Most people end up going through Buffalo when they take a trip to nearby Niagara Falls. But for those who stop to wander a bit in Buffalo, they discover a modern, revitalized city with outdoor events, incredible architecture, and darned good food. We have partnered with Susan Lanier-Graham, who wanders around the world for her blog Wander With Wonder, to get some ideas on what you must see when you visit Buffalo.
I always wanted to see Niagara Falls, but somehow I always kept setting it aside for some other adventure. When things finally fell into place, I hadn’t expected to actually visit Buffalo. Sure, I would fly into the airport there, but what’s there to do in Buffalo?
Aerial view of Buffalo, New York. Photo courtesy Visit Buffalo Niagara
I am thrilled I decided to extend my visit and explore Buffalo, because I discovered a vibrant city, filled with people who are proud of the revitalization. I found some of the world’s most incredible architecture. I wandered through fun and often funky neighborhoods. And then there was the food that amazed me at every turn.
Here are some of the reasons why Buffalo should be on your not-to-miss list.
1. So yeah, you have to see Niagara Falls
You can’t deny that Niagara Falls is just down the road. Niagara Falls State Park was named one of the Top 10 Most Beautiful Spots in America by the Today show. I was blown away by the power of the water at the falls. Millions of gallons of water rush over the cliffs every few seconds. When you stand at Terrapin Point and gaze down at the famous Horseshoe Falls, you feel that power. And there are actually three falls — Horseshoe Falls (mostly on the Canadian side), American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls.
Niagara Falls. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
I would suggest taking time to hike around the falls. The entire area is known for its beautiful autumn colors, and I’ve been told that the Niagara Gorge is breathtaking with its array of colors every September. You will also want to be sure you purchase a ticket to both The Cave of the Winds and the Maid of the Mist tours.
The Cave of the Winds at Niagara Falls. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
The Cave of the Winds takes you out on amazing wooden walkways and gets you up close and personal with American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. Once you’ve gone down 175 feet in the elevator, you don a yellow rain poncho and head out to experience the power of the water. Cool fact? The workers take down that walkway every fall and build it all over again in the spring. The main season extends through mid-October each year.
Bridal Veil Falls. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
The Maid of the Mist tour has been an attraction at Niagara Falls for 150 years. Once you put on that iconic blue poncho and get onboard the boat at the base of the Observation Tower, you can see why this is such a favorite attraction.
The Horseshoe Falls from onboard Maid of the Mist. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
My heart pounded as we moved past the American Falls, but it was doing double time when we got to the base of Horseshoe Falls. The whitewater created by the falls gives you a renewed appreciation for the water’s strength. As the boat inches its way through the mist, you feel small against the force of nature. Maid of the Mist operates daily from early April through early November.
Once you’ve experience Niagara, it’s time to head to Buffalo and explore this great city. I truly feel that Buffalo is an all-American city. It seems to embody the spirit of survival that defines great destinations in the world.
Explore the Buffalo Neighborhoods. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
2. Check out the cool buildings in Buffalo
Buffalo’s architecture is epic. Even if you aren’t a huge art and architecture fan, you’re in for a real treat in the city. I suggest starting with an official guided tour, such as the “Masters of American Architecture” tour with a guide from Explore Buffalo. One hundred years ago, Buffalo was the country’s eighth largest city and had dozens of prominent millionaires. This makes for some pretty amazing sights in downtown Buffalo today.
Historic Hotel Lafayette at Washington and Clinton streets. Photo courtesy Visit Buffalo Niagara Visitor Center
The tours run from June through September at 10 a.m., beginning at the Visit Buffalo Niagara Visitor Center in the Brisbane Building at the corner of Washington and Clinton Streets (across from the historic Hotel Lafayette). For just $15, you get a casual history lesson, hear some fun stories, and get a real feel for this eclectic city. I love that the city and its residents embrace the beauty of these classics from a by-gone era.
Here are a few of my favorite highlights from the tour.
Also known as the Old Cathedral, St. Joseph Cathedral on Franklin Street was started by the city’s first bishop, John Timon. He established the cathedral in 1847 and, after a $2,000 donation from Pope Pius IX to get construction started, it was dedicated in 1855.
Inside St. Joseph Cathedral. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
St. Joseph Cathedral is the centerpiece for religious services in downtown Buffalo, but is open to the public. Walking inside a cathedral always gives me a sense of calm. The stained glass is beautiful and that organ is simply magnificent.
Organ inside St. Joseph Cathedral. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
The Old Post Office is now Erie Community College. The massive building is made of granite from Maine and opened in 1901. The most impressive exterior feature is the crocketed spire with a finial at the top.
Tower on the Old Post Office, now Erie Community College. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
I loved the gargoyles around the outside and there are quite a few different animals depicted, including some bison. The skylight is the centerpiece inside the building. Since this is a college, we didn’t have a chance to go up to the higher floors, but we were able to walk inside and admire the details, which is styled very similar to the Old Post Office in Washington, DC.
The Old Post Office is now Erie Community College. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
The Guaranty Trust Building, also known as the Prudential Building, was my favorite on the architectural tour. Built in 1894 by renowned architect Louis Sullivan, it was one of Buffalo’s early skyscrapers. The most amazing part to me is that the metal skeleton is covered in terra cotta design.
Guaranty Building is covered in terra cotta. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
We were able to go inside the building and take a look around the lobby. Today, this National Historic Landmark houses the law firm of Hodgson Russ, LLP, so you won’t be able to go upstairs, but admiring the details in the lobby is a treat.
After the architectural tour concludes, head over to the Martin House Complex, which houses the Darwin Martin residence built by acclaimed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
Martin House exterior. Photo by Martin House Complex courtesy Brand USA
I am already a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, but was overwhelmed by the story of Buffalo businessman Darwin Martin and his family. Wright built the residence for Martin from 1903 through 1905. Eventually, there were six buildings including the main house, a carriage house, the Barton House built for Martin’s sister, and a gardener’s cottage. Over the years, all but the main house was demolished and even it was in a state of disrepair after Mr. Martin’s death when his destitute widow simply walked away from it. She even placed advertisements in the local papers that there were Frank Lloyd Wright windows free for the taking. And take people did. The beautiful residence was gutted. During the 1950s, block apartment buildings replaced some of the outer Wright structures. But the people of Buffalo realized what a treasure they were losing.
Inside the Martin House Main Residence. Photo by Rhea Anna forVisit Buffalo Niagara
The restoration began in 1997 and continues today. There is a gorgeous welcome center and interpretive center and the main floor of the residence is nearing completion. I suggest booking the 90-minute guided tour, which is offered daily except Tuesdays year-round. Prices start at $19 for adults. You won’t be able to get inside the residence unless you book one of the tours.
3. Stop and smell the roses in some uber cool Buffalo gardens
Famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted was part of the planning for the booming little city of Buffalo back in the 1800s. That one move has created a city not only filled with public parks and gardens, but has helped with the open door policy you find in many private homes around the city.
The Garden of Jim Charlier is part of Buffalo’s Garden Walk. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
Every summer, Buffalo hosts the largest private garden walk in the U.S. during which more than 400 homeowners open their garden gates and invite the public in to smell the flowers. I wasn’t there during the official Garden Walk, but I was able to participate in the Tours of Open Gardens, the weekly peek at about 70 gardens across the city, which are open to the public every Thursday and Friday for four weeks in July.
Gardens of Gordon Ballard on 604 Bird Avenue. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
The best part of the gardens is that it is absolutely free to wander throughout the neighborhoods, enter the gardens, chat with the owners, snap some photos and smell the roses along the way. If you are particularly interested in certain plants, be sure to ask. The owners love to talk about their labors of love. You can download the PDF guide before you go that tells you which homes are open for the Thursday-Friday night previews, what hours they are open, and are grouped by areas so you can hit up a different location each evening.
4. Grab a bite and a sip … or two or three
Food and beer has been a part of Buffalo history since the beginning. Before Prohibition, Buffalo claimed more than two dozen breweries and 8,000 bars. While it may have taken a while to build that back up, the food and drink scene today in Buffalo is HOT.
Resurgence Brewing. Photo by Rhea Anna for Visit Buffalo Niagara.
Resurgence Brewing is one of the most popular of the new breweries. The outdoor beer garden on the city’s West Side is popular for all ages. Resurgence, located at 1250 Niagara Street, is open Wednesdays through Saturdays at 4 p.m. and opens at noon on Sundays.
Hamburg Brewing Company. Photo by Jim Bush for Visit Buffalo Niagara
Another popular brewery is Hamburg Brewing Company, located at 6553 Boston State Road in nearby Hamburg. This little brewery offers several beers on tap, a great selection of snacks (think baked pretzel sticks or a pulled pork sandwich), offers tours of the brewhouse on the weekends, and even has its own hop farm where they grow three varieties.
I’m not particularly a beer drinker — okay, I just don’t drink beer. But, I did enjoy the atmospheres at the local eateries. My favorite was Thin Man Brewery on Elmwood Avenue. They have a small front patio on the sidewalk, a comfortable indoor area, and a fabulous rooftop patio that is the place to hang out in the good weather months. I was told by my dinner companion, a regular at the brewery, that the beer there is excellent. He recommended the Hair of the Dog Flanders Fred with what he called a bit of “funk”. In beer terms, I gather that’s a very good thing. Me, I stuck with a glass of wine, but the food was what would have me coming back here time and again.
Because I was there on a very hot July day, the restaurant served a slightly spicy watermelon-cucumber gazpacho. That was one of the most simple but tasty dishes I’ve had anywhere.
Watermelon Gazpacho at Thin Man Brewery. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
After the cool soup, I decided I needed to try something that was on the menu all the time. In my true love-of-carbs nature, I opted for the Crunchy Potatoes. These little pieces of potato are served up with melted fontina cheese, onion, and crisp parmesan. Oh my. For just $8, I could live off these.
Crunchy Potatoes at Thin Man Brewery. Photo by Susan Lanier-Graham
One of the other places I would recommend for dinner is Seabar Restaurant in the heart of downtown. Seabar opened on 475 Ellicott Street by local restaurateur Chef Mike Andrzejewski. Chef Mike sources “Made in Buffalo” spirits, beer, and wine and serves up Asian-inspired dishes from sushi to fresh oysters to duck breast with roast plums.
Inside SeaBar in downtown Buffalo. Photo courtesy SeaBar
Order some of the traditional dishes, but don’t hesitate to sample something a bit quirky. After all, you’re in Buffalo. Why not try the beef on Weck Sushi Roll (think traditional New York roast beef on caraway-studded Kummelweck roll) or BBQ Salmon with a Chilean BBQ sauce.
Buffalo is also known for its food trucks, but I didn’t have a chance to sample a single one. I did check out the food at the brick and mortar location of Lloyd Taco, which was the city’s first food truck in 2010. That is definitely worth a lunch, but the tacos are huge! Today, there are dozens of food trucks. You can get a list of more than 40 food trucks online here. Which ones have you tried? Do you have a favorite?
5. Head for the water like the locals do
There was just no way for me to do everything I wanted to do in the few days I was in Buffalo. I will be going back. I have to go shopping in Elmwood Village. I have to go eat at the food trucks. I need to explore trendy Larkin Square. I want to rent a bike and check out the neighborhoods. One of the newest areas of Buffalo that I discovered only briefly is Canalside.
Relax at Canalside. Photo by Joe Cascio for Visit Buffalo Niagara
I think most of us who don’t live in Buffalo forget that the water has defined the city. It is where Lake Erie and the Niagara River come together. The Erie Canal made the Industrial Revolution possible in the USA. We as a country wouldn’t be where we are today without the rich history and rugged determination of a people who discovered ways to harness the power of water to improve our lives. Nowhere is the renaissance of Buffalo more evident than at Canalside.
Canalside is a hub of activity each summer. Photo by Ed Healy for Visit Buffalo Niagara
Canalside hosts more than 1,000 events all year long. In the warm months, you can rent boats and paddle boards, take harbor cruises, play in the park, eat ice cream, ride bikes, and people watch to your heart’s content. Winter months bring ice activities — skating, curling, hockey, ice bikes. There are restaurants, bars, and even new hotels, making this a great hub of activity for the city.
Grain elevators dot the banks of the Niagara River in Buffalo. Photo by Joe Cascio for Visit Buffalo Niagara
Another great new feature to Buffalo is RiverWorks. This is one of those simply crazy stories that highlight the integrity, toughness, and stick-to-itness I found in Buffalo. The space is designed to reinvent abandoned grain silos. There is RiverWorks brewery, where a beer garden is currently under construction in the hulking remains of a grain silo. Also on the site is massive event space including two ice rinks, entertainment and concert venues, a roller derby track, bars, restaurants, and more. You can hop on one of the history boat cruises to hear about the changes to the area and see it from the water side.
If You Go…
During my stay in Buffalo, I called The Mansion on Delaware Avenue home. This AAA Four Diamond historic boutique hotel is ideal if you don’t have a car. They offer 24-hour butler service that would take me into downtown and pick me up after dinner or a show. I enjoyed being able to get a complimentary drink each evening and a lovely buffet breakfast each morning. You won’t find friendlier hotel staff anywhere than at The Mansion on Delaware Avenue. Be sure to check out all the unique places you can stay in Buffalo, from new and modern hotels to small inns and historic old residences.
Most of all, spend time talking to the good folks you pass on the streets. You will wonder why it took you so long to wander Buffalo.
Susan Lanier-Graham is an official Travelocity Gnational Gnomad. Gnational Gnomads is an exclusive group of high-profile travel and lifestyle experts who offer tips and inspiration on behalf of Travelocity. For more information on the Travelocity Gnomads, visit TravelocityGnomads.com.
Travelocity compensates authors for their writings appearing on this site; such compensation may include travel and other costs.