When you tell someone you’re visiting the USA for the first time they invariably get a little bit excited. When you follow that up with the fact that you are visiting Buffalo in New York state, they generally just look a little bit confused. From colleagues at work to the passport officer at the US border, everyone wanted to know why we had chosen Buffalo to spend a full week of our fortnight trip. Contrary to what people thought, we hadn’t got it confused with somewhere else and we weren’t deliberately heading off the beaten track. Buffalo is simply the home of my best friend, and seeing Sophie was the entire purpose of our trip to the USA.
Buffalo isn’t a typical tourist destination, as we’d already gathered from the people we’d spoken about it to. Situated very close to the Canadian border, Buffalo is best known as the home of Buffalo Wings, and for getting snow for six months of the year. Buffalo is actually the second largest city in New York State and is a significant gateway for commerce and travel across the United States-Canada border. Its economy was once reliant on manufacturing and it was a reasonably prosperous city, but de-industialisation led to a decline in both the economy and population. Now Buffalo seems to be in a period of recovery, attracting immigrants and young working professionals attracted by the relatively cheap living costs and reasonable chances of employment. However, it’s still not a location that tourists would generally seek out.
With that in mind, and having been warned by my friend that we would probably have to take things at a slower place as there wouldn’t be that much to do, I was pleasantly surprised by what Buffalo had to offer. It’s also not that far off the beaten track – if you’re heading to Niagara Falls or the Great Lakes area then it is within easy reach and certainly worth spending a couple of days there. Here are my top ten recommendations of things to do in Buffalo (in no particular order):
Relax in Delaware Park
Delaware Park is Buffalo’s version of Central Park and is an oasis of green in the heart of the city. Arriving in Buffalo in mid-May, we timed it a little bit early to make the most of all the park has to offer in the summer (from free performances of Shakespeare plays to family film nights) but still managed to visit a couple of times. Hoyt Lake was the area of the park we spent the most time in, going for a gentle stroll, but also proving that the path is good for runners when we went for a jog later in the week. Hoyt Lake is also home to The Terrace at Delaware Park if you fancy some food overlooking the water. In the summer months you can rent rowing boats and enjoy the park from a different view point.
We didn’t spend a huge amount of time in Downtown Buffalo, but this is the area to visit if you’re interested in art-deco architecture or want to soak up more city vibes. Buffalo is currently undergoing a lot of development, so whilst the canalside is currently a little bare I imagine in a few years time it will be quite a lively spot to visit.
Downtown Buffalo consists of lots of ‘districts’ which I couldn’t help but find amusing. The theatre district seemed to be just one street, and the financial district consisted of just three buildings. Given that we had just been in New York City the term ‘district’ seemed a little unecessary in a place the size of Buffalo!
The one thing I’d strongly recommend is visiting City Hall. There are tours which run during the day, or you can head up to the observation deck for free. We found it was good to go up after being in the city for a few days as we recognised certain things and had a better idea of where everything was. The view from the top is really good and certainly gives you an idea of how fast Lake Erie is.
Visit Buffalo Zoo
In the various lists of things to do in Buffalo that I browsed before our trip, the zoo was close to the top to each one so we decided it must be worth a visit. The main reason I wanted to go was to see the Polar Bears. I’ve never seen Polar Bears in the flesh before and although I’d rather see them in the wild (from a safe distance) this felt like too good an opportunity to miss.
Although it was quite a small zoo, we happily spent a few hours there and probably could have stayed longer. There were some quite interesting animals; snow leopards, arctic foxes and the polar bears who probably all enjoy the snow and cold weather that Buffalo gets for half of the year.
Head out to Grand Island
Grand Island is just outside of Buffalo and sits in the middle of the Niagara River. I’ll be honest, there’s not a lot there but it’s an interesting place to drive around. There are some huge houses! It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the garages of some were the size of what I would class as a large house. On one side of the island you can look across to Canada and apparently on a clear day you can see the spray from Niagara Falls. There’s a good cycle path which is perfect for bikes, rollerblades or longboards so I’d suggest bringing a wheeled object and a picnic!
Check out Buffalo’s Food Scene
People who live in Buffalo seem to be quite proud of their food scene, which goes beyond the famous Buffalo Wings (more on those below!). We found that Americans seem to eat out a lot but the places we sampled in Buffalo were fairly reasonably priced, and wherever you go you seem to be guaranteed a large portion!
Teds is apparently a Buffalo institution and is a fairly standard fast food diner. The staff were friendly, the food is good and there are several located across the city. Coles was more of a bar-restaurant which we visited part way through the week. The burgers were great and certainly the best ones that I had during our time away. Mine came with peanut butter which I was unsure about but it came recommended by the people I was with. Beef burger, bacon, cheese and peanut butter is not a combination I would usually have but it was actually really good and I’d be happy to add peanut butter to a burger again (particularly surprising as I’m not the biggest peanut butter fan). James had a tuna burger which was very refreshing and seemed to be a good summertime option.
We also sampled food from Ashkers. It was described to us as a hipster juice bar, but it’s a good option if you’re looking for some fresher and slightly healthier food. It felt good to eat a salad after a week away eating more fast food than I’m used to!
Search for the best Buffalo Wings
When in Buffalo, at some point you have to eat Buffalo Wings. Buffalo wings are basically chicken wings in a spicy sauce which started life as a bar snack. They seem to usually be served with celery sticks and blue cheese sauce and are enjoyed as a side, or a meal in their own right if you order enough and have some fries too. I found it really interesting just how opinionated people were on where to find the best wings, and which sauce you should have them in.
We didn’t go on too much of a search for the best wings… we were taken to Bar Bill in East Aurora which our friends seemed to think were the best ones you could get. I’m not really a wing fan but I confirm they were pretty good and I enjoyed them. There seemed to be a good selection of different sauces that you could pick as well which was good. The Cajun rub and honey BBQ glaze were my favourite toppings. meant best and I can confirm they were pretty good.
Buffalo History Museum
Buffalo’s history museum is pretty small but I found it interesting to learn more about the city. It was Pan-Am day when we went so we were actually given free entry which was nice. Quite a lot of the museums and attractions in the area seem to have special offers on entry on different days or for different reasons so it’s worth having a look online before you plan your visits. The immigration section of the Buffalo History Museum was particularly interesting, and the sport section confirmed what we had gathered about how important sport is in Buffalo.
Elmwood is a large avenue that runs through Buffalo and is an area which has attracted a lot of younger people. I can see why! It felt like there was a lot of character and seemed to be plenty of people around with things going on. It prides itself on being an area filled with independent shops and restaurants – there’s even a map of the street that you can pick up which points them all out.
On one of the days we were there it was “Porchfest”, where different bands take to people’s porches to play different sets. This largely took place around the Elmwood area and seemed to attract all sorts of different people. It was good being able to walk around between the different porches and soak up the atmosphere – it seemed like a good example of what Buffalo has to offer during the summer.
You can’t really go to Buffalo and not go to see Niagara Falls. It’s only about a half hour drive away and is the biggest attraction in the area. I’ll write more about the falls in a longer post but just make sure you don’t miss it if you venture to this area of New York state.
Check out the local sport
Sport is an important part of life in Buffalo. Everyone seems to own (and regularly wear) merchandise related to the different teams and even though the teams aren’t particularly good they have a huge amount of support.
The time of year will most likely dictate which sport you go and see but American Football, Ice Hockey and Baseball are the big ones. We went to a baseball game to see the Buffalo Bisons play the Louisville Bats. It was my first time at a baseball game and although I didn’t understand all the rules, I could still kind of follow along. Also it appears that people go to the game not to watch the sport so much as to eat and drink with friends out in the sunshine.
Buffalo Bisons are a minor league team who act as a feeder team to Toronto. The stadium is large and well equipped for a minor league stadium as it was built with the intention of developing it into a major league stadium (a fact we were told multiple times by multiple different people, and also appeared in the history museum!). There were lots of different concessions and merchandise stands under the seating – the Sahlen’s hot dogs were good and peanuts are apparently a typical snack to enjoy while the game is on (although I didn’t understand just kicking the shells under my seat to be picked up by someone else – but apparently that’s what’s done).
What I found funniest was the entertainment which came between the different innings. Kiss cam and a t-shirt toss were things that I had expected to see as they’ve featured in films. I hadn’t expected everyone getting up to sing a song at one point, or a race between people dressed up as a carrot, chicken wing and tub of blue cheese!
I know I’ll be back to visit Buffalo in the future and so I was actually quite pleased that we didn’t complete everything on my list of things to do in the city and surrounding area as there will be plenty more for us to explore next time. Although we were taking things at a slower pace there was quite a bit we didn’t fit in which shows that there’s actually quite a lot to do, especially when the weather is warming up and if you have access to a car.
Buffalo like a very livable city and it exceeded my expectations as a tourist destination too. Whilst it may never compete with the likes of New York or Boston, it has its own charm and I’m sure it will continue to develop and become more vibrant over the coming years.
Have you ever been to Buffalo, New York?