Travel Guide: Buffalo’s Extreme Makeover
Meet the sexy, sophisticated side of a vibrant city reborn.
Buffalo is a city many people think they know – until they go there. Then reality sets in. It is a destination that surprises at every turn, from top-tier architecture to charming neighborhoods and repurposed former industrial areas. Yes, there are still those legendary chicken wings, but do yourself a favor and take a bite of all that the new Buffalo offers.
Buffalo was a bustling port for many years until other forms of transportation pushed it into a death spiral. Fortunately, what’s left from that time serves the city nicely. The waterways now welcome kayakers who paddle alongside the industrial chic of old warehouses and concrete grain silos. In winter, the frozen canal sees locals hop on specially designed ice bikes for a scenic pedal.
Back on land, design-minded visitors should take a free tour of Buffalo City Hall, an Art Deco masterpiece, or a docent-led look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s lovingly restored Darwin Martin House. Check out a slice of urban history at the Colored Musicians Club – museum by day, live music spot by night – where legends like Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald have performed since the venue opened in its current location in 1934.
While the new Buffalo is focused on the future, its culinary offerings have one foot in the past and one in the present. The city’s international claim to fame is chicken wings, created by the Anchor Bar more than 50 years ago. It also has lesser known bragging rights as the sponge candy capital of the world, made by at least five long-time confectioners. Pick up a pound (or two).
Take a bite out of Buffalo’s past and sink your teeth into a beef on a weck (a type of bun) from Schwabl’s (1837) and a hot dog (the newest version topped with potato chips) from Ted’s (1927). It’s not all retro in metro. A fresh wave of eateries has taken root. Toutant puts a modern spin on classic dishes from the South – fried chicken, jambalaya, shrimp and grits. Meanwhile, Buffalo Proper serves up highly sippable craft cocktails alongside a succulent bone-in tomahawk rib eye.
With the city in full-blown revamp mode, the hotel scene is keeping pace with the introduction of new places to bed down. Though new, many are old, housed in stunning historical buildings. Book a stylish room at Hotel @ Lafayette, a downtown landmark built in French Renaissance style in 1904. It’s got plenty of positive female energy, thanks to its designer Louise Blanchard Bethune, the first professional female architect in the United States.
For a more intimate spot, book Inn Buffalo, a historic mansion circa 1898, now a charming five-star inn with elegant, spacious rooms and a wickedly good breakfast, including the savory homemade granola. More openings are on deck for 2016, including The Curtiss, where history meets high tech (heated toilet seats!) and Hotel Henry, an “insane asylum” constructed in 1890 by America’s top architect, H.H. Richardson.
The true pulse of a city can be found in its neighborhoods – and Buffalo has plenty of vibrant ones. The arts crowd congregates in Elmwood Village, home to two splendid art galleries – the Albright-Knox (renowned for its exceptional collection of modern works by big names like Warhol, Daliband and Pollock). Across the street, the Burchfield Penney Art Center showcases regional art in a gorgeous light-filled modern space. Post-visit, dine at Kuni’s and pick-up some tips on the art of sushi making as it’s crafted before you. Burger and beer fans should head to Blue Monk, stocked with more than 35 brews on tap (most Belgian).
Along Grant Street, old world meets new world in a cultural mash up. Italian grocers like Guercio & Sons (stock up on olive oil and pasta here) share this stretch with linger-inducing coffee shops such as Sweet_ness 7 Café, known for superb coffee and huevos rancheros. Buffalo’s international flair is well represented at the West Side Bazaar, a global marketplace with a food court selling everything from Chinese steamed buns to Ethiopian cuisine.
Those who appreciate vintage discover great deals on Hertel Avenue, the heart of Buffalo’s Little Italy. It’s evolved to add antique shops, fashion boutiques (check out PS Accessories where everything is less than $50) and décor stores to the mix. While you’re on the strip, grab a slice of pizza. Buffalo ranks among the top five U.S. cities for most pizza joints per capita. One to try is La Tavola Trattoria, loved for its wood-fired pies.
Only In Buffalo
The city has some truly awesome quirks and wacky surprises. Can you find another city where the air is scented lightly with the aroma of Cheerios baking at the General Mills plant? Or one that has a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed gas station, mausoleum and boathouse? The downtown library also has the original manuscript of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written by former resident Mark Twain. Stand in the same room where president Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt was sworn into office after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. When evening falls, your eyes aren’t deceiving you. There are two replicas of the Statue of Liberty at the top of Liberty Building (built 1925), watching over Buffalo’s renaissance from above.
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Michele Sponagle is a prolific journalist, based near Toronto who has visited more than 70 countries, where she has tracked polar bears in Canada’s far north, fished for piranha in the Amazon of Peru and soared over Kenya’s famed Masai Mara in a hot air balloon. Follow her on Twitter @Msponagle and Instagram @michele_sponagle.