For the Labor Day long weekend, my wife and I headed North West from New York City for four days at Niagara Falls. Turns out, Niagara might not be the place you expected and it's more difficult than you'd think to do it in a way that you love that will leave you rested and refreshed.
So why am I being so gloomy about Niagara Falls? Well first, let me ease your worried mind and tell you that first, the falls are amazing…
You don't need to worry that they're not as impressive as you've seen and heard all these years. That's not my issue at all.
But first, let me tell you about how to do this properly.
Which side of Niagara Falls should you visit? Canada or US
A question that gets asked every single time you mention that you went to the Falls is:
Did you stay on the US or the Canadian side of the Falls!?
Our answer was (and yours should be, too): The Canadian Side.
Why? Because it's much more beautiful, it's better maintained, and there's more to do. Most (if not all) of the pictures that you've seen looking down at the falls have been taken from the Canadian side.
The US side hasn't been built up nearly as much as the Canadian side which may sound like it'd be more authentic but in actual fact, you'll find that it's just not as nice. It hasn't been maintained nearly as well and you really just won't enjoy it as much.
So stay on the Canadian side and be an international traveler for a day!
How to visit Canada for the day (or the weekend)
To get over to Canada from the US, if you're driving, you don't need anything except your passport.
A Canadian eTA is only required if you fly or boat, but you should ALWAYS check this yourself, so click here to go to the official website and you can review that yourself.
One thing to note though is that when you're driving, you arrive at a monstrosity of cars once you cross the Peace Bridge trying to go through Canadian Immigration.
Leave plenty of time to get into Canada as we were in the line for around 45 minutes. Once we got to the border officer, we were asked questions similar to arriving in the US like what we do for a living, where we live, and what our relationship was. All relatively easy but it takes a long time.
On the other side, it's about another 30 minutes drive into the heart of the Falls area, you're not there yet.
What's amazing to do at Niagara Falls
First things first, it's a sight to see.
During peak daytime tourist hours, more than 168,000 m3 (six million cubic feet) of water goes over the crest of the falls every minute. Horseshoe Falls is the most powerful waterfall in North America, as measured by flow rate.
What's the difference between Maid of the Mist and Hornblower?
Hornblower takes off from the Canadian side and Maid of the Mist takes off from the US side. That's really it (and you wear different colored ponchos). The boats are basically the same, and they do almost an identical route into the horseshoe falls and back out again.
If you're staying in Canada, go Hornblower.
What's wrong with Niagara Falls
So now that I've made sure you understand how much I enjoyed my time at the Falls, I want to get to the bit that I didn't like (because it leads into a great plan below).
The Falls area is like Vegas-lite-for-families.
It's very much built for families looking for a getaway, which is lovely, but it's not the most authentic feel when you walk about 50 feet away from the edge of the falls. You're suddenly surrounded by all-you-can-eat buffets and people selling memorabilia for your trip to the Falls. In my mind, the Falls were going to be surrounded by nature and forests and squirrels handing out roasted nuts, and that's just not the case.
Therefore, here's my best recommendation for your trip to the falls:
Stay near Niagara Falls but not at Niagara Falls
For your first (and only) night, stay at the Falls, and get yourself a room with a view if you can. We stayed at the Hilton and it was quite nice!
I completely understand that it's worth saving money wherever you can on holiday, but for this step, I would recommend getting a room with a Falls View.
Every night there are fireworks over the falls and if you can see them from your room, it's delightful!
It will mean that you can go out to dinner (by the way, I can recommend AG @ the Sterling for a lovely meal that wasn't too expensive) and then head straight back to your room to watch the display for the comfort of your pajamas.
But after night one, leave Niagara Falls! There's really not that much else to do (we didn't do the zip line but it certainly didn't look that fun) around the Falls, so why not get out to somewhere nice.
Where should you go, well I'm so glad you asked!
For the best long weekend at Niagara Falls, stay at Niagara-on-the-lake
Look. At. This.
It's beautiful! What is it?
Niagara-on-the-Lake is a town in southern Ontario. It sits on the shores of Lake Ontario, at the mouth of the Niagara River. It's known for its wineries and the summer Shaw Festival, a series of theatre productions. The flower-filled, tree-lined old town features 19th-century buildings, mainly along Queen Street. Near the river, 19th-century Fort George was built by the British to defend against American attacks.
It's about half an hour drive from the Falls and it's a BEAUTIFUL drive amongst some really lovely homes.
You're basically going from the centre of a bustling metropolis to a quaint little town by a lake and it's exactly what you want from it.
What to do at Niagara-on-the-lake
This is a very laid back town but here are the top few things you should do:
- Go to some wineries – This is really what the area is known for, and I can recommend: Peller, Big Head, Cave Spring, Hidden Bench, Tawse, and Henry of Pelham.
- Drink ice wine – Ice wine is a sweet dessert wine produced from grapes that have frozen while on the vine. It's only grown in a few places and this is one of them!
- Eat Barbecue and drink a beer at – Niagara Oast House Brewers is a craft brewery and they serve AMAZING BARBECUE and beers. Save up for a delicious lunch here and you won't regret it.
- Hire a bike and ride around – It's the main form of transportation around the area, you'll love it
- Walk the main street – Chat to the people, get a feel for the place, and buy an icecream!
- Watch some live music – This is a small town, you'll find lots of great people performing all over the place (I can recommend the Prince of Wales Hotel)
- Go to some more wineries – I mean why not?
This is the secret sauce to your visit to Niagara Falls: Spend one night at Niagara Falls, ride on a boat into it, get misty and wet, watch the fireworks, then get in your car and drive to Niagara-on-the-lake for the rest of your stay.
I think you'll love it, so let me know in the comments below what you think or if you have any other ideas!