As a little boy growing up in the Bronx, my first-ever class trip was to Sunnyside, the home of Washington Irving. There, on the banks of the Hudson River in Tarrytown, NY, my second-grade class toured the grounds of Irving's estate, learned how a 19th-century home operated, and, most inspiring for me, peeked into Irving's office and saw the writing desk that once belonged to the author of "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." I remember being enchanted by Irving's funny-creepy stories and not wanting to leave the back porch, with its views of the river.
These days, my family and I live just about a mile from Sunnyside and I'm still a regular visitor to the historic site, maintained by the nonprofit group Historic Hudson Valley. Over the years, I've had the opportunity to visit a number of other nearby sites—less than an hour's drive from Manhattan—that are worth a day trip. I can't promise that every site will inspire a career choice, but you'll immerse yourself and your little ones in colonial history, world-class art, and literature. Here are the standouts, all of them within a few miles of Tarrytown, NY, and the Tappan Zee Bridge. For details about hours and admission prices and policies, visit hudsonvalley.org.
Sunnyside, in Tarrytown, is a beautifully landscaped estate, much of which was designed by Washington Irving himself. The creator of the Headless Horseman and other iconic literary characters loved this spot enough to settle here after traveling the world and establishing a career as America's "first man of letters." You'll watch a video about Irving's life, tour the estate and home, and you should spend some time in the exceptional gift shop, where you'll find imaginative crafts and a great collection of books about local history. (After you visit Sunnyside, take a short walk up the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail to see another amazing estate—Lyndhurst, a castle-like mansion and 67-acre park maintained by the National Trust.)
Kykuit, in Pocantico Hills, was home to John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil and one of the richest people in history. Here, you'll tour the gorgeously furnished six-story house and see how the other .00005% lived. The highlight of the site is its gardens that feature a collection of 20th-century sculptures that once belonged to New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, including works by Pablo Picasso and Henry Moore.
Philipsburg Manor, in Sleepy Hollow, transports you back to the year 1750 to see a working farm, mill, and center of local trade. (And, yes, it's in the village of Sleepy Hollow, where the Headless Horseman is still known to gallop by every year as Halloween approaches.) Visitors can participate in hands-on farming activities such as shelling beans or working flax into linen, tour the gristmill with its immense stone, and learn the little-known stories of the enslaved Africans who made the estate run. Across Route 9, you'll find Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Washington Irving is buried—and seasonal lantern-lit evening tours will test even the steeliest nerves.
Union Church of Pocantico Hills is a humble little country church along a winding road near the Rockefeller estate. Oh, but turn into the parking lot and peek inside and you'll notice that this charming little stone building holds Henri Matisse's final work of art—a typically colorful rose window—and a series of stained-glass windows by Marc Chagall, including his massive Good Samaritan.
TALK TO US! I feel lucky to live a short distance from these great historic sites. Tell us about your favorite tourist sites in your own backyard—we just might feature them in an upcoming story!