Upstate New York is a term used to describe a general region of New York State that lies north of New York City. While this term can be used to describe several different areas, the specific lines that divides Upstate from Downstate New York vary from person to person, depending on their background and experience within the state.
What can we agree on?
There are certain areas that are agreed upon to be in Upstate New York. Most of these fall in an area outside of the Hudson River Valley. Western New York, the Finger Lakes Region, The Southern Tier, the Adirondacks, and the Mohawk River Valley are all definitely classified as "Upstate". The area around Albany, New York and its corresponding suburbs are also considered Upstate, although some people argue that its political prominence as the state capitol more closely links Albany to New York City. These people are a small minority.
We can also agree that certain areas are definitely not "Upstate". Long Island and the boroughs of New York City are clearly not upstate. Usually excluded from Upstate is Westchester County, which is composed of New York City suburbs. However, some people would state that classification is entirely wrong, and that Upstate begins at The Cloisters. These people are also in a small minority.
The area in between, composed of Rockland, Putnam, Orange, Duchess, Ulster, Greene, and Columbia counties lies in a grey area, that could be considered Upstate. I've heard people refer to Poughkeepsie as Upstate, while others are adamant that it is clearly not.
My personal feelings on the issue is that the line between Upstate and Downstate New York lies at the northern borders of Westchester and Rockland counties. That way no one is particularly happy, which is the key to a good compromise.
Very Short History of Upstate New York
Upstate New York was home to a large number of different Native American tribes, most notably the Iroquois, who's range spread across a majority of the area. Early European settlers to the area were from many different origins: the French settled along the Saint Lawrence River valley in the far northern area, while the Dutch dominated the Hudson River area.
At the time of American Independence, Upstate New York was an important transit way for settlers heading into the Great Lakes. When the Erie Canal opened in 1825, transit from the Hudson River to Lake Erie became even easier, allowing the young nation to truly open the interior to trade and settlers.
Agriculture and industry dominated Upstate until the early 1970's, when changes in the economy created the Rust Belt, which decimated many small mill towns. Many moved away from the area, looking for better economic opportunities. However, much of the area has recovered, changing their fundamental economies and looking toward tourism or high technology to revive the area.
Culture of Upstate
There is a large difference between New York City, and Upstate New York. While there are many large cities upstate such as Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany, much of upstate remains rural, with small towns and villages dotting the landscape.
Politically, upstaters are much more conservative leaning than their city counterparts. Outside of the larger cities, the Republican Party has majority support. However, upstate has historically been home to progressive moments such as abolition of slavery and the Seneca Falls Convention. These political divisions can sometimes cause strife between upstate and the city, with fringe secession movements sprouting up on both sides.
See the Sights
Some of the many things to be found upstate:
Niagara Falls: though arguably better seen from the Canadian side
Lake Placid: home of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics
National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum: in Cooperstown
Ithaca and Cornell University: after all, Ithaca is Gorges
Empire State Plaza: dominating the Albany skyline
New York State Fair: located near Syracuse
Saratoga Springs: go for the mineral spring, stay for the ponies
Finger Lakes: Take a winery tour, check out some apple orchards
Attica prison: long stays not recommended
Women's Rights National Historical Park: in Seneca Falls
Fort Ticonderoga: important Revolutionary battle site
Dinosaur Bar-B-Que: locations in Syracuse and Rochester (and Troy soon)
And plenty more. Please message me things I stupidly forgot.