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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 onto life, exactly where they have stood since their inception). This is a peaceful experience all in all, as you can walk along the length of the boardwalk, enjoying the waterfront and informational signage along the way.
For something more hands-on, Canalside is also home to a paddleboat dock, as well as the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park, with an admission cost of just $15 USD (about $20 CAD). This is a space where people of all ages have the chance to wander around the whopping 186 metre (610 foot) USS Little Rock and 115 metre (376 foot) USS The Sullivans ships, and a 95 metre (311 foot) submarine named the USS Croaker, all of which are submerged in the canal itself. On site, one can also find a series of military equipment that you can get up close and personal with, including a helicopter, interceptor jet, and tank. The museum itself has a variety of artifacts from the many wars the United States was involved in, and you can try out their maritime simulator, as well. This is something that’s fun for kids, yet sophisticated enough to entertain adults.
Though you have to pay to enter the museum and the ships themselves, you can nonetheless enjoy walking along the boardwalk and simply taking in the sight of them all, free of charge (which is exactly what we did). The Naval Park’s souvenir shop also contains a handful of little artifacts that you can see without paying for admission, as well.
From Canalside, we returned downtown on the Light Rail for dinner, opting to eat at a spot noted to us on our morning architecture tour: the Pearl Street Grill & Brewery, located on the corner of Pearl and Seneca Streets. We actually discovered this restaurant years ago, and have been frequenting it on our trips to Buffalo ever since. It was originally built in 1870 for Mrs. George Palmer, a local dressmaker who eventually sold her business in 1891 to another dressmaker by the name H. O. Putnam. It was not until the late 1990s that the restaurant and brewery we see today began to take shape within its walls. Now, the building is used in its entirety and open to the public (so long as you grab something to eat or drink).
You can see the lovely New Orleans style wrap around copper-roofed patios from the outside. These are essentially the only part of the structure, aside from the large tap statues, that are not original to the 1870 construction. The restaurant is visible from the I-190, easily spottable in the warmer months thanks to its hundreds of blooming hanging baskets, which we went to dine amongst following our incredibly informative day of adventure.
Time passes quickly when you have so many delicious food choices to consume, and we casually made our way through a full half pound of beer-battered onion rings, a giant soft pretzel with gouda cheese sauce, and a bowl of gouda soup made with their own Lighthouse Ale. This was all before we ordered our mains (of which I got the six-cheese bowtie pasta that I have been ordering since I was a little girl).
The only thing that could follow a meal this wonderful was a Buffalo Bisons game at the nearby Sahlen Field. Everything about a baseball game is inherently exciting. It’s the smell of freshly made popcorn and cheap beer, the sound of baseballs cracking against bats and peanut shells cracking between fingertips amidst the anxious anticipation of spectators. It’s the taste of nachos as they crunch in your mouth, of caramel-coated Cracker Jacks melting against your tongue. It’s the feeling of your seat lifting away from you as you leap in the air when your team scores a home run.
Because one of the Toronto Blue Jays’ farm teams (the minor league team from which major league baseball teams recruit players) is the Buffalo Bisons, it was amazing to see these players on the field. These are men who could potentially play up north for the MLB in a few years’ time, who I can watch at a home game back in Toronto.
It wasn’t until the Bisons’ victory, followed by a stunning firework display that colourfully illuminated the field, that we made our way back to the hotel that night on the aboveground Light Rail (yes, we capitalized on the city’s free transit yet again).
Though the final day of any vacation is always a sad one, whether you are on a weekend or month-long trip, making the most of it is always a must. Because of this, we decided to end our time in Buffalo with a bang. We woke up extra early to check out the Elmwood Village Farmers Market, located on the corner of Elmwood Avenue and Bidwell Parkway. It runs annually, every weekend from May through to November, so you have many opportunities to see what home-grown produce and goods are for sale. Nearby, you can also find some great places to stop in for lunch, or even just a coffee. There are plenty of cute boutiques that you can check out along the strip too, which gives you a great reason to explore both the indoor and outdoor aspects of what Buffalo has to offer you, all in one spot.
Upping the thrill of the afternoon, we joined in on one of Buffalo RiverWorks’ Silo Zip Line Tours. This is the perfect spot for daredevils — both visitors and locals alike — to check out, as the shortest of their zip lines begin at a whopping thirty-four metres (110 feet) aboveground. With a view overlooking the waterfront, you can’t ask for a better location. The thrill-seeker that I am, I was in absolute heaven.
Ending the night was something equally thrilling, but more so in a sort of spooky way. In fact, the National Historic Landmark of the Richardson Olmsted Campus may have been my favourite building in the entire city, thanks to the fact that this jaw-dropping 145-year-old property, containing 51,097 square metres (550,000 square feet) of buildings was once home to the enlightened treatment for people with mental illness, developed by Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride.
The well-known American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, father of the Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style, spearheaded the design of the asylum’s beautiful buildings. American landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, designed the grounds. The Complex itself operated as a self-sufficient community, featuring its own blacksmith, bakery, and railroad line. There was a farm located on the northern half of the site, designed alongside expansive walkways and paths by Olmsted.
Flash forward to the present day, and this $101.86 million CAD ($76.5 million USD) stabilization project has allowed for the central buildings to be turned into the Hotel Henry, named after the architect who designed the structure. Today, you can book a night in a rehabilitated patient room, wandering through the halls that are now a delicate mixture of the clean and open-air constructs of the modern day, fused with the intricate detailing and sturdy construction of America’s past architecture. Tours like the one that we did lead you through otherwise locked areas of the dilapidated buildings that have yet to be repaired. The hard hats that you must wear for safety add even more to the eerie ambiance of your seemingly haunted surroundings. Understandably, one cannot help but have strange dreams the night following a tour such as this. Perhaps though, the discomfort was from knowing that my trip to Buffalo was now over, and it was time to return home to the routine of regular day-to-day life.
A weekend in the city of Buffalo at any time of year could not be better spent. Though this is only a glimpse into the adventures that are available in Buffalo, it’s certainly an ideal starting point to begin planning your next trip to this New York State urban centre. This city is a perfect spot not only for those living nearby, but for any lover of adventure, good food, architecture, and American history. Even today, Buffalo speaks loudly to its time as an industrial capital in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as a Queen City in the twenty-first century.
* This article will be featured in Wanderous Affair: Volume 2, Issue 4 (coming December 16th, 2019)