Niagara Falls

< Niagara Falls >Even though I grew up only a 45-minute plane ride from Niagara Falls, I really didn’t know much about the place. When I decided to plan a trip, I realized I had no clue what to do! I decided to ask other travel bloggers what to do, and realized everyone was saying something different. I got all jumbled up trying to do it all, and it wasn’t until I got there that everything became clear. So my goal in this post is to try to break Niagara Falls down clearly for anyone trying to plan a trip to this natural wonder!

What Exactly Is Niagara Falls?

< Niagara Falls >Niagara Falls consists of the American Falls, called Bridal Veil Falls, and the Canadian Falls, called Horseshoe Falls. The Horseshoe Falls are the most impressive and usually get featured in travel magazines, so these are what people think of most when they think “Niagara Falls.” In the Horseshoe Falls, over 600,000 gallons (2,271,247 liters) of water per second falls 167 feet (50.9 meters). The ledge spans 2,600 feet (792.4 meters). In the Bridal Veil Falls, over 150,000 gallons (567,811 liters) of water per second falls 176 feet (53.6 meters). The ledge spans 1,060 feet (323 meters).

There are two hydroelectric plants that draw water into reservoirs before the falls, and a power plant at the base of the falls on the Canadian side.

< Bridal Veil Falls >

Niagara Falls is the second largest falls in the world, behind Victoria Falls in southern Africa. It attracts around 12 million tourists each year.

Interesting Facts

One fifth of all fresh water in the world lies in the four Upper Great Lakes – Michigan, Huron, Superior, and Erie. All the outflow empties into the Niagara River and eventually flows over the falls. At the bottom of the falls, the water travels 15 miles until it reaches Lake Ontario.

< Lake Ontario >
James getting a feel of cold Lake Ontario

Humans haven’t been able to completely control the flow of water over the falls, even though modern engineers have tried.

In winter, the falling water and mist create ice formations along the banks of the falls and river which can result in mounds of ice as thick as fifty feet. If the winter is cold for long enough, an ice bridge forms across the river. Until 1912, visitors could walk out on the ice bridge and view the Falls from below. There were pop-up liquor stores, photograph huts, and souvenir shops and people tobogganed or just walked out on the ice on foot. However, on February 4, 1912, three tourists died when the ice bridge broke.

< Frozen Niagara Falls >
Image via Flickr by Elvir K

The flow of water over both falls stopped completely only once, on March 29, 1848, due to an ice jam in the upper river for several hours. The falls didn’t actually freeze over but the flow of water stopped enough to where people actually walked out and recovered artifacts from the riverbed.

< American Falls >
The American Falls are actually 181 ft (55 m) from top to river, but the free fall from top to rocks is only 78 ft (24 m).

The flow over the American Falls was intentionally stopped several months in 1969. There was an effort to remove some of the rocks at the bottom to make the falls more appealing, however the cost would have been too great so it was never completed.

Niagara Falls is the filming location for parts of the movies Niagara and Superman.

The first person to go over the Falls in a barrel and survive as a 63-year-old female school teacher. In the past 10 years, two people lost their lives trying to conquer Niagara Falls.

Acrobats used to do high wire tightrope acts across the river. One man carried his manager across on his back, stopping midway to rest.

Niagara Falls Attractions and Activities

< Hornblower/Maid of the Mist >

If you can only do one thing in Niagara Falls, it’s definitely the Maid of the Mist boat. This is the boat that takes you up close and personal with the falls. As the guy at the rental car desk said to us, “you will get stupid wet.” They give you ponchos to wear but beware if you have a non-waterproof cell phone or other electronics, wear a hearing aid, or can’t get wet for any other reason. The poncho does a good job of covering you but nothing is perfect in those falls’ mists.

< Hornblower/Maid of the Mist >
On the upper level of the Hornblower

The boat has 2 levels, an upper deck and a lower deck. There’s not much more protection on the lower deck, but it might be less crowded than the top. During peak times, the boat gets packed and you will be standing shoulder to shoulder. If you go before or after the season (spring or fall), there will be plenty of room to run from front to back and side to side to get the best views.

The Maid of the Mist is available on both the Canadian and American sides; it’s called Maid of the Mist on the American side and Hornblower on the Canadian side. This is a pretty recent change. The Maid of the Mist used to run on both side. However, after their exclusive contract expired, other companies bid to take over and the company that runs ferries to the Statue of Liberty, Alcatraz, and other popular tourist attractions won, changing the name to Hornblower.

Hornblower guaranteed C$3 million per year to the government and it’s easy to see they will exceed that amount by the number of tourists that line up for the boat ride. Both boats do exactly the same thing and cost the same amount, so don’t worry about traveling to the other side of the river just to get the “best” experience. The boats sail every 20 minutes and the journey lasts about 15-20 minutes. With the force of the wind, the mist from the falls will still get you wet despite the poncho. You will get wet, so wear a bathing suit, shorts/tank top, and flip-flops or sandals.

< Maid of the Mist/Hornblower >
Maid of the Mist entering the falls mist

The Hornblower also offers a 40-minute night boat ride to view the fireworks by boat. It sails at 9:45pm but you can arrive anytime after 8:00pm to enjoy the Fallsview patio with a bar, music, and BBQ. On board the boat is a bar, light snacks, and music. The Falls Illumination Cruise is C$35. The American Maid of the Mist is $17 USD and the Canadian Hornblower day tour is C$19.95.

< Crow's Nest Observation Tower >
Crow’s Nest Observation Tower

Next to the Maid of the Mist on the American side is the Crow’s Nest observation tower. For $1 US you can climb to the top and get a bird’s-eye view of the falls from above. It’s the perfect ending to a Maid of the Mist boat tour.

< Journey Behind the Falls >
Journey Behind the Falls

The second best thing you can do is Journey Behind the Falls. Next to the Canadian Horseshoe Falls is an elevator that takes you down 125 feet (38 meters) to the base of the falls. There’s a platform next to the edge of the waterfall where you can see, hear, and feel the pressure of over 600,000 gallons (2,271,247 liters) falling over the edge of the falls. This gets you closer to the falls than the Maid of the Mist, but the Maid of the Mist puts you right in the action while Journey Behind the Falls keeps you off on the sideline.

< Behind the Falls >

After you take about 1,000 pictures of the edge of the falls, you can go into the tunnels behind the waterfall. You’re not actually walking behind the water, like I assumed I would be doing. The tunnels were carved out of the rock and have 2 openings where you can see the water coming down from the inside. You can’t see much else because the water is so thick and misty, and it gets blown into the openings of the tunnels, but it’s pretty cool to know you’re on the other side. Journey Behind the Falls is C$16.25.

< Behind the Falls >
Behind the falling water

On the American side, Cave of the Winds is similar to Journey Behind the Falls. It’s a red walkway that goes down to the bottom of the American Falls and you can stand on different levels as the water gushes down in front of you. Unfortunately, there’s no actual cave here anymore (so it doesn’t quite compare to Journey Behind the Falls); there was a cave, named after Aeolus, god of winds. The Cave of the Winds offered guided tours until part of it collapsed in 1920, making it clear that it wasn’t safe for people to go in anymore. In 1954, a massive rock fall closed the cave for good.

< American Falls and Cave of the Winds >
Cave of the Winds is the red walkway to the right of the American Falls

A boardwalk at the edge of the Niagara River rapids lets you get right along the wild stretch of white water. To get to the boardwalk, you take an elevator down 230 feet (70 meters), then walk through a 240-foot (73-meter) tunnel. There are stairs that lead to 2 observation areas where you can appreciate the rapids moving along at about 30 mph (48 km/hr). There’s also a Whirlpool Aero Car, an antique cable car that takes you above the rapids by air. The White Water walk is C$12.25 and the Whirlpool Aero Car is C$14.25.

Niagara’s Fury is a 20-minute 4D movie with a moving floor, rain, snow, wind, and a planetarium dome to make you feel like you were there when Niagara Falls formed. It tells the story of the Niagara River’s creation and provides history for those wondering about the beginning of the falls. If you’re standing in the front you will get a little wet, but they do give you ponchos. Note that you will be standing the entire time. This is a good thing to do if you buy the 4-attraction pass, but probably not worth it otherwise – just go on the Maid of the Mist for the real thing! Niagara’s Fury costs C$14.25.

Besides the Niagara Falls attractions, there is a butterfly conservatory, floral showhouse, and a state park that’s a great place to wander, explore, and bring a picnic. If you only have a short time, skip these things. If you have some extra time and aren’t sure what to do, they are a good option for extra things to do.

Clifton Hill

< Clifton Hill >
Clifton Hill’s main drag

At night, head over to Clifton Hill, a short walk from most hotels. Clifton Hill was the main drag of Niagara Falls until the new Fallsview Casino and surrounding hotels got even closer to the impressive Horseshoe Falls. Clifton Hill is like a mini Las Vegas strip with bright neon lights, loudspeakers, haunted houses, miniature golf, bowling, arcades, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Guinness World Records, wax museums, tourist souvenir shops, a giant ferris wheel, and plenty of other family friendly tourist traps. It’s fun for adults as well after a few drinks at dinner or a local bar.

< Remington's Restaurant >Many of the restaurants are in Clifton Hill too. The hotels each own one or two restaurants and offer package deals to their customers for discounted dinners at their restaurant. For example, we stayed at Oakes Hotel, which owns Remington’s. The Oakes provides a free shuttle service to and from the restaurant (although it stops at 9:30 so if you want to go to a late dinner or walk around Clifton Hill after dinner, you might end up walking home). We got C$30 off our bill at Remington’s if we bought 2 entrees, and since it was a little pricey, we ended up spending C$48 for dinner.

After dinner, we went to one of the tourist souvenir shops and bought a Niagara Falls sweatshirt. Don’t get distracted by hotel gift shops or the welcome center gift shop. The tourist souvenir shops on Clifton Hill have sales and clearance items – go for the sales at the tourist shops! A calendar at the welcome center was C$12.99 while at the tourist shop it was C$0.99.

< Ferris Wheel >

After that, we walked down past an upside down house, past a Ripley’s Believe It or Not, past a haunted house, and made our way to the ferris wheel. We decided to pay the C$19.99 to ride to the top and see the falls lit up at night – DON”T do it. It’s not high enough or close enough to see the falls well; you just get a good view of the Clifton Hill area, which isn’t very impressive. Save your $20 and check out the Skylon Tower (a rotating restaurant next to the Fallsview Casino, high above the hotels where you can get the perfect view of the falls)!

Restaurants in the Clifton Hill area that aren’t sponsored by a hotel include a Hard Rock Cafe and Rainforest Cafe. There’s also a Beer Garden on the main strip that offers cheap drinks and karaoke. This is a local favorite, mentioned to us by two different locals. It’s fun for a night of drunken singing followed by drunken bowling or haunted house screams (and laughs). Finally, the bartender at Remington’s recommended Jack’s as a popular watering hole among locals. He said it’s the main place locals go on weekends, although it’s open every night. It doesn’t get crowded until 11 or midnight, but if you’re ready for a night on the town, this is the place to go in Clifton Hill.

< Casino >There is another casino in Clifton Hill, much older than the newer Fallsview Casino. It’s 3 levels of fun and games, high above street level for excellent falls views. An interesting tidbit about the casino: it sold in the early 2000s for C$1 million, and the new owner immediately turned it around and sold it for C$3 million. The new owner decided to lease it to someone for C$1 million per year, so he made his money back within 3 years. This is still going on today.

< Rainbow Bridge >If you want to get crazy and walk across a national border, the Rainbow Bridge lands in Clifton Hill. Locals used to walk across the bridge to go to the American Indian casinos or go out for a night in a new country and not have to drive home. The walk takes about 15 minutes, most of which you spend on the bridge since both sides of the bridge are exciting party spots. You will have to walk through customs, but you won’t get your passport stamped. Just make sure not to forget your passport! You can also get great pictures of the falls, either during the day or lit up at night, from the center of this bridge.

< Illuminated Falls >
The American Falls lit up at night, as seen from the Niagara Falls Parkway on the walk home from Clifton Hill

If you find yourself out late in Clifton Hill and need to make your way back to your hotel, you can take a nice late night stroll along the river on the Niagara Parkway sidewalk. You’ll get some great photos of the illuminated falls and maybe even meet some new friends. The area is generally very safe and you won’t see any bums or shady characters, so it’s a nice walk. If walking is out of the question, Uber or taxis are available.

Fallsview Casino

< Fallsview Casino >The Fallsview Casino is the newest casino in the new hotel zone near the Horseshoe Falls. It has a Vegas-casino feel with shopping, restaurants, games, bars, and lounges. While the hotel itself is expensive, the casino is centrally located so it’s a great place to eat, shop, or play. It’s also a great little secret for parking if you have a car. Parking is usually C$5-$10 and you can leave it there as long as you want; much cheaper than many of the hotels (the Oakes was charging C$25 per day, right next door). Also, if you get a player’s card, you can earn free parking (with enough gambling). Many hotels, the Oakes included, offer $25 in bonus slot dollars. Play Wheel of Fortune, we won C$100 with our free money!

Upstairs, the casino has a lounge called R5 with glass walls. We never went up there because it didn’t look high enough to get a good view over the trees, but it’s probably a great place to grab a casual drink and maybe watch the fireworks over the falls.

On a side note, our shuttle driver was telling us how the mafia runs the city of Niagara Falls. It was the Italian mafia who bought up all the property along the Horseshoe Falls and started all the new hotels and new casino. If your parents ever told you stories about their trips to Niagara Falls, they probably are much different from the falls today. 20 years ago, the huge high-rise hotels didn’t exist. It’s recent that Niagara Falls has been so built up. Thank goodness for tourism!

Getting Around

There are plenty of transportation options to get around Niagara Falls. If you rent a car and drive from the airport, consider parking in the casino for cheaper parking, as I mentioned above. Uber is available in Niagara Falls, but not in Buffalo (if you fly into the Buffalo airport), so you can’t Uber from the airport to your hotel. Your hotel may offer a shuttle or bus, but that’s not something I looked into. A taxi is always a good option, and the taxis are heavily regulated by the federal government so you know you will be safe in a good, safe car.

< Falls Incline Railway >
The Falls Incline Railway, a cable car that takes you almost straight down the hill to the Horseshoe Falls

Once in Niagara Falls, everything in the town is walkable. The Niagara Falls Parkway is a beautiful walkway to get to and from Clifton Hill and walk along the falls. There will always be plenty of tourists around taking pictures, at any time of day (or night). There are buses that run through the city, but look into where those buses stop before hopping on one. Most hotels offer free shuttle service to their counterpart restaurants. There’s a cable car called the Falls Incline Railway, where C$7 roundtrip will take you from the hotel zone down to the horseshoe part of the falls (it’s the only direct way to get from the hotels to the falls). The Falls Incline Railway also offers a free shuttle service every 20 minutes when the cable car isn’t running. Finally, Uber and taxis are available; you can call Uber directly through their smartphone app and taxis usually wait outside popular hotels and attractions.

Fireworks

< Fireworks Over the Falls > Every Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday the town of Niagara Falls puts on a 5-minute firework show over the illuminated falls. You can view it from the Hornblower boat, from the Niagara Falls Parkway sidewalk, from the ferris wheel, or any outside bar/restaurant/casino. If your room faces the falls, you get a prime view from up top! We decided to get up close and personal with the falls to feel the mist spray in our faces as we watched. Plus I wanted that great shot of fireworks over the falls. The downside to going to the Parkway is that most other tourists have the same idea, so it gets crowded. I believe you get the best pictures from here though!

Niagara-on-the-Lake

< Niagara Wine Country >
Niagara-on-the-Lake wine country, so peaceful and beautiful!

Once you get to Niagara Falls, you’ll realize it only takes about a day at most (usually a half day) to do everything you need to do. If you planned for longer than a day trip, you could spend a second day in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s about a 20-minute drive north towards Lake Ontario.

< Wine Barrels >

Between Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake are the region’s top wineries specializing in icewine, a red or white super sweet dessert wine made from Canada’s grapes as they freeze and thaw a few times, making them sweet and delicate. This type of wine can only be found in cold climates and Canada specializes in it. Due to the delicate process of hand-picking the wines at their coldest but before they freeze and then hand-peeling the grapes, these icewines are fairly expensive, ranging from C$54 to C$91 for a 375mL bottle.

< Inniskillin Winery >All of the wineries sell and sample icewine. In fact, most of the hotels offer free wine samplings with part of their hotel room package deal. We went to four wineries with our package: Trius, Jackson-Triggs, Inniskillin, and Peller Estates. All of the wineries are next to each other and a quick drive (about 5-10 minutes apart). Bus tours are also possible.

< Peller Estates >
Peller Estates Winery foyer with a fireplace

Peller Estates stuck out with me as the premier winery in the region. It had a big sign off the main road with a long driveway into the estate. The brick house opened into a foyer with a fireplace and a tasting bar off to the left. The winery offered tours (as they all do) and has an ice bar in the basement. We decided the ice bar was a must.

< Peller Ice Bar >
Ice Bar at Peller Estates Winery, kept at -10°C

The ice bar is kept at -10°C, so before you go into the ice bar, you put on a Canadian (mock) goose feather coat on that will keep you very warm. The winery actually sells these coats for C$495 if you’re interested in buying one. Then you go through 2 bolted doors to make sure the ice stays frozen and unaffected by the warmer summer temperatures. Once inside, your guide will go behind the ice bar and educate you on the 3 icewines you will taste, and he’ll give you the proper techniques for tasting. Then, he’ll take pictures of you in this novelty tourist attractions. The ice bar icewine tasting costs C$20 per person, which is actually a good deal when you think about how you’re tasting a C$91 bottle of Cabernet Franc Icewine.

< Wine Tasting >
Sampling local Canadian wines

The other wineries all offer the same wines, different variations of dry and sweet reds and whites, along with the typical Canadian icewine. They all sell bottles as well, and some offer discounts. The salespeople make commission, so if you’re going to buy a bottle, make sure to buy it from your favorite salesperson. The wineries also offer lunch and dinner if you need some food while sampling all these delicious wines.

< Niagara-on-the-Lake >
The cute, quaint village of Niagara-on-the-Lake

The town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is a cute, small village perfect for a quiet vacation or honeymoon. It has a main street with shops and restaurants, a golf course, and of course, Lake Ontario at the end. There’s a path along Lake Ontario if you want to go for a scenic walk, and we saw waverunners skimming the top of the lake so there must also be a place to rent water toys. Niagara-on-the-Lake has wonderful shopping, wines, chocolates, theaters, and a woman at Trius winery recommended Stage Coach Family Restaurant in town for dinner as a wonderful restaurant. Unfortunately, since we already had discounts at 2 restaurants in Niagara Falls from our hotel, we decided to stick with those options.

Don’t be intimidated by driving a few minutes outside of Niagara Falls to check out these wineries and this cute little town. The entire way up you’ll be right along the Niagara River within view of New York. Niagara wine country is beautiful, relaxing, and incredible, so it’s well worth a visit to explore just north of Niagara Falls when you’re done with all the falls attractions!

< Falling Over the Falls >

< Niagara Falls >

< Niagara Falls >

< View from the Room >

Have you been to Niagara Falls? Which side, American or Canadian? What activities did you do? Let me know in the comments below!

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PS. You might also like Fun Things to Do at the Jersey Shore and 6 Biggest Misconceptions About America

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