A Postcard from Utica

Growing up, I couldn’t wait to leave the Mohawk Valley and venture down south.  As soon as I graduated from college, I left, without a thought to my home state. I tried the southern thing for awhile and then realized that I actually really did miss NY.  I missed family, friends, the seasons and the pizza.   So I packed up and moved back to the Mohawk Valley – to Utica.

Utica is a small (appx. 60,000 residents) redeveloping city .  Part of that redevelopment can be attributed to the younger generations, who moved away after college (like myself), but have returned to put their stamp on the city. Aside from the Gen X/Millennial movement, we are also home to many cultures. Known as “the city that loves refugees”, Utica has welcomed people from all over the world.  Refugees and immigrants make up a quarter of Utica’s population and speak over 40 different languages. Because we have such a diverse population, we also have an increase in new businesses, restaurants and festivals in the area.  Since I teach English in the Utica City School District, I get to work with amazing students from all over the world.  They have such important stories to tell if we just take the time to listen.  It is one of the many reasons I love this city.

Since I moved back to Utica in 2011, there have been many changes, mostly for the better.  Utica has seemed to catch up to the times and become a more modern city.

In order to get the full urban feel, two of my friends and I decided to tour the city on bike.

The city recently instituted a bike-share program called Zagster.  You borrow, pay and return the bike through an app on your phone.  It was super user-friendly!

We biked the scenic parkway, stopping to take pictures along the way.

This is our local zoo.  It is small, but it is a staple of the city.  The zoo is always providing entertainment for the community, as you can see by the sign.

Our little city really is close-knit community.  As we biked the parkway, we came across former students, working on cleaning up the city through a youth work program.  They came running up to us to say hi.  One of many reasons why I love living here.

So our first stop in our Utica adventure was a new café we were dying to try. The Local Farm to Table brings the surrounding agriculture from nearby communities into our little city.  The owners turned this old library into a cute café where all the food is made with local and fresh ingredients.

After our morning brunch, we headed over to Franklin Square, a newly developed neighborhood.  In the summer months, the Franklin Square Alley hosts outdoor movies, morning yoga sessions and festivals.

Franklin Square has this amazing new café/bakery called Bite (they have the most delicious grilled cheese and tomato basil soup).

Side note: Utica has a summer passport modeled after the original Nintendo!  I know-super cool!  It is essentially a book of coupons to local area restaurants and venues.  After you get all the pages stamped, you can get a free meal at Mello subs, a tiny old-school sub shop.  It is an amazing feature for our little city.

In this picture you can see the passport behind our huge blueberry pastry. It was a BOGO deal!

After stuffing ourselves, we hit the road in an attempt to bike off some calories.  Our next stop: Baggs Square.  This is also an up-and-coming neighborhood.  In the past few years, this area has transformed old vacant buildings into beautiful, luxurious lofts and new trendy businesses.

Utica Roasting has amazing coffee (cannoli is the best).  You can find their coffee at most cafes and stores within the city.

Next to this coffee shop is Tailor and the Cook, a fine dining farm to table restaurant, and Utica Bread.  If you haven’t been, you must stop here!

While we didn’t bike to all parts of the city, there are a few more important highlights of Utica that need mention.

Operating for over 128 years, Saranac Brewery is a significant part of Utica’s past and present.  It is a family owned business that hosts some of the biggest community events including Saranac Thursdays, an outdoor festival, and the Boilermaker (a distinguished 15k race) after party.

Utica is also home to the elegant Stanley Theater, which hosts many Broadway shows and events throughout the year.  It is one of the most spectacular theaters I have ever been to, and I am an avid theater goer.

Food!  There is so much I can say about the food.  Utica is third in the state for food.  We are known for our chicken riggies, tomato pie, greens and half-moon cookies.  You can find these at all Italian restaurants in our area.  Due to our melting pot of cultures, we also have some amazing Greek, Asian, Hispanic, Italian, Indian and European restaurants.

Here are some recommendations:

The Acropolis, Sunnys, Pho Mekong, El Barajo, Old School, Trattoria Calabria, The Phoenician, Minar, Café Hummus, Emmie’s Global Cuisine just to name a few.

When visiting Utica, you will NOT be disappointed with the food.  It is authentic!  TIP: One thing I would not try would be the Mexican.  We really don’t have good Mexican food in Utica, but other than that, the food is outstanding! Excuse my little diatribe about food (shocking, I know!)

Back to the bike ride!

After leaving Baggs Square, we headed over to Aqua Vino in North Utica.  Zagster has a bike-share station there, so we dropped the bikes off.  Aqua Vino is a fine dining restaurant owned by Rob Esche, a professional hockey player that is also President of the Utica Comets.  The restaurant sits along the Erie Canal, so you can get that waterfront feel.  You know-the feeling that makes you feel like you are on vacation.

Overall, there is much to do in Utica, and the city just keeps expanding.  It is such a vibrant city with so much diversity and culture.  Sitting between bigger cities like Syracuse and Albany, it often gets passed by.

But if you stop by, you will be amazed by what you find.