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A funny thing happened on the way to Niagara Falls: We got distracted – for a week – by Buffalo.

Hoping to avoid a few of the 12 million annual visitors who flock to see that famous tumbling water, we chose the city 20 miles down the road, perched at the edge of Lake Erie, as home base for our trip to the Niagara region. To our delight, we found Buffalo to be rich in history, with world-class architecture and parks, a stunning waterfront, and a diverse and funky culture that flies higher than chicken wings.

PI Buffalo view from City Hall Milne (800x608)

Thanks to the Erie Canal, the superhighway of the 19th century, Buffalo was well-positioned at the confluence of the Great Lakes to move goods down to New York Harbor. It rode this wave to become a center of commerce and, by the 1920s, had more millionaires per capita than any other American city.

Its waterfront, boasting row upon row of concrete grain elevators and silos, was the transit point for shiploads of wheat and corn making their way across the Great Lakes from the Midwest breadbasket. At its peak, Buffalo was the largest grain port in the world; even baguettes in Paris were made with flour whose wheat passed though the city on the lake.

 buffalo new york city hall

Buffalo was leading-edge in the early 20th century in that many prominent architects designed buildings that still line the downtown streets. Louis Sullivan, Eero Saarinen, H.H. Richardson, and others created an urban landscape that the New York Times called “a textbook for a course in modern American buildings.”

All those millionaires had to live somewhere. Buffalo’s residential neighborhoods boast several homes designed by a then-young upstart named Frank Lloyd Wright, while Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (best known as co-designers of New York’s Central Park) created the nation’s first coordinated system of parks and green corridors. That landscape legacy lives on in roundabouts and boulevards stretching for miles and providing several scenic walks in this surprisingly lush city.

Wright devotees also can see what is perhaps his most intriguing design: A faithful-to-the-plan construction of a gas station – one that was never built – graces the main display hall of the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum.

PI Pierce Arrow Milne 2 (800x577)

A gas station seems plebeian for an eminent architect, but at the time, motoring was still an event that merited high-end design. While being dazzled by rows of locally built antique Pierce-Arrow automobiles (in its day, the car of choice for kings and presidents), visitors get a notion of how Wright would have preferred to fill up his tank. His design included a second-floor observation deck, complete with fireplace, where motorists could lounge as they watched their cars being serviced.

Buffalo embraces its past as it adapts to changing times. The junction of Lake Erie, the Buffalo River, and the Erie Canal forms the center of waterfront activity for the city. Many mammoth grain silos of “Elevator Alley” left over from Buffalo’s shipping heyday loom beside yacht basins and a new park. Rather than allow these silos to become vacant eyesores, Buffalo has incorporated them into the fabric of the new recreational waterfront. Art exhibits, concert venues, even climbing walls now occupy converted silos, while kayaks and paddle boarders glide by on the adjacent river.

PI Buffalo grain silo waterfront Milne (800x570)

Creativity abounds on the Buffalo cultural scene. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery has been the city’s premier art museum for 150 years. It specializes in modern and contemporary artists such as Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns. Try to spot the match Pollock accidentally dropped amid the polychromatic paint swirls in his wall-size Convergence. Rotating exhibits highlight the next generation of creative talent.

PI Albright Knox Gallery exterior Buffalo Milne (800x580)

In contrast to the scions of industry, Buffalo’s busy port and factories attracted immigrants seeking jobs. Polish, Italian, and Irish enclaves built up around the city. At one time, the First Ward neighborhood, in the shadow of the grain elevators, boasted more than a dozen Polish bakeries serving Old World-style doughnuts, babkas, and poppy logs.

mazureks bakery buffalo food

Today, only Mazurek’s Bakery, founded in 1933, remains. The last of the Mazureks retired in 2012, but young new owners Ty Reynolds and Rick Smith carry on the Polish bakery tradition. A steady stream of customers, many of whom have moved to the suburbs, return for the treats of their youth, including Mazurek’s signature seeded New York rye bread, its crust baked to a perfect chewy crisp in the original brick oven.

mazureks rye bread

Although the neighborhood has seen better days, it is within walking distance of the waterfront, and speculators have started to gobble up nearby properties.

mazuerks balery buffalo jelly doughnuts

Yes, that’s Larissa serving up the jelly donuts at Mazurek’s. To learn why she was behind the counter read about our day at the bakery.

Just north of downtown, the funky Five Points and Elmwood Village neighborhoods bridge past and present with boutiques, pubs, and Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe concert venue. Eateries such as Five Points Bakery & Toast Café put a modern spin on the bakery tradition; the locally sourced, organic bakery offers up toast concoctions worthy of a restaurant review. Our favorite was their take on Buffalo chicken wings: chunky cheddar bread served with bleu cheese, hot sauce, sour cream, and pickles.

five points bakery buffalo

The grain heritage of Buffalo is omnipresent in another sense. Downtown bears the unmistakable aroma of toasted cereal, thanks to the massive General Mills facility on the Buffalo River. It still produces all the Cheerios consumed east of the Mississippi. Buffalonians proudly wear T-shirts proclaiming, “My city smells like Cheerios.”

After a breakfast of said cereal, funky toast, or perhaps a Mazurek’s jelly doughnut, begin exploring Buffalo with a free tour of the Buffalo City Hall, considered one of the finest Art Deco buildings in the country. From the 28th-floor observation deck, you’ll get your first glimpse of the many sights that will keep you entertained for several days.

Way in the distance, you can even see the mist of Niagara Falls. I guess we should check it out.

Note: We originally wrote this story for the Philadelphia Inquirer where it appeared May 31, 2015.

We’re full-time global nomads who have been traveling the world since 2011 seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive monthly updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

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At 6 a.m. the streets of this Buffalo neighborhood are deserted. Dawn is gradually washing away the film of night, transforming lumpy gray forms into a scattered array of brick houses and the occasional leafy tree. Midway down the block in a lone storefront a soft fluorescence accompanied by the clanging of pans Read more

When we visited Buffalo, New York this year we faced an abundance of choices for things to see. We already wrote about 11 things to do in Buffalo, well here are 10 more.

1) 40,000 city planning fans can’t be wrong

allentownmusic buffalo (575x403)

The heart of downtown Buffalo is a neighborhood called Elmwood Village. It’s a funky neighborhood of boutiques, bars, restaurants and artist’s havens. Dating back to 1804, the American Planning Association has called it one of “10 Great Neighborhoods in America.”

Queen Anne-style homes within walking distance of retail and public transportation dominate the residential architecture. Adding to this mix, how many neighborhoods can boast architectural gems designed by H. H. Richardson, Frank Lloyd Wright and the father-and-son duo of Eliel and Eero Saarinen? My fave shops are Allentown Music to check out cigar box guitars and Poster Art USA for Buffalo-centric objects like “Pegulaville” t-shirts. (Ask a local to explain.)

2) Get Righteous at Babeville

babeville buffalo photo

Buffalo native singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco saved a 19th-century Gothic Revival church from destruction to create a multi-use arts facility called Babeville. Several venues provide intimate settings for concerts and art galleries plus the offices of Ani’s Righteous Babe Records. There’s no better place to see hip indie bands like Velvet Elvis.

 3) Teddy Roosevelt Inaugural Site

teddy roosevelt inaugural site buffalo

At the turn of the last century Buffalo was booming. It was the 8th largest city in America and hosted the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. Unfortunately for history, when President William McKinley visited the fair he was assassinated by an anarchist. Teddy Roosevelt rushed off to Buffalo and was sworn in as President where he was staying at a friend’s house.

That house is now the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site. It’s one of the few places where an American president was inaugurated outside Washington, D.C. The house is set up with furnishings of the period while the upstairs has been given over to interactive exhibits.

4) Truly honest historic markers

Buffalo john love murder sight

Most areas cover up their warts and focus on historic signs that usually mention when George Washington slept in the area. So it was quite refreshing to come across this signpost outside an idyllic farmhouse. It mentions a notorious murder that once happened here. Just up the road another sign notes a water well that started a cholera outbreak. Seriously, you have to appreciate that honesty.

5) Go take a bike

buffalo NY bike riding

Buffalo ranks 14th in the nation in bike commuter rate and was judged a Bronze Level Biking Community by the League of American Cyclists in terms of bicycle friendliness. From trails along the Buffalo River to city loops, Buffalo provides a range of bike rides. Plus we liked their funky bike racks. For more go to: Go Bike Buffalo.

6) Don’t miss a beet at the Bistro Europa

bistro europa buffalo NY

Any restaurant that serves house-made pierogi, salmon pastrami and locally sourced ingredients is A-OK in my book. But my favorite at Elmwood Village’s Bistro Europa is the “Local Beets 5 ways – Carpaccio, Tartare, Pickled, Roasted, Mousse and Goat Cheese with a Pistachio Truffle,” a bargain at $10; but learn from me and don’t wear a white shirt for this dish.

Update 2016 ~ Bistro Europa has closed while owners Steve and Ellen Gedra renovated larger quarters at the former Golden Key Tavern at 367 Connecticut Street. It is now the Black Sheep Restaurant and Bar.

7) Down on Main Street

buffalo NY aurora theater

Only 20 minutes south of Buffalo, East Aurora could have been a model for Norman Rockwell’s idyllic villages. It houses the circa 1925 Aurora Theatre, President Millard Fillmore’s home, the sprawling Vidler’s 5 & 10, which could be a trip in itself, and the Roycroft Campus; founded at the turn of the 20th-century, it grew into a diverse community housing artisans from the Arts & Crafts movement.

8) The other baseball Hall-of-Fame in upstate New York

buffalo bisons hall of fame

Yeah, you’ve already been to the baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but there’s also a baseball Hall-of-Fame tucked into Coca-Cola Field, home of the Buffalo Bisons, the AAA affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. Buffalo boasts a long and distinguished baseball history that dates to 1877. The team used to play at War Memorial Stadium. Film buffs will recognize it as the setting for Robert Redford’s baseball heroics in The Natural.

The Bisons Hall-of-Fame honors a surprising roster of All-Stars who passed through Buffalo on the way to the majors including: Warren Spahn, Johnny Bench and Ferguson Jenkins. The knowledgeable guide stationed in the museum during game time is an energetic font of information about all things Buffalo baseball related.

9) View the lake effect

lake erie view of buffalo skyline

Follow the Great Lakes Seaway Trail about 10 miles southwest of Buffalo to the town of Evans where you’ll find the Sturgeon Point Marina. A stone causeway jutting into Lake Erie offers one of the finest waterfront views of downtown Buffalo with the mists from Niagara Falls rising in the distance. On the way back stop off at Graycliff, a Frank Lloyd Wright designed home whose restoration is ongoing.

10) Oh yeah, you can see Niagara Falls too

visiting niagara falls

With over 12,000,000 visitors each year, Niagara Falls is one of the most popular tourist sights in the world. We were so busy in Buffalo we almost didn’t make the 20-mile drive to the Falls. It’s a fun day trip from Buffalo that seems to be on everyone’s bucket list. At least now you know there is so much more to do in the Buffalo Niagara region when you make your pilgrimage to Niagara Falls.

Bonus Pick:

11) Mazurek’s Bakery is growing

mazureks bakery in buffaloAs this post went to print we learned that our favorite bakery, Mazurek’s, is adding a downtown location so office workers can get their fill of Mazurek’s famous seeded NY rye bread and fresh donuts. Calorie counters, you’ve been warned. Watch for the Grand Opening of their second location at: Mazurek’s Bakery.

What do you recommend we try on our return trip to Buffalo?

For more check out Part 1 of this post: Unique things to do in Buffalo.

And if you’re hungry check out our guide to Buffalo hot dogs.

For more information about Buffalo go to Visit Buffalo Niagara.

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We were planning to spend a week in the Niagara Falls region when something caught our eye, the city of Buffalo only 20 minutes to the south. We realized that there are many unique things to do in Buffalo so we decided to make Buffalo our base for touring. Although we spent a week there, we didn’t get around to all the exciting attractions in what was once the 8th-largest city in America.

Click here for tours and experiences in Niagara Falls and Buffalo.

11 unique things to do in Buffalo, New York

1) See the Wright Stuff

FLW house

A young architect named Frank Lloyd Wright made his mark on Buffalo, designing homes for wealthy industrialists. Those homes are now available for touring including the Martin House complex, Graycliff Estate and more. The sites are less crowded but just as exciting as Wright’s more well-known houses in Chicago.

2) Hot dogging it around Buffalo

visit buffalo hot dogs

Forget chicken wings, if we had known that Buffalo was the home of chargrilled hot dogs we would have visited much sooner. Most places cook their dogs, or franks if you prefer, over good old-fashioned charcoal, just like our dads did when we were kids. We tried as many places as possible in one week but declared the winner at Old Man River, a quirky spot overlooking the Niagara River where the bags of authentic charwood are stacked up out front.

3) Go with the grain

silo city rocks buffalo

Due to its location at the foot (head?) of Lake Erie and the Erie Canal, Buffalo stored much of the grain grown in the Midwest, America’s breadbasket. Today it houses the largest collection of concrete grain silos in the world, which reportedly inspired the round shapes of the Bauhaus movement. Well what do you do with all those large structures? The folks at Silo City Rocks are turning a group of them into the tallest (190 feet) rock climbing wall in the world. It’s due to open in September.

4) A wing and a prayer

we just call them wings tshirt

You want to start a heated discussion in a Buffalo bar? Ask the locals for the best place to try chicken wings, the devouring of which takes on an almost religious fervor. Just don’t call them “Buffalo” wings. Here they’re just wings.

5) The Pierce-Arrow Museum (it’s not dedicated to Cupid)

pierce-arrow hood ornament

The legendary Pierce-Arrow automobile, the Maserati of its day, was manufactured in Buffalo. The Pierce-Arrow Museum houses a collection of these and other vintage automobiles. In a new wing the curator is building a Frank Lloyd Wright designed filling station from his original plans. It’s one of his many designs that never got built and the last one to be authorized by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

6) The last of the Mazureks

things to do in buffalo mazureks bakery

Mazurek’s Bakery is the last of the old-time Polish bakeries in Buffalo’s First Ward. Since Larissa’s maiden name is Mazurek, we just had to visit this spot. They even let us work there for a day, starting out with the baking and donut-frying crew at 6 AM. Mazurek’s is justly renowned for its crusty New York rye bread.

7) Taste the toast of the town

five points bakery toast cafe buffalo

Of course, we can never limit ourselves to just one bakery. The Five Points Bakery is also the first “Toast Café” we’ve encountered. Sweet and savory selections of perfectly toasted, thick slices of bread were paired with locally sourced toppings. Above is the cheese-stuffed bread with sides of bleu cheese, hot sauce and sour cream; sort of a toasty take on Buffalo wings.

8) Try sweets that are sponge-worthy

sponge candy ice cream

Sponge candy is a local delicacy, although the name is somewhat of a misnomer. Sugar is boiled until it gets all foamy then allowed to harden to a crispy crunch as it cools. It’s then encased in creamy chocolate. As good as the candy is, we particularly liked the new Sponge Candy Perry’s ice cream. Try to turn this one down: caramel sugar flavored ice cream with caramelized sugar swirls and sponge candy pieces.

9) Tour an open-air museum of architecture

Buffalo City Hall

The National Trust for Historic Preservation selected Buffalo for its annual convention in 2011. They were attracted by one of the best collections of Art Deco architecture in the country. During the 1920s the city was riding an economic boom and it shows in the buildings. One of the best is City Hall, billed as the 2nd-tallest in the country, which offers free tours at noon.

10) Of Presidents and Superfreaks

rick james headstone Buffalo

Buffalo provided the country with two presidents, Millard Fillmore and Grover Cleveland, and was the inauguration spot of another, Teddy Roosevelt. The house where TR was sworn in is a National Historic Site. But here’s a great trivia contest question: What do Millard Fillmore and Superfreak singer Rick James have in common? They’re both buried at Forest Lawn cemetery in Buffalo.

11) Where else can you find Burmese, Peruvian, Thai, Japanese and Ethiopian food under one roof?

buffalo west side bazaar

Buffalo participates in a United Nations program that resettles refugees to the United States. The result has been a dynamic impact on the burgeoning food scene. The above cuisines can all be found in the West Side Bazaar, a pilot program that assists entrepreneurial efforts. Stop by to taste these foods and make sure you also try locally produced Koop’s Kitchen, his barbecue sauce is one of the best we’ve found anywhere.

Bonus Pick:

12) Attend the school of hard Knox

Jackson pollack albright knox gallery

Learn about contemporary art at The Albright-Knox Art Gallery which houses one of the most exciting collections in the world. See if you can spot Larissa in this wall-sized Jackson Pollock.

Interested in seeing more of the region? Check out these Niagara Falls area tours with Viator!

Like it? Share it . . . Pin it!Buffalo, NY is a wonderful city with plenty of unique things to do

At first we thought Buffalo would be just a side trip from Niagara Falls, but the more we explored the city the more we stuck around and the Falls became the side trip. For more visit Buffalo Niagara tourism.

Oh, and did we mention that Buffalo might be the hot dog capital of the world? Here’s our review of Buffalo hot dogs.

We found so many things to do in Buffalo that we wrote another one: More unique things to do in Buffalo Part 2.
28581550060_131210d7e7_mLarissa and Michael are your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive our free quarterly newsletter with updates and valuable travel tips subscribe here.

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