Whenever somebody asks me where I’m from, I often find myself bracing for their reaction when I say Buffalo. If the person is polite, the response might be something like, “Wow! You must get lots of snow!” If they’re feeling a bit more forward, it’s likely something along the lines of “I bet you’re glad you got the hell out of that dump!” In most cases, this sort of conversation would be qualified as “small talk,” and the proper retort would be none at all — just a simple “I guess” and a shrug. Because of this, the person I’m interacting with, expecting the monosyllabic replies of typical small talk repartee, is in no way prepared for the robust counterattack I’m prepared to inflict. Something that usually begins with, “BUFFALO IS THE BEST CITY EVER!” And I mean it.
Though it has borne the brunt of years of economic hardship and post-industrial population loss, Buffalo has maintained a rich, diverse community and a wonderful array of cultural treasures, ranging from architecture and art to public parks and public theater. Known as “the City on the Lake,” Buffalo is home to lush, temperate summers and dazzling white winters, springs that show off the city’s penchant for beautiful gardening and crisp autumns perfect for jaunts at the farmer’s market. The city has a long-standing and surprisingly active arts community that has, over time, nurtured the creativity of such talents as Cindy Sherman, Charles Burchfield, Ani Difranco and even Mark Twain. In recent years, with the economy favoring more down-to-earth locales, Buffalo has blossomed. Fabulous new businesses have sprung up like daisies while preservation groups and vivacious urban planners have transformed Buffalo’s historic neighborhoods and architectural gems. Although Buffalo’s most common claims to fame are snow and chicken wings, it seems this is soon to change. With more artists and designers choosing the city as a place to live because of the cheap rent and the tight-knit community, Buffalo’s future is brighter than ever. Looking for a beautiful and shockingly affordable place to visit? Look no further than Buffalo, New York. — Max
Read the full guide after the jump . . .
Above images, left to right: A vintage Buffalo postcard (from the collection of Timothy Tielman), one of Buffalo’s many historic grain elevators, one of Buffalo’s beautiful small cottages, an I-heart-the-Sabres sign (Buffalonians love their sports!), some street art in the shape of the Great Lakes, one of Buffalo’s many magnificent gardens, bubbles courtesy of the Allen Street Bubble Man who can be seen nearly every day blowing bubbles from his apartment window (photo by Lydia Fisher)
Above images, left to right: Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s Kleinhans Music Hall, H. H. Richardson’s Buffalo Psychiatric Center, the now abandoned but always beautiful Central Terminal train station, columns on the front facade of Buffalo’s brilliantly Art Deco City Hall (image courtesy of Timothy Tielman), Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House (image courtesy of Timothy Tielman), Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building
SITES TO SEE
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin House Complex — Although it has historically been overshadowed by such Wright masterpieces as Falling Water and Chicago’s Robie house, Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1905 Darwin Martin House is one of the architect’s most impressive achievements, with an inventive interior plan and a vast, sprawling property containing several buildings. The complex is also inextricably tied to Buffalo’s manufacturing history. Commissioned in conjunction with the now demolished Larkin Building by the Larkin Soap millionaire Darwin Martin, the home is one of the few Wright projects that had an almost unlimited budget. The result is a spectacular and luxurious piece of proto-Modernist architecture. Be sure to check out one of the Martin House’s informative guided tours! 125 Jewett Parkway. 716-856-3858.
Eliel and Eero Saarinen’s Kleinhans Music Hall — The permanent home of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Kleinhans music hall is not just a place to take in some excellent music; it’s also an architectural masterpiece. The hall was designed in 1939 by the Modernist father-son duo Eliel and Eero Saarinen (the latter of TWA Terminal fame) with custom furniture by Charles Eames. A stunning example of Streamlined Modernism and acoustic architecture, this is a must-visit for any fan of midcentury design or classical music. While there are no guided tours of the interior, you can stroll around on your own by attending one of the BPO’s many concerts. 3 Symphony Circle. 716-883-3560.
City Hall — One of Buffalo’s most iconic structures, City Hall is a towering, 32-story example of Art Deco at its best. Be sure to check out the jaw-dropping Common Council Chamber, the rooftop observation deck for panoramic views of the city, and one of the free guided tours that takes place every weekday at noon. 65 Niagara Square. 716-851-4200.
Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building — One of America’s first skyscrapers and arguably the most iconic building from Louis Sullivan, the man behind the “form follows function” dictum. A common fixture in most architectural history text books, this building is required material for any design enthusiast. 28 Church St. 716-854-0003.
The Olmsted Park System — Buffalo is home to not one but six stunning parks designed by the master landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Interconnected by a system of lush parkways, the Olmsted Park System in Buffalo is an amazing example of early modern town planning. Be sure to visit Delaware Park, the largest of the six and home to Shakespeare in the Park, summertime rowboating, and sledding in the winter. South Buffalo’s South Park is home to the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, which is perfect for brightening up a gray winter day.
Erie Canal Harbor — As the song goes, the Erie Canal spanned all the way “from Albany to Buffalo.” Here, you can see the terminus of the legendary waterway and take in some views of Lake Erie. The area is also home to the summertime Thursday at the Harbor, an epic concert series with acts that never fail to bring massive crowds. Also nearby is the Buffalo Naval Park, equipped with real-life warships and submarines, open for touring. 95 Perry St. 716-846-8200.
Also worth checking out: The H. H. Richardson Complex on Forest Ave. and the abandoned but stunningly beautiful Art Deco Central Terminal Train Station.
Above images, left to right: The front facade of The Albright Knox Art Gallery, George Segal’s “Cinema” (at the Albright Knox), George Seurat’s “Le Chahut” (at the Albright Knox), Nancy Rubin’s “Canoes” (at the Albright Knox), Charles Burchfield’s “Early Spring,” 1966-67 (Collection of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Gift of Charles Rand Penney, 1994), Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Still #11,” 1978 (Collection of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Purchase supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Burchfield Penney Art Center Collector’s Club, 1989), Paul Sharits’ “Frozen Film Frame Series, 1971-76 (Collection of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Gift of Christopher and Cheri Sharits, 1994)
The Albright Knox Art Gallery – Buffalo’s preeminent art museum, The Albright Knox boasts a world famous collection that reads like a who’s who of modern artists and their work. The museum features a rotating lineup of impressive exhibitions along with permanent pieces by such artists as Gauguin, Seurat, Matisse, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Sol LeWitt, Jackson Pollock, Chuck Close, James Rosenquist, Frida Kahlo, Fred Tomaselli… the list is endless. Also— Friday nights are free! 1285 Elmwood Ave. 716-882-8700.
The Burchfield Penney Art Center – Located directly across the street from The Albright Knox, The Burchfield Penney Art Center’s mission is to promote and exhibit the art of Buffalo and Western New York artists and craftspeople. In addition to works by such artists as Milton Rogovin and Buffalo State alum Cindy Sherman, the museum displays numerous works by its world-famous namesake: Charles Burchfield. An added perk for Burchfield fans is the museum’s life-size replica of the artist’s painting studio. 1300 Elmwood Ave. 716-878-6011.
Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center – Founded in 1974 by a group of young art students, Hallwalls is a multimedia exhibition space that specializes in boundary-pushing works by regional and national artists. Recently relocated to Ani Difranco’s Babeville performing arts space, Hallwalls is home not only to visual arts, but music and literary events. 341 Delaware Ave. 716-854-1694.
Buffalo Arts Studio – A non-profit organization that aims to provide cheap studio space for artists, Buffalo Arts Studio also holds regular exhibitions highlighting the work of talented Buffalonians as well as national and international artists. 2495 Main Street, Suite 500. 716-833-4450.
Art Farms – ArtFarms is an ongoing project that seeks to build sculptural houses for community gardens and farms in Buffalo’s East Side, a region formerly known only for its vacant lots. “ArtFarms,” the organization’s website states, “turns the area’s vacant properties into a new landscape of growing sculpture.” Located throughout Buffalo’s East Side.
Above images, left to right: The amazing Open-Air Autobus, three photos of Buffalo’s iconic Voelker’s Bowling Alley, kayakers exploring Buffalo’s grain elevators (photo by Chris Hawley), cyclists attending the Midnight Bike Ride (photo by Bernice Radle)
OpenAirBuffalo Bus Tours — The Open-Air Autobus is a tour bus owned and operated by the Campaign for Greater Buffalo, a local preservationist group, which, full disclosure, happens to be run by my father. All nepotism aside, I guarantee that this will be the strangest, most unusual tour bus you will ever have the pleasure of riding. Built from a vintage school bus and retrofitted to be sans-roof, the Open-Air Autobus sports leopard-print seats and has some of the most enthusiastic architectural tour guides this side of the Erie Canal. Hop on and get ready to feel the wind! Don’t worry — there’s a plastic roof and ponchos in case of a storm. 716-854-3749.
The Midnight Bike Ride — No lie, attending Buffalo’s legendary Midnight Bike Ride is probably the most fun I’ve had in Buffalo — or any city for that matter. Every Sunday at midnight (during warm months, rain or shine), 200+ cyclists gather at the corner of Allen St. and College St. before embarking on an all-night adventure of biking and general debauchery. The route changes every week, so don’t be surprised if you suddenly end up at a beach bonfire, in an abandoned grain elevator, or skinny-dipping in a public fountain. The legality of the entire event is highly questionable and there’s no telling where you’ll end up, so proceed at your own risk! Grab some drinks at Allen Street Hardware beforehand and get ready for the (bike)ride of your life!
BFLO Harbor Kayak — Explore Buffalo’s waterfront and historic factories in style — in a kayak! Located at the Erie Canal Harbor, BFLO Harbor Kayak rents kayaks starting at $15 an hour. 1 Naval Park Cove. 716-228-9153.
Voelker’s Bowling Alley — A Buffalo landmark, Voelker’s has served North Buffalo for generations. Seemingly unchanged over the decades it has been open, Voelker’s is the perfect place to go for a good old-fashioned time. With dozens of retro arcade games, a menu filled with delicious junk food and beer pitchers, and lanes that are open until 4am, you’re practically guaranteed an awesome night! 686 Amherst St. 716-876-6020.
Queen City Roller Girls — Although games don’t technically take place within the city limits, Buffalo’s roller derby scene is just too awesome not to include in this guide. With most events taking place in nearby North Tonawanda’s old-fashioned Rainbow Roller Rink, these roller derby events are a great way to take in some cheap beer, snacks, and lighthearted spectacle.
The Buffalo Zoo — Opened in 1875, the Buffalo zoo is the third oldest zoo in the United States. With a beautiful nineteenth century setting and dozens of indoor and outdoor attractions including bears, birds, reptiles, and (of course) bison, this large zoo makes the perfect activity for outings with family or friends. 300 Parkside Ave. 716-837-3900.
Above images, left to right: Sloan’s Antiques, a stuffed chicken at Sloan’s Antiques, Allentown’s Antique Man, Vintage LPs decorate the shop windows of The Antique Man, furniture for sale at ReImagine, a cute tumbler set at ReImagine, plates at Room, the store interior at Room 2, a typographic poster from the Western New York Book Arts Center, Rust Belt Books
Sloan’s Antiques — Looking for amazing vintage finds? This is the place for you. Sloan’s Antiques, located in Buffalo’s East Side is the end-all and be-all of vintage furniture stores. A colossus of knickknacks and period pieces, Sloan’s is comprised of three massive multifloor warehouses stacked to the rafters with amazing, affordable finds. Definitely not for the faint of heart, expect to wade and climb through heaps of buried objects. Sloan’s is open somewhat sporadically, so call ahead before you visit. 730 William St. 716-856-6057.
ReImagine — For those seeking a more easily digestible collection of fabulous vintage finds, check out ReImagine, a midcentury furniture store located in the heart of Buffalo’s Elmwood Village shopping district. ReImagine is home to an ever-rotating cast of modern masterpieces, revamped classics, and stunning discoveries. 732 Elmwood Ave. 716-240-9387.
Room — Buffalo’s latest and greatest one-stop shop for all of your contemporary living needs. Room is home to gorgeous modern furniture, lovely accessories, and charming decorations for your home. An instant success, Room has birthed two more locations: Room 2 inside the new Hotel Lafayette and Baby Room, a shop specializing in chic decor for little ones. 1400 Hertel Ave. 716-939-2692. Baby Room: 1376 Hertel Ave. 716-886-3541.
Antique Man — A charming and somewhat offbeat antique store in the heart of the Allentown district, Buffalo’s more bohemian enclave. Home to an assortment of beautiful, old pieces in addition to an impressive collection of vintage records, books, and comics. 234 Allen St. 716-883-2121.
Rust Belt Books — One of Buffalo’s longest-running used book shops, Rust Belt Books is home not only to a massive collection of beautifully aged reading material, but also weekly poetry readings, local zines, and an assortment of rare books and first editions. Exactly the sort of charming atmosphere you’d want from a used bookstore, you’ll want to linger long after you’ve found something to buy. 202 Allen St. 716-885-9535.
Talking Leaves Books — Who says print is on its way out? Talking Leaves, one of the few local bookshops left on the planet, is a small but well-stocked temple for the printed page. With employees that are more than happy to offer advice on good reads and a location in the midst of numerous cafés and a scenic parkway, Talking Leaves is the perfect antidote to our Kindle culture. 951 Elmwood Ave. 716-884-9524.
Spiral Scratch Records — Like printed books, physical albums, especially on vinyl, seem to be a thing of the past. Not so at Spiral Scratch Records, one of Buffalo’s only independent record stores. While the shop sticks primarily to the old-school vinyl format, they also sell CDs and gifts like books, clothing, zines, and vintage stereo gear. 291 Bryant Street. 716-882-3200.
Second Chic — As its name suggests, Second Chic is a store specializing in hip, chic consignment clothing for both men and women. Perfect if you’re trying to achieve that retro look or even if you’re just in the market for a cute new outfit. 810 Elmwood Avenue (in the Neighborhood Collective Building). 716-882-8222.
WNY Book Arts Center — Located in downtown Buffalo, the WNY Book Arts Center is a shop/exhibition/workspace that promotes old-school forms of book making, typography, and printing. The WNYBAC offers workshops in topics such as letterpress, paper making, and silkscreening and sells the printed works of local artists and designers. 468 Washington Street. 716-348-1430.
Can Can Candy — Styled like a mom-and-pop candy shop from a bygone era, Can Can Candy is sure to bring out your inner child with classic treats and penny candy in addition to some contemporary favorites. 822 Elmwood Ave. 716-883-3489.
The Tree House — While you’re out treating your inner child, swing by the Tree House, Buffalo’s biggest and most adorable independent toy store. With nary a Barbie or Bratz Doll in sight, the Tree House carries classics that will stand the test of time, whether they be brain-building board games, DIY craft kits, beautiful stuffed animals, or buckets of fun knickknacks. Visiting kids in Buffalo? Don’t forget to stop here first! 739 Elmwood Ave. 716-882-1322.
Above images, left to right: The interior of Five Points Bakery (images 1–4), Downtown Buffalo’s Swannie House, the West Side’s Santasiero’s Italian restaurant, Betty’s, sodas at Sweetness 7 cafe (photo by Jill Greenberg), the interior of Sweetness 7 (photo by Timothy Tielman)
Five Points Bakery — One of Buffalo’s newest locavore haunts, Five Points Bakery made its name by selling local, organic, and great-tasting bread at affordable prices. In addition to selling delicious baked goods, Five Points offers locally sourced dairy, meat, eggs, and dry goods. With ample seating and a charming interior, it makes the perfect location for a morning coffee and pastry. 426 Rhode Island St. 716-884-8888.
Sweetness 7 — A funky coffee shop located on Buffalo’s up-and-coming Grant Street. With a giant communal table, stacks of boardgames, delicious food, and an interior that’s as sweet as its name, you’ll want to bring a friend, a novel, or your laptop and stay all day. 220 Grant St. 716-883-1738.
Betty’s — Located in a red brick house on the corner of a tree-lined street, Betty’s is a picture-perfect spot for lunch, dinner, or my favorite, Sunday brunch. With a sun-drenched dining room that doubles as an art gallery and a flower-lined patio facing the street, Betty’s offers equally delicious atmosphere and food. 370 Virginia Street. 716-362-0633.
The Swannie House — A Buffalo fixture for several decades, the Swannie House is located somewhat off the beaten path, in downtown Buffalo’s industrial “Silo City.” A charming classic bar and a great place to grab some Buffalo staples like chicken fingers, wings, or a fish fry. Fabulous nearby views of factories and the Buffalo Fire Department’s fire boat. 170 Ohio Street. 716-847-2898.
Santasiero’s — If you’re looking for an authentic family Italian joint with some serious rust belt cred, Santasiero’s is your place. Seemingly ripped from the film reel of a classic mobster movie, this restaurant is a bare bones, purely Buffalo experience — usually packed with people and smelling of garlic bread and delicious Italian dishes. 1329 Niagara Street. 716-886-9197.
Trattoria Aroma — For a more upscale alternative to Italian dining, check out Trattoria Aroma, located on Buffalo’s charming residential Bryant Street. With a beautiful atmosphere, a charming front patio, and wonderful dishes, this restaurant makes for a perfect lunch or dinner date. 307 Bryant Street. 716-881-7592.
Jim’s Steakout — This sub/snack shop is pretty much the place to grab some truly authentic Buffalo eats, namely the should-be-world-famous Chicken Finger Sub. A delicious/disgusting-in-a-good-way treat that entails fried chicken tenders slathered in butter, hot sauce, and bleu cheese, no trip to Buffalo is complete without tasting this local delicacy. Open until 5am to cater to Buffalo’s bar scene, Jim’s is the perfect place for some shameless after-drinks eating. 194 Allen St. 716-886-2222.
La Nova Pizza — Voted the number 1 independent pizzeria in the country, La Nova, in business since 1957, has become internationally famous for their mouthwatering thick crust pizza and chicken wings. So famous, in fact, that they now ship their food overnight to anywhere in the country. While Buffalonians can get pretty defensive of their neighborhood pizzerias, I’m going to go ahead and say that this one’s probably the best. 371 West Ferry St. 716-881-3303.
Allen Street Hardware — Opened in 2004 after it was converted from an old hardware store, Allen Street Hardware Café has become an instant classic for Buffalo barflies. A delicious restaurant by day, Hardware becomes truly alive at night, with a charming interior, live music, and ample floor space to dance. Located on Allen Street, one of Buffalo’s main bar crawls, there are dozens more watering holes within a very close distance. 245 Allen St. 716-882-8843.
Essex Street Pub — A cute, laid back bar that’s often home to Buffalo’s more bohemian crowd, this place is a nice alternative to the jam-packed bars and clubs on Allen Street and downtown’s Chippewa Street. 6 Essex St. 716-883-2150.
Hotel Lafayette — After decades of functioning as an apartment building and halfway house, downtown Buffalo’s old Hotel Lafayette was recently purchased and restored from the ground up to become an absolutely stunning boutique hotel. With a beautifully restored Art Deco lobby, masterfully redesigned bedrooms, and shopping/dining on the first floor, the new Hotel Lafayette makes a wonderful alternative to the surrounding chain options. 391 Washington St. 716-853-1505.
Hostel Buffalo Niagara — Voted the best hostel in the United States by Hosteling International, the Buffalo hostel is a multistory delight for those looking to save a few pennies. The hostel features a spacious kitchen, clean bathrooms, inviting common spaces, and both private and shared bedrooms. It also has the added benefit of being located in downtown Buffalo’s theater district with dozens of entertainment options in walking distance. Chippewa Street, downtown’s clubbing hotspot, is also only blocks away. 667 Main Street. 716-852-5222.
Garden Walk Buffalo — Every spring, residences across Buffalo open up their gardens to the public for one weekend. Now with more than 350 gardens, this is a wonderful way to become familiar with Buffalo’s neighborhoods and beautiful homes. 716-879-0123.
The Buffalo Small Press Book Fair — A one-day event held every year, the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair takes place in the Karpeles Manuscript Museum and features the work of local printmakers, craftspeople, zine publishers, and artists. A fabulous way to become acquainted with Buffalo’s independent arts scene.
Shakespeare in the Park — Every summer, you can see a gigantic stage being built in Delaware Park. This is the seasonal home for Shakespeare in Delaware Park, one of the country’s oldest and most successful free outdoor Shakespeare companies. Each summer, SDP features two plays from the legendary playwright’s oeuvre and shows each week Tuesday–Sunday. Pack your blankets, some wine, and cheese, and be ready to be entertained under the stars. Shakespeare Hill, Delaware Park. 716-856-4538.
Taste of Buffalo — The country’s largest two-day food festival, Taste of Buffalo brings over 50 restaurants and seven wineries to downtown for a weekend of delicious, decadent delight.
So, that’s my list, but it in no way encompasses all of the amazing things to do in America’s “City of Good Neighbors.” If you’re a fellow Buffalonian or Buffalo expat, don’t hesitate to drop some of your favorites into the comments section below! Happy travels!
Special thanks to Erin Habes, Jill Greenberg, Chris Hawley, Aaron Rubin, Bernice Radle, Catherine Willett, Lydia Fisher, and my father, Timothy Tielman, for contributing photos and suggestions to this article. Also, thank you to my lovely mother, Susan McCartney, and my ever-patient boyfriend, Daniel Kanter, for driving me around all day to get the photographs for this guide. You guys rock!