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Get out and learn: Explore Buffalo tours are now free and self-guided

Charline O’Neil knows the value of daily exercise and education, which can be hard enough to manage in the best of times.

During the last two months, she and her husband, Kevin, have needed to juggle jobs remotely from home while also assuring that their kids, Braeden, 15, and McKenna, 12, keep up with their online schoolwork and take steps to stay healthy and safe during the Covid-19 pandemic.

An eight-week pause in typical life, mixed with mostly lousy weather, added to the burden.

“The kids are so bored,” said O’Neil, a physical education teacher in Lockport who lives in North Tonawanda. “They're even getting bored of watching YouTube. They're getting bored of playing Xbox. They’re asking, ‘What can we do?’ ”

It explains why the O’Neil family welcomed word that Explore Buffalo, unable to offer its popular guided tours of historic neighborhoods across the Buffalo Niagara region, decided to adjust to the pandemic by changing its strategy.

The nonprofit group is offering six free, self-guided walking routes on its website,, to help people break their cabin fever, get some exercise and learn more about the region where they live.

Explore Buffalo and Brad Hahn, its executive director, have put a self-guided tour of Williamsville, including Glen Park, behind a paywall for Explorer Pass members, to thank them for financially supporting the nonprofit during the Covid-19 pandemic. Those who become members receive 15 months of membership for the cost of 12 months. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

“We wanted to promote walking, as well as continue our mission of educating people about Buffalo history and architecture,” said Brad Hahn, executive director of the six-year-old nonprofit that hoped to offer 1,500 guided tours this year. “That's what people are doing when they take these walking routes. It's not quite the same experience as a walking tour with one of our guides – who are storytellers – but it's a lot better than doing nothing.”

The price is right – as are the health benefits, said Phil Haberstro, executive director of the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo.

A half-hour of walking, even split into three 10-minute “doses,” can reduce cardiovascular disease and strengthen your immune system, Haberstro said. It can boost mental health. It also can help the region economically, according to a report last year that said Western New York spends $2.5 billion a year to treat and pay for lost productivity because of chronic disease.

Charline O’Neil poses with her children, Braeden, 15, and McKenna, 12, during a recent self-guided Explore Buffalo Elmwood Village tour. (Photo by Kevin O'Neil)

“There's very clear evidence that people who are physically active make less unnecessary use of the sickness care system,” he said, “and walking, or rolling, is inclusive and available to just about everybody.”

Explore Buffalo postponed its tours on March 13, when it became clear that they couldn’t be offered safely by foot, bike and especially bus, at least for a while.

Volunteer docents lead the walking tours, which cost $15. The organization has posted six of its most popular walking routes online for all to use. Last week, it also began to offer other tour exclusively to Explorer Pass members willing to pay $60 (or $90 per family) for a 15-month membership to help the organization stay afloat. That will include free guided tours when they resume.

Each free online self-guided walk covers 1 to 2 miles, and 2,000 to 4,000 steps. Each features a Buffalo neighborhood. It includes a map, small snapshots of about a dozen landmarks, and three or four bullet-point sentences describing the significance of each one.

The website also includes a calorie counter for walks, courtesy of Independent Health.

Williamsville is the first tour featured behind the paywall. An interactive architectural scavenger hunt is part of the journey.

O’Neil said she was surprised to learn during one of her family walks that South Buffalo, where she worked while in college, had such a rich Native American history.

Here are some other tidbits from each of the six self-guided walking routes to whet your appetite for upcoming exploration.


When it comes to Buffalo’s Grain Elevators, Brad has his facts down pat! This #BuffaloBasics video was filmed in one take down by Mutual Riverfront Park. One of our favorite spots!

Posted by Explore Buffalo on Tuesday, May 12, 2020



Best of Buffalo Downtown

The self-guided Explore Buffalo downtown walking tour includes a stop at Erie County Community College, formerly the U.S. Postal Service regional hub. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

“This tour includes some of our best-known architecture,” Hahn said. It starts and ends at Lafayette Square, though people will have a map on their smartphone or tablet so they can start anywhere along the route. The tour heads into Niagara Square, past Buffalo City Hall and includes stops at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and the Guaranty and Ellicott Square buildings. The 1.7-mile walk involves 3,500 steps.

Canalside’s Inner Harbor

Canalside is a stop on another popular Explore Buffalo itinerary. If you go, make sure to keep your social distance. (News file photo)

Starts at Explore & More Museum and winds along the Canalside boardwalk past the the DL&W railroad terminal and grain silos toward General Mills, where, if conditions are right, you can smell the Cheerios baking. You’ll also pass the EM Cotter Fireboat and the French Connection statue outside KeyBank Center. The 1.6-mile route involves 3,200 steps.

Elmwood Village Victorians

Site of the former Shea's Elmwood is one of the stops on the Explore Buffalo Elmwood Village self-guided tour. (News file photo)

Starts at Elmwood Avenue at Bryant Street and focuses on residential architecture on Ashland, Lexington and Richmond avenues. It includes a house on Bryant designed by Louise Blanchard Bethune, the first female architect recognized by the American Institute of Architects. “You’ll see the beautiful streets of the Elmwood village and the flowers all coming into bloom in that neighborhood,” Hahn said, “as well as some of the murals that have been added to those neighborhoods recently.” The 1.7 mile-route involves 3,400 steps.

Hertel Avenue

The North Park Theatre, built in 1920, is part of the Hertel Avenue tour. The theater reopened March 7, 2014, following an expansive nine-month renovation. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

This and the South Buffalo route were added last year. Both became so popular that Explore Buffalo wanted them included in the free tours. Starts at Hertel and North Park Avenue, traces the rebirth of the strip and passes the Weego Mural created in 2018 by Matt Grote and Chuck Tingley. The 1.4-mile route involves 2,800 steps.

Historic Homes of Allentown

This sycamore tree on Franklin Street near Edward is over 300 years old and considered to be the oldest tree in Buffalo. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

Starts at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site and focuses on historic homes on Allen, Franklin and North Pearl streets, as well a tree standing more than 50 feet high along Franklin, which is considered the oldest in the city. Lewis Falley Allen bought 29 acres in 1829 for $2,500 in what became this neighborhood. Allen also had a famous nephew: former Erie County sheriff, Buffalo mayor, New York governor and U.S. president Grover Cleveland. The 1-mile route involves 2,000 steps.

South Buffalo

Red Jacket was buried in South Buffalo before his body was moved to Forest Lawn Cemetery in 1884 at the recommendation of politician William C. Bryant. (News file photo)

Starts at Buffum and Seneca streets, passes a historic church, theater and bank, and includes a stop at Seneca Indian Park, at Buffum and Fields Avenue, part of Seneca Nation territory that once included South Buffalo, West Seneca, Lackawanna and Elma. Seneca leader Red Jacket was buried on the site in 1830 and reburied in Forest Lawn in 1884. This 1.6-mile route involves 3,200 steps.

Those who take the tours are encouraged to snap photos and post them on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter using #ExploreBuffalo.

The nonprofit is considering guided walking and bike tours come late summer that would require reservations, advance payment and a limit of 10 people who must wear masks.

Bus tour predictions? No chance this year, Hahn said.

“I don't envision people wanting to spend three hours in a confined space with strangers.”

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