Straddling New York and Canada, Niagara Falls is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. Here’s how to visit.
For many, the name Niagara Falls is synonymous with tacky souvenir shops and throngs of tourists, but don’t let that keep you away. One of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, Niagara is made up of three different falls—American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and Horseshoe Falls. More than 700,000 gallons of water pour over Niagara every second, in some places spilling from heights of more than 176 feet. It’s as awe-inspiring as it sounds.
Is Niagara Falls Really Worth the Visit?
In a word, yes. If you come during high season, specifically a summer Saturday, then the lines will be long and there will be tourists everywhere. But if you plan accordingly and arrive when the gates open, or come in the early spring or late fall, you will have an unforgettable experience that will make you wonder why you haven’t come sooner.
Where Are the Falls?
Located 20 miles north of Buffalo, 80 miles south of Toronto, and 90 miles west of Rochester, Niagara Falls and the Niagara River create a natural border between the U.S. and Canada, with both towns claiming the name, Niagara Falls.
How Do I Get to Niagara Falls? And, Once There, Do I Need a Car?
Niagara Falls USA is drivable from Cleveland (3½ hrs.), Pittsburgh (3½ hrs.), Detroit (4 hrs.), Philadelphia (6½ hrs.), and New York City (7 hrs.), but it’s only a 30-minute drive from Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF) or a 15-minute drive from Niagara Falls International Airport (IAG). Major carriers to BUF include American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, and United; Allegiant Air and Spirit fly to IAG.
Once you’re in Niagara Falls USA, there are a few different shuttle options like Discover Niagara Shuttle to get you around town. But, if you plan to stay in town and time is of the essence, you can walk everywhere. If you plan to get outside of the town, possibly to visit Old Fort Niagara or one of the surrounding towns, a car is a must.
If you’re visiting the Canadian side of the Falls, or just prefer a larger airport, your other flying option is Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ), which is about 90 minutes from Niagara Falls. Almost every airline flies in and out of this airport, depending on where you’re coming from. Once you’re in Niagara Falls Canada, there are a ton of attractions within walking distance along the Niagara Parkway and Fallsview Boulevard. Just like on the U.S. side, if you plan to see sights outside of the town, you’ll need a car.
Do I Need a Passport?
It depends. If you have a passport, bring it. If you’re traveling from a U.S. destination (and are a U.S. citizen) to Niagara Falls State Park in New York, you don’t need a passport, but, if you want to visit the Canadian side of the falls, or that’s your final destination, then you will need your passport or passport card (or, if your state offers it, an enhanced driver’s license) to reenter the U.S. The same goes for visiting the U.S. side from Canada. Bottom line, if you’re crossing the Rainbow Bridge, which connects Downtown Niagara Falls, N.Y. to Niagara Falls, Ontario, you will need your passport.
How/When Were the Falls Formed?
Niagara Falls can trace its beginning to the end of the Ice Age, more than 12,000 years ago. As the ice caps began to melt, thousands of gallons of water were released, forming what we now know as the Niagara River. This powerful stream of water plunged over the edge of the Niagara Escarpment, creating Niagara Falls. Every year, the freezing and thawing of the river creates more erosion, which allows the Falls to move farther upstream. However, much work has been done to preserve the Falls through water control.
How Long Should I Plan to Spend at the Falls?
You can easily see the American and Canadian side of Niagara Falls over a long weekend, but a four-day trip allows you ample time to experience the attractions outside of the Falls like the river and canal regions of New York’s Niagara County’s, including Old Fort Niagara, or the Niagara Wine Region in Ontario, which is on the other side of the Niagara River.
What's the Best Way to Experience the Falls?
Hands down, the best views of the Falls are from the Canadian side, as you’ll have unobstructed views of American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and Horseshoe Falls. However, if you want to get up close to all three falls, Niagara Falls State Park on the American side is your best bet. Within the park, you can look over Horseshoe Falls from Goat Island’s Terrapin Point, get up close and personal with the Bridal Veil Falls from the Cave of the Winds—you will get drenched despite your free poncho and sandals—the “Hurricane Deck.” You can take a ride on the Maid of the Mist, where you’ll also get soaked (wear the sandals from Cave of the Winds), but have the awe-inspiring experience of being enveloped in the spray from the American and Horseshoe Falls. You can walk out on the Prospect Point Observation Tower platform to view the Falls, and you can take an elevator down to the base of the Niagara Gorge to see the remains of the former Schoellkopf Power Plant and get another unique view of the Falls. You can also take the 40-minute Falls Fireworks cruise (mid-May to mid-October) aboard the Hornblower; it’s an amazing way to experience the Falls and their illuminated beauty at night.
Besides great views, the Canadian side has some great attractions too. There’s Journey Behind the Falls (which is the Canadian version of Cave of the Winds), the 4D Niagara’s Fury theater experience (it’s inside but you get soaked), the 20-minute Voyage to the Falls boat tour on the Hornblower, and the Zipline to the Falls, where participants actually take a zipline down into the gorge along the cliffs.
INSIDER TIPOn the U.S. side, the Observation Tower and Terrapin Point are great places to see the light show and fireworks, which happen almost every night at 9 pm during the summer (check the website for exact schedules). But you’ll have to get to both places early to get a decent viewing spot. And, if you pass by the former Schoellkopf Power Plant on your way to or from the Aquarium, check to see if the viewing platform is open. It’s another incredible place to view the Falls.
How Much Does It Cost to See the Falls?
If you’re on the U.S. side, Niagara Falls State Park is free to enter and gaze upon the falls, but some attractions within the park are ticketed and require an admission fee, like the Maid of the Mist and the Cave of the Winds. The Niagara Falls USA Discovery Pass is a discount pass that includes admission to Cave of the Winds, Maid of the Mist, the Aquarium of Niagara, and one day of trolley rides within Niagara Falls State Park, but it does not allow you to skip lines.
The Canadian side has free views too, but there are parking costs, as well as fees to sites like Journey Behind the Falls, the Hornblower boat tour, and the Zipline to the Falls. The Wonder Pass is the Canadian discount pass, but it doesn’t allow you to skip lines and it doesn’t include the Hornblower or the Zipline.
INSIDER TIPChildren under 6 are free at most attractions on both sides of the Falls.
When Should I Visit the Falls?
While Niagara Falls is breathtaking no matter the season (on both sides of the Falls), some might say June, July, and August are the best times to visit because temps are typically in the 70s and all of the attractions are open. However, this also means that it’s peak tourist season and that schools are off for the summer, so you’ll face more crowds, more lines, and spend more money on hotel rooms. Crowds are smaller and lines are fewer in the winter, spring, and fall, and hotel rates usually drop significantly. If you want to see the Falls highlighted by some awesome foliage, plan to visit the third week in October. If winter festivals are more your thing, the Winter Festival of Lights turns Ontario’s Niagara Parks into a twinkly winter wonderland.
Where Should I Stay: U.S. or Canada?
Truth be told, it all depends on what you can access (passport-wise) and what kind of lodging you want. On the U.S. side, the best option with kids is the Sheraton Niagara Falls, as it’s got family suites that sleep up to eight people, a great pool, an arcade, direct access to the pedestrian-friendly Old Falls Street, and it’s within easy walking distance of Niagara Falls State Park. If you’re looking for something a little more romantic, the English Tudor-style Red Coach Inn is the spot, plus it’s within 500 yards of the state park, so you can fall asleep to the sound of the Falls.
If you’re on the Canadian side and don’t mind not having views of the Falls from your room, the Sterling Inn & Spa is a diamond in the rough among the city’s chain options. Located in a converted 1930s milk factory, there are large rooms and luxe bathrooms. If you want more excitement (restaurants, shopping, gaming facilities) and Falls views, look no further than the Fallsview Casino Resort; it’s also steps from the natural wonder you came to see.
Will I Get Wet?
If you’re worried about getting wet, stay on top of the Falls. Guests are provided with ponchos (and sandals) before experiencing the Cave of the Winds or its Canadian counterpart Journey Behind the Falls, and before boarding the Maid of the Mist and Hornblower boat rides, but you’re going to get wet despite the ponchos. So just let go and enjoy the experience, or stay on top of the Falls.
INSIDER TIPWhen you’re looking down at the Maid of the Mist and Hornblower boat rides from atop the Falls, note that the people from the US side are wearing blue ponchos, and those that came from the Canadian side are wearing red ponchos.
Where Can I Get the Best Photo?
To be honest, every photo op and angle is spectacular in its own right. The only consideration is from what height and distance you want your picture taken. There are all sorts of free vantage points on both sides and many attractions provide a vantage point you may have never imagined. One of our favorite photo spots is the Hurricane Deck of Cave of the Winds, though it’s best to have someone standing outside of the torrential downpour taking your picture or your phone (or camera) will be ruined.
Where Should I Eat?
On the Canadian side, try to get a reservation at the Skylon Tower’s Revolving Dining Room, which sits 775 feet above the Falls. It’s great for families, or a romantic dinner for two, and the views of the falls and fireworks and light show (if you time it right) are incredible. Also, admission to the Ride-to-the-Top and Indoor/Outdoor Observation Decks are free if you’re dining there; that’s a savings of about $20.
If you’re on the US side, plan to eat at the Red Coach Inn and order the Beef on Weck (it’s thinly sliced roast beef dipped in hot au jus and topped with horseradish sauce on a Kummelweck roll—it’s an upstate NY thing).