What is Upstate New York? The Age-Old Debate About New York State’s Regions

map of new york state

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:

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’?

Source: the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definition of the term upstate
Source: the Britannica Dictionary’s definition of the term upstate

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?

Source: Empire State Development
Source: Office of New York State Comptroller – Intergovernmental & Community Affairs

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

Source: New York Department of Health

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?

White Plains in Westchester County is a quick drive or train ride north of NYC

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 Catskills and the Hudson Valley

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?

the city of buffalo and lake eerie
Buffalo, New York

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

2016 New York Presidential Election Results by Ali Zifan, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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:

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.

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28 thoughts on “What is Upstate New York? The Age-Old Debate About New York State’s Regions

  1. Alan Vedder says:

    I’m from the capital region. Whenever someone asks where I’m from, I say “upstate”. I feel it’s more important to discern NYC from the rest of the state. If they care for me to elaborate further, then I consider the capital region, Catskills, Adirondacks, finger lakes/central NY, and western NY…. Anything more detailed than that, they can get a map. Lol

      • Gary W says:

        There is a difference between going upstate and living in upstate NY. The same applies to going downstate or living downstate. To me, the line of demarcation is the capital region. Upstate NY begins at Albany; downstate is anything below Albany. Neither designation applies to western NY. That’s my final answer and I’m sticking with it.

      • DMD says:

        I agree with Alan. Everything north (and West) of NYC is “Upstate”. It is basically a way to distinguish the whole rest of NYS from NYC since folks always assume when you say “New York” you mean the City. So we say, “Nope -Upstate NY”.

    • HUEY 67 says:

      When im asked where in new your im frim i say the finger lakes region or western N.Y i never reply im from upstate, its too vague, from syracuse west is Western N.Y

    • HUEY 67 says:

      When im asked where in new your im from i say the finger lakes region or Western N.Y, i never reply im from upstate, its too vague, anything 5mi north of NYC they consider upstate, from syracuse west is Western N.Y

      • Pat Sissenstein says:

        I am from the Binghamton area and actually get irritated when people say that is upstate NY. IT IS THE SOUTHERN TIER. We are practically on top of the Pennsylvania border. That is about as far south in NY that you can get.

  2. Eric S says:

    If you “need” a physical boundary (US) Rt 6 fits. The thing is, it’s a cultural/mindset kind of thing which is the root of the debate. Good luck finding a solution.

    • Dave Williams says:

      I enjoyed this Immensely as I Live in Waddington N.Y on the St. Lawrence River looking at Canada while writing this.While we are about as far Upstate as you can get We call this the North Country.

  3. len says:

    The proper clarification or definition of new york upstate, downstate, metropolitan,etc.has to do with the taxable districts ,that clearly defines the area,not some made up terms that have a flare for fantasy.

  4. Jess says:

    Really nice article! I’m from Syracuse/central New York region. The only thing I have to say is, we do NOT call soda “pop” as far as I know that it’s really just a buffalo thing. Honestly most of this area has more of a new England accent, which can really be heard with words like “frog, fog, and egg” and the use of the word “wicked” in describing something good.

    • Isabelle says:

      Thank you! Yep, we were referring more to the Buffalo area. Right, “wicked”! And the “a” in some words. Like pronouncing napkin as nahhhhpkin in Rochester. 🙂 Pretty interesting.

  5. Larry says:

    Upstate is simply code for “I’m not from NY City.” Problem is no one from outside NY knows the code so you have to explain it to them. Close to the city things get a bit fuzzy. If you’re from the city, anything north of Yonkers is “upstate.” The farther you are from the city, the less certain you are of what to do with Long Island and the counties just north of the city. I’ve noticed New Englanders tend to say “Upper-state NY,” which I don’t much care for. I went to a large SUNY university (I’ve noticed the large SUNY universities have distanced themselves from the term SUNY these days and the smaller SUNY community colleges now like to call themselves SUNY- I guess it’s a function of always struggling to elevate our perception of ourselves). Anyway, you could tell the NYC’rs when you were riding the university transit bus because (pre-smartphone) *nothing* would cause them to look up from reading their NY Times to see something interesting going on inside or outside the bus. (Space aliens emerging from their just-landed flying saucer? A quick glance, no reaction and back to the Times.) Conversation overheard between 2 NYC’ers: “Have you ever looked at the local paper here? Can you imagine how little these people know about what’s going on in the world?” Not always the greatest love between the two cultures…

  6. Sick of Upstate NY racism says:

    THERE IS NO ONE DEFINITION. I’m also sick and tired of all the people who hate on us city folks with their gatekeeping, racism, and prejudices. I’ve even been told at bars to “speak english, this is America” while I was talking to my friend in Spanish over drinks! A racist white man, literally interrupted our private conversation to spread his hate and bully us. Digusting.

  7. Annette Panek says:

    Wow! This makes it sound like people in Western NY are uneducated, unemployed, and have no class. The Buffalo area is home to at least 6 colleges and universities. GM, Ford, and Delphi still manufacture car parts. The Buffalo area is growing in the IT and entrepreneurship sectors. The Buffalo-Niagara International Airport lets people travel all over the world, and Buffalo’s proximity to Toronto allows for a varied cultural experience, not to mention the wide variety of cultures in WNY alone.

      • Brandi Ashlock (F) says:

        I grew up in a very small town in St. Lawrence County. The largest county in the state geographically, but one of the lowest (if not the lowest) populated counties. I graduated with a class of 29 people so it was very rural!! But, we also had Clarkson University, St. Lawrence University and SUNY Potsdam all right close by. It was a wonderful place to grow up. We proudly considered ourselves Northern New Yorkers. I think this is a big miss in your article. Otherwise, I feel you are mostly accurate. I now live in Indiana and have for the last 24 years. I like it here, but still miss home tremendously. I tell anyone, every chance I get that NY is not just city. It’s hard to believe that 90% or more of the people I encounter, most are educated adults have no clue there is more to NY than a big city. And trying to explain to people exactly where I’m from in NY??? Tough one!!!

  8. DMD says:

    Amusing article – esp for people who live in New York State! I think the categories of “North Country”, “Central NY”, “Southern Tier”, “Capital Region”, “Western NY”, etc, don’t mean much to people from other states. Those categories, while meaningful to NYS residents, tend to make people from out of state get glassy eyed. We just distinguish NYC (which everyone knows) from the rest of the state by calling everything except NYC “Upstate”.

  9. HUEY 67 says:

    When im asked where in new york im from i say the finger lakes region or Western N.Y, i never reply im from upstate, its too vague, anything 5mi north of NYC they consider upstate, from syracuse west is Western N.Y

  10. Brett Huther says:

    Everyone is getting this wrong. But once you get this explanation, there is no more room for debate. Before the Erie Canal was built there was no way to “ship” things up to the rest of the state from the Atlantic Ocean and NYC. There was also no way to bypass Niagara Falls if one wanted to get a ship into the rest of the Great Lakes. I believe the term “Upstate” was a merger of the phrase “Up the State” . To the people of NYC back then, it meant any place up the Hudson and beyond, including ALL points West. But for the past century, maybe more, “Upstate NY” generally refers to all the places from Albany WEST to Buffalo…All the places that they couldn’t reach by boat except for going “Up the canal”. I live in “Upstate” NY between Buffalo and Rochester right near the Erie Canal.

  11. Seth says:

    I think something perhaps additionally confusing, but clarifying in terms of usage, is that “upstate” really has two separate meanings. “Upstate New York” is a region; “upstate” is a direction, and it’s only a direction from the City. So almost nobody (other than Gerry’s gran!) would call Westchester “Upstate New York,” but it would be perfectly correct to say of a visit to someone in, say, Mount Kisco, that you went upstate for the day. Where the line is drawn on the geographic term is as debatable as the article says; I think most City residents who are connected to the rest of the state would agree that pretty much anything north of Westchester or Rockland is “Upstate,” and many would argue that the term extends farther south. I think the first place where you might see a cow is a good working definition of when you’re in “Upstate New York.”
    New Yorkers are very directional in their outlook. Uptown and Downtown present the same quandary: they are again both directions (clear, and marked that way in the subways) and locations (debatable – “Downtown” is a place that may or may not be south of 14th Street, but is also a lifestyle, a food scene, a music scene, a real estate price-bump, etc.).
    To be of further assistance, here’s how you travel out of the City (now you too can tawk native!):
    – OUT to (or on) the Island (Long Island)
    – OVER to (or in) Jersey; can sometimes say Across; the same prepositions apply to Staten Island but it’s in or on
    – UP to (or in) Westchester

  12. Richard Bstock says:

    I grew up in Syracuse, I can also feel comfortable with Central or Western NY as my home base. My wife is from Niagara Falls NY. She calls it pop, I call it soda, in my Dad’s New England they called it tonic. I even developed a taste for Moxie. After graduating from Geneseo we did two pretty miserable years in Poughkeepsie. After that a move to Denver was required and it was wonderful for 44 years in Geophysics (Thank you Geneseo). Since then a move to western WA to follow our grandchildren.
    Or is it that I can’t get far enough away from downstate.
    I do admit that I miss Hoffmann’s Snappy Grillers. Dear Hofmann’s, please ship me some for the honest product placement.

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