowed to wander through and I wasn’t about to be tackled by security. I’m not sure if the mood lighting was just because it was deserted in the evening or if the room always has that feel, but it was very dark. Low-hanging chandeliers reflected off of the floor and there were high-backed benches and uncomfortable-looking chairs everywhere. It gave the room a very foreboding feeling.
I concluded my tour with a quick visit to the Dunkin’ Donuts (of course the New York capitol has one inside) where the lady behind the counter was nice enough to make me hot chocolate even though she’d already shut the machine down for the evening.
I had about 20 minutes to kill before the hotel shuttle came back for me, so I wandered back through the Empire State Plaza to get some nighttime pictures of the buildings. It did not disappoint.
All in all, I spent about an hour and a half walking around the plaza and the capitol. I wouldn’t consider visiting the capitol a day trip, or even half of a day, but it’s a very interesting way to kill a couple hours. Taking one of the guided tours would definitely enhance the experience so you could get some of the history and anecdotes that you can’t pick up from just wandering through on your own.
Have you ever visited any state or national capitol buildings? Which was your favorite?
Read more about my Albany area adventures here:
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