This Northern City is Way More Than Wings and Snow

'Buffalo is starting to capitalize on its potential as a playground for the active'

Joe Cascio

Underestimating the Queen City should be a crime. New York’s second largest city is in the most exciting stage of a renaissance, and it has nothing to do with hot wings. Located on the northeastern shore of Lake Erie, Buffalo made a name for itself in the early 19th century when it thrived economically as the last stop on the Erie Canal.

Although this connection to one of the country’s most important trade routes would be responsible for Buffalo’s growth and glory days, it would also be responsible for a significant decline in population when technological advances sent jobs elsewhere.

Today, Buffalo’s population of 260,000 is a far cry from the 580,000 that it had in the 1950s. But for the city’s current residents, quality of life—at least when it comes to recreation—could not be more promising. Contrary to popular belief, Buffalo is not buried under snow 10 months of the year. And with Lake Erie, Niagara Falls and the waterways of the Erie Canal in its arsenal, the city is starting to capitalize on its potential as a playground for the active, travelers included.

For years, the Buffalo River was not conducive to paddling. But today, with the barges retired and outfitter BFLO Harbor Kayak operating every summer, manpowered water sports are becoming increasingly popular. After renting a kayak or paddleboard, paddlers can go right and venture out onto choppy and challenging Lake Erie, or they can turn left and meander for miles down the more inviting river. Paddling down the Buffalo River is a one-of-a-kind high only made possible when a place of historical significance is the setting.

On one of the most scenic stretches—aptly nicknamed Silo City—abandoned grain elevators and mills cast shadows over the water and it’s impossible not to imagine the hustle and bustle of blue-collar workers that once ruled the now eerily calm waterway. While the majority of the towering structures stand still, the General Mills plant still cranks out cereal, and paddlers can usually tell (by smell) whether it’s a Cheerios or Lucky Charms day. 

Another novel way to get out on the water and explore the Erie Basin Marina is to rent a hydrobike from BFLO Harbor Kayak. Sailing is also an option. In addition to camps and weekday classes, Sail Buffalo Sailing School offers intense Friday through Sunday courses that are perfect for weekend travelers. The school also teaches about sustainability and aquatics on its floating classroom constructed from more than 6,000 recycled soda bottles. More recently, it began offering SUP Blue Water Safaris where the motto is “meditation in motion” and Fitness on Water sessions where cardio and strength training are taught at Buffalo’s Bennett Beach.

Those looking for classes with water views in the warmer months can also choose from a selection of fitness classes including boot camp, Pilates, yoga and Zumba, which are offered in what is arguably Buffalo’s most up-and-coming district, Canalside. Five years ago, the idea of hosting fitness classes, concerts, festivals, artisan markets and more on a waterfront public green space in Buffalo would have bordered on ludicrous. But that was before the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. took over and transformed 21 acres of blighted land into some of downtown Buffalo’s most desirable, and recreation-friendly, real estate. What was once considered an eyesore is now home to outdoor game stations and dozens of strategically placed Adirondack chairs facing the water.

While much of Buffalo’s recreational opportunities rely on its proximity to Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Niagara Falls and the Erie Canal, not all of its active highlights are dependent on H2O. For example, one of the city’s most compelling projects is Silo City Rocks. Once complete, Buffalo will be home to the world’s highest manmade rock climbing wall. What was once an operational grain elevator is being converted into a state-of-the-art climbing complex featuring interior and exterior climbs including the record-breaking 190-foot wall. Plans also call for bouldering caves, on-site yoga and Pilates classes, concessions and a pro shop.

The jury is still out on the date for the ribbon cutting for Silo City Rocks, but another highly anticipated event is certain to come to fruition—the 119th annual Buffalo Turkey Trot. Rain, shine or war, Buffalo has hosted an 8K run on Thanksgiving Day every year since 1896. The city boasts that it’s North America’s oldest consecutively running public footrace, and although it began as a dirt road race open only to men, it now attracts runners—both male and female—from all over the world. The route runs through downtown Buffalo and while there are prizes for the first finishers, some of the most coveted awards come from the race’s runway costume contest.

Another way to socialize and be active in Queen City is to take advantage of Buffalo BikeShare. The team also behind Buffalo’s car share program introduced the city to Social Bicycles last spring and had a successful pilot program that included happy hour cruises (helmets required of course). Buffalo is now just one of eight cities in the U.S. to offer these communal smart bikes that can be parked and picked up at any bike rack—not just a bike share hub.

One of Buffalo’s most popular bike shops, Campus Wheelworks, is where cyclists meet every Tuesday night from May through August for a selection of group rides that vary in mileage, speed and purpose. The B Sweaty Ride, B Chatty Ride and C Ice Cream Ride all speak for themselves.

It would be remiss not to acknowledge that there are a few months in Buffalo when ice cream outings are replaced with ice skating. While the city is home to several indoor and outdoor rinks, the talk of the town is about the “rink” set to open in Canalside around Thanksgiving. After a summer spent constructing replica canals and building bridges, residents and winter visitors will soon be able to try ice skating, curling, hockey and even broomball on a surface reminiscent of the world famous Rideau Canal in Ottawa. 

Sledding also reigns supreme during Buffalo’s winters that average 94 inches of snow. Chestnut Ridge in nearby Orchard Park has 1930s-era toboggan towers and chutes that are open to the public and are thought to be some of the country’s oldest still in operation. In other areas of the park, winter sports enthusiasts can cross country ski, snowshoe and even snowmobile. It’s a long shot, but if last year’s polar vortex returns year after year, there may even be some serious ice climbing opportunities just north of Buffalo in Niagara Gorge.

Ice climbing at Niagara Falls could be a few years coming, but these days, it’s easier than ever to stay busy and find reasons to visit Buffalo. In the 1840s, when Buffalo earned its nickname as the Queen City, it was because it was the second largest city in New York (New York City being the “King”). Over the years the Queen City has seen incredible highs and lows, but if you ask anyone in Buffalo which direction the city is currently heading, don’t be surprised if they point up. After all, in chess, the queen can move in any direction.


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