WHY GO: Once the terminus of the Erie Canal, Buffalo NY had more millionaires than any other city at the turn of last century. Two US Presidents, Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland, spent time here. And one, William McKinley, was assassinated here.
Frederick Law Olmsted designed parks and roadways, industry flourished. The “Amazon.com” of its day – the Larkin Company – employed thousands. Frank Lloyd Wright was hired to design homes, office buildings and even a gas station. And the Pan American Exposition was held here in 1901, though the celebration was marred by the assassination of President McKinley.
Then came the Depression and this industrial city was hit hard, never really recovering in the 60’s and 70’s when other wealthier areas of the country demolished grand old buildings to make way for the ugliness of “Urban Renewal.” In the long run, this was to Buffalo’s advantage.
Now, exceptional architecture, a burgeoning medical research and development sector, waterfront development and repurposing of these iconic buildings is attracting a growing number of history buffs and epicurean–minded visitors to New York State’s westernmost city.
Several years after I wrote the above introduction, Buffalo continues to add fantastic restaurants and innovate by creating public spaces from once-decaying factories and institutions. New in 2017: two boutique hotels, the grain-silos turned brewery and adult playground – Riverworks, and improvements of Canalside. Buffalo NY is on such an upward swing, in fact, it’s inspired the exceedingly popular website BuffaloRising.com, which says it all. Read on for the current best of the best to do in this energized city….
What to Do in Buffalo NY
GO: Niagara Falls. Chances are you’ve been here. But if you haven’t, see one of the natural wonders of the world from several vantage points. It’s a short 20 minute drive from downtown Buffalo, so plan to stay in the city, and make the Falls a daytrip. Experience Maid of the Mist – the US boat that takes you right into the thundering roar of Canada’s Horseshoe Falls, grinding the engine in the pummeling whitewater for several dramatic minutes. Then walk in the splash of the American Falls through the Cave of the Winds. For both, you’ll be issued flimsy ponchos (you will get wet, guaranteed), and at the entrance of the Cave of the Winds, you’ll receive a complimentary sturdy water-sandal souvenir in your size. Open May – mid-October. Discovery Pass, $36 adults, $29 youth, gets you into five attractions including Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds with take-home souvenir sandals.
VISIT: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House Complex. At a time when Buffalo was the 8th largest city in the USA, and one of the first to be completely wired for electricity, this home, consisting of five structures built 1903-1905, was one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s largest commissions. By the 1990’s three of the original structures had been demolished, necessitating a painstaking restoration that began in 1997 and continues to this day.
Begin at the glass-encased Visitor’s Center, designed by contemporary NYC architect Toshiko Mori and opt for either a one or two hour tour of one of the country’s signature FLW sites.
Like all Wright designs, the main house consists of natural materials, with a dynamic view the minute you walk through the front door. A 175-foot pergola connects the main house to the statue of Winged Victory in a plant-filled conservatory. Wright urged the “Soul to Soar” through architecture. His spaces were compressed, but his designs were light-filled for those Victorian times.
Most homes of the day were finished in mahogany, but Wright favored the lighter fine-grained rift-sawn White American Oak. His iconic art-glass windows with iridescent gold-leaf rectangles filtered light into the interior through green and golden hues. Wright abhorred clutter, hiding books in innovative cabinets and heating grates behind art glass doors that once again have been meticulously restored by the best craftsmen today. Mon, Wed, Fri. Sat – one-hour tours begin on the hour from 10am (11am Jan-April) till 4pm, Sundays from noon – 3:30, $17 for one hour tour, $35 two-hour tour. Not wheelchair accessible. Must reserve tickets in advance.
VISIT: Graycliff Estate, Derby. Built on a cliff of gray limestone (hence the name) overlooking Lake Erie, Graycliff was constructed for Darwin Martin’s wife, Isabelle, as a “country house” to replace her beloved summer place in the Adirondacks. By the early 1920’s Isabel’s eyesight was so bad, she consulted with Frank Lloyd Wright to design this getaway, 15 miles from Buffalo, with walls of glass that allowed views through to the lake and plenty of natural light.
After Isabelle passed away in 1945, the Piarist Fathers purchased the property (in 1951), covering up many of the fine features with additional buildings and lean-tos. In the 1990’s, when the Order vacated the property, it was slated to be torn down until a small, passionate group formed the “Graycliff Conservancy” and raised an initial $20,000 to stave off demolition. Since then, funds have been rolling in to support the restoration, rendering the Graycliff Conservancy one of the most successful grassroots efforts in the region to rescue one home.
Before one wall or floor could be restored, tens of thousands of dollars were spent on structural issues – tons of dirt had to be removed from the basement and cement chipped from flowerbeds. A state of the art “misting” system was installed to prevent damage from either fire or too much water. Next, an asphalt roof installed by the Fathers was removed, and replaced with 25,000 hand-stained cedar shingles, as Wright had designed, and exterior walls re-stuccoed using sand from the beach below. Wright was a nut for nature – bringing gardens and patios inside whenever he could. The Fern Room features flower boxes and unique corner windows that open. Touring Graycliff provides a rare chance to witness a work-in-progress restoration of one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most unusual designs. Tours various times through the year, so consult website. Open daily in summer and early fall, closed Wed otherwise. Most tours 10:30, 11 and 2 M-F, more on weekends. $16 adults, $10 kids. Do not wear high heels!
TOUR: Buffalo Wing Trail. Of course the city that brought spicy chicken wings to the world has a Buffalo Wing Trail. This guide takes you to 12 different pubs and taverns that offer their own version of the original Anchor Bar Chicken Wings. There’s even a “Wing Crawl” on select days. You may just find a new favorite.
VISIT: Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Since 1862, the Albright-Knox has been collecting “paintings while still wet.” Incorporating a 1905 Beaux Arts building (which boasts the second-most number of columns in the country – the first being the U.S. Capitol Building) and a 1962 contemporary addition, The Albright-Knox takes the long view of Modernism with strongest holdings in Post War American Abstraction. After a world-tour, one of the most thrilling installations is back – Lucas Samara’s Mirrored Room – joined by famous works by world-renowned artists. Frida Kahlo’s (unibrowed) Self –Portrait, Giacomo Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash among others will be on display until September 2014 when they head off again. In permanent galleries, see works of Picasso, Renoir, O’Keefe, Warhol, and a Sol LeWitt stairwell installation, built from millions of graphite scribbles, that looks from afar like steel. $12 adults, $5 kids, Tues-Sun 10-5.
VISIT: Burchfield/Penney Art Center. Though he was the first artist chosen for a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC in 1930, most people have never heard of Charles Burchfield. But a visit to this 2008 LEDE-Certified museum, moved from Buffalo State College across the street, will change all that. Burchfield began his career designing wallpaper, and among the 30,000 objects of his here, you might just be mesmerized by Burchfield’s bizarre take on nature – a mashup of Munch, Van Gough, and Audubon on hallucinogens. Look for eyes in trees, stormy skies, Lucy in the Sky With Diamond colors. Tuesday-Saturday from 10am-5pm, Thursday from 10am-9pm and Sunday from 1-5pm. Admission is $10 (adult), $8 (senior), $5 (student).
VISIT: Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum. What was just until lately the vanity project of an antique-car collector is now the home to never-build-in-his-lifetime but now realized Frank Lloyd Wright Filing Station. But first, the museum itself.
Because Buffalo was the terminus of the Erie Canal, it was an engine of industry and manufacturing. Buffalo-based Pierce Arrow employed over twelve thousand people during its heyday, turning out more trucks for WWI than any other car manufacturer in the country.
The high-class Pierce-Arrow Motorcar, the “Rolls Royce of America,” was the official White House vehicle from Taft to FDR, and you can see several meticulously restored versions among a warehouse of other notable autos, including the “Playboy” – a white convertible brand put out of business by General Motors, the 1902 Buffalo Electric Car made for the most part for women because it didn’t require cranking, an Ohio Electric Car with smooth black patent leather fenders, a cherry red Chevy Impala 409 of “she’s real fine, my 409” fame.
The pièce de résistance of this museum, though, is the newly debuted Frank Lloyd Wright gas station, which was never built. Until now. In 1927, having just completed Graycliff, Wright was broke and in the midst of a nasty divorce and scandalous relationship with an underage foreigner. Scorned and under a microscope, he was nevertheless hired by TYDOL to design a state-of-the-art gas station at a time when these pit stops were literally a pump and a shack. Wright imagined a copper-roof filing station that would spoil patrons with fireplaces, deluxe restrooms, and an ingenious gravity-flow rooftop gas dispensing system. The final design was much too expensive to build, and so it never was. Now, you can see it exactly how Wright had envisioned it – gleaming copper roof and all. And if you go before January 2015, you’ll see Wright’s own orange 1929 Cord L-29 Cabriolet on loan from the Duesenberg Museum in Auburn Indiana. Thurs-Sun 11-4, $10 adults, $5 kids.
TOUR: Architectural Tour. Start at the imposing 1932 City Hall and take the elevator to the 25th floor observation deck (you’ll have to climb an additional 2 floors to get to it) for a bird’s eye view of Buffalo and Lake Erie. It’s also a nice camera angle to see the top of the Liberty Bank Building where two 30-foot bronze replicas of the Statues of Liberty face east and west. Take a free one-hour tour of City Hall Monday – Saturday at noon.
Next, the Hotel Lafayette – notable for its creator, Louise Bethune, America’s first female architect. Built in 1905 with hot and cold running water and phones in every room, it was among the most technologically advanced hotel of its day – and after a recent renovation is back in vogue as a boutique hotel.
Next – hailed as the largest commercial building when constructed, the Ellicott Square Bldg. features an incredible interior with mosaic floor, wrought iron railings and double-staircases and spectacular glass ceiling. Bonus: you can get your Beef On Weck at Charlie The Butcher’s Express here for the ultimate Buffalo experience.
Stop at the Louis Sullivan Guaranty Building, built in 1895 for Prudential Insurance. Sullivan, called “The Father of the Modern Skyscraper,” covered exterior surfaces with spectacular terra-cotta ornamentation.
Buffalo Architecture tours through “Explore Buffalo,” which provides multiple tours per day on a double-decker bus for optimal viewing, and other tours by “foot, bike, bus, and kayak.”
AMAZING FIND: Handwritten Huck Finn Manuscript at the Buffalo Public Library. Stand within reach of the portion of manuscript discovered in 1990 in an old trunk that hadn’t been open since before the owner’s death in the 60’s. (Twain had donated the other half to the library in 1885, when manuscripts weren’t worth much). There it is, in Twain’s own handwriting, cross-outs and all – several pages plus the title page of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Unbelievable.
VISIT: Buffalo History Museum. Within site of the Albright-Knox Art Museum and Burchfield-Penny, the History Museum is housed in the only building remaining from the 1901 Pan American Expo.
VISIT: Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site. Like Lyndon Johnson on Air Force One, Teddy Roosevelt was hastily sworn into office at his friend’s home, following the assassination of President McKinley at the Pan American Exposition in 1901. The Wilcox home is now a National Historic Site, where you’ll find videos and exhibits about the man who used the “Bully Pulpit” to push through anti-trust legislation, champion the conservation movement and increase consumer protections. Guided tour only, $10. Mon.- Fri 9-5, Sat/Sun noon-5. Last tour 3:30.
GO: Riverworks. This multi-purpose space on the industrial riverfront has evolved rather organically from the ruins of humungous Wheeler-GLF grain silos painted to look like beer cans, and there’s lots going on here, so hold on to your hats (especially if you take the party Cycle Boat or floating Tiki Bar on a quick jaunt).
Riverworks is home to the world’s first brewery inside a grain silo. The “Beer Garden” references actual floral landscaping in and around the concrete rubble, just one habitat to choose from to enjoy your drink or bite ordered from a massive indoor bar overlooking the Queen City Roller Girls roller rink. (I said there’s a lot going on).
You can also rent kayaks, hydro-bikes, or rock-climb on the exterior or interior of silos. This place was packed on a summer Monday afternoon. I can’t imagine what it’s like on weekends.
STROLL: Canalside. Thanks to General Mills, the smell of Cheerios lingers in the Buffalo air, particularly by the industrial waterfront. Day or night, by foot or boat, this formerly shabby newly revitalized Niagara River/Lake Erie area sparkles with life, history and participatory events. You might stumble upon a vibrant Zumba class, a concert or kids learning to hoola hoop. On Saturday mornings, the Artisan Market brings shoppers to the esplanade. Rent a kayak from Buffalo Harbor Kayak ($15 hourly) and you can paddle right up to factory buildings – like the Archer/Daniels Midland Grain Elevators, cement plants and General Mills Cheerio facility.
PHOTO OP: Shark Girl at Canalside. Ever since Shark Girl has been installed here, she’s been an Instagram selfie darling. Things continue to get cooler at Canalside. Now, besides kayaks, you can rent Ice Bikes in wintertime when this mini-Erie canal turns into a giant skating rink.
PARTY/MUSIC/FOOD TRUCKS: Larkin Square. Howard Zemsky and his wife, Leslie – the “Director of Fun: Larkin Square” – took an abandoned manufacturing complex and turned the city around. Or at least this part of it. The Larkin Co. was “the Amazon of its day,” starting with soap making and then kitchen craft, fashion, home goods and furniture – all sold by catalog or by women who earned furniture rather than an income. Larkin was one of the largest companies in America, but went out of business by the 1940’s.
The community-minded Zemsky’s saw opportunity in these abandoned buildings and repurposed them into new office space, but didn’t stop there. They carved out a public park – like a quad on a college campus – where people can gather, eat, sit in lounge chairs and play games for free. Though nearly 2,000 people work here, many more come for “Food Truck Tuesdays,” “Live at Larkin Wednesdays,” and “Outdoor Urban Market Thursdays.” The renovated 1930’s Filling Station is now a locally sourced café, and across the street is the great pub, Hydraulic Hearth. Come on any given summer’s eve and the place is hopping.
BIKE: Reddy Bikes. Red bikes are ready for use (haha) as Buffalo’s new bike share. If you haven’t brought your own, just grab one from a rack situated around town.
GO/MUSIC: Colored Musicians Club. Celebrating 100th anniversary of the Colored Musician’s Union, jazz musicians have been playing here after other Buffalo performances since 1917. Davis, Coltrane, Gillespie – all the jazz greats have jammed here after hours. Musicians are invited to join in on Sunday night jam sessions. It’s an intimate way to listen to live jazz, and you never know who’s going to show up.
SHOP/EAT/DRINK: Elmwood Ave. A bit over two miles long, this street has boutiques, restaurants and The Bubble Man – a guy who blows bubbles from his second story window on the corner of Allen and Elmwood.
What and Where to Eat in Buffalo NY
BUFFALO FOOD: Buffalo Wings the now ubiquitous bar food wasn’t always. Invented on the fly at the Anchor Bar in 1964, Theresa Bellisimo needed to satisfy a hungry hoard of college kids with the scraps she had on hand. The deep fried, hot sauce snack, as we now say, went viral. “Beef On Weck” – rare roast beef on a salt and caraway seed kimmelweck bun. Get one quick at Charlie The Butcher’s Express while ogling the interior of a Buffalo icon – the Ellicott Square Building. Sponge Candy – chocolate covered crunchy confection that looks just like a wild sponge. Find them at Watson’s or Fowler’s.
EAT: Toutant. Named for the fish camp Chef/owner James Robert’s granddaddy had in his native Louisiana, Toutant is a revelation. And Roberts is a culinary genius. Every Creole dish that emerges from the kitchen is a brilliant – and brilliantly plated – twist on the traditional, from Shrimp and Grits ($24) to Buttermilk Fried Chicken ($20) to the in-house smoked Jambalaya Smoked Chicken ($19). Some greens in the just picked salad have been flash fried, lending a salty crunch to the dish. Everything is OMG great. But don’t pass up desert – you’ll want to try the Ooey Gooey Cake topped with Brown Butter Ice Cream. Go ahead – I dare you to stop at just one bite.
EAT/BREAKFAST: Five Points Bakery. It’s a “Toast Café!” Order the toasted bread of your choosing (it’s a bakery, after all), and sides either sweet or savory. This place goes way, way beyond Avocado Toast.
EAT: Tempo. You’ll find one of Buffalo’s top fine restaurants on Millionaire’s Row – Delaware Ave – in a stone townhome modeled after a Tuscan villa. Food is excellent, low-lit atmosphere appropriate for family pow-wows or an intimate tete a tete, and classy, knowledgeable waitstaff are attentive, but not overly so. Hand-rolled Gnocchi ($26) with gooey mozzarella is sinfully good, as is the light as air Chicken Milanese ($34) – delicately breaded cutlet topped with arugula salad.
EAT: There is no end to the growing food scene in Buffalo, and the “Best Chicken Wings” debate extends into fine and casual dining as well. Consensus for best include Left Bank for Modern American, Hutch’s for Seafood, Lombardo’s – another fine Italian, Allen Burger Venture – for innovative, quirky burgers, Buffalo Proper – a posh cocktail bar, Ballyhoo near the GM plant – a cool new cocktail bar in the former workmen’s watering hole that was Malamute, and Rue’s Pierogi – the best of Grandma’s pierogi dough recipe with a modern twist.
DRINK: Founding Father’s Pub. Locals love this quirky place. Trivia Nights and free nachos make this friendly neighborhood pub an international favorite.
DRINK: Resurgence Brewing Co. One of a bundle of craft breweries in town, Resurgence makes a “Sponge Candy Stout,” allowing you to both sample the beer and Buffalo’s signature confection at the same time. Resurgence also features a Beer Garden where you can munch on burritos and meat pies while enjoying your brews. Opened in mid 2016, Thin Man Brewing Co. named for the Crash Test Dummy that was invented in Buffalo, has been quickly gaining fans.
Where to Stay in Buffalo NY
STAY: Hotel Henry: H.H. Richardson, along with Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan, is one of the “recognized trinity of American Architecture” Richardson considered the 1870 New York State Asylum, shut down in the 1970’s and an office building until 1996, to be his greatest project. In mid 2017, this incredible edifice has been reborn as the boutique hotel, Hotel Henry, which is a Maven Favorite and has earned its own featured review HERE.
STAY: Mansion on Delaware. Built in 1869 as a home for a family of three (with 12 servants), the Mansion sat empty for 30 years before its debut as a 28-room 4 Diamond hotel in the early ‘aughts. And like that family of three, you’ll be spoiled rotten by a bevy of butlers at your beck and call. Décor is stunning – Marimekko meets Art Deco with bones and woodwork intact – a mash-up of moderns to highlight the original architecture to beautiful effect. Even the smallest of rooms exude charm, with graphic-design pillows in rust and black, patterned carpet in hues of green, glass desk, and contemporary accessories.
But what makes this stay so unique are the “Butlers” on call 24/7. Need your shirt and pants pressed? Call. Just call. First two items are complementary. Require ice? “Please don’t do it yourself, ask us.” Need to get to a great restaurant? A Land Rover will shuttle you within three miles. Between 5 and 7pm, join other guests in the boldly decorated billiards room and salons while enjoying complementary wine and cocktails (2 per person before honor-bar kicks in). “European” breakfast includes cheese and smoked salmon and the most decadent, cream-centered chocolate croissant that memories are made of. Rooms $190-$450 include free wi-fi, parking, afternoon cocktails or wine, European breakfast, clothes pressing, shuttle service, butler service.
STAY: Curtiss Hotel. Opened within a few months of Hotel Henry, Curtiss is South Beach wild to Henry’s New York cool. Even before you walk through the front door, you can peek into the hotel’s “all weather urban hot springs,” – a very public, but small heated indoor outdoor pool in a partially enclosed patio space. The interior swirls with Rococo-crazy moldings and designs. Buffalo’s old revolving bar, Chez Ami, has been recreated here. And yes, it revolves. On the roof, the in-final-stage-of-construction Vue, features patio “views” of the city skyline, Lake Erie, and Canada. $169-$799.
STAY: Hotel @ Lafayette. Newly renovated, this 1904 building was designed by the first woman to be admitted into the American Institute of Architects, Louise Blanchard. It’s now a trendy, contemporary boutique hotel. Rooms $170-$210 per night.