Toronto Budget Travel: A Long Weekend in Buffalo, New York

Updated: Dec 2, 2019

South of the Niagara River lies the 'Queen City', more commonly known as the city of Buffalo. In the Winter 2019 issue of Wanderous Affair Magazine, editor-in-chief, Emily Fata, shares her adventurous exploits in partnership with Visit Buffalo-Niagara.

The front façade of James Knox Taylor’s turn-of-the-century post office. Photo by Emily Fata.

Let’s face it: we’ve all sat at home, dreaming about a getaway to somewhere fantastic that we can’t quite afford. Maybe it’s because we just went on a recent trip abroad, maybe it’s because we can’t book an entire week (or more) off of work, or maybe it’s because we just don’t have a few thousand dollars readily available to spend on a big trip. Unfortunately, people often think that a vacation can only equate to jetting off to a faraway place, be it a historical city in another continent, or a white sandy beach with turquoise waters near the equator. For people living in and around the State of New York — people like myself, who live in Toronto, Canada — the city of Buffalo is one of the best weekend getaways that you can escape to without gouging your wallet.

Originally called ‘Queen City’ for being the largest and most prosperous metropolitan along the Great Lakes during the late 1800s and early 1900s, Buffalo was at one point the second largest trade port in the northern United States (after New York City). I went with my parents for a long weekend this past summer, leaving our house by 6.00 am in an attempt to avoid traffic both on the highway, as well as at the border crossing itself. Though it’s typically a safe bet that the roads will be more or less clear at this early hour, the USA-Canada border wait times are never guaranteed. Influxes of travellers are making their way back and forth at any given time. That is to say, we have made it from our front door and into the US in about two hours, but there have been times where the journey has taken closer to three hours.

The stunning exterior of the Martin House Complex. Photo by Emily Fata.

Upon crossing into the US, we headed directly to the Martin House Complex in a residential neighbourhood of the city. The house, inhabited between the years 1905 and 1935, is a must-see while visiting Buffalo, as it showcases a masterwork of the famous American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. We were scheduled for a private tour, where we were able to explore the entirety of the house’s main floor, in addition to its pergola, conservatory, and parts of the newly restored gardens. As you walk toward the main house, past the dreamy porte-cochère, you are instantly overwhelmed with the beauty of the home. The rest of the house fully captivates you in the same way, from the fine detailing of its seemingly endless stained glass windows; the gilded recessed mortar between its Roman bricks; prominent dental crown moulding; and the living room’s wisteria mosaic fireplace, made up of tens of thousands of individual glass tiles coming together to welcome onlookers’ eyes to rove across it.

One of Hertel Avenue's vibrant murals. Photo by Emily Fata.

We followed this tour with a shift from architectural beauty to that of modern street art, driving over to Hertel Avenue to see Buffalo’s vibrantly coloured murals. As someone who has always been fascinated by art like this (I even find graffiti to be beautiful), this street was a visual treat. Jam-packed with tonnes of incredible pieces to admire along the strip, what’s great about going on a mural-spotting expedition is that it’s a great way to see this little neighbourhood within the city of Buffalo, while simultaneously getting your next stunning Instagram post lined up. In discovering all these intriguing works of art, you are also able to uncover new boutiques and restaurants, as well as get in a solid amount of walking to meet your smartwatch’s daily step quota (or is that just me?). After taking in all of these sights, we came to the point where we finally decided to take a short lunch break, popping into Lloyd Taco Factory for a bite to eat.

A close up of one of the Albright-Knox's beautiful paintings. Photo by Emily Fata.

With a full belly, the only logical follow-up to the Hertel Avenue murals was to visit an actual art gallery, particularly the Albright-Knox. A thrilling museum located right in the heart of Buffalo’s cultural district, its collection has been ever-growing since its inception in 1862. In fact, it’s the sixth-oldest public art institution in the United States! The museum space itself is quite small and can be completed in around an hour; however, frequent visits back to the gallery are recommended, as only a small percentage of its massive collection is on display at a given time. This includes works by Frida Kahlo (I practically squealed in excitement when I caught a glimpse of her 1938 painting, Self-Portrait with Monkey, hanging on the wall), Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Franz Kline, Marisol, Joan Mitchell, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and many others. The gallery is home to the world’s second largest collection of works by the Abstract Expressionist painter Clyfford Still and contains the world’s largest repository of the works of Marisol (who donated her entire estate, including more than a hundred sculptures, to the museum in 2016).

As of this moment, the Elmwood Avenue campus is temporarily closed for construction; however, a new project space located at 612 Northland Avenue will open on January 16, 2020. The new Buffalo Albright-Knox Gallery Art Museum is expected to open in early 2022, on the original Elmwood Avenue campus. All this information is enough to make someone need a moment to stop and think on it all. Thus, we went over to our hotel.

After checking into our weekend suite at the Embassy Suites by Hilton Buffalo — a high-rise paradise centrally located in the heart of downtown, close to anything and everything that we could have wanted to see in the area — we took a short break before beginning our evening of adventure. This brief pause was followed by a delicious dinner of locally sourced ingredients at the nearby Marble + Rye restaurant, only a quick walk a few blocks away.

That evening, we went to the Colored Musicians Club to explore their on-site museum, as well as to watch a live jazz performance. Located on the main floor, this museum is absolutely bursting with life. The very fact that it has become a museum is unsurprising, as it is located in the very same building as it was when it received its 1935 Act of Incorporation. Nonetheless, the extremely interactive nature of the space did come as a pleasant surprise to me.

Inside the Colored Musicians Club's museum. Photo by Emily Fata.

With a wide variety of artifacts (including the signatures of Lillian Armstrong and Aretha Franklin on membership books), multimedia video archives embedded into the walls, and an entire ‘band stage’ where visitors can listen to the sounds that each instrument makes with a simple press of a button, it was understandable when we discovered how much children love frequenting the museum. Everyone gets to immerse themselves in the experience fully.

Because the Colored Musicians Club continues to operate as a club upstairs, we had the chance to see one of their live performances. As we took our seat, in the far corner by the bar, I caught a glimpse of a bricked-over space over what used to be a window. This is where, during the Prohibition Era of the 1920s, cops spying on the club for illegal alcohol consumption raided it after spotting drinks being served. Flash forward ninety years, and we were there watching the seventeen-musician Carol McLaughlin Big Band perform while surrounded by more than one alcoholic beverage. Sometimes, times don’t really change!

Their lead saxophone player, Carol McLaughlin, immigrated from Jamaica in 1977 and has been playing across the globe for over forty years. When the band quietened, Mr. McLaughlin’s sax began its solo riff and I felt tears spring to my eyes at the beauty of its melody. It was the incredible way that he played the instrument, as if it was a very extension of his being. Surrounded by such a strong passion for jazz music, it is nearly impossible to leave. It leaves you wishing that the night would never end and that you could sit in that little club listening to the band perform indefinitely. Alas, as they say: all good things must come to an end. With a long day of being on the go, the three of us returned to our hotel for a peaceful night’s sleep in anticipation of another full day ahead.

View from our hotel's penthouse window. Photo by Emily Fata.

We rose for our complimentary made-to-order breakfast in the Embassy Suites’ dining room, waking not much later than the sun. Here, we devoured one of their on-site chef’s signature omelettes — one made right before our eyes — along with scrambled eggs, waffles, cereal, toast, or porridge at their buffet style breakfast counter. There was a variety of hot and cold drinks (from coffee and tea to juices) at the drink counter, too. By the end of the meal, we had full stomachs and were completely energized for the day ahead.

Inside of Saint Paul's Episcopal Cathedral. Photo by Emily Fata.

Thanks to Explore Buffalo’s Masters of American Architecture Tour with our guides, Elizabeth and Tim (it costs just $15 USD, or $20 CAD), we spent that morning delving further into the rich history that Buffalo has to offer. Incorporated as a city in 1832 (and having a history that precedes this date), this city nestled in New York State is an ideal spot for any lover of architecture. Its variety of Neoclassical, Beaux Arts, and Art Deco designs speak loudly to its past as an industrial capital in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Following the lead of our docents, we were able to see such places as James Knox Taylor’s turn-of-the-century post office, Daniel Burnham’s ten-storey Italian Renaissance Revival-style Ellicott Square Building, the Beaux Arts-style terracotta Louis Sullivan Building, the Irish Catholic Saint Joseph Cathedral, and the Medina sandstone-exterior of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral.

With the conclusion of the tour, we boarded the NFTA-Metro’s aboveground Light Rail toward Canalside, disembarking at the Erie Canal Harbor stop. So long as you ride within their ‘Free Fare Zone’ (any stops aboveground), the trip is completely free! Talk about a great experience of public transit while travelling.

Exploring the views of Canalside. Photo by Emily Fata.

Canalside is the perfect spot to catch the breeze sweeping over the Erie on a hot summer day. As you cool off ever-so-slightly, you also have the opportunity to see some of Buffalo’s most exciting attractions. Situated at the heart of downtown Buffalo’s waterfront revitalization, Canalside is amidst what was once the 1825 terminus for Erie Canal, remnants of which can be found at various points throughout your explorations of the area (my favourite was the ruins located on 3 Marine Drive. There’s nothing quite as lovely as historic remains still clinging ont