Famous for its place in American art history and a landscape of lush mountains and scenic views, the Catskills are an idyllic and peaceful respite from New York City—just a few hours drive away. The region has captivated artists, creators, and writers for centuries.

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Having spent a lot of my education learning art history, and with a passion for American literature, the Catskills and Hudson River Valley have both always been a bit of a curious destination for me.

And after living in NYC for just a year already, I finally made my way north to explore more of New York state this summer, and again in the late autumn.

Washington Irving set many of his stories, including Rip Van Wrinkle, in the Catskills, and American Romanticism artists formed their own school of art, the Hudson River School, here in the 19th century.

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That kind of creative energy and love for nature has always made the region special, but these days, there’s more than just history in the Catskills and Hudson Valley.

Discover these hidden gems amongst the natural beauty of the region.

4 incredible experiences & things to do in the Catskills & Hudson Valley

1. Learn art history with Thomas Cole

In the early 19th century, the painter and poet Thomas Cole visited and eventually lived in the Catskills. The Catskills and their wild beauty inspired him, and propelled him in the belief that art offers a spiritual opportunity unique to America’s evolving culture.

Worried by the industrial revolution and new railroads impacting America’s wild nature, Thomas Cole and his Hudson River School, sought to immortalize America as a new environmental Eden.

Visit the Thomas Cole National Historic Site for a brief history lesson, but then get out there in the nature and seek out the same waterfalls that inspired these 19th century artists. (The Kaaterskill Falls are especially picturesque.)

2. Taste local brews at craft brewery

True to the region’s legacy as an environmental haven, the
Hudson Valley is popular for farm-fresh foods and hearty-but-healthy options. Recently, that’s moved over into the craft brewing scene thanks to a recent influx of new producers and brewers.

West Kill Brewing launched back in 2015 and owners Michael Barcone and his wife Colleen use their land for everything from hiking and fishing, to brewing. Located at the end of a 5-mile, dead-end road, the small craft brewery brews a series of seasonal beers on their 127-acre farm using fresh water from the Catskill mountains. Stop by their cozy taproom (decked out in true country style with wooden taps) to sample some of their brews before checking out some of the nearby hikes on and around their property.

In Beacon, NY, the Draught Industries craft beer bar sells a lot of local brews.

3. Lose yourself in contemporary art

In a region of New York famous for its creative energy and art history, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the same region is still very much an arts and cultural center.

Storm King Art Center (named after its proximity to the Storm King Mountain) is located in Mountainville, NY in the Catskills region and has one of America’s largest contemporary outdoor sculpture centers. Because it’s an outdoor museum, it’s closed in the winter except for a handful of winter weekends.

However, the other big contemporary art museum in the region (and open year-round) is Dia:Beacon, located in Beacon, NY. The museum houses an impressive collection of large and sculptures and contemporary art in a former factory.

4. Hike through inspirational landscapes

The Catskills region is famously picturesque. Many boutique hotels and spas are located throughout the region, with panoramic views over the Catskill Mountains. But there are also plenty of nature trails open to the public which make hiking or nature walks easy for everyone.

Most of the hikes are in Ulster, Green, and Sullivan counties. The Kaaterskill Falls is a relatively easy hike depending which angle you come from. The bottom of the waterfall is a small swimming hole, while the view from the top of the Kaaterskill Falls is a scenic viewpoint out over the mountains. Check out other hiking paths at the tourist information centers throughout the region, or their official website.

5. Shop local & support small town creators

The Hudson Valley is home to countless small businesses, creators, and artists. Any small town in the Catskills, west of the Hudson River, has its own Main Street with small independent coffee shops, gift shops, antique stores, and general stores.

Hudson Valley & Catskills – Cities & Towns to Visit

  • Phoenicia (Ulster County) — Small town/hamlet (population under 1k) famous for the Phoenicia Diner, a hipster eatery.
  • New Paltz (Ulster County) — Small town (population 15k) with a SUNY university and an open-air farmer’s market every Sunday in the summer.
  • Woodstock (Ulster County) — Small town (population 5k) within the Catskills park famous for giving its name to the legendary Woodstock 1969 festival.
  • Hudson (Columbia County) — Small town (population under 10k) famous for being an artists’ haven with lots of independent designers and creators, as well as many LGBTQ+ friendly spots in town.
  • Poughkeepsie (Dutchess County) — City (population 30k) with many businesses and home to Vassar College and the Culinary Institute, making it an increasingly hip city for young adults and students.
  • Beacon (Dutchess County) — Small town close to NYC and famous for the Dia:Beacon and its arts community, including many transplants from New York City looking for a more affordable but equally hip/cool place to live.

Many of these towns cater to winter holiday visitors in the region for skiing, but in the summer they cater to the hikers and campers. East of the Hudson, the bigger cities in Dutchess County each have their own Main Streets home to their own local businesses. A lot of those local businesses were started by people looking for more affordable homes outside of New York City.

Hudson is one of my favorite towns in the Hudson River Valley because it’s also one of the most famously LGBTQ+ friendly towns in upstate New York.

New York City understandably gets a lot of the attention of visitors to New York State, but the Hudson Valley and Catskills region are so easy to visit from NYC—sometimes even on a day trip.

The history of the Hudson Valley and the Catskills region and the art and stories that have come from there make it a fascinating place for discovery. Whether you’re looking for inspiration, a place to de-stress and escape into nature, or the chance to explore incredible scenery, Hudson Valley and the Catskills are captivating.

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