things to do in buffalo

17 things to do the next time you visit Buffalo

Buffalo is having a moment. Once a city known for the decline of its industrial might and the exodus of its citizens to the suburbs, the talk these days is more likely to be about the newest hotel, brewery, or bar that's just opened.

It's a remarkable transformation to keep track of from afar because yearly visits reveal a resurgent spirit that's increasingly palpable. Last time I spent a weekend in Buffalo, for instance, I was impressed by its rising food scene, but this is only the tip of the iceberg.

buffalo canalside

Looking across the Canalside district. Photo by Christopher Behrend.

Putting a finger on what exactly gives this place so much energy and purpose right now is tough to do given all the variables at work, but one thing that's surely fuelling Buffalo's resurgence is its desire to celebrate its past.

Signs of this were on full display when the Canalside district was born about a decade ago. A number of original elements from the Erie Canal were excavated and restored as part of plans to revitalize the city's waterfront, and now the area is brimming with recreational activity.

canalside toronto

The old Commercial Slip is a centrepiece at Canalside. Photo by Derek Flack.

On a hot summer weekend, the waterfront is full of people on kayaks and water bikes, the tiki boat is touring folks around the inner harbour, and there's a huge rib festival beside the boardwalk. It's a busy place.

buffalo outer harbor

Looking across the outer harbour from Wilkeson Point. Photo by Derek Flack.

You can even take a short ride on the bike ferry to the outer harbour, which opens up miles and miles of Lake Erie shoreline to explore by bike. There's still a few silos along the river, but for the most part this area has become a huge swath of parkland that feels like a legitimate escape from the city.

The desire to showcase old Buffalo goes well beyond the action surrounding the old terminus of the Erie Canal, though. From immaculate hotels in historic buildings to former industrial sites adapted for use as urban playgrounds, there's a ton to see and do.

hotel henry

The Richardson Olmsted Campus has been revitalized with the opening of Hotel Henry. Photo courtesy of Hotel Henry.

The most stunning addition to Buffalo this year is surely Hotel Henry, the glorious urban resort that's risen from the imposing Richardson Olmsted Campus, a former insane asylum that sat abandoned for decades following its closure in the 1970s.

Inside the hallways of Hotel Henry. Photo by Derek Flack.

The scope of the restoration of this landmark building is amazing given its age (it was built in 1870) and the state that it was in prior to preservation and adaptive re-use efforts. It's now a cultural hub that's home to the hotel but also a restaurant, lounge, and soon the Lipsey Buffalo Architecture Center.

enlighten buffalo

With the success of enLIGHTen Buffalo this year, you can expect lots more events at the Richardson Olmsted Campus. Photo courtesy of Visit Buffalo Niagara.

The nearly $100 million project has brought new life to the area, which also includes the Burchfield Penney Arts Center. By way of formal introduction to the city, an incredible light show and outdoor concert from the Buffalo Philharmonic was held at the end of July. It was a huge success, and bodes well for future events here.

A Mediterranean plate and brussel sprouts are two snacks to try at the Terrace at Delaware Park. Photo by Derek Flack.

If you're staying up here, I'd suggest taking a stroll over to the recently opened Terrace at Delaware Park for a drink or dinner if the hotel restaurant's booked up. Situated right beside the Albright Knox and overlooking Hoyt Lake, it's a picturesque spot for a casual bite.

curtiss hotel buffalo

The revolving bar at the Curtiss Hotel. Photo by Derek Flack.

As beautiful as Hotel Henry and its surroundings are, people visiting this city who want to stay downtown also have a newly restored historic building to spend the night. The Curtiss Hotel is Buffalo's latest gem of an adaptive reuse project, and it's been packed since opening its doors in July.

chez ami buffalo

Inside the Chez Ami, the upscale French bistro at the Curtiss Hotel. Photo by Derek Flack.

Located in the Harlow C. Curtiss Building, which dates back to 1913, the hotel is home to a showpiece revolving bar, which leads into the 200-seat Chez Ami restaurant. If you're looking for an upscale dinner in Buffalo, it'd be tough to go wrong here.

chez ami buffalo

Salmon on a bed of mussels. The menu at the Chez Ami is upscale bistro fare. Photo by Derek Flack.

The food and the decor here are refined but not over-the-top. Even with a host of other nearby options on Ellicott St., you'll probably want to eat at the hotel because it's such a hive of activity.

Relaxing at the beer garden and patio at RiverWorks. Photo by Derek Flack.

Once you've checked into one of Buffalo's buzz-worthy hotels and soaked up some sun at Canalside, you'll want to pay a visit to RiverWorks, which is a different kind of adaptive re-use project altogether.

Could there be a more natural sports activity at a grain elevator than rock climbing? Photo by Derek Flack.

While the Buffalo River of old was a place filled with hulking freighters, now you'll see an array of kayaks, canoes, and pleasure craft coming to and from this entertainment hub, which features everything from a roller rink to a beer garden to a rock climbing wall up an old grain elevator.

The old industrial architecture makes a great footprint for the RiverWorks beer garden. Photo by Derek Flack.

We tend to intuitively understand that places like this have great potential as entertainment and recreation zones, but here's one that makes good on the promise. Combined with the nearby Silo City site, you have two excellent examples of how to breathe new life into gritty industrial sites.

ballyhoo buffalo

Don't let the unassuming exterior fool you. This place rules. Photo by Derek Flack.

Depending on how active you've been at RiverWorks, it might be time to eat. Fortunately, one of Buffalo's best new bars is located pretty much right around the corner. Ballyhoo is a place I wish we had in Toronto.

Ballyhoo is pretty much the perfect chill bar. Good food, drinks, and people. Photo by Derek Flack.

The food menu is composed exclusively of various takes on sausages and sides, which references the blue collar roots of the area in which it's located, which is right beside the still-active General Mills plant.

A spread of links and sides at Ballyhoo. Photo by Derek Flack.

On the drinks side, you can keep it cheap with a $3 Genesee Cream Ale or get a bit more serious with the cocktail selection. But the best part of this place is vibe, from the 70s classics on the speakers to the friendly manner of the bartenders.

Buffalo City Hall as seen from an Open Air Autobus tour. Photo by Derek Flack.

After getting fuelled up, one of the best ways to chill out while your food settles is by taking a Buffalo Architecture Tour. The city has a sterling reputation for its historic buildings, but there's so much to see that it's nice to be shuttled around by a knowledgeable guide like Paul McDonnell, who's an encyclopedia of Buffalo knowledge.

The amazing terra cotta facade of the Guaranty Building is one of the sights on the Open Air Autobus tour. Photo by Derek Flack.

There are various tours on offer, which focus on the city's most important buildings as well as its picturesque parks system. I'd recommend the Whirlwind Tour, which will teach you a ton about the city's architectural legacy in under two hours. Remember to bring sunscreen!

After resting up at your hotel, I'd recommend heading off campus for dinner and drinks. As bustling as the Chez Ami might be, one of the city's must-hit spots has to be the Dapper Goose, which is actually located to the north in Black Rock.

dapper goose buffaloOwned and operated by the affable Keith Raimondi, this restaurant exudes confidence in the quality of food and service on offer. The menu is playful with dishes ranging from cheese plates to Korean Fried Chicken, while the cocktails are second to none.

I love the simple design of the interior here, which draws attention to the wood bar and tin ceiling, but the garden-like patio is absolutely worth checking out, especially the intimate garage space that's covered from the elements.

If you're not exhausted from exploring, there's plenty of options for a nightcap in Allentown. I did some bar hopping the last time I was in town, and would recommend Buffalo Proper, Nietzsche's, Allen Street Hardware, and Pausa Art House. If you're going to go super late, there's always the Old Pink.

Breadhive is a co-op bakery that's won the hearts of Buffalo. Photo by Derek Flack.

Those staying for a weekend in Buffalo, will probably have about a half day to spend exploring on Sunday before heading back to avoid traffic at the border and on the QEW. That means there's probably enough time for a breakfast snack and a full brunch plus some sightseeing.

Breakfast bagels at Breadhive to fuel a quick day of exploring. Photo by Derek Flack.

To start the day, I'd hit up Breadhive for a quick breakfast sandwich. This is one of those cool Buffalo start-up businesses that's quickly drawn a locally following. It operates as a co-op, so the employees are exceptionally friendly and engaged, while the food is top notch.

You don't need to attend the annual Garden Walk to see some amazing front yards in Buffalo's Elmwood Village. Photo by Derek Flack.

When I visited Buffalo this summer, the annual Garden Walk event was taking place. Basically you can go exploring all incredible backyards around some of the city's oldest and architecturally significant neighbourhoods.

heath house buffalo

The privately owned Heath House is one of a number of architectural sights in Elmwood Village. Photo by Derek Flack.

As cool as getting the behind the scenes peek afforded by the event, the thing that struck me is how nice it was to explore Elmwood Village. The landscaping and architecture here puts Toronto to shame, and you might even seek out a Frank Lloyd Wright design like Heath House if you've already hit up the Darwin Martin House.

bettys buffalo

The patio at Betty's is a great brunch destination. Photo by Derek Flack.

You've got to get one more meal into your system before heading out of town, and if you've been exploring Elmwood Village, I'd head to Betty's for a classic brunch. If you can snag a spot on the patio, then you're made in the shade (literally).

bettys buffalo

This is uncomplicated brunch fare with a bit of flare in the form of the various hashes on offer. There's plenty of vegetarian options on offer as well as lighter fare like quiche and omelettes in case you don't want to feel bloated before getting behind the wheel.

Inside the gorgeous Parkside Candy shop. Photo by Derek Flack.

Before heading to the border, make sure to pick up a little Buffalo souvenir at the beautifully ornate Parkside Candy, a chocolate shop that's been in continuous operation since 1927. The room is so pretty you might even want to stay for a while and grab a coffee or ice cream.

This is a nice final stop on a whirlwind tour of the new Buffalo partially because it's a testament to the fortitude of the city. It can't have been easy to keep this shop open through the tough decades, and yet it remains a symbol of endurance and beauty, two things Buffalo knows well.

Lead photo by

Derek Flack

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