When people ask me about some of my favorite destinations, it often comes as a surprise when I include Buffalo, New York. But it’s a great city filled with good food, memorable architecture, fun things to do, and friendly people. Most people who visit Niagara Falls fly into Buffalo—but they drive on through town without stopping to explore Buffalo. When I was planning my trip, I had a lot of people ask, “But what’s there to do in Buffalo?” I discovered a treasure of great things to see and do while visiting Buffalo. Here are a few of my favorites.
Explore the Architecture of Buffalo
Buffalo’s architecture is epic. In the late 1800s, Buffalo boomed, becoming the country’s eighth-largest city. It was home to dozens of prominent millionaires. This makes for some amazing architecture in downtown Buffalo. I suggest you start your visit with an official guided tour, such as the “Masters of American Architecture” tour. Explore Buffalo provides guides for the tours and I learned so much.
The tours run from June through September. They begin at 1 p.m. every Monday through Wednesday or 10 a.m. Thursday through Sunday. Meet up in the lobby of the Hotel at the Lafayette. It's at 391 Washington Street, at the corner of Washington and Clinton streets. If you have a chance, stop into the Visit Buffalo Niagara Visitor Center in the Brisbane Building just across the street. It has excellent books, souvenirs, and keepsakes about Buffalo.
The tour is a little bit of a history lesson and a whole lot of fun local lore. This tour gave me a real feel for this eclectic city. Here are some of my highlights from the tour.
St. Joseph Cathedral
St. Joseph Cathedral, or the Old Cathedral, is on Franklin Street. The city’s first bishop, John Timon, established the cathedral in 1847. An original $2,000 donation from Pope Pius IX kicked off construction of the cathedral.
St. Joseph Cathedral, dedicated in 1855, is open to the public. While I’m not Catholic, I always feel calm when I enter a cathedral. The stained glass in St. Joseph’s is beautiful and there is a magnificent organ. It's definitely a great stop on the tour.
The Old Post Office
Buffalo’s Old Post Office is now Erie Community College. The massive building, which opened in 1901, was constructed from Maine granite. The outside is one of the most impressive buildings I’ve seen in the U.S. I was mesmerized by the crocketed spire with a finial at the top.
There are gargoyles all around the outside of the building. Unlike typical European gargoyles, often depicting mythical creatures, these feature various animals, including the American Bison.
The outside is magnificent, but take time to walk inside as well. The skylight is the centerpiece. Since this is a college, I didn’t explore the higher floors, but just walking through the downstairs was a real treat.
Guaranty Trust Building
The Guaranty Trust Building, also known as the Prudential Building, was my favorite on the architectural tour. The building, built in 1894 by renowned architect Louis Sullivan, has a metal skeleton covered in terra cotta design.
You won’t be able to wander through the building, but you can go inside the lobby and take a look. One of the city’s original skyscrapers is a National Historic Landmark. It now houses the law firm of Hodgson Russ, LLP.
The architectural tour gives you a great preview of the city and gives you an idea of other places to visit during your stay.
Discovering Frank Lloyd Wright in Buffalo
Acclaimed architect Frank Lloyd Wright did considerable work in Buffalo. You'll find two great opportunities in Buffalo to explore the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright—The Martin House Complex and Graycliff.
Martin House Complex
One of Wright's most beautiful creations, now open to the public, is the Martin House Complex.
I am a big fan of Wright’s architectural work, and although I've visited several other Wright sites, I found the story of the Martin House fascinating. Wright built the residence for businessman Darwin Martin and his family between 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. Even the main house fell into disrepair after Mr. Martin’s death when his destitute widow simply walked away from it. In desperation, she placed advertisements in the local papers asking folks to come to get the Frank Lloyd Wright windows. And people showed up in hordes, gutting the beautiful residence.
During the 1950s, block apartment buildings replaced some of the outer Wright structures. By the 1990s, the people of Buffalo realized they were losing a treasure. The restoration began in 1997 and continues today.
There are a gorgeous welcome center and interpretive center on the ground. The main floor of the residence is now complete and you can book a tour of the house and grounds. The only way to see inside the house is to book one of the guided tours. The 90-minute tour is ideal for only $19. It is offered daily except Tuesdays. Prices start at $19 for adults.
Graycliff in Nearby Derby
Frank Lloyd Wright didn't build just one magnificent home for the Martins in the area, he built two. Between 1926 and 1931, he built Graycliff as a summer home for the family. It sits on the bluffs overlooking Lake Erie in Derby, about 20 miles south of the city.
After the Martin family passed away, the house sold to a group of Roman Catholic priests. When the priests wanted to sell the home and grounds in 1997, a developer planned to tear it down and build condominiums. Area residents formed the Graycliff Conservancy to acquire, preserve, and restore the beautiful residence.
The home is now restored and the Conservancy is working on the grounds. There are a variety of tours, which give you a chance to explore the home and learn more about Frank Lloyd Wright and the Martins. You can do a standard one-hour tour or a 3-hour Master Architectural Tour. There are a number of special events that take place throughout the summer and fall as well. Be sure to check the website for current events.
Wander Beautiful Buffalo Gardens
Back in the 1800s, when Buffalo was a booming new town, famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted helped plan the city. As a result of Olmsted’s influence, Buffalo is a city filled with public parks and gardens. Along with all the public parks, you’ll also discover that many private homes around the city welcome visitors.
One of the best ways to see the gorgeous private gardens is during the annual summer Garden Walk. During one weekend in July, Buffalo hosts the largest private garden walk in the U.S. During the month, more than 400 homeowners open their garden gates and invite the public in to smell the flowers. I visited during June, so I wasn’t there for Garden Walk, but I did take part in the Tours of Open Gardens. That is a once-a-week peek at about 70 gardens across the city.
I discovered so many amazing gardens. One of my favorite spots was the little garden shed in the backyard of Jim Charlier's home. Jim is the Vice-President of Gardens Buffalo New York and tirelessly keeps his yard open throughout July.
It is free of charge for you to wander gardens throughout the neighborhoods. Purchase the guide before you go, then feel free to enter the gardens, chat with the owners, snap photos, and smell the roses. Literally. If you are particularly interested in certain plants, be sure to ask about them. The owners love to talk about their labors of love.
The guide lists the gardens that are open and their hours. Remember to respect the hours—these are private homes, so only go during posted open hours, and even then, make sure the sign is out front. The PDF groups the gardens by area, so you can hit up a different location each evening.
Local Flavors of Buffalo
Food and beer have been a part of Buffalo's history since the beginning. Before Prohibition, Buffalo claimed more than two dozen breweries and 8,000 bars. While that might not have been the case in the years after the end of Prohibition, the food and drink scene is once again hot in Buffalo.
Buffalo is known for its breweries, but I don’t drink beer. I’ve tried. I don’t like it. However, I enjoyed the atmospheres at several of the local Buffalo eateries and recommend them even if you aren't a beer fan.
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. Their offerings change seasonally and they have some fun names. Me, I stuck with a glass of wine, but the food was what would have me coming back here time and again.
The menu changes regularly and there are specials each night. Because I was there on a very hot July day, the restaurant served a slightly spicy watermelon-cucumber gazpacho. It was a simple but tasty dish, one of the best I’ve had anywhere.
There are a few other breweries that I would suggest trying during your visit to Buffalo. One of those is Resurgence Brewing, one of the most popular breweries in Buffalo. The outdoor beer garden on the city’s West Side is popular with locals—which is always a good measure of how to judge the food. Resurgence, located at 1250 Niagara Street, opens at 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and at noon on Sundays.
Another popular brewery is the Hamburg Brewing Company, located at 6553 Boston State Road in nearby Hamburg. This little brewery offers several beers on tap and a great selection of snacks including baked pretzel sticks and a pulled pork sandwich. Hamburg offers tours of the brewhouse on the weekends and even has its own hop farm where they grow three varieties.
If you’re looking for a dinner that offers creative dishes for a special dinner, head to 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 to serve with his Asian-inspired dishes from sushi and fresh oysters to duck breast with roast plums.
Order some of the traditional dishes, but don’t hesitate to sample something a bit quirky. After all, you’re in Buffalo. I suggest 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. Not your typical sushi fare, but dishes you’re not likely to forget—and you won’t find them anywhere else.
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, Buffalo has dozens of food trucks. I can’t wait to hear about your favorites—and I’ll have to check them out on my next visit to Buffalo.
Best Places to Play in Buffalo
There was just no way for me to do everything I wanted to do in the few days I was in Buffalo. I will return so I can do all those things I wasn’t able to experience. The locals said I must go shopping in Elmwood Village. 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 and want to explore more is Canalside.
Canalside hosts more than a thousand events all year long. During the summer, you can rent boats and paddleboards, take harbor cruises, play in the park, eat ice cream, ride bikes, and people watch to your heart’s content. Winter months are cold in Buffalo, but the fun at Canalside doesn’t stop. You will find tons of ice activities—skating, curling, hockey, and ice bikes. Canalside includes restaurants, bars, and even new hotels, making this a great hub of activity for the city.
Another great new feature in Buffalo is RiverWorks. This is one of those simply crazy stories that highlight the integrity, determination, and desire to create something new that I discovered throughout Buffalo. The developers found ways to reinvent abandoned grain silos.
RiverWorks complex includes the RiverWorks brewery, with a beer garden in the hulking remains of a grain silo. It also has 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 waterside.
Daytrip to Niagara Falls
While there is so much to explore in Buffalo, you will want to make time to go to nearby Niagara Falls during your visit. It’s one of those iconic treasures that you must see at least once in your lifetime.
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. There are actually three falls that we usually lump together as “Niagara Falls” and you should check out each one: Horseshoe Falls (mostly on the Canadian side), American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls.
I would suggest taking the 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 each September with its array of brilliant yellows, oranges, and reds. 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 takes you out on wooden walkways to get 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. I was so intrigued—and more than a little impressed—that the workers take down that walkway every fall and build it all over again each spring. The main season extends through mid-October each year.
The Maid of the Mist tour has been an attraction at Niagara Falls for 150 years. Once you put on your 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.
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.
If you want to get really wet, stand on the side of the boat closest to the falls. You can stay drier if you stand toward the back of the boat. No matter where you stand, you feel the intensity of the water as if it is something living and breathing. Maid of the Mist operates daily from early April through early November. You can find out more about things to see and do when visiting Niagara on Wander.
If You Visit Buffalo
I stayed at The Mansion on Delaware Avenue during my stay in Buffalo. This is a historic boutique hotel with all the associated AAA Four Diamond offerings. They offer 24-hour butler service that will take you downtown and pick you up after dinner or a show. This makes it ideal if you fly into Buffalo and choose to not rent a car.
My room was large and roomy, with the feel of yesteryear, but the amenities of today.
I really enjoyed the complimentary drink served in the drawing-room each evening. One of my favorite meals of the day is breakfast, and The Mansion on Delaware Avenue serves a great buffet breakfast each morning. You won’t find friendlier hotel staff anywhere than at The Mansion on Delaware Avenue. There are a variety of other new and modern hotels, along with some charming small inns and historic old residences, where you can stay in Buffalo. 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. This all-American city seems to embody the spirit of survival that defines great destinations in the world. Be sure to read Wander for more options of things to do when you visit New York.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary accommodations, meals, tours, and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.