Before I even begin, let me clarify: There’s not enough money on this planet to convince me to ride a barrel over Niagara Falls. Nope. Even without a barrel, though, I managed to have a fantastic time at the Falls. I’m sure you’re skeptical, but don’t fear – there’s plenty of non-barrel sightseeing to enjoy at Niagara Falls.
Niagara Falls is one of the (somewhat) natural wonders of the world – there’s no doubt about it. And as someone who is something of an international waterfall groupie, I was stoked when I found out that the Falls were only a short drive away from my partner’s uncle’s house in upstate New York. Now that is an ideal weekend trip: visit some family and see one of nature’s greatest feats. (Not on the itinerary: getting pulled over by a small-town sheriff because my father-in-law was going twenty miles over the speed limit.)
What makes Niagara Falls such an alluring destination, besides the obvious natural beauty, is that even a thorough visit won’t take more than half a day. Toronto is less than two hours away, which makes the Falls an excellent day trip from the Canadian city. Niagara Falls is also flanked by two of the Great Lakes, Erie and Ontario, which can offer additional vacation options, particularly during summer months.
Kevin, my father-in-law, and I were at the Falls for approximately four to five hours, and we all agreed that was more than enough time to enjoy the location. Did I mention that this time included crossing the Canadian border? I was impressed by how fast the line moved. You might need more time on a weekend in July, but I visited in late August on a Sunday, and it only took about thirty minutes to cross into Canada at the Rainbow Bridge, the primary border crossing for those who choose to drive. Yes, walking across the border is still an option! It’s also feasible to cross into Canada in Buffalo, New York and then proceed to the Falls.
If you’re arriving at the Falls from the American side, your first stop should be to park and head towards Maid of the Mist, the boat that takes you to the base of the expansive Falls. There is a Canadian version of the classic boat ride, but it was more expensive at the time of my visit and, for Americans, less iconic. Even so, the ride is pricey – expect to pay about twenty dollars per person, but this price includes a stop along the observation deck and those plastic bags to wear over your clothes so you don’t leave the Falls completely drenched. Even if it’s a tad chilly when you visit, I recommend you wear sandals and shorts, or at the very least, roll your pant legs up to your knee. The plastic ponchos cover your head, chest, and arms, but left my partner and his father soaked from the knees down. Thanks to my dress and sandals, I was dry within minutes.
Despite the cost, which may seem to prohibitive to many, a ride on the classic boat tour is a Niagara Falls must. I was even skeptical about forking over such a large amount of money, but as you can tell from the above photograph, the experience was completely worth it. There are marvelous overlooks on both the American and Canadian sides of the Falls, but Maid of the Mist offers a view you can truly only get in one place.
Be prepared, the town of Niagara Falls is hyper-commercialized on both the American and Canadian sides. Sadly, nature isn’t permitted to speak for itself. There are two Hard Rock Cafes, a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, and even multiple casinos. Developers are attempting to turn the Falls into its own destination and the result is a tad tragic. Who goes to the Falls to gamble? All of the kitsch detracts from the location’s natural beauty, and I admit, the consumerism lessened my overall enjoyment of Niagara Falls. Leading up to my visit, I was picturing just the Falls, a few low-key restaurants and hotels, and perhaps some artists and photographers taking advantage of the landscape.
Even so, the Falls are still spectacular. Are all these pictures tempting you to book a plane ticket or plan a road trip? Part of me still can’t believe this place is real, and it would be a drastically better destination if all of the junk stores and touristy restaurants would disappear. If you’re looking for an inexpensive bite, Fallsview, one of the casinos I bemoaned above, has a quality food court where, yes, Kevin, his father, and I sat down and ordered some pizza. Fallsview Casino Resort is located on the Canadian side of the Falls and is a quick walk from the Falls’ viewing deck, and the restaurant we chose, Mamma Mia, also offers slices-to-go. Cheap food, especially on the Canadian side, is hard to come by. If only they could just keep the food court, am I right? Can’t a girl just admire a waterfall while chowing down on some Italian food? I’m pretty sure that’s the ultimate dream.
So, now I will weigh in on the age-old question: Is the Canadian side actually prettier than the American side? Yes! Without a doubt. Niagara Falls actually consists of three waterfalls: the Bridal Veil and American Falls, and the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. Canada’s viewpoints afford visitors vistas of each waterfall, making the Canadian side the clear winner in my mind.
- I’d recommend starting at the American side of Niagara Falls, riding the Maid of the Mist, and then continuing on to the Canadian side. The Falls overlooks on the American side simply aren’t as stellar; when I visited in August 2015, one of the major viewpoints was actually under construction.
- If you are a parent travelling with young children, and you haven’t gotten your kids a passport yet, don’t fear! American children under the age of eighteen can enter Canada with their parent or legal guardian using their original birth certificate. Parents/Guardians will need to have a valid passport, however.
- The Maid of the Mist is wheelchair accessible, as a large elevator transports visitors down to the deck, and the boat’s deck has an indoor seating area that is ideal for elderly travelers or those with small children. Read more here.
- Firework shows often take place on weekend nights during the summer, weather providing. The fireworks do attract large crowds, so arrive early to ensure a parking spot and good view.
- Both the U.S. and Canadian Niagara Falls viewpoints are free, but you will have to pay a small fee for parking on each side. The parking lots we used each accepted credit cards, and the Canadian lot also accepted U.S. dollars.