I love New York. Not just New York City, but the state of New York. I’ve spent my whole life here. Born and raised in a log home that my family built on the Hudson Valley. Then went to college at a SUNY school on the shores of Lake Ontario. And had the privilege of moving to New York City for grad school. All while enjoying tourism around New York State since I was a kid. From family road trips to Niagara Falls and to glamping in the Adirondacks. So before we get into the debate of “What is Upstate New York?” I want you to rest assured that I know and cherish New York.
BTW – Our editor (Gerry) is also a New Yorker. Born and raised in New York City, has lived/traveled through upstate New York, and even rocks the 315 area code. So we have a lot of love for our beautiful state! Check out some of our New York State Travel Guides:
- Lovely Lakes in Upstate New York to Visit
- Magnificent New York State Parks to Add to Your Bucketlist
- Most Charming Small Towns in Upstate New York + Hidden Gems
- 30+ Breathtaking Waterfalls of New York State
An Introduction to the Debate: What is Upstate New York?
If you’re from New York City and you haven’t had the privilege to travel north of the Bronx, then maybe everything in and above Westchester is “Upstate New York” for you. But if you’re from a small village in the Hudson Valley, then maybe you feel that everything north of the Capital District is “Upstate New York”. And if you’re from Lake George, then perhaps you either feel like you’re from Upstate New York or you want nothing to do with the label. New Yorkers can’t agree on one definition and the topic can get contentious among some folks.
If you’re not a New Yorker, transplant, or native-born, then chill and laugh at this absurd debate.
Is there an Official Definition of ‘Upstate New York’?
Most official dictionaries will define the term “Upstate” as the northern part or sections of a state. Therefore it literally means what is north of you. And what is north of you is relative to where you are standing.
How Are New York State Map Areas Officially Get Categorized?
The New York state government actually doesn’t have one consistent regional map. The Empire State Development, a department focused on businesses and entrepreneurs has the map seen above (click to expand it). The Department of Environmental Conservation categorizes New York’s areas into nine regions while dividing the Adirondacks into two parts (eastern and western). The Office of New York State Comptroller also uses a different map (see above).
So what is the “official” categorization of New York State regions? It remains unclear. And if you’re wondering where is Upstate New York in these maps? Well if we go with any one of the maps by NY state departments, then Upstate New York doesn’t even exist.
Official New York State Counties
New York state is officially divided into 62 counties. But the counties aren’t even useful in this debate. If anything, they further the divide. Because often, New Yorkers can be a bit elitist about things like what a county “signifies” in terms of background, socio-economic status, political affiliation, etc. For example, in Long Island, there are only two counties: Nassau and Suffolk. Nassau County is the western county and is proper suburbia. But there is a higher level of economic disparity and larger population size than Suffolk County. Suffolk County has farms, wineries, and wealthy old-fashioned enclaves filled with the New York elite, like the Hamptons.
Moreover, there are educational disparities throughout the counties. Check out this sobering report on the least educated counties in New York State. It really helps highlight much of the division in terms of political affiliation and socio-economic privilege.
The Debate Within New York Regions
Is Yonkers (Westchester County) Upstate New York?
If you haven’t had the opportunity to travel north of the Bronx for much of your life, then you might refer to these areas as Upstate in casual conversation. “I’m going fishing with your cousin in Upstate New York” – Gerry’s sweet Dominican grandmother referring to Westchester. But as a world traveler who has been blessed to explore much of the state, I (Gerry the editor) personally would not refer to this area as Upstate New York but I also understand that it is indeed located up-the-state for many.
Are the Catskills/Hudson Valley Upstate New York?
The Hudson Valley is another hot topic in this discussion. It’s the area just north of the boroughs and extends until Albany. It’s easily accessible from New York City (by train, bus, or car) making it one of the easiest day trips from New York City. The Catskill Mountains lie just to the west of the Hudson Valley (across the river) and are often labeled as part of the region.
Many residents of the Hudson Valley do not see themselves as part of Upstate New York. Nor do they see themselves as New York City people. Our region is home to small farms, apple orchards, thousands of acres of outdoor areas for easy hikes from NYC, and a robust farm-to-table movement. There are several waterfalls, mountains, rivers, hills, meadows, forests, etc. So for this reason, many folks in New York City will admire and call this region “Upstate New York”. Especially, if this is the farthest north they’ve ever traveled.
However, the Hudson Valley has been changing a lot since I (Leah) was a child. Quaint towns and villages (especially the ones accessible by train from NYC), are often being labeled as the “New Brooklyn.” The COVID pandemic and the consequential white flight from NYC to the surrounding countryside areas have exacerbated this trend. So now, more people are becoming better acquainted with the area, and not calling it Upstate New York as much. See, how’s this topic can be relative to location and personal experience?
So while living in NYC, as a Hudson Valley local, I (Leah) would readily call my own area Upstate New York in conversation. However, my family and friends in the Capital Region (located just above the Catskills/Hudson Valley) would say the Capital Region should be called the Capital Region, not Upstate New York. It’s all relative.
Are Western & Central New York Upstate NY?
Here’s where the debate gets scolding hot. The folks in Western and Central New York are often not as visited as much as the Catskills/Hudson Valley/Capital areas, so people aren’t as acquainted with the local cultural mindset there. They even have a different accent and slang (like calling a can of soda “pop” which is probably due to their proximity to the Midwest).
And once you hit Oswego, Buffalo, Rochester, there is geographically no more “up the state”. It’s as physically far up as you can go before touching the shores that divide Canada from New York. So naturally, many will refer to this region as upstate New York, too. It sounds both reasonable and rational. Right? No. You’ll often see hot steam fuming from the ears of many locals there if you use the term “Upstate” around them to refer to their region.
Adirondacks: The Only Part We Can All Agree is Upstate New York
There’s the term “North Country” on many government maps which refers to the northeastern end of the state (the Adirondacks). This is the only region it seems just about everybody in New York would agree can be labeled as Upstate New York.
“Downstate” Versus Upstate New York Map
If you’re in Rochester (one of the best cities in New York to visit) and you’re going to the Catskills, then you say “I am driving downstate” because logistically you are moving south, right? And nobody contends to that use of the word “downstate”.
Then why can’t others get to say they are going upstate when they are doing exactly that? Heading in a vertical direction (north). Therefore, if you’re driving upstate, that can mean that you are traveling from Brooklyn to the Finger Lakes or the Finger Lakes to Oswego. Essentially, to many, going upstate can simply mean you are moving north.
Another reason why “upstate” can simply refer to a relatively northern area/direction.
But Why Do So Many People Not Want to Be Associated With Upstate New York?
Foaming at the mouth. Eyebrows furrowed. Mouth clenched. That’s the reaction I’ve witnessed from some New Yorkers when they hear their area referred to as “upstate”. Others look almost ashamed. “We’re not farmers and hillbillies up here!” One woman chirped abashedly as I was merrily exploring the suburbs of Albany. It came out of nowhere. She approached us and asked where we were from. She was lovely and friendly. But I was confused about that comment. Neither one of us thought that or made any reference of the sort. And on top of that, she has just strolled out of a beautiful mansion in Albany’s most affluent area as she packed skis into her SUV. Why on earth would I think she was a farmer?
1) Stereotypes about Upstate New York
Perhaps some people don’t want to be associated with Upstate New York because of the fact that much of Upstate New York is generally more red-leaning and conservative? Perhaps it’s due to articles about the low education rate in most of New York State’s counties? Could it be the elitism that some downstaters may exhibit against their upstate counterparts?
Or maybe the folks that live up-the-state feel generalized, unseen, and dismissed from being a distinct region and subculture.
2) We Forget That New York State is Huge
New York state is a very large place. It’s much more than New York City. In fact, NYC only accounts for less than 1% of the landmass of New York State yet holds 43% of the state’s population (not including Westchester, Long Island, etc). And New York State is even bigger than most of the countries in the European Union.
On top of its size, it’s also subculturally and politically diverse. There are massive pockets of conservative populations all over the state right alongside progressive pockets. If you drive from Rochester to Oswego, you can pass a Black Lives Matter flag, and then two towns over, see a giant confederate flag. Ithaca is home to Cornell University (ivy league) and also has an ugly history of the KKK which sadly still lingers.
3) New York State: Elitism & Privilege Disparity
The conservative areas are often more rural, but rural doesn’t always automatically mean lower socio-economic in New York. Land is precious in New York. Most of the state has been colonized for centuries and much of that land was owned or is currently owned, by wealthy white people who wanted to be in close proximity to New York City.
Thus, in general, Upstate New York does have fewer economic opportunities. Some of our New York State cities have had slow and steady population declines since the late 1900s. Many towns in Upstate New York saw booms during the late 1800s-mid 1900s thanks to industry shifts, particularly in train and automobile production. Neither of those industries has much presence in the region anymore.
Thus, many might feel belittled or dismissed by being labeled “upstate” out of fear of classism discrimination, and the prejudices of having less privilege/access to resources.
Major International Airports: Also, the more north you go, the farther you are from JFK and Newark airports. So it’s more common to meet people who have never left their state compared to downstate where more people have had the privilege to travel, engage in cultural exchange, and connect with others of different backgrounds.
4) New York City’s Spotlight
There are people from New York state who are tired of others always assuming that New York is made up solely of New York City. When they travel and say they’re from New York, people immediately assume NYC. When I go abroad with friends from Upstate NY, I often have to sit through their explaining the composition of New York state during a simple introduction. That sucks. Imagine everybody assuming you grew up in a densely populated urban metropolitan area, but you actually grew up in a rural area near Canada.
New York City gets all the glory and is all most people know of New York outside of the northeastern United States. People from other parts of the state don’t often like that it’s all people know of their home. The New York State Tourism Board launched a massive I Love New York campaign several years ago and has worked with dozens of companies and influencers to change this misconception.
So often, people feel like Upstate New York is basically a way to dismiss whatever is not New York City or Long Island.
Bottom Line: What is Considered Upstate New York?
Simply put: There is no one designated official definition to Upstate New York. Anywhere. Everybody and anybody can decide for themselves what counts as Upstate New York to them. You can decide if you want it to literally mean “up the state” from where you are, the same way people use the term “downstate”. Or, you can use it to only refer to the Adirondacks region. You choose!
And what a privilege to get to know and travel to the many places in upstate New York! Not everyone can afford to rent a car and explore how vast and distinct different parts of Upstate New York are.
So in conclusion, it’s all relative! If we were sitting at a bar in Brooklyn and you told me you were going to visit a charming town in Upstate New York this weekend, I would ask you what town. You could tell me Cold Spring (Hudson Valley) or Saratoga Springs (Capital Region) and my response would be the same – “How nice. Going for any special reason?” It wouldn’t be about whether either counts as a town in Upstate New York.
If I’m heading to Cold Spring for the weekend, I say, “I’m going home to the Hudson Valley.” If I’m going anywhere else north of the Hudson Valley, I say Upstate New York. But you don’t have to do what I do because it’s RELATIVE.
After we chat about our weekend plans, I will then move on to a more important topic at hand – have you watched Jennifer Lopez’s new movie Marry Me on Peacock yet?
What do you think counts as Upstate New York? Let us know in the comments!
Our Other NY Travel Guide
Don’t miss out on our other Upstate New York travel guides, such as:
- Places to Visit in Upstate New York + Hidden Gems
- Best Wineries in the Finger Lakes to Visit
- Interesting Cities in Upstate New York to Explore
- Fun & Beautiful Things to do in Upstate New York
About the Co-Author: Leah Wersebe
Leah is a Hudson Valley local, TV aficionado, and a recovering 9-5 office worker. Her permanent home is in New York State, and she has traveled to over 25 countries in search of the perfect latte. Leah loves being in debt so has degrees from universities in international politics, film, and wildlife conservation. Follow her on Twitter at @LDWersebe.
About the Co-Author: Gerry Isabelle
Gerry is a born-and-raised New Yorker of proud Dominican heritage. She is the founder of Dominican Abroad, a world travel blog with a special focus on her home state of New York. Gerry believes in intentional and informed travel/cultural experiences. That means being mindful of the cultural heritage and natural wonders of the destinations we travel to so that as a community we are traveling with knowledge and respect. You can follow our adventures on Instagram or subscribe to our newsletter to stay updated on upcoming trips, cultural pieces, and travel guides.