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