How to Have the Best Summer in Western New York

Western New York skyline
Sean_Marshall/Flickr

When I was a kid my parents would pack up the car and make the drive across the Peace Bridge to any number of beaches that lined the Southern Ontario coast for a stress-free summer afternoon. We would often venture out to different beaches and neighborhoods but rarely spent much time in the city. Roughly twenty years ago the city was at the peak of decay with little to nothing to do. Most storefronts sat empty and the green space was overgrown and heaped in litter. You would never catch a vacationer or local strolling the streets of Downtown Buffalo on a sunny afternoon for any reason other than necessity.

Fast forward to present day and you could easily spend each day of summer exploring a newly revamped neighborhood. We’re all aware of the vast development that Buffalo has undergone over the past few years and neighborhoods that were once totally written off or forgotten have transitioned into true destinations. Larkin Square is probably the most notable example having grown from a blighted community of demolished homes and neglected lots to one of the best neighborhoods for activities in the city.

  During the summer months, bands play in the open air and the park hosts Food Truck Tuesdays, where over a dozen trucks shop their local eats. Thousands come out to celebrate all things Buffalo from local music to staple eats.

This trend is constantly expanding into neighborhoods throughout the city, allowing for more and more opportunities each summer. So whether it’s drinking and dining outdoors or strolling through a local park, Western New York has plenty to offer to make each day a unique summer experience.

Nature

Western New York is a great place to be if anything nature related is on your vacation to-do list. From the local parks to the miles upon miles of trails, lakeside waterfront to the sprawling beaches, Western New York is a city surrounded by expounding amounts of greenery. The city itself was designed (by Frederick Law Olmsted—the same man who designed New York City’s Central Park) to weave amongst the parks, making Buffalo a city truly entwined with nature.

Additionally, spread throughout Western New York you can find hiking trails that make you feel like you're nowhere near a city, but in reality, you can be as close as twenty minutes away. Hiking spots can be found in almost every surrounding town and range from short walks to intense multi-mile trails, winding through the forests of Upstate New York. It's a great way to detach from the stresses of everyday life and enjoy the peacefulness of nature.

Over the past few years, millions of dollars have been invested in different waterfront parks like the First Ward’s River Fest Park, Mutual Riverfront Park, and the inner and outer harbors. Running and biking paths weave through the once-bustling industrial landscape making for an impressive backdrop. Towering grain elevators dominate the skyline of this section of the city, making a once dirty and secluded neighborhood a destination for any warm day.

The crown jewel of the city’s park system (at least in recent years; next to Delaware Park), Canalside, has exploded in development since the early 2000s after the city devoted millions of dollars to make it a destination for locals and travelers alike. The garbage-strewn lots have been replaced with manicured lawns and the boardwalks, and the neglected Buffalo waterway has been cleaned and turned into a recreational headquarters. You can spend the day kayaking the waters through the domineering grain elevators (allowing for a great photo opportunity if you’re confident enough to bring a camera on your trip) or glide through the waters in a paddleboat.

Last summer a new initiative kicked off, giving visitors the opportunity to rent bikes downtown and a ferry system was set up to take riders from Canalside to the outer harbor for just $1.

Beaches

You probably don’t consider Western New York and Southern Ontario a destination worthy beach vacation, but the coasts of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario are lined with stunning sandy beaches—many of which you can have all to yourself. There are also a number of smaller lake beaches spread throughout the surrounding suburbs, giving you ample selections for a quick beach getaway all within a roughly 45-minute drive.

Years ago, these beaches were considered the parallel to New York City’s Hampton’s escapes, just a quick drive or ferry (now defunct) from the city. Grand Victorian homes and smaller beach cottages line the coast and at one point an amusement park dominated the pier at Crystal Beach. Now, things are a little quieter on that side of the border. The great thing about the beaches in Canada is the farther you drive out the less populated they are. My favorite beach, Long Beach just past Port Colbourne, is almost entirely desolate but incredibly beautiful.

It’s an amazing experience to pull up to such an expansive beach only to find that you are one of maybe a dozen enjoying the sun-kissed sand and water.

The Finger Lakes region, while a little farther away, is also fair game. There are dozens of beaches dotting these picturesque lakes, large enough to allow for boating and jet skiing.

Outdoor Eating

As I mentioned, Food Truck Tuesdays in Larkin Square are a huge summer draw for those looking to soak up the sun and grab some cheap eats, but there are plenty of options to choose from. While the city is known for being the arctic capital of the world (a title that I personally think dismisses how amazing the other three seasons are in the city), the outdoor dining scene is impressive. Take a walk down Elmwood Avenue, Hertel Avenue or Allen Street and you’ll find dozens of options with small sidewalk patios or tucked-away backyards.

Gabrielle’s Gate in Allentown offers a secluded backyard, shaded by mature trees, and has some of the best chicken wings in the city. The new Mac’s on Hertel and the old (tried and true) Wellington Pub have sprawling sidewalk patios that make for some great people watching to go along with your pint. Liberty Hound in Canalside has a deck overstretching the water that makes for a great lazy afternoon watching the sailboats go by as you enjoy your lunch or dinner.

Regardless of which neighborhood you choose you are sure to find plenty of options for all types of food and drink options; all of which will make for a great lazy afternoon.

Outdoor Bars

After an al fresco lunch or dinner continue the trend with drinks outdoors.  Most of the restaurants throughout Buffalo turn to bars later in the evening, so any of the restaurants listed above will still be slinging drinks under the stars until late in the morning (bars in Buffalo stay open until 4 am.) If you’re looking for a change of pace the Chippewa district has a number of rooftop bars including Soho Burger Bar, Sky Bar, and Buffalo Proper, and it’s probably your best bet for finding a rooftop spot.

Activities

Biking in the city is one of the most popular summer activities as the city has spend the past few years (and millions of dollars) revamping the bike lanes throughout the city, making it one of the most bike-friendly towns in America (watch out Portland!).

Theater and music events are also rampant in the summer months throughout Buffalo, many of which are hosted outside. Shakespeare in the Park in Lewiston is held from June to August and draws in quite the crowd. Free music festivals are held at M&T Plaza downtown and there are hundreds of events down at Canalside.

Festivals

I’d argue that Buffalo is the best city in the country for festivals during the summer months (but obviously I’m biased.) From May to late September it seems like there’s always another great festival or event to set your schedule around. Whether it’s food, culture, arts or history, there are plenty of events throughout the city that celebrate everything Buffalo. It’s a great opportunity to get the full city experience, trying local eats and shopping from local vendors.

There’s the Allentown Art Festival on June 11 and 12 that showcases artists work from near and far. Since its inception nearly 60 years ago the event has grown to over 400. The Elmwood Avenue Festival of the Arts, on August 27 and 28, is a similar festival that stretches the length of nearly the entire neighborhood. Roughly 170 artists participate and there are over 50 performances held throughout the neighborhood.

There’s also the Taste of Buffalo on July 9 and 10, which happens to be the largest two-day festival of it’s kind, showcasing local eats from over 50 restaurants and seven wineries. Since its inception 33 years ago, the festival has grown to over 450,000 visitors (that’s nearly twice the population of the city itself.)

Last but definitely not least, the National Buffalo Wing Festival held over Labor Day weekend on September 3 and 4, is a true testament to the city’s love for food (especially the chicken wing.). Nearly 800,000 people make it out to consume roughly 4.2 million wings. If it’s not the food you’re interested in, it’s definitely a great people watching experience.