DILAPIDATED GRAIN elevators and concrete silos soar a dozen stories above the Buffalo River, seemingly close enough to touch from my kayak. It’s an incongruous sight with the serenity of the flat river so close at hand. The buildings once stored untold tons of grain for transport to major East Coast cities. These days, however, the maritime traffic in downtown Buffalo is mostly recreational vessels like our trio of kayaks, as well as motorboats, standup paddleboards, and even floating tiki bars—which look one mai tai away from tipping over.
As we paddle north, a nostalgic aroma drifts across the water—Lucky Charms. Tour guide Jason Mendola, a native of South Buffalo and co-owner of Elevator Alley Kayak, points out the source of the sugary scent: the General Mills factory, one of only a handful still operating along the waterfront in this metro area of 1.1 million. The aroma makes it feel as if we’re navigating a scene straight out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. What’s even more improbable is that we’re paddling a waterway that formerly was so polluted with toxic sludge that it once caught on fire. Nowadays, however, the water is remarkably clean, and parks and bustling waterfront development co-exist seamlessly along its banks.
After decades of decline, this long-depressed city is, if not quite booming again, certainly bouncing back. Buffalo’s brutal winters and Super Bowl–challenged football team have always made for easy punch lines. But state incentives like the Buffalo Billion—which subsidized projects including a new $750 million Tesla factory—have sparked renewed optimism. The remarkable turnaround of the once-dead Buffalo River has played a major role, too, thanks to a 10-year, $75 million shoreline restoration. The Canalside district, as it’s called, is now bustling with restaurants, bars, and a boardwalk, bringing new life to the once-blighted waterfront. This summer will also mark the completion of a 25-year, $50 million restoration of the Martin House Complex—the most ambitious project by America’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wrigt.
This buzzy new Buffalo is largely the effort of enterprising locals like Mendola, who embody the blue-collar work ethic the town has always been known for. “The pride has just been bonkers,” Mendola says. “If you’re going to say something bad about Buffalo now, people are going to fight you. And it’s the young people, too. They haven’t been jaded by the past.”
Refurbishing old buildings for some newfangled purpose, called adaptive reuse, is a trendy term these days, especially with politicians and planning types. But few places are pulling it off as seamlessly—and charmingly—as Buffalo. Silo City is the most poignant example. The five-acre cluster of former industrial buildings now serves as a venue for art exhibits, concerts, and literary events. Grain elevator tours are available, and the newest addition on site is a cozy tapas bar.
That harmonious blend of old and new is woven throughout the city. In the working-class Old First Ward neighborhood, a 116-year-old former barrel factory now houses Mendola’s kayak shop, along with a craft distillery, a brewery, and a pizzeria. A few blocks away, Undergrounds Coffee House & Roastery celebrates its former life as a funeral home. Across town, at a sprawling complex called Buffalo RiverWorks, grain silos are now the site of a brewery, a zip line, and a climbing wall.
Hotels are getting in on the action, too. Hotel Henry is housed in the former Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, its foreboding facade, complete with turrets that appear lifted from the Middle Ages, belying light- and art-filled interiors. The swanky Curtiss Hotel, meanwhile, is showing off a $25 million make-over of a former office building.
In addition to this revitalization, the city is getting an extra boost from refugees and immigrants, as it’s one of the nation’s top locations for resettlement. There’s no better place to get a literal taste of their contributions than at the West Side Bazaar, a business incubator with six retail stalls and nine food vendors who turn out authentic dishes from around the world, such as Ethiopian injera and Indian biryani. The bazaar is a strong draw in the gentrifying neighborhood, manager Bob Doyle tells me.
“The refugees were these accidental urban pioneers,” he says. “Usually, it’s the hipsters coming in and gentrifying. But here, it was the refugees that kicked everything off.”
On my last day in town, I grab a cherry-red set of wheels from Buffalo’s bike share program. The city’s flat streets and abundant bike lanes make riding a cinch, and I spend hours exploring the Elmwood Village and Allentown neighborhoods, brimming with bars, book- shops, and cafes—some old, some new.
What I’m hoping most to see, though, is bubbles. They come courtesy of a local legend known as the Bubble Man, who lives in a top- floor apartment and regularly blasts bubbles out of his window. The previous times I’ve been past his corner, there’s been nary an orb in the air. But as I pedal down Elmwood Avenue this time, a flash of iridescence, then another, catches my eye. Suddenly dozens of shining globes float down on the breeze. It’s yet another pleasant surprise in a city that’s now full of them.
Where to Stay
The Hotel Henry features soaring ceilings and hallways filled with local and national artwork (from $155). The Curtiss Hotel has a snazzy lobby, rotating bar, and rooftop lounge that’s a popular local gathering spot in the summer, with superb views of the skyline (from $169).
Where to Eat
James Beard-nominated chef Victor Parra Gonzalez’s Las Puertas has a menu with Mexican flavors and French techniques; splurge on the tasting menu. The Anchor Bar claims to have invented buffalo wings, and it regularly tops locals’ lists of best places for them. You can’t go wrong with any of the dishes at the West Side Bazaar, with influences from around the globe.
Don’t Leave Without
1. Taking in a Sunday-night jam at the historic Colored Musicians Club, which has hosted some of jazz’s greatest artists, including Miles Davis, for over 100 years.
2. Ogling the mansions along Millionaires’ Row, a peek into Buffalo’s prosperous past.
3. Grabbing a Reddy Bike and taking the five-minute ride across the Buffalo River on the Queen City Bike Ferry to the Outer Harbor. There, bike paths run along the shores of Lake Erie past nature preserves, public art, and an outdoor beer garden.