Is it the influx of immigrants from countries like Myanmar and Bhutan or the uptick in cultural investments? The transformation of the waterfront or the revitalization of local institutions? Or is it simply the food? Like many small American cities, Buffalo, which had early booms from various industries, including railways, shipyards and steel manufacturing, is shedding its rusty roots and experiencing a bona fide renaissance. No longer merely the portal to nearby Niagara Falls, Buffalo is a modern and multifaceted city, more than ready for its moment.
A good place to begin your visit to the Queen City — so named for its once prosperous position within the state — is above it. City Hall, downtown on Niagara Square in a majestic 32-story Art Deco tower, has a free public observatory that offers 360 views of Lake Erie and Canada, the city’s old factories and grain silos, and a scattershot of the surrounding 20th-century architecture. When you enter the domed lobby, admire the murals representing such themes as peace, industry and pioneer life. Then take the elevator to the 25th floor and walk up the remaining three flights. Before circling the outdoor catwalk, read the placards on the inside perimeter that will give you a deeper appreciation of the city’s unique geography and history you’re about to look at.
After seeing the sights, scale your own. Buffalo RiverWorks is a recreational complex occupying several structures of a former grain-milling facility along the Buffalo River, including old grain silos that now have 35-, 40- and 50-foot climbing walls, both inside and outside. Experts are on hand to harness you in and help guide you, whatever your level ($7 a single climb; $20 an hour). If wall-climbing is too daunting, do some loops on the indoor roller rink, rent a kayak or water-bike on the river, or just grab a home-brewed brown ale and watch all the action.
It’s hard to get a bad chicken wing in Buffalo. And while everyone has an opinion on whose is best, you can’t go wrong at Anchor Bar. Since serving its first batch of deep-fried wings doused in a “special sauce” in 1964, the bar has seemingly filled up every square inch of its original location with bric-a-brac. You’ll likely have to wait, so pass the time checking out the license plates from around the country, signed photos of minor celebrities who have eaten there, tricycles and Harleys hanging from the ceiling, and the trophies for the restaurant’s sauce. In addition to mild, medium and spicy, wings come in chipotle, garlic Parmesan and sweet and sour flavors, all served with celery and blue cheese ($11.95 for 10 pieces; $20.95 for 20). Not a wings person? Not a problem. In addition to standard bar fare like burgers and wraps, Anchor Bar serves a solid Buffalo-style thick crust pizza.
Make your way toward Canalside, the revitalized area along the Erie Canal Harbor that seems to keep expanding geographically.Its programming keeps expanding, too: concerts, fitness classes, children’s story hours and more, all of which drawlocals and visitors alike to the once-neglected waterfront. Rent a paddle boat, try longboard yoga (the practice of yoga on a paddleboard while floating in water), stroll the boardwalk, play a game of Ping-Pong and check out the site of the future Explore & More Children’s Museum, scheduled to open next year. However you decide to get your activity on, make time to visit Sharkgirl, the half-shark, half-girl sculpture created by the artist Casey Riordan Millard that has become a selfie sensation.
Pop across town and see another side of Buffalo’s changing face. Housed in a simple garage-like space, West Side Bazaar is a small business incubator run by the city’s booming immigrant and refugee populations. Browse the half-dozen vendors like Nadin Yousef who is from Iraq and makes macramé jewelry, wall hangings and plant holders. Then dive into the smorgasbord of international flavors at the casual cafeteria-style dining section. Between the nine vendors, there are over 200 options ranging in price from about $2 to $11. Ethiopian injera topped with spicy lentils and vegetables? Sweet and sour Thai tom yum soup? The world is your oyster.
Move onto a different kind of cultural experience in Buffalo’s regal Parkside neighborhood. The magnificent Martin House, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s many notable structures in Western New York, has been restored after 21 years and $50 million of efforts. The house has a fascinating history of opulence, abandonment and resurrection, which the docent will share as you start in the Toshiko Mori-designed glass pavilion and are then guided through the 15,000-square-foot home (one- and two-hour tours, $19 and $37). Upon entering, catch the epic view of a towering Winged Victory sculpture, visible in the home’s conservatory, across a dramatic 175-foot pergola. The home also features furniture, decorative elements and art glass designed for the Martin family by Wright.
As you crisscross the city, one thing you won’t see is a big mall or department store. Instead the city’s shopping is wonderfully small-scale and local, best illustrated in Elmwood Village. Stroll alongside young families and students from Buffalo State College who give the neighborhood its buzz. Explore the unique boutiques. Blue Sky Design Supply offers sustainable housewares and interior decorating supplies; Half & Half is where you’ll find the season’s trends for both men and women; and Talking Leaves is your source for idiosyncratic book titles along with best-sellers. You also won’t want to miss Watson’s Chocolates, founded in 1946. Treat yourself to a box of sponge candy, an airy, crunchy treat made with caramelized sugar and covered in chocolate that’s a Western New York specialty.
Before the day is over, do a little time travel with a visit to the theater district’s Market Arcade. Built in 1892, the historic Beaux-Arts and neo-Classical space is modeled after the decorative shopping arcades of 19th-century London. Admire the architectural details — Corinthian columns, Palladian windows and sculpted bison heads — as you step inside the three-story building that’s diffused with natural light from a frosted glass skylight above. You can also take home a piece of the city, thanks to the growing number of boutiques like Buffalo Adore, which features plenty of Buffalo-themed shirts, pins, coasters and prints from more than 100 local artisans.
It’s finally time to ease into evening, and there’s no better way to do it than with a well-crafted, cheekily named cocktail at the nearby Buffalo Proper. One of the city’s few focused cocktail programs when it opened in 2014, the tavern continues to be a big hit with the city’s young professionals. The mustachioed barmen in plaid, and the interior’s twee mix of taxidermy and mismatched vintage glasses makes it feel like Buffalo by way of Brooklyn. Try the BFLO Bramble, made with bison grass vodka, blackberries and mint ($10).
Finish the day back on the west side for more worldly flavors — this time contemporary Mexican at Las Puertas. A follow-up to his more casual restaurant, Casa Azul,the chef Victor Parra Gonzalez serves up a modern vision of Mexican food that’s as unassuming as it is special: guacamole dusted with crushed crickets; a bed of creamy mole verde, topped with vegetables, sesame seeds and queso cotija cheese; tender duck that’s paired incongruously but deliciously with poached pears, heirloom carrots and quinoa. The intimate space and simple white interior act like a blank canvas, letting the elegantly plated dishes stand out that much more. Dinner for two with wine is about $130.
Have a yearning to see a Rothko, Renoir or Rodin? You’re in luck. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery ($12), one of the oldest museums in the nation, packs a punch. The modestly sized museum started in 1863 with an oil painting by Albert Bierstadt and has steadily amassed an impressive collection of everything from photography to abstract expressionism. It also hosts about six major exhibitions a year, including this summer’s retrospective of the late Robert Indiana, which will feature a never before shown LOVE sculpture. Then journey across the street to the Burchfield Penney Art Center on the campus of Buffalo State College ($10). Devoted to the American artist who found much inspiration in Western New York’s vistas and streetscapes, there’s always an eclectic range of craft art, architecture and design on exhibit to discover.
A coffeehouse, larder and more, Rowhouse Bakery & Restaurant taps into all the things a modern foodie wants and delivers them in one charmingly sprawling space. There are all kinds of nooks to enjoy your turmeric smoothie or macchiato in: near a fireplace in the cocktail lounge, in a book alcove overlooking the three-story atrium, or perched at a counter in a clean white cafe. But with its plush chairs and ornamental fireplaces, it’s worth sitting in the refined dining room to dig into a breakfast pizza with ricotta, egg and sausage or cinnamon brioche French toast served with an apple compote. Brunch for two about $50.
Another city institution, the Buffalo Zoo ($12.50, adults; $9.25, children), which dates back more than 140 years, continues to upgrade its facilities to both promote animal conservation and wow its guests. Take your time exploring the more than 23 acres, which are home to everything from a Brazilian tarantula to an Indian rhinoceros. Along the way you can watch a pride of lions frolic outdoors, escape to a rain forest with a two-story waterfall and free-flying birds, and go nose-to-nose with Luna, one of two polar bears and the zoo’s unofficial mascot.
As eclectic as it is classic, the 28-room Mansion on Delaware Avenue (414 Delaware Avenue, mansionondelaware.com) is conveniently located in the center of the city. Rooms seamlessly blend historic architecture with modern touches, including working fireplaces and LED TVs, while butler service makes you feel like you’re enjoying Buffalo’s golden days. Complimentary wine and tea and a large buffet breakfast are served in one of the two main parlors. Rooms start at $180.
Housed in a former mental hospital, the 88-room Hotel Henry (444 Forest Avenue, hotelhenry.com) is a unique stay, to say the least. Indeed, the exterior looks a bit foreboding, but the new hotel is completely modern and welcoming inside, starting with the spacious common areas and popular farm-to-table restaurant, 100 Acres. Rooms are also generously sized, and outfitted with padded headboards, soft throws and palettes of soothing grays. Standard doubles from $165.
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