I have to admit that when I visited Buffalo last week, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Most people who come to the area seem to rush straight to Niagara Falls, without paying much attention to Buffalo. After spending some time there, I wish travelers would pay more attention to Buffalo though – the city kept surprising me with its fascinating history, thriving art scene and recent renaissance of neighborhoods including the downtown area, which is filled with gorgeous art deco buildings.
Before I share more about my time in Buffalo, I’d like to introduce you to the city with ten facts that I learned there that you might not know and that may surprise you:
Buffalo is filled with so many architectural treasures, you could spend days just touring the city’s many historic buildings, skyscrapers, churches and mansions. Once a prosperous city thanks to its strategic location on the Erie Canal, which made it a major transportation hub, this wealthy city was able to afford prestigious architects of that era to create a model city to be followed by others. The city’s park-scape was created by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park and Prospect Park in New York, who, influenced by Paris’ boulevards and parks, created an exemplary system of interconnected parkways and green spaces throughout the city.
It can also be considered a pioneer in skyscraper architecture with Louis Sullivan’s 1895 Guaranty Building and the beautiful art deco City Hall skyscraper. The Ellicott Square Building with its Italian Renaissance façade, the H. H. Richardson Complex, which was built to be the New York State Asylum for the Insane in 1870, the Buffalo National Savings Bank with its striking gold-leafed dome, or the Electric Tower, a gorgeous Beaux-Arts Classical Revival building, are other notable buildings. But Buffalo’s architecture deserves its own dedicated article, so more on that later. The city has 80 buildings that are registered in the National Register of Historic Places – an impressive number, considering the compact size of the city.
Back in its hey day, Buffalo also attracted many wealthy businessmen with money to spend on architects like Frank Lloyd Wright (who built five buildings in the area: three in Buffalo and Darwin Martin’s summer vacation residence on the shores of Lake Erie). Only Chicago has more Wright buildings than Buffalo!
2. A pioneer in many ways
The city has been a pioneer in many aspects, not only in its architecture: Thanks to its proximity to the powerful Niagara Falls, it was the first city to feature electric street lights in 1886. The Hotel Buffalo (originally known as the Statler Hotel) was the first hotel in the world to have a private bath in each room, and grain elevators were invented in Buffalo in 1842. Buffalo was also home to the biggest office building in the world, the Ellicott Square Building, which opened in 1896 (Buffalo held this title for 16 years.)
3. Second biggest city in New York State
Did you know that Buffalo was the second most populous city in the state of New York? I thought for sure that title would go to Albany, the state’s capital, but it is in fact Buffalo that takes 2nd place after New York City.
With close to one million people in the metropolitan area but only about 261,000 in the city center itself, Buffalo is just the right size: not overwhelmingly big but big enough to provide a wide range of entertainment, restaurants and bars and other things to do.
4. Booming art scene
Who knew that Buffalo was home to so much world class art? In total, there are over 50 art galleries (private and public), and the outstanding Albright-Knox Art Gallery alone makes every art lover’s heart beat faster with excitement, showcasing pieces by great painters such as Henri Matisse, Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Anselm Kiefer, Georgia O’Keeffe, Frida Kahlo, Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miro, Salvador Dali, Mac Ernst, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Claude Monet, Georges Braque, Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri Rousseau and Toulouse-Lautrec, to name just a few. The Burchfield-Penney Art Center is another top-notch art gallery, dedicated to American painter Charles E. Burchfield, but also showcasing other local as well as international artists.
Buffalo also hosts two art festivals, the Elmwood Festival Of The Arts and the Allentown Art Festival, which attract thousands of art aficionados every year.
5. Inaugural site of Theodore Roosevelt
I was surprised to learn that Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated in Buffalo, and not in the nation’s capital. An inauguration that doesn’t take place in Washington, D.C. is very rare, and Roosevelt was sworn in in Buffalo because President William McKinley was shot while visiting the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in the city. After McKinley died from his mortal wounds, Roosevelt was inaugurated as the 26th President of the United States in the Wilcox Mansion, which is now a museum dedicated to the inauguration and other happenings from that era. The beautifully restored mansion combines old and new by displaying exhibits from the Pan-American Exposition and offering some fantastic interactive features that make it fun to learn more about the inauguration and the events surrounding it. My favorite feature: the desk in Roosevelt’s recreated presidential office where I could play president and create a newspaper with headlines about myself 🙂
Thanks to the city’s location right at the confluence of the Buffalo River, the Niagara River and Lake Erie; Buffalo has a large waterfront, which I wasn’t aware of. The city’s waterfront is one part of the city that has been seeing a big renaissance in the last few years, offering a range of walkways and restaurants as well as fun activities throughout the summer – people gather here for outdoor movies and concerts, artisan markets and free yoga classes on the grass here. Alternatively, you can take a historic river cruise from here to see the massive grain elevators, which were a major contributor to Buffalo’s wealth at the turn of the 20th century, close-up, or take a boozy cruise around Lake Erie.
I personally love being by the water, and seeing the vibrant waterfront and how it is being transformed (with more developments to come over the next few years) was great.
I knew that you could cross into Canada at Niagara Falls, but I didn’t know that you can get to Canada straight from Buffalo as well. The centrally located Peace Bridge lets you cross the international border right in town and brings you to Fort Erie in Ontario. The bridge has connected the two countries since 1927.
8. A festive city
I was surprised to see what a festive city Buffalo is! I happened to be in town during Garden Walk, the largest flower festival in the U.S., but learned that there are about two dozen festivals throughout the year – which is an average of two per month! The rich cultural heritage of the city led to the creation of a wide range of ethnic festivals such as the Polish Harvest Festival, the Italian Festival and one of the country’s biggest St Patrick’s Day Parades, but Buffalo is also known for its big Gay Pride Festival, the Taste Of Buffalo, the Allentown Art Festival and its own Ball Drop on New Year’s Eve.
In addition, there are several recurring festivals and events throughout the summer, like Food Truck Tuesday and Live at Larkin in Larkin Square, Yoga at the Gardens, Shakespeare in Delaware Park or Thursday at Canalside Concerts, to name just a few.
9. Buffalo used to be one of the wealthiest cities in U.S.
In the early 1900’s, Buffalo had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States! That was around the time when Buffalo was an important railroad hub and stop along the trade route from East to West, plus the largest grain-milling center in the United States. When the St Lawrence Seaway was opened, replacing the Erie Canal as the most significant waterway in the region, and Amtrak rerouted trains to nearby Depew, the steel industry and grain milling declined and consequently, Buffalo’s prosperity dropped. But you can still see many of the millionaire’s mansions along Delaware Avenue, which was known as Millionaires Row back in the day.
The diverse food scene was probably what surprised me most about Buffalo. Obviously, there are Buffalo Chicken Wings which are famous throughout the U.S. (but aren’t anywhere as good as at the Anchor Bar, the birthplace of the original Buffalo Wings!), but thanks to the city’s ethnic diversity, however, there is also a wide range of international restaurants to be found and the list of places I wanted to eat at was impossible to work through – I would’ve needed to eat constantly to try all the restaurants that I wanted to try. There are currently 904 restaurants listed on TripAdvisor for Buffalo – which shows you how much of a foodie town Buffalo is. I’ll write about Buffalo’s restaurant (and food truck!) scene more later, but favorites of mine included the Seabar (excellent sushi), Left Bank (Italian food) and the Westside Bazaar with its selection of African, Indian and South East Asian food stands.