I didn’t have high expectations for Buffalo. Morbid curiosity, perhaps. And simply the desire to go somewhere and explore for a few days without having to get on a plane. Now that I’ve been there, I can tell you that Buffalo is way more than a stop on your way to Niagara Falls.
I was shocked by how lovely Buffalo was. Buffalo’s grand architecture certainly makes it clear that it was once home to the most millionaires of any city in the world. It may no longer be on top of the world, but there’s still a lot going on and plenty of charm.
The downtown core was quiet the evening I arrived, it’s true, but hardly the tumbleweed town I’d been told to expect. The more you look, the more you’ll discover to do in Buffalo. You could easily spend a week here — and maybe still have time for a day at the falls.
Places to explore
Canalside is the obvious place to start. A detour to the top of Buffalo City Hall for their observation deck is the perfect way to either see all the places you’ve walked or to plan your trip around town. There’s a daily guided tour of the building. Zigzag your way around downtown to see some truly impressive architecture. A stroll along Delaware Ave and Elmwood Ave is also quite lovely.
Just beyond the downtown core is Allentown. It’s small, but full of shops and cafes that are worth checking out, and surrounded by lovely houses. Detour to Kleinhan’s Music Hall for a nice walk. Cross to the other side of Main Street to see how Buffalo is becoming a city of medicine. It’s a great example of modern urban planning.
I was caught off-guard by just how charming Elmwood Village is. It’s Park Slope, dropped into downtown Buffalo. Indeed, one of the people I was talking to had made the move from Park Slope to Elmwood Village to live the same lifestyle for a fraction of the price.
The West Side is made up of many smaller neighborhoods, all of which are worth seeing. There’s some serious pride in homeownership here, with lovely gardens, DIY improvements, and tons of new storefronts opening up. There are more community gardens and public art projects than you can count. Wander through and see what you discover. Be sure to check out Grant Street.
Delaware Park is home to the two art museums, the Buffalo History Museum, and the zoo. Walk by the zoo and you’ll be able to see the giraffes peering over the gates. The Frank Lloyd Wright Martin House Complex is just outside the park.
The Cobblestone District was cute, but can’t hold it’s own to similar neighborhoods in other cities. Try again in a few years, but right now it’s mostly parking lots.
Where to work
There are plenty of chain coffee shops as well as independent spots around Buffalo to keep you caffeinated, charged up, and online.
This spot is the first bit of Allentown you’ll see when you get off the subway. They take their coffee seriously, so if you want a syphon brew and the story behind it, you’ll make the owner’s day. It’s a DIY space, but in the best possible way. They’ve got good coffee, a nice breakfast, speedy wifi, outlets, and a clean bathroom. A clean bathroom that’s the size of a NYC studio apartment. It’s very much a local spot, but they’re friendly to out-of-towners.
This bright spot is the most pleasant place to work. Just be warned that you’re going to have to order some food after seeing other people eating. Resistance is futile. Everyone was friendly, but I can say that about everyone I encountered in Buffalo. This is one of the few independent coffee shops that felt modern and minimal.
This is one of those places that’s a coffee shop that also serves dinner, so I felt a little uncomfortable just getting coffee, even though everyone working there was totally cool about it. This place is a major winner if you want a cocktail or a glass of wine while you work — and let’s be honest that sometimes we need that.
The pizzas looked really good and people seemed very happy with them, but I’d already eaten. Next time.
This is a very hip spot in a very up-and-coming neighborhood. This is where all the cool kids hang out. The screen door makes me feel like I should be barefoot at home. The mismatched chairs are worn, but comfortable. Service is slow, but friendly and the food is excellent.
When I was there the plugs weren’t working, although they do have a network of extension cords to make plug accessibility a little easier. If you’re here in the summer, be prepared for the lack of AC.
Things to do
I will admit that I went here because it was raining and because I’m a history nerd who feels morally obligated to go to every historic site. This was way more interesting that I expected it to be and I thoroughly enjoyed my time here. As did the little kids who were on the tour with me. And the teenagers, if you can believe it.
The tour walks you through the assassination of President McKinley and the inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt. They do an impressive job of providing context for the life and times of presidents most of us aren’t terribly familiar with. The guided tour of the house is mixed with interactive exhibits and free exploration.
Tours are every hour on the :30.
I love art museums that show local artists. It’s a great opportunity to learn about a place while discovering new artists. If you have time (or patience) for only one of the two art museums in Buffalo, I’d suggest the Penney.
Of course, it’s a smallish museum so check to see what’s showing before you commit. The galleries themselves are lovely spaces and the amount of work on display allows you to take your time without feeling rushed to see everything.
If you’re there on the second Friday of the month, admission is free.
Across the street from the Burchfield Penney, the Albright-Knox is an imposing classical structure. While the building and the collection are huge, the actual public gallery space is a bit more manageable.
Their collection includes big name artists and generally there’s a special exhibition that requires an additional entrance fee.
The Albright-Knox is free the first Friday of the month.
I’ve been to a lot of city history museums and this is one of the best. The building itself is worth the visit. The grounds are lovely, although it was pouring rain when I went so I’ll have to go back to really explore.
The museum gives a wonderful overview of the history of Buffalo and helps you understand the city you’re looking at today. I’m a sucker for the miniature cities and train displays.
Locals are all excited about Tim Russert’s office. As an out-of-towner, this meant nothing to me. It’s a small — but locally meaningful — corner of a large and wonderful museum.
If you have time, I hear the library is a gem.
I love science museums. The Buffalo Museum of Science is a great mix of weird taxidermy and interactive exhibits. You could spend all day there.
There’s none of that dusty taxidermy in glass cases here (although I find them quite charming). They’ve reworked old exhibits to turn taxidermy into beautiful displays on the environment that are quite engaging.
Other exhibits focus on health and medicine, the solar system, bugs, and dinosaurs. You can’t go wrong with dinosaurs. They’ve also got a deconstructing zone and an area to build forts. It took a lot of self control to act like an adult.
They’ve packed a lot of exhibits (and a school!) into the space.
I hear they throw some cool events, too.
Where to eat
This spot on the waterfront predates the canalside being cool. They’re famous for their “pods,” which is a calzone if you’re from New Jersey. A giant calzone, which is almost certainly enough for two meals.
If you’re used to American style Italian food, you’ll be right at home. This was my first time in Buffalo, but it’s the food of my childhood. The biggest difference from NJ Italian and this is the abundance of vegan options on the menu. The prices are excellent, especially compared to the other options in this (or any) tourist area.
Pizza Plant also has a bar area with friendly bartenders and friendly patrons. This is where I spent my time waiting for the bus back to Toronto. I left feeling refreshed and with a fully charged phone after a fun time and lots of recommendations from the locals who happened to be there.
"America is a melting pot and that's good news when it comes to eatin'. The West Side Bazaar (@westside_bazaar) in Buffalo, NY, is home to eight ethnic food stands. Burmese, Jamaican, Laotian, South Sudanese, and Pakistani cuisine have all been on offer here, but one of the most consistent bang-for-your-buck deals is the vegetarian injera platter for two at Abyssinia Ethiopian. It's a good thing you eat it with your hands, as you'll want to lick every finger." —#CNTtakeover by @ashleahalpern of @cartogramme #TravelerInBuffalo #TravelerInNewYork #AtHomeInTheWorld
The name might have tipped you off that this isn’t really a restaurant. This storefront flea market has food stalls serving pretty amazing dishes from around the world. What it’s missing in ambiance is made up for in flavor. With Burmese, Thai, Ethiopian, Indian, Pakistani, Lao, and Chinese food all in the same place, you have a lot of options to choose from. This might be the best way to get a feel for Buffalo’s huge immigrant community.
Of course, there are also plenty of stalls to shop at before or after you eat. Remember to hit the ATM before you go.
I haven’t been living in Canada long enough to speak with any authority on poutine, but I was pretty happy with the fun options at Allen Street. There are a lot of menu options. The locals I spoke to said it was the best poutine in Buffalo. I was also happy to sit down and have a beer.
There’s ping pong upstairs if that’s your thing.
When I was there every customer was from New Jersey. I imagine that’s not usually the case, but it did make for a fun night of bonding with strangers.
It’s harder and harder to find a legit doughnut place. Not a chain. Not some fancy artisanal nonsense. Just real doughnuts, made fresh and simple. That’s what Famous Doughnuts has to offer.
They are cheap and delicious. They’ve got super cheap coffee cart coffee. Go there.
Other spots to check out
There’s just too much to see in three days — and some museums are only open a few times a week. Here’s what I’ve got as “must dos” for my next visit:
- Hertel Avenue
- The Steel Plant Museum
- Resurgence Brewing Company
- Buffalo Harbor Museum
- Lockhouse Distillery and Bar
- Pierce Arrow Museum
Where to stay
Getting around Buffalo
Buffalo has a little subway (that’s free for the downtown core, just make sure to stay within the free zone!) and an excellent bus system.
It’s very walkable, although drivers seem unaware of that so watch out even if you have the right of way. I walked just about everywhere in some epic 20 mile days.
Getting in and out of town
Word to the wise is that the bus from Toronto is going to be a little late and the bus from New York City is going to be a lot late. Buffer your schedule accordingly and track the progress of your bus on the Greyhound app.