A Few Days In

The Great Lakes Revival Now Happening in Buffalo

by Linda Cabasin
Buffalo "Buffalo Rising" is right. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

A love letter to Buffalo.

BUFFALO, New York - Over the past two decades, Buffalo has experienced the kind of post-industrial urban revival that fans of cities love to explore. I have a personal interest in the city’s story, too: I lived in Buffalo for two years before its transformation began. On a recent trip back, I discovered dazzling houses by Frank Lloyd Wright, a lively waterfront re-created for today, and a green city known for its garden celebrations.

The Scene

Today Buffalo combines big-city attractions with smaller-city warmth and easy accessibility. Its stunning architectural legacy includes masterpieces by such American giants as Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and H. H. Richardson, as well as leafy neighborhoods with homes in an encyclopedia of historic styles. On the formerly industrial waterfront, people relax, ride bikes, kayak, and zip-line. Strong art and music scenes, creative breweries, and a culinary options that go far beyond wings reflect the city’s fresh energy. Change is ongoing. Buffalo is real and gritty, and that’s part of its appeal. So are the people: I found Buffalonians welcoming when I was a resident and fun to spend time with now. This is a city that’s excited to share what it has.

To put Buffalo’s renaissance in context, in 1900 it was the eighth-largest city in the United States, flush with wealth from industry and Great Lakes shipping. The population peaked at 580,000 in 1950; in 2020, it’s 278,000, but that number reflects the first increase in 70 years. Industries like steelmaking have left, replaced by lighter, high-tech manufacturing. Grain elevators are being adapted for use as entertainment and arts centers. The many Frederick Law Olmsted-designed parks, stunning buildings, and old and new cultural institutions remain valuable and valued as the city evolves. Over time, developers from near and far, as well as New York State, have invested in Buffalo, and entrepreneurial immigrants from places such as Myanmar, Somalia, Yemen, and Bangladesh have added diversity and renewed vibrancy.

An urban garden at Silo City. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

Lay of the Land

Buffalo is at New York’s western edge, 290 miles west of Albany and 375 miles (six and a half hours by car, eight hours by the fastest Amtrak train) northwest of New York City — the urban hub of rural Western New York. The city is at the eastern end of Lake Erie, just across the Peace Bridge from Canada and 160 miles from Toronto. Niagara Falls is a half hour away.

Downtown has plenty of hotels and repurposed historical buildings like Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building; less than a mile south is the Canalside waterfront by the Buffalo River and Lake Erie. Just north of downtown, the Allentown neighborhood is a hub for music and the arts, with charming shops, restaurants, and homes. North of Allentown, Elmwood Village, from North Street up to Delaware Park, mixes museums, unique shops, parks, restaurants, and tree-lined streets with vintage architecture. East of 350-acre Delaware Park is Parkside, home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House, with curving streets planned by Frederick Law Olmsted, the pioneering architect who designed New York City’s Central Park. Beginning in 1868, Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed Buffalo’s interconnected system of parks, wide parkways with grassy medians, and landscaped circles.

If You Only Do One Thing

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House completed a massive restoration in 2019 and is an extraordinary, Prairie-style ensemble of six buildings and the landscape.

What You Should Know on the First Day

In some cities, it’s best to leave a car behind. Not here! Buffalo’s roads and highways were built when the city was larger, so getting around by car is easy and efficient.

Buffalo is real and gritty, and that’s part of its appeal. So are the people: I found Buffalonians welcoming when I was a resident and fun to spend time with now. This is a city that’s excited to share what it has.
Martin House. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
The pergola at Martin House. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
Martin House dining room. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
Graycliff. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

What to Do

The Wright Stuff
Between 1903 and 1905, the collaboration between revolutionary architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his devoted and deep-pocketed client, business executive Darwin Martin, produced a spectacular collection of Prairie-style buildings in Buffalo. Equally remarkable is the saga of the over 25-year, $52 million restoration and reconstruction of the Martin House complex’s six buildings, completed in 2019. The 1.5-acre property includes a recreation of Wright’s landscaping plan, further integrating the buildings. Besides the main house, Wright designed a smaller house for Martin’s sister, a 100-foot-long pergola and a conservatory, and a carriage house. A gardener’s cottage was added in 1909. A spacious visitor center presents an excellent short film about Darwin Martin and Wright. Tours of different lengths focus on the elements of Prairie style (horizontal lines, flowing interiors), house details (exquisite art glass windows and a two-sided fireplace, Wright-designed furniture), and the restoration. The lovely grounds are open to the public to explore and are used for art exhibitions.

Offering a wonderful contrast to Martin House just a half hour south of Buffalo, Graycliff was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Darwin and Isabelle Martin after Martin retired in 1925. A request for a simple summer cottage overlooking Lake Erie turned into this 5,000-square-foot house. Large windows maximize panoramic lake views; the rooms are less formal. Graycliff uses limestone from the beach and Lake Erie sand in its stucco. Tours comment on how Isabelle prevailed over Wright on practical decorating decisions to create a homier space. Like Martin House, the house and the grounds suffered from neglect and have recently completed extensive work.

Fans of Wright can combine these and other Buffalo-area Wright attractions and those in western Pennsylvania, such as Fallingwater and Kentuck Knob (about five hours by car from Buffalo), on the newly created Great Wright Road Trip.

Garden Walk. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
Garden Walk. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
Garden Walk. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
The author exploring the Open Gardens. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
A model train on display at Open Gardens. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

Buffalo in Bloom: Garden Walk and More — Especially in July
Strolling the city’s village-like neighborhoods, with homes in Queen Anne, Foursquare, Colonial Revival, Italianate, Tudor, and other styles, is an essential Buffalo experience anytime. In late July, a visit can combine a walk with the country’s largest free, self-guided, private garden tour, Garden Walk, when over 300 city gardens open to the public during the last weekend in July (in 2022, the dates are July 30 and 31). This community-driven event is a testament to Buffalo’s vitality: The gardens aren’t large but are packed with enough distinctive plantings, garden art, and quirky style to warrant the label “Buffalo-style garden” (there’s even a book about it). Using the walk map, I started in Elmwood Village (stopping at the great Talking Leaves Books and the Elmwood Village Farmers Market on Olmsted-designed Bidwell Parkway) and moved south to a cluster of charmers on Little Summer Street. The welcoming garden hosts shared stories, community news, and garden advice.

Garden Walk, which started with a few gardens more than 25 years ago and now attracts tens of thousands of visitors, has spun off garden-visiting opportunities, mostly in July, in the city and Buffalo Niagara area. The app or booklet (small charge for each) for Open Gardens (the website has all events) lists 100 or so gardens open at specific times on Thursdays and Fridays in July. I spent an afternoon in the Southtowns outside Buffalo admiring gardens and talking to gardeners with awesome dedication and creativity, whether people were growing 1,000 hostas or maintaining model railroads or water features.

City neighborhoods like Allentown and Elmwood Village are beautiful spring through fall. Walking tours with Explore Buffalo of these and other areas don’t focus specifically on gardens, but do cover history and the elegant architecture on the prettiest streets. And plenty of front gardens will be on view.

The solar-powered carousel in Canalside. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
The scene Canalside. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
Duende at Silo City. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

On the Waterfront
Some of the greatest transformation in Buffalo can be seen on the waterfront just south of downtown, where desolate areas along the Buffalo River and Lake Erie are now lively centers for recreation and entertainment. The 21 acres known as Canalside hold the Central Wharf, a boardwalk for strolling; a lawn and a beach play area for kids; seasonal rentals of water bikes and kayaks; the Explore & More children’s museum; and other diversions. Boats like the schooner Spirit of Buffalo offer Lake Erie sails, and the vessels and museum of the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park are just north of the Central Wharf.

This area was the western end of the Erie Canal, which linked New York City (via the Hudson River) with the Great Lakes and ignited Buffalo’s growth; at the Longshed at Canalside, the Buffalo Maritime Center is building a replica Erie Canal packet boat to mark the canal’s 2025 bicentennial. I loved Canalside’s sparkling Buffalo Heritage Carousel, a newly restored (and now solar-powered) treasure built in 1924 by Spillman in North Tonawanda outside Buffalo. For more outdoor fun, the adjacent 200-acre Outer Harbor has green space, paths for biking and strolling, and colorful waterfront sunsets.

At Buffalo RiverWorks, a brewery and large entertainment venue on the Buffalo River, I sipped beer outside the Ward restaurant and watched people kayaking on the river, and took in views of some of the city’s many towering grain elevators, or silos, formerly used to store grain shipments. At RiverWorks, some are painted like Labatt Blue beer cans; others hold the brewery or are used for rock climbing.

At nearby Silo City, silos purchased by a local business owner serve as a “cultural and ecological campus” that hosts arts events such as poetry readings and theater. Explore Buffalo and Buffalo River History Tours offer popular seasonal tours of the silos, and kayakers paddle the Buffalo River through Elevator Alley, as the grain elevators are called. Also here is the cool bar and music venue Duende, in a repurposed 1940s office building surrounded by an urban garden. One silo is being converted to apartments.

A mural at Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

Art Scene
A visit to the Burchfield Penney Art Center, a lesser-known gem on the Buffalo State College campus near Elmwood Village, works well as an introduction to the art scene. The museum focuses on the works of artists from or associated with Western New York. Changing exhibitions, many with emerging artists, deserve a look; I saw the terrific Art in Craft Media 2021 (presented biennially), highlighting about 50 regional artists. The museum holds the world’s largest collection of works by Charles E. Burchfield (1890–1967), a visionary artist known for his watercolors, including many of the region. Another display presents decorative pieces – furniture, glass, metal items – from the Roycroft Campus, the Arts and Crafts guild community established in 1895 in East Aurora, near Buffalo (a worthy trip for lovers of this style). The modern 84,000-square-foot building, completed in 2008, is a stunner.

Across from the Burchfield Penney is the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, where it’s impossible to miss the mega-expansion of Buffalo’s main art museum. Closed until spring 2023, the museum – being renamed the Buffalo AKG Art Museum – is renowned for its outstanding collection of modern and contemporary art, especially postwar American and European art. The reopening will be a huge event. Meanwhile, AK public art projects, from murals to sculpture, continue to enhance the city.

An exhibit at Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site
With engaging videos and interactive technology, this historic site makes a great stop for absorbing key Buffalo history quickly. The stately Delaware Avenue house was the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s inauguration as president on September 14, 1901. President William McKinley had been shot in Buffalo by an anarchist while attending the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, a World’s Fair for the Western Hemisphere. Presentations and displays focus on the fair’s importance to Buffalo’s surging economy, the excitement of the new century (electricity was big!), and the challenges Roosevelt faced. It was a time of expansionism and boosterism, but as exhibits show, concerns about issues of race, immigration, and the environment still resonate today. The location is convenient for exploring the restaurants and shops of Allen Street in Allentown.

For even more ideas and a timely calendar of events, consult the website for Visit Buffalo Niagara. It's a great resource and very peppy.

Where to Stay

Downtown has plenty of chain hotels convenient to nearby sights, and I stayed at the plush, modern Westin Buffalo, which opened in 2016. The spacious public areas have an airy feel.

Options with a grande dame vibe include downtown’s Curtiss Hotel or Hotel @ The Lafayette. The 28-room Mansion on Delaware has modern rooms in a high-ceilinged, 19th-century former mansion that evokes the elegance of Delaware Avenue.

When in Buffalo, have a hot dog. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
And have a local beer. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
Swan Street Diner. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

Where to Eat

Urban revival and an improved food and drink scene tend to go hand in hand, and that’s true for Buffalo. Still, the hearty classics are great at old-style or new hot spots. Chicken wings are as Buffalo as the Bills and snow, so naturally there’s a wing trail: Duff’s Famous Wings (suburbs only) and Gabriel’s Gate (145 Allen St. in Allentown) are terrific places to start. Another Buffalo institution, Ted’s Hot Dogs, offers perfectly charcoal-grilled Sahlen’s dogs, topped with yellow mustard, minced onions, hot sauce, and a pickle, at nearby suburban locations – these are like Proust’s madeleines to my husband.

Buffalo now brews up plenty of craft beer. Pearl Street Grill and Brewery was a pioneer back in 1997, and Big Ditch Brewing is another notable option. The suds scene has inspired three beer trails. I liked Flying Bison’s popular Rusty Chain, a medium-bodied amber lager with nutty malt taste.

Adorably cozy, the Swan Street Diner makes a lively (and noisy) stop for breakfast or lunch in a restored 1937 Sterling Company diner. The menu lists upgraded diner favorites like corned beef hash with eggs, omelets and burgers, and fried chicken. It’s in the new Larkinville neighborhood near Canalside, where repurposed warehouses hold offices, breweries, and more. Nearby is a branch of Buffalo’s beloved Paula’s Donuts — not to be missed.

Downtown on Main Street, Graylynn specializes in gin cocktails – I liked my French 75 – and a seasonal menu with small plates and pub-style fare served in a casual setting. Bangers and mash and mussels and frites are on the menu; my roasted vegetable salad was great.

A longtime neighborhood tavern on a quiet Elmwood Village street, The Place charms with its long bar, dark wood, plaid wallpaper, and changing menu of well-done comfort classics. This was my place for beef on weck, the iconic Buffalo sandwich with slow-cooked, thin-sliced roast beef on a kummelweck roll (topped with caraway seeds and kosher salt). It’s served with jus and horseradish on the side.

Café 59 in Allentown is a bright, modern art–filled, casual space with a long menu of creative salads, sandwiches, and wraps for lunch, as well as changing dinner mains such as pork chops.

Toutant, a popular contemporary Southern spot in an industrial-chic space downtown, prides itself on a strong cocktail game and serves upscale versions of comfort foods like buttermilk fried chicken and shrimp and grits.

I was sorry to have missed the highly recommended West Side Bazaar, where new businesses, many run by immigrants, sell goods and food from diverse cultures including Myanmar and Ethiopia.

Photo by Drew Brown / courtesy of Visit Buffalo.

Plan Your Trip

How to Get There
Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF) is east of Buffalo in Cheektowaga, an easy 20-minute drive from downtown via I-90/190 or NY 33. This midsize airport serves the Buffalo Niagara region and southern Ontario. Flights from New York City take about 90 minutes. Amtrak’s Empire service includes Albany and Buffalo.

Getting Around
Walking is ideal for seeing Buffalo’s neighborhoods, and a car is useful for getting around the city quickly; roads are generally not crowded. Ride-hailing services are another option. The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) operates buses and trains in Erie and Niagara Counties and has city bus schedules and light rail (one line) information.

When to Go
I know firsthand how quickly Buffalo clears its famous snow and heads out to play: Buffalonians love “the four seasons.” Still, spring through fall offer more opportunities to explore, with summer a perfect time to enjoy the waterfront and festivals. The city and suburbs bloom in July with Open Gardens and the city’s Garden Walk, a lovely time to visit.

Insider Local Intel
General Mills has baked Cheerios by the Buffalo River since 1941, and Lake Erie winds help spread a toasty oat aroma by the waterfront and beyond.

Football’s Buffalo Bills may come to mind first, but the Buffalo Bisons, a Triple-A Minor League affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, play baseball downtown at attractive Sahlen Field. (The Jays themselves played 49 games here over two seasons during the Covid-19 pandemic.) A ballgame is a great introduction to Buffalo’s fans.

Tours can be a fun, efficient way to absorb Buffalo’s past and present. The nonprofit Explore Buffalo offers really great tours by foot, bus, bike, kayak, or boat, with more than 50 walking tours in a host of neighborhoods. Tours with Preservation Buffalo Niagara focus on city architecture (guided tours on hold; self-guided option only). Buffalo Bike Tours hits the road with tours like a Wing Ride food tour and a ride through the Outer Harbor; it also offers rentals and self-guided routes.

We make every effort to ensure the information in our articles is accurate at the time of publication. But the world moves fast, and even we double-check important details before hitting the road.