Niagara Falls attractions: must-dos and pass-bys

NIAGARA FALLS

 

Niagara Falls is unarguably one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world, averaging close to 30 million visitors per year. The three waterfalls that make up Niagara Falls straddle the American and Canadian border, drawing tourists from both countries and all around the world. Living only about an hour and a half down the road, I’ve been fortunate to visit Niagara Falls a countless number of times in my life. It’s the mandatory trip for any visitors and a great day trip for us locals.

The main draw of Niagara Falls is obvious: the falls themselves. They are why millions of people hoard to the small border towns during the summer months. But there are numerous ways to experience the falls and the surrounding towns. The American side of the falls is often overlooked, or at least poo-pooed, and for decent reasons. There’s no doubt that the Canadian side, with the proximity to Horseshoe Falls and the views of the American and Bridal Veil Falls, is the more spectacular of the two. But that doesn’t mean the American side should be missed. Both sides offer some great attractions for first (or second or third) time visitors. And they also have a few things should that probably be passed by.

 

Canadian Side

The edge of Horseshoe Falls source

The edge of Horseshoe Falls source

Must-Do

Stand at the edge of the falls

By far, one of the best ways to experience Niagara Falls is by standing right at the edge of the Horseshoe Falls in Queen Victoria Park and watching the massive volumes of water pour over the edge. It’s breathtaking. As someone who has seen Niagara Falls dozens of times, this view has never gotten old. The walkway along the Canadian side allows you to stroll right up to the edge of the falls and peer over the safety rail to the base of the falls, more than 160 feet below. There’s no other view like it.

Stop by the Hershey Store

This probably isn’t worth while if you’re coming from a country that actually has really tasty chocolate, but for those of us in the US, a stop to the Canadian Hershey’s Store is a must-do Niagara Falls attraction. I’m sure you’re thinking, why bother? We have Hershey’s in the US. Maybe you’ve even been to Hersheypark (love that place) or visited the Spa at the Hotel Hershey. Even if you’ve experienced all things Hershey in the US, you haven’t experienced the Canadian Hershey’s chocolate. Believe it or not, there is a different recipe used for Hershey’s in Canada, one that’s richer, creamier, and so much more delicious than our American counterpart. My personal favorites at the Hershey’s Store in Niagara Falls are the chocolate covered strawberries, but if those aren’t your thing (what’s wrong with you??) you should at least pick up a chocolate bar or two to taste test.

Pass-By

Everything around Clifton Hill

This street cuts up a hill perpendicular to the Niagara River and is home to every tacky tourist haunt you could want – a wax museum, a haunted house, a Ripley’s museum. It’s the same stuff you find in any over-touristed town: kitsch to the extreme. Not only is it corny, it’s all way over priced. Even if you’ve been in Niagara Falls for a few days, there are better things to do – consider day trips to Niagara on the Lake or the Welland Canal.

American Side

Three Sisters Island source

Three Sisters Island source

Must-Do

Three Sisters Islands

On the far side of Niagara Falls State Park, a ways back from where the falls meet Goat Island, there is a bridge that takes visitors to the first of three smaller islands, known as the Three Sisters. These small, wooded islands are connected to one another by a series of bridges. Passing over the bridges, it’s neat to see the rushing water below and edge of the falls in the distance. But if you head all the way to the edge of the last island, you can get a truly unique experience: direct access to the Niagara River. There are signs warning against it, but brave souls can climb the small boulders down to a muddy patch at the waters edge. Most of the year, the water is calm enough in this little eddied area to wade in, but I sure as hell wouldn’t risk it. One small slip and you’re headed over the falls. It’s one of the few places in the Niagara Falls parks where you can actually get up close to the water without a safety barrier. Just be careful!

Cave of the Winds

The Cave of the Winds is a unique experience that let’s you get up close and personal with the falls, with some safety barriers. After donning some funky waterproof sandals (that you get to keep!) and a poncho, visitors head 175 feet down an elevator to the base of the Bridal Veil Falls. A wooden walkway has been built along the rocky edge at the base of the falls, allowing people to experience the power of the water careening down from the Niagara River. For the more adventuresome, there is a platform known as the Hurricane Deck, where people can venture out farther under the falls for what can best be described as hurricane-like conditions; the winds whip by at a deafening speed as the water pounds down. It truly is an awesome experience and a Niagara Falls attraction that shouldn’t be missed.

Pass-By

The town of Niagara Falls

I hate to encourage anything that takes away from local tourism dollars, but the town of Niagara Falls, NY is just not worth a visit. It’s rundown and dirty, with very little to do. A casino was built smack in the middle of the town several years back, but it seems to have done little to revitalize the area. It’s kind of amazing, with the huge number of tourists pouring into the area each year, that the town is in such dire straits. If you plan to stay overnight in the area, I’d recommend heading across the bridge to Canada or going a little ways south toward Buffalo.

Both Sides

source

Maid of the Mist source

Must-Do

Ride the Maid of the Mist (and whatever the Canadian one is called these days)

The quintessential Niagara Falls experience is a ride on the Maid of the Mist to the whirlpool at the base of the Horseshoe Falls. For those who have never experienced this ride, it’s unlike anything you’ve done before. The boat tour starts off leisurely enough, with the boat chugging along up the river, past the American Falls and then Bridal Veil Falls. But as the boat gets closer to Horseshoe Falls, the wow factor sets in. You begin to experience the sheer power of the water falling in front of you as the engines on the boat roar, holding passengers in place at the base of the falls. Everyone is given a poncho, but you can still expect to get soaked; the mist comes at you from all sides. The boat rides are truly the best way to get an appreciation for the power and size of the falls. The Maid of the Mist is the boat that leaves from the American side of the falls. Canada also has a boat that basically does the same trip – they used to also have a Maid of the Mist but it recently changed hands to a new company and goes by new name. If you can only make time for one Niagara Falls attraction, this one is it.

Pass-By

The casinos

I know some people are really into playing their luck and possibly winning a few bucks, but I’ve never been one to get the appeal (so perhaps take this opinion with a grain of salt). The casinos on both sides of the falls are nice enough, but offer nothing special beyond what you see in any other casino. And quite frankly, I find them depressing. You can visit at all hours of the night and find the same people in the same seats dropping token after token into the machines. I can’t help but feel bad for them. Plus, being so close to one of North America’s Seven Natural Wonders, who wants to spend all day pissing away money in a windowless building? Get out and see what nature has to offer!

Cheers!

For more in-depth guides on Niagara Falls and a few good reads for the kids, check out the books below:

 

 

 

25 Comments

  1. I lived up north for many years and never went to Niagara Falls. My parents went when I was a teenager and I decided to stay home instead. I wish I would of gone. I hope to make it there one day. Thanks for sharing. Great pictures!

    • It’s so easy to pass up places when they’re close by to us. I can’t believe all the awesome places in the Finger Lakes I missed out on growing up in the area. I hope you get to make it back someday!

  2. I grew up in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and it is definitely worth a quick day trip! There are plenty of wineries to choose from, and it now has a couple of Craft breweries.

    However, the best tourist attraction in the Niagara Falls area is the Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours! You can take them either from the Niagara-on-the-Lake dock or from Lewiston (if you are staying overnight on the American side and don’t have your passport with you).

    It can only take you to as far as the Whirlpool rapids (about a mile below the Falls), but it definitely gets you a good thrill through the Niagara Gorge for an hour.

    • I love Niagara-on-the-Lake – such a cute town! I thought about including the jet boat tours on the list but decided to leave them off because they weren’t right at the falls, but you’re right – so much fun and definitely worth it!

  3. Love Niagara Falls, Canada! We live only about an hour’s drive from the Falls and visit a couple of times a year. The new cruise on the Canadian side is Hornblower Niagara Cruises.

  4. I have been to Niagara Falls a couple of times but only to the Canadian side. I loved walking so close to the Horseshoe Falls and going on the Maid of the Mist and Niagara on the Lake is one of the cutest villages I have seen in North America. I would love to check out the American side next time too, Three Sisters islands sound especially cool :)

  5. I’ve never been to Niagara Falls, but definitely want to one of these days. This is such a helpful resource! I like how your must-do’s are active and outside. Definitely the way I would want to go if I’m visiting a beautiful place like Niagara Falls.

    • Thanks, Gretta! I agree – I don’t understand some people’s preference to visit a place like Niagara Falls and sit inside a casino all day. To each their own I suppose!

  6. Hi Amy,
    We went to Niagara Falls last summer and stayed on the Canadian side but walked over to the American side to take the Maid of the Mist with my brother’s family (they didn’t have passports). Maid of the Mist is a definite. I would add Journey Behind the Falls as a skip on the Canadian Side. I think the Cave of the Winds is probably better. Journey Behind the Falls had a nice viewing platform but otherwise it was just like walking through a loud, wet subway tunnel to peer through a barred window at a solid wall of water. It seemed a waste of money given the wait times as well.

  7. I visited Niagara Falls back in 2005 and loved it! I definitely agree that riding the Maid of the Mist is the quintessential Niagara experience. I got absolutely soaked, but it was sooo much fun!

  8. I agree, I can’t understand why somebody would want to sit in a casino when an amazing natural wonder is right outside??

    The experience on the boats sounds awesome! I’m getting a mental picture of it and already it’s scaring me a little. haha

  9. Pingback: Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls • Family Travels on a Budget

  10. Pingback: Cave of the Winds at Niagara Falls • Family Travels on a Budget

    • Yes, you do need a passport to cross the border unless you have an enhanced drivers license, which is only available in certain states. There are lots of great things to do on the US side if you can’t cross, though!

  11. I Just wanted to add as someone who works in downtown Niagara Falls, NY, the downtown area is making a comeback. While its no major, bustling downtown just yet, during the summer months Old Falls Street has tons of activities, games, food carts and more. With more and more major hotel chains joining the downtown area more restaurants and shops are also coming. Don’t bypass the entire downtown area, while some areas I’d stay out of, a lot of the areas surrounding the State Park have some really fun summer activities.

    • Thanks for the comment, Stephanie. I am glad to hear that downtown Niagara Falls is making a comeback. It has so much potential and I hate discouraging anyone from supporting local economies. I’m looking forward to the progress!

  12. I was just there and I have to say , driving into town was not something people want look at. I live in a city and Im used to seeing run down places. However – when someone is excited about seeing the falls, driving through the town should be pleasant to the eye, one shouldn’t be wondering if they are going to get robbed at a stop light. I love seeing the falls, but the drive to get there makes you really not want to go. The main road should be very much encouraging not this feeling of driving through the getto.

    • I hear ya, John, and I agree that the town is a detractor from the beauty of the falls. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that things on are on the upswing, as Stephanie mentioned above. There’s so much potential there!

  13. Oh Amy I had to read your must do and pass by list for Niagara Falls. Like you I have gone since I was a baby in arms. My parents would take us at least twice a year. In the nice weather not the summer as we were at our cottage and in the winter. I totally agree by pass Clifton Hill. The Maid of the Mist both sides I know the change too. Behind the Falls is an inner look the platform and 2 portals. Long wait yes because everything at the falls is. There is also a theater about the evaluation of the falls rain and snow included pretty amazing to see. We have also just sat at the Falls watching the falls and the tourist from afternoon evening till after the lights were turned out took my Mother worried she would be bored or up set but even she found it amazing to do. As a kid I always wanted to stay longer did after I got married and our children had grown up to love the falls. It was also a fireworks night. The Whitewater rapids, The Gorge, The Whirlpool and Spanish Aero Car. Brocks Hydro Plant, The Floral Clock, The Butterfly Conservatory, The Helicopter Ride just Awesome, all the way down to Queenston Heights and Brocks Monument. Also the Whirlpool Jet Boats get prepared to get soaked eve with the rain coats. Take towels and change of clothes put your valuables unseen in your vehicle or you can leave them in the cubbies on the deck which is gated in from the public by passers. There is closed in boats haven’t done those yet. Two different places. Some of these attractions are the old names they have changed many of them a few years back. Sorry totally wrong to change. Also go to the Welland Canal lock number 3 get the very best view of the locks and how they work. Be there when a ship is going through it takes along time but we’ll worth it. Unfortunately there is noone to tell the people what is happening. I did this for my children and a lady came up to me after and thanked me as she had listened in. I told of what my father had told me. Going up or down is amazing. If you start off from the down you look down upon the ships eventually they are eye level to you then they are way above you. There is now a fence for protection to keep people back as a child there was none. You could shake hands with the people. There is also a high platform people can now stand on too. All the docks work a little different the ride from one end to the other is a day in itself. As you can tell I love Niagara Falls oh just thought of another one to do at the Falls is the Skylon Tower in the day time and in the evening after dark going up in the yellow bug elevators also do in the winter too. There are many things to do there too. Including the revolving restaurant. There is also double decker bus and regular bus or by car. Enjoy people can’t do all of this in a day.

    • What great suggestions, Susan! You clearly have a passion for the falls :) My appreciation has also grown as I’ve gotten older. I agree about the Welland Canal – its such an awesome sight to see one of those huge ships pass through the narrow locks. I was just there a few weeks ago and I’m still wowed by it every time.

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