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Sandwiched between the gentility of the Upper Hudson River Valley and the wilds of the Adirondack Mountains are two upstate towns at polar opposites. The oft-maligned capital city of the Empire State, Albany is an everyman's working city, home to lobbyists, bickering state legislators, and banking and insurance industry workers. Just a half-hour but worlds away, charming Saratoga Springs is all about leisure: Its relaxed pace and cultural refinement override such prosaic matters as work.

Virtually equidistant from New York City, Boston, and Montreal, Albany is ideally placed for a state capital -- if you don't mind often severe winters. On the banks of the Upper Hudson, Albany, now 350 years old, lays claim to being the oldest chartered city in the United States. The original Dutch settlement Beverwyck is today a city dominated by government business, one much more accustomed to lobbyists than tourists, but it can claim a surprisingly full slate of cultural and architectural offerings sufficient to entertain anyone visiting without an official government or business agenda.

Saratoga Springs, a graceful and historic resort town just north of the state capital, has become one of the state's most popular vacation destinations. The site of the tide-turning 1777 Battle of Saratoga, by the mid-19th century Saratoga had earned the moniker "Queen of the Spas." It is still renowned for its therapeutic mineral springs, as well as its expansive urban parks and a beautiful downtown dominated by Victorian architecture. Saratoga Springs especially thrives in warm months, when its elegant Race Course hosts one of the nation's most prestigious thoroughbred-racing seasons and the city simmers with a rich platter of cultural events, including prestigious ballet and music companies in residence.