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If you haven’t been to Buffalo lately, you really haven’t been to Buffalo. Having seen this with my own eyes, I’m a true believer that this city is now on its way to emerging back to its heyday as one with incredible excitement, development and modern touches.
These huge changes are sweeping the city like wildfire. It’s a story of rebirth and revitalization that has seen the city go from one of the most important cities in the early part of American history with the Erie Canal to its fall in the latter parts of the 20th century to now its own modern renaissance period. Below are all of the best things to do in Buffalo if you haven’t been in awhile.
Things to do in Buffalo outside of the outlet
As a Canadian, I’ll confess that I’ve never really given Buffalo an honest look. Trips to Buffalo typically consisted a visit to the Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls, Walden Galleria and Cheesecake Factory. One time I even visited Anchor Bar but outside of that I had no clue where to go.
Over the course of the a weekend, I got a chance to explore and experience some fabulous spots that will surprise even you. Here are some of the highlights of the top things to do in Buffalo.
Canalside – A brand new waterfront
Set by the entrance to the meandering Buffalo river, this waterfront playground is a huge space that is bustling with activity in the summer with its concerts and events. Not only that, there’s incredible amounts of history here with this being the terminus of the Erie Canal. On top of that you have the Naval & Military Park which boasts as the largest in-land naval park in the US with a cruiser, destroyer and submarine. The waterfront is littered with Adirondack chairs so after that stroll along the boardwalk you can have picnic or just soak in the sun.
Come winter time, a whole new area at Canalside will open a frozen over ice rink that you can say will be like a mini Rideau Canal. If that wasn’t enough, just behind Canalside, the Harborcenter (slated to open at the end of 2014) houses 2 NHL-sized rinks, the state-of-the-art 716 sports bar and lastly a one-of-a-kind Tim Hortons with a special tribute to Tim Horton himself.
I was even surprised to see a tram station here for Buffalo’s one line metro system. The station maintained that retro and restored look which I thought added even more character to the area.
Elmwood – A vibrant village
You’d think trendy neighborhoods only existed in cities like NYC or San Francisco. Wrong! With boutiques lining up the streets and great restaurants, bars and coffee shops for all tastes, Elmwood Village was one that surprised me the most.
Strolling up and down the street of Elmwood between W. Utica Ave and Bidwell Pkwy, the street was abuzz with locals grabbing their daily cup of joe, shoppers checking out small jewelry and fashion stores and restaurants galore.
It’s also on Elmwood where we discovered a local treat called sponge chocolate. There are a lot of varieties of this all around but I have to say that the sponge candy at Watson’s Chocolates was exceptional. That one bite had the perfect amount of crunch, airiness, chocolate without sticking to your teeth. It’s a local favorite so you have to try it out if you come to Buffalo.
And then you throw in the weekend special events into the mix and you’ve really got something special going on here. On the Saturday we were there, I got a chance to roam around the farmer’s market at Elmwood & Bidwell. Local produce and food vendors line up the large green space and I managed to grab a massive bag of seedless grapes for $5 which was deliciously juicy and sweet.
There was also Porchfest happening that day as well. It was amazing to see the locals clamouring behind their artists set behind these beautiful porches in this grassroots event. It’s events like Porchfest that really show the support and energy of the people behind the community of Elmwood Village. It’s a totally different vibe than anything back home and I think that’s what makes this neighborhood special.
I love just how alive Elmwood is with life, community events and the arts. Porchfest and the Farmer’s Market are examples of this. Even the traffic signal lights are painted! It’s not on many people’s radar but it’s definitely one of the more unique things to do in Buffalo.
Speaking of porches, I have to say that Elmwood’s got the most impressive collection of photogenic houses I’ve ever seen. The wonderful touches of craftsmanship and color just gives this neighborhood that adds charm, character and warmth.
Allentown – Artsy and trendy
The Allentown neighborhood is a nice area downtown just south of the Elmwood Village that is a bit edgier and more hipster I would say. With its laid-back atmosphere, strong personalities and a focus on the arts and music, this area’s been known to be called the Bohemian part of town.
Allen Street is lined with different trendy shops, numerous galleries and antique shops. Strolling up and down the street will give you plenty of things to explore and look at including the graffiti. Food wise, there are a ton of various eateries to choose from. For lunch, we had a chance to try out Melting Point with their impressive array of gourmet grilled cheese creations. We ended up trying the No. 42 starring smoked gouda and thick-cut bacon and it was quite the treat.
Albright-Knox Art Gallery
I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not a huge art gallery kind of guy. So when I added the Albright-Knox to the itinerary, I didn’t have high expectations but what I saw blew me away.
Even without entering the gallery, you’re treated with some incredible outdoor sculptures and installations. Each piece is distinctively unique. As a photographer, there were endless combinations of angles and compositions I could work with here. It was a visual wonderland. Make sure you go around the entire building as there are works scattered all over.
Step inside and you’re treated to wide open spaces with a collection of mostly modern and cutting edge art and a zen like atmosphere with the light bouncing off pieces in soft and sharp ways. As modern pieces, there were some funky ones but others where I could either stand in front of or sit down and really take it all in from one end of my peripheral vision to the other. Not only were there modern pieces but there were also a few Matisse, Picasso pieces as well which was impressive.
Designed as a big square with an outdoor a sculpture garden in the middle, the Albright-Knox isn’t overwhelmingly large which I appreciated. We were able to comfortably do the whole museum in 2 hours. It was so manageable that we were able to do two clockwise rotations around the gallery.
The timing couldn’t have been better for us either because every first Friday of the month is something called “First Fridays” where the gallery opens up to the public for free. We happened to drop in on one of these Fridays which was perfect as one of the things you have to do in Buffalo.
I came out of it all thinking “How did I not hear about this all these years!”
Having recently been ranked as one of the top 10 public spaces in America by the American Planning Association and finding out that it was in fact designed by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the same guy that designed New York’s Central Park, I knew I had to check it out.
Conveniently, the backside of Albright-Knox leads directly to the park so we got a chance to explore Hoyt Lake and the historic Marcy Casino Building. With the leaves changing color and blue filling the sky, it was quite the picturesque setting. The four boats anchored in the middle of the lake further set the scene. I could totally picture this space as being a great place for a run or to just lay out and read a book.
The unfortunate part of the park is that the expressway cuts right through the middle of it so it’s not the easiest to get from one side to the other. That’s why we ended up hopping back in the car and along the way we saw numerous sculptures including a replica Statue of David along the way. On the other side of the park were huge open green spaces, walking paths and even a zoo.
As a visitor, you probably won’t end up spending a whole lot of time here but I do recommend going for a stroll around Hoyt Lake. It’s a great combo with the Albright-Knox.
Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site – History made
As the rain started to come down over the weekend, we made an unexpected detour during the trip which led us through an important yet often forgotten piece of history. Everybody knows about Theodore Roosevelt (TR) as one of the most influential Presidents but how did he actually become the US President?
For those that don’t know, President McKinley was in Buffalo for the Pam-American Exposition and during his speech, he was shot twice by an anarchist. Eventually he died and Roosevelt rushed in to Buffalo where he would eventually get sworn in at the Ansley Wilcox House which is the site of the museum today.
I was most impressed with how the museum was set up. I always find historical museums like these to be tough to go through because you end up having to read a lot of the descriptions and slowly move from one wall to the other but because the guided tour is built into the experience, it was very easy to soak in all the new information we were learning. The first area you walk into sets the scene for the events to come, seeing what it was like to be part of the Pan-American Exposition and all the glitz and glamor of that time. There was even a few interactive pieces where you could play some trivia or crank the handle of the kinetoscope to watch a period film clip. From there, our guide walked us through several historic rooms including the library where Roosevelt took his oath. The ground floor also had a unique panoramic theater that gave you a glimpse of the thoughts that were going on in Roosevelt’s mind leading up to the inauguration.
Upstairs, there were a few more exhibits to explore but perhaps my favorite was the replica of the President’s office of the White House at the time where you could type in your name and get a photo snapped of you in the President’s seat. I got one made and emailed to me and this is what it looked like.
Overall I thought the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site was extremely well put together. A lot of thought was put into the different rooms and interactive exhibits to really get you immersed into the historic events that occurred in this very house.
Resurgence Bar – Craft beer alive and well
I’ll end off with something to whet that appetite of yours. Buffalo is obviously known for its wings but not so much for its beer (yet). This is where I let you in a little secret – the craft beer scene here is BOOMING. All you need to do is head over to a not-so-little bar called Resurgence Bar. The bar can be found in a dreary, unassuming red-bricked building but you’ll immediately notice something is amiss because amidst this industrial-laden neighborhood, this is the only one packed and overflowing with cars.
To say this place is happening is an understatement. We dropped by on a Friday night and wow, it felt like I was brought back to Oktoberfest in Munich when I was there many years ago. It’s a true beer garden with its wooden benches that line the columns of the place, the wooden roof points upwards like a tent and all they serve is beer and bite-sized foods. Outdoors, there’s a patio where you can get your drink on with communal-style seating and complete with its own fire pit.
The atmosphere was full of energy here with seemingly all the locals of Buffalo, young and old alike, coming out to this one place.
Let’s talk about the beer. The refreshing brew is crafted in the building just a few feet away so it’s literally as fresh as can be. On tap are too many brews to name but we ended up trying a flight of Session IPA, Autumn Saison, Loganberry Wit and Sponge Candy Stout. I particularly enjoyed Loganberry Wit for its light and fruity tones.
To add to the fun, there are two giant-sized Jenga games to play with and on each bench are a collection of random Trivial Pursuit cards.
Make sure you keep an eye out on the booming craft beer scene in Buffalo. The action isn’t just limited to Resurgence but is happening all around so make sure you look into the 11 micro breweries in the region.
If you’re lucky, Buffalo’s first food truck, Lloyd, could be around as well. We had some awesome tacos thanks to Lloyds right before heading into Resurgence. The ingredients are super fresh and the perfect blend of toppings to really bring out the flavors of the meat. The special of the day when we were there was the buttermilk fried chicken and that was divine! To find out where they are just look up @whereslloydd on Twitter.
What are you waiting for?
Buffalo is ripe for a new renaissance and for me as a Torontonian, I am very excited because this gives us so many options as visitors that doesn’t spell shopping. There’s art, culture, food, drink and charming neighborhoods. It’s the perfect weekend getaway!
Where to stay in Buffalo
Here are my picks for great hotels to stay at depending on your budget
This property was brand new when I stayed here and absolutely loved it. Extremely clean with great amenities, this is a property located in the heart of Canalside and downtown so you can just park and walk everywhere.
Map of all the places
Check out these other activities in Buffalo
This trip was sponsored by the Buffalo Niagara Tourism Board, however the opinions expressed in this post are my own.