9 Reasons to Drive to Beacon, New York
PS: One of them is a castle.
The small post-industrial city of Beacon, New York, has been well worth a weekend visit (or permanent decampment) for quite some time—and now more than ever during COVID, this popular oasis for city-weary New Yorkers is a welcome art and nature-filled getaway less than two hours from the city.
Situated right on the mighty Hudson River, Beacon boasts bucolic beauty, hiking trails galore, a thriving art scene, small town whimsy, urban ruins, plenty of terrific food and drink, and a castle (yes, an actual castle).
At only 60 miles (but 10-million figurative ones) north of the five boroughs, all you need to do is start your engine, jump on I-87, and just a couple of podcast episodes later, you’ll have forgotten all about that last crazy thing you saw on the subway. As always, please wear a mask and social distance responsibly throughout your travels.
There’s a ton of exciting art and creativity alive in Beacon these days, but the museum that catalyzed it all gets its own section because visiting it is a must.
Housed in a once-abandoned, now repurposed Nabisco box factory, Dia Art Foundation’s visionary contemporary art museum is not just a venue for big, experiential work—but is an experience unto itself. Walking the slick, echoey halls awash in natural light and air, one gets the feeling that imposing sculptures by the likes of Richard Serra, Dan Flavin, and Louise Bourgeois could exist nowhere else. Not to knock NYC’s hallowed art temples, but Beacon’s 300,000-square-foot museum makes even the Guggenheim's exquisite galleries feel claustrophobic by comparison.
Since Dia:Beacon should be a can’t-miss feature of your trip, it might make sense to plan your trip around the museum’s hours. Entry can be scored by advance reservation for timed tickets.
It’s an enclave for art and local artists
The pandemic and inclement weather may have temporarily shuttered some of the city’s well-loved art spaces like Hudson Beach Glass, but walk Main Street (or catch the free Beacon Loop bus!) and you’ll find that Beacon hums with cool creative energy. You can see toys and design work on display in the Clutter Gallery (available by emailed appointment); at Mother Gallery (also available by emailed appointment) there’s contemporary fine artwork in a pseudo-industrial setting; and artist Ron English’s cartoony gallery, Pop Mart is a trip worth a trip.
In Beacon, the artistic community has woven itself into the very fabric of the city. In the summer months, drive to the Beacon Art Club where work is presented in a historic farmhouse. In a former high school across town, Ethan Cohen’s KuBe is an artists’ community replete with studios, offices, and experimental art spaces, as well as a gallery for which you can make a Saturday appointment. The Howland Cultural Center is a hub of visual and performing arts housed in a beautiful red brick building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And there’s also Main Street’s Lotusworks gallery and workshop, where visitors are welcome to spectate or participate to their hearts’ content.
The best way to get a crash course on the arty goings on in Beacon? Attend a Second Saturday, when the city celebrates its identity as an artistic redoubt with citywide openings, food, drink, and special events.
The vintage shopping is seriously stellar
Beacon has no shortage of boutique shops, at any and all of which you can find something unique to wear, use, eat, or display as home decor. At the very least, a fun souvenir of your visit awaits your purchase. Whatever you choose, feel good knowing your patronage makes a real difference to these small businesses who, in case you hadn’t heard, have had a tough year.
The best way to peruse local vendors would be to attend the Beacon Flea on Sundays, but with its seasonal opening delayed, we’ve highlighted a few local shops, each one charming as the day is long. This is by no means an exhaustive list, so be sure to keep your eyes open as you stroll Main Street.
For vintage and consignment fashions, there’s Blackbird Attic and Vintage:Beacon. For culinary fun, there’s Village Jerk and Beacon Natural Market. For sundry home and beauty goods, check out Beacon Mercantile, Knot Too Shabby, Raven Rose, and Notions-N-Potions. For books, look no further than Binnacle Books, Beacon Reads, and Solstad House. For outdoors wares and supplies, hike on over to Last Outpost and Mountaintops Outfitters.
It’s a hiking destination
As you may or may not know, the Hudson Valley’s idyllic setting inspired an entire 19th-century landscape art movement. During your visit, you can experience their inspiration firsthand, for free, just by driving around (no really, it’s all around you).
We definitely recommend a drive or walk across the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge. This presents a breathtaking vantage on the Hudson that shouldn’t be missed. In that same vein, Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock Park is the place to catch a sunset, have a picnic, or ride a rented bike.
If hiking is your thing, hit the trail to the top of Mount Beacon. At an elevation of 1,611 feet, this isn’t exactly a leisurely jaunt so be prepared before setting out. When you get to the top, you’ll be treated to a glorious vista before you gather yourself for the trip back. The trusty Beacon Free Loop stops at the trailhead.
For an easier outing no less worthwhile, opt for a trail through the Hudson Highlands State Park Reserve or Madam Brett Park, which passes a waterfall and leads you to Fishkill Marsh. Birders, don’t forget your binoculars.
The craft beer scene is fire
Beacon is, low-key, a craft beer connoisseur’s mecca. This little city is home to not one or two craft beer breweries, but three in town and another three closeby—the furthest a mere 20-minute drive away.
Two Way Brewing Company’s taproom is open, and the venerable Industrial Arts is to-go only these days, but still well worth a visit. If you order online in advance, the heavenly brews at Hudson Valley Brewery are available for convenient curbside pickup a few days a week and just across the bridge in Newburgh, Newburgh Brewing Company’s taproom is open for weekend drinks. Drive away with a growler from Obercreek Brewing Company—a hyper-local jewel located on a nearby organic-certified farm just north of Beacon in Obercreek. And last but not least, nationally recognized Sloop Brewing Co. boasts a taproom and curbside pickup in East Fishkill.
If beer isn’t your thing, award-winning Denning’s Point Distillery is crafting spirits to lift spirits right in town.
Eat and drink on repeat
Certain unnamed global pandemics have made indoor drinking and dining an uncertain proposition, but many of Beacon’s excellent restaurants and bars have outdoor seating and/or offer takeout, so grab your mask, and if you can’t snag a table, wine and dine al fresco or retreat to your lodgings.
Do breakfast at the darling bakery and bistro, Beacon Bread Company or go classic with chrome and booths at the Yankee Clipper Diner. For lunch every day, pickup a truly excellent burger and/or fried chicken sandwich at Meyer’s Olde Dutch, or a satisfying mushroom and gruyere melt at Homespun Foods. Grab dinner with live music and farm-to-table fare at Towne Crier Cafe. Or Quinn’s offers Japanese cuisine in a quirky setting and the kitchen at Melzingah Tap House kicks out sumptuousness like a red coconut curry stew.
Speaking of drinks, zany fun is in abundance with a very respectable 14 tap beers and arcade games at Happy Valley. Draught Industries pleases hop heads with 24 taps pouring daily. Slightly off the beaten path is unpretentious dive bar, Barking Frog, serving no-frills fun and in true dive form, has bartender-dependent hours on Sunday nights.
Availability and hours are liable to change, so check local listings before you set out.
Farm to your table
You wouldn’t know it if you’ve never escaped to NYC’s north, but agriculture is an essential part of New York State’s economy and variegated local communities, and you (yes, you) can support them during your trip to Beacon.
Nowhere is NYS’ agriculture more proudly on display than Sundays at The Beacon Farmers Market, which presents visitors with an amazing opportunity to meet locals, engage the hardworking people who make your Williamsburg farm-to-table meal possible, and sample some of the local products cultivated by hardworking folk.
If you want to actually see a farm in action, visit the fabulous Stony Kill Farm Education Center. A mere 10-minute drive North of Beacon, this working farm offers trails to walk as well as educational opportunities for kids and adults alike with hands-on experiences in farm work, conservation, historical preservation, and arts and crafts.
Also...there’s a castle
If you’ve ever sat on the Hudson River-side of the Metro North as it passes Beacon, you’ve probably wondered: “Did I just see a castle on a small island?”
Well, that’s Bannerman Castle, or rather, what’s left of it (we’ll spare you the history lesson). What’s important for our purposes is that, while setting foot on Pollepel Island without official sanction can earn you a run in with the law, from May to October, a tidy $40 buys you a ferry tour departing from a dock in Beacon. If you’ve got your own kayak, that same price gives you leave to paddle yourself out for a self-guided tour. And for those who are kayak-less, a guided kayak tour can also be arranged.
The Bannerman Castle Trust is the nonprofit dedicated to preservation of this delightful oddity, and they encourage visitors to engage by offering a slew of programming and events. Just check the site for an events calendar.
Check out abandoned ruins
Unlike many other localities, brick-and-mortar evidence of Beacon’s past still stands in the form of eerily awesome ruins. But please note: exploring ruins is dangerous and in some cases illegal, so we aren’t suggesting that you visit these places, but instead merely noting their existence for your edification.
The peaceful, abandoned Dutch Reformed Church cemetery is down a hill, behind the still-operating Victorian Gothic church. The graves date back to the Victorian era, but the cemetery has been neglected since the 1920s, so many of the tombs have crumbled into disrepair.
The abandoned sanatorium, Craig House Institute is, in a word, haunting. Several famously troubled individuals spent time within its walls, including Jackie Gleason, Rosemary Kennedy, and Zelda Fitzgerald. The property was recently sold with plans to transform it into an upscale hotel and spa. For now, it’s blocked off, but it’s still there and still creepy.
For glimpses into Beacon’s days as an industry town, check the abandoned Merrimac Hat Company and the ruins of Denning’s Point Brick Works, the latter of which (in true Beacon fashion) is being repurposed into a welcome center.
Where to stay
If you’re not planning on spending much time indoors or you’re just feeling thrifty, there’s no shame in booking yourself into a motel outside of town in nearby Fishkill, a mere 13-minute drive (that’s like, two subway stops) from Beacon’s main drag.
But if you plan on spending evenings in, boutique accommodations on Main street include the lovely Beacon Hotel—a former 1870s townhouse with a slick, no-surprises restaurant; and the adults-only Dutchess Inn & Spa specializing in pampering guests. The Roundhouse may be the hotel exemplar of Beacon’s sensibilities: after a long career as an industrial site, the over 200-year-old structure now sports 23 rooms, a restaurant serving locavore cuisine, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a babbling creek.
If you want to rise and shine to quaintness and muffins, the Main Street-adjacent Beacon Bed & Breakfast is adorable; the restored Federal mansion, Chrystie House is just steps from Dia, and Botsford Briar is a stately Victorian with Hudson River views.
Of course, more unique experiences can be found on Airbnb. Go ahead and book a chalet just outside of town, a Main Street apartment, a converted barn in a nature preserve, an adorable backyard tiny house, or an uber-luxe mountainside guest house. And for warm-weather weekends, be sure to book your stay as much as possible in advance.
Julien Levy is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.