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Things to Do in Buffalo, NY, Then and Now

There's no reason to fret a little snow when there are so many fun things to do in Buffalo, N.Y.

things to do in buffalo ny

There are a number of ways to enjoy the expansive ice rink at Canalside in Buffalo, including ice bikes and bumper cars. (Photo: KC Kratt / Visit Buffalo Niagara)

Twenty-five years ago, if you had asked me about things to do in Buffalo, N.Y., I would have answered from the limited scope of a college senior. Options for a cash-strapped kid with no car were limited, and the city was pretty downtrodden.

I might have told you that fun things to do in Buffalo were to join the rowdy college-age crowds at any of the many bars and then go to Pano’s or Towne for late night/early morning Greek fare and breakfast dishes or grab a sub at Jim’s SteakOut.

I would have said that Buffalo is a great place to catch original music acts. It was the “alternative” era, and small venues, like Nietzsche’s, were pulling in rising stars when they were still relatively unknown – and not just locals like Ani DiFranco, 10,000 Maniacs and moe.

When my family came to visit, we’d check out more wholesome spots like the Buffalo Zoo. Dad always took us to dinner at the Skylon Tower overlooking Niagara Falls from Canada – just about 30 minutes from Buffalo. I’ve seen the Falls in every season, and they are always spectacular.

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All of those things to do in Buffalo still exist, but a recent visit exposed me to so much more. Ongoing residential development has repopulated and revitalized downtown. Sleek new buildings expose, rather than overshadow, the ornate architectural gems of a bygone era.

Canalside, an ever-expanding riverside recreation area, gives new life to Erie Canal Harbor, a source of prosperity for Buffalo in the 1800s as the terminus for cargo transport on the bustling waterway. Twenty-five years ago, it was dormant and neglected. Today, this spot along the Buffalo River attracts throngs of picnickers and people playing catch, strolling the boardwalk and enjoying the outdoors.

Maybe they’re all a little cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. I suspect that was the case on a recent visit with my guide, a close college friend. We wandered through the Naval & Military Park, taking photos of the ships and planes on display. We walked past the children’s sand play area called The Beach. She told me about paddle boat and kayak rentals, mentioned harbor boat tours as we walked past the construction site for a new children’s museum. Then, at about the time we had walked the whole stretch, she made me sniff the air. “It smells like Cocoa Puffs,” she said. Who knows if the nearby General Mills cereal production plant was actually making Cocoa Puffs that day, but there certainly was a sweet and soothing scent in the air.

things to do in buffalo ny

The Shark Girl sculpture by Casey Riordan Millard is a popular selfie spot at Canalside. That’s me on the left, with my good friend and Buffalo-area resident Kate McCormick.

Fun things to do in Buffalo in winter

In winter, there’s usually at least a few feet of snow on the ground in Buffalo. So what is there to do? Dress warm and embrace it. The streets and sidewalks are relatively clear, and there’s a good public transportation system, including an underground railway the length of Main Street.

Wings

You may know them as Buffalo wings, but they’re just “wings” here. These fiery snacks (or meal if you prefer) will warm your blood in winter, even better if accompanied by beer. Join the heated rivalry (pun intended) between Anchor Bar in Buffalo proper and Duff’s in Amherst. Anchor Bar proclaims to have “the original” wings, while Duff’s claims to be “famous,” both tout signature secret recipes around 50 years old. Be careful how you order them; “hot” might sear your face off. You can find tasty wings almost anywhere in the city, though. You can even follow the Buffalo Wing Trail.

Explore history

The Buffalo History Museum is among the things to do in Buffalo that I enjoy most. I’m kind of a nerd like that. As a history and communications major at Canisius College, I was steered by my advisers to an internship in the promotions office here. Consider that metaphorically, because it was actually the bus drivers on two routes that got me back and forth three times a week in winter-semester weather (dress warm, embrace it). For my bravery, I was rewarded with unlimited access to the sizable museum and its library for exploring Buffalo’s colorful past, and researching for term papers.

Consider the building itself. The Neoclassical Revival-style structure was built for the 1901 Pan American-Exposition, putting it front and center for a significant event in U.S. history. President William McKinley was shot and fatally wounded at that world’s fair of the Americas. When he died, eight days later, President Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated in a building on Delaware Avenue. That’s not Buffalo’s only link to U.S. presidents. McKinley’s predecessor was Buffalonian Grover Cleveland. And, about 40 years prior to that, another Buffalo native, President Millard Fillmore, held the office. The museum showcases these events, of course. You’ll also learn a great deal about the industrial prominence, architecture, notable inventions and more from Buffalo’s past.

things to do in buffalo ny

Albright-Knox Art Gallery can brighten up any winter day. (Photo: RheaAnna)

Go modern

The original Albright-Knox Art Gallery, with its striking Greek revival-style front, was also supposed to be part of the Pan-American Exposition, but wasn’t ready until four years later. More impressive than the building’s columned facade is its somewhat incongruous holdings inside. This museum is dedicated to modern and contemporary art. “We the People: New Art from the Collection” runs through June 30, 2019.

Go for the goal

Examining the The Buffalo Sabres’ 2017 season, I was ready to say that KeyBank Center in Canalside was a good venue to most likely see your favorite NHL team (other than the Sabres) trounce the competition, but the Sabres are much improved. Tickets are still fairly easy and inexpensive to get, but expect the Sabres to hold their own.

things to do in buffalo ny

Shea’s Performing Arts Center in downtown Buffalo hosts concerts, musicals and other performances. (Photo: Joe Cascio)

See a show

Like most moderate-size U.S. cities, Buffalo boasts an ornately adorned and elegantly restored 1920s movie theater turned live performance venue. Shea’s Performing Arts Center in downtown is the place to see touring Broadway shows, like “Hamilton” in 2018, special events and visiting performances.

Ride an ice bike

You should figure (pun intended) that Buffalo has at least one outdoor ice skating rink. It actually has a few. But ice bicycling? Ice Bikes of Buffalo rents modified two-wheelers for $12, so you can pedal around the ice at Canalside. It’s open Thursdays through Sundays at varying hours until mid-March. Or, for even more fun, there are now ice bumper cars, too.

Brews

Buffalonians, at least those I’ve known, have always liked their beer. So 150-plus varieties from 75 breweries all in one place is something to look forward to. Every winter, the annual Buffalo on Tap craft beer festival at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center promises that and more.

Even in the snow, Buffalo is a cool place to chill – and that’s just a few of the attractions. When the weather heats up, so does this city. I’ll tell you more about that later.

FIND AND BOOK A HOTEL WITH AAA IN BUFFALO, N.Y.

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