What’s the best thing about Niagara Falls, which attract more than 10 million visitors a year? With its quirky mix of stunning natural beauty, historic and cultural sites, and honky-tonk tourist attractions, Niagara is a destination you can visit at any time of year. Here’s a four-season guide to the best of the Niagara region.
The Niagara region straddles the border between Canada and the United States, roughly equidistant from Toronto, Ontario, and Buffalo, New York. Niagara’s larger Horseshoe Falls are on the Canadian side (and, yes, they’re shaped like a horseshoe). The American Falls are across the Niagara River on the New York shore.
Most of the region’s attractions are on the Canadian side of the river. From Niagara Falls, Ontario, it’s a short drive north to the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is filled with B&Bs, wineries and a popular summer theater. To the west is another wine region, known as the Twenty Valley.
Summer at Niagara Falls
Summer is Niagara’s peak season. From late June through early September, everything is open, and most attractions keep long hours, from 9 a.m. until at least 7 or 8 p.m.
Niagara Falls Activities
If you visit Niagara Falls in the summer, start your trip with a Maid of the Mist steamboat tour, which ferries you to the base of both the American and Horseshoe falls. You get a plastic parka to protect you from the spray, but warning — you will get wet. The tours, which operate from April through late October, last about 30 minutes.
You see the falls from a different perspective — and really feel their power — on the Journey Behind the Falls. After taking an elevator 150 feet below the top of Horseshoe Falls, you walk through a network of underground tunnels to two observation decks, where the falls crash just beside you. If you thought you were wet on the Maid of the Mist, you haven’t experienced this drenching; you’ll want to protect your camera, lunch and anything else you don’t want deluged by the spray. While it’s open year-round, you’ll enjoy this “journey” best on a hot day. That water is cold!
A two-part multimedia show, “Niagara’s Fury,” explains how the falls were created during the Ice Age many centuries ago. Then you enter a circular theater where lightning flashes, the earth shakes and water pours from the ceiling as you “experience” the birth of Niagara Falls. Kids may think “Niagara’s Fury” is cool (and might even learn something), but the real thing is far more dramatic.
North of Horseshoe Falls, the Niagara River churns through a section of whitewater known as the Whirlpool Rapids. At the White Water Walk, you can follow a quarter-mile boardwalk along the river’s edge for an up-close look at the rushing rapids slicing through the deep gorge.
Other Niagara Outdoor Adventures
Beyond the falls, the Niagara region offers lots of ways to enjoy the outdoors. One of the most unusual is a ride in the Whirlpool Aero Car, a quirky-looking red cable car which transports you across Niagara’s Great Gorge. As the Niagara River cuts through this gorge, it makes a sharp turn, forcing the water into a counterclockwise spin. It’s difficult to make out this atypical churning whirlpool from shore, but you can easily see it from the Aero Car, which swings you over the gorge. You might think cable cars are relatively modern inventions, but the Aero Car, attached to overhead cables by a bright yellow contraption reminiscent of a giant bicycle wheel, was built back in 1916. Although the Aero Car ride lasts less than 15 minutes, you’ll have great views of the whirlpool and along the river.
For more river views, visit the window-lined Niagara Glen Nature Centre. While you take in the vistas, the kids will enjoy exploring fossils and animal skulls at the center’s “touch table.” The nature reserve is also a good base for hikes into the gorge, whether on your own or on a guided walk with park naturalists, who’ll tell you about the area’s history, plants and wildlife. Admission is free.
If you’d rather explore on two wheels, rent bicycles and follow the 35-mile Niagara River Recreation Trail, a paved, mostly flat path that extends from Niagara-on-the-Lake through Niagara Falls and south to Fort Erie.
A short drive north of Niagara Falls, one of Canada’s major professional theater festivals takes to the stage in Niagara-on-the-Lake from April though October. The Shaw Festival performs works by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, his contemporaries and more recent writers. If you have time, take a backstage tour of the Festival Theatre, where you’ll get to peek into the dressing rooms, check out the wardrobe shop, and learn something about how the theater staff designs and builds the sets.
As long as you don’t mind some corny jokes about beavers and Mounties, the “Oh Canada Eh?” dinner theater in Niagara Falls makes a fun, family-friendly evening. The enthusiastic performers take you on a cross-country journey of Canadian music, from Newfoundland sea shanties to more contemporary songs by Canadians like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, while you stuff yourself on Quebecois pea soup, Alberta beef and other stick-to-your-ribs dishes from across the country.
Fall at the Falls
One of the best times to visit the Niagara region is in autumn, when the trees take on their red and golden hues and the crowds of summer begin to thin. With crisp, clear weather, fall is still a busy season, especially on weekends when the leaf peepers descend, but it’s quieter mid-week. Most of the summer attractions, including the Maid of the Mist, White Water Walk and Whirlpool Aero Car, stay open until late October.
September and October are harvest season in Niagara’s vineyards, making it an especially popular time for wine touring. Niagara is Canada’s largest wine district, with dozens of wineries around Niagara-on-the-Lake and in the Twenty Valley, both an easy drive from Niagara Falls. A good place to start your wine tour is just outside the village of Niagara-on-the-Lake at the Niagara College Teaching Winery, Canada’s only licensed wine college. At its Wine Visitor + Education Centre, you can pick up information about area wineries and sample wines the students make. Top-scoring reserve wines get the “Dean’s List” label.
Nearby, you can taste more wine at the posh Stratus Vineyards or organic Southbrook Vineyards, or smaller properties such as family-owned Marynissen Estates or the Ice House, one of many wineries that produce Ontario’s signature ice wine, a sweet dessert wine made from grapes harvested just after they freeze on the vines. Try the tasty ice wine slushies.
In the Twenty Valley, many of the wineries are smaller properties where the winemakers themselves may be pouring samples in the tasting room. Visit the laid-back Flat Rock Cellars in the town of Jordan or the cozy Good Earth Food and Wine Co., which has a café and also runs a small recreational cooking school on its Beamsville vineyard.
Niagara in the Winter
Why should you visit the Niagara region during the winter, when it’s often freezing and snowy? The falls themselves are (obviously) still there, and you can save a bundle on accommodations. Most hotels offer significant discounts from November through March.
Niagara Falls is especially beautiful during the Winter Festival of Lights, when they’re illuminated nightly from November through January.
After you’ve had your fill of the falls, you can explore the region’s indoor attractions. One of the best winter destinations is the tropical Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory, where more than 2,000 butterflies flit around, alighting on colorful flowers and on visitors’ arms and heads. Most kids love the butterflies, and children under 5 are admitted free.
It’s also warm year-round in the Bird Kingdom, the world’s largest free-flying indoor aviary, housed in a former Niagara corset factory. Nearly 400 birds of roughly 80 species, from multicolored macaws to brilliant scarlet ibises, fly all around you as you wander the paths. If you’ve brought the kids, check the daily schedule of snake-handling demonstrations, bat feedings and other fun, animal-encounter programs.
Springtime in Niagara
When you’re trying to balance moderate prices, mild weather and plenty of activities, consider visiting Niagara in the spring.
Most seasonal attractions reopen in mid-April or early May, and as temperatures warm, flowers bloom everywhere. It’s a lovely season to visit the free Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens, where walking paths crisscross the manicured grounds. Rhododendrons and irises typically peak in June; roses start blooming mid-June and continue into September.
At the Shaw Festival, you can often purchase less expensive tickets for early season preview productions in April and May.
Spring lodging prices, while not as low as in mid-winter, are generally cheaper between April and mid-June than during the busier summer and fall seasons. Visiting Niagara Falls during this spring “shoulder” period can also mean fewer crowds and shorter waiting times at the most popular attractions.
The other great thing about Niagara Falls? While there’s lots to do in any season, standing in front of these majestic cascades of water and feeling the spray on your face is always free.
— Contributed by Carolyn B. Heller