What to Do and See in Canada's Niagara Falls
Accessible parks, wineries and a famous theater round out a visit to this natural wonder
AARP, August 16, 2021
As you observe the sheer volume of frothing white water cascading over Horseshoe Falls in Niagara Falls, Ontario, it’s stunning to think that some have forgone the viewing platform to experience the thundering wonder from inside a barrel plummeting over the brink.
The falls’ famous history as a magnet for daredevils — including successful barrel rider Annie Taylor, who crashed and bobbed her way to fame in 1901 — has drawn tourists and honeymooners to the edge for more than 150 years. Niagara Falls is also indescribably beautiful, with three waterfalls joining to create a constant mist. It often reflects a rainbow, arching like an ethereal bridge between the United States and Canada.
The Niagara River separates the two countries, with towns named Niagara Falls on each shore. The falls lie in between; the Canadian side is home to Horseshoe Falls, and the U.S. claims American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls.
Ontario’s Niagara Falls, which is just over an hour’s drive from Toronto and 30 minutes from Buffalo, New York, arguably offers better views than the New York side. It’s almost entirely accessible, too, with so many attractions, hotels and restaurants able to accommodate guests with mobility challenges. What’s more, popping over to the Canadian side will give you an automatic 25 percent discount on everything, from admissions to wine tastings, thanks to a favorable exchange rate.
And for those who see a waterfall and go, “Meh,” fear not — there’s a lot more to do than simply watch 681,000 gallons of water plunge 170 feet every second. Here are a few ideas for spending two or three days on the Niagara Peninsula.
What to do
Learn the history. A good place to start is the Niagara Falls History Museum, where exhibits explain how the falls and their river were carved out during the last ice age, some 12,000 years ago, as well as the region’s role in the War of 1812 (the downtown museum is located near the Lundy’s Lane Battlefield, site of one of the war’s bloodiest battles).
Get your fill of the falls. To fully (and literally) immerse in the waterfall experience, don a plastic poncho and ride an elevator down into the Niagara escarpment during Journey Behind the Falls ($12.40 U.S.). You’ll emerge into tunnels cut through the bedrock at the base of Horseshoe Falls to feel the thundering vibration and hear the ceaseless roar caused by water coursing over the brink. Venture out onto the accessible upper observation deck and get kissed (or, rather, drenched) by spray as the waterfalls behind you.
Those prone to claustrophobia may want to opt instead for a ride on Niagara City Cruises by Hornblower ($25). These large, stable boats sail past American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls into a swirl of mist beneath Horseshoe Falls; close your eyes and imagine how Annie Taylor, who was in her 60s when she climbed in that barrel, felt after her feat. Wheelchairs are available onboard on a first come, first served basis (for the lower deck of the boat only), and can be requested at the funicular booth at the base of Clifton Hill.
Explore Niagara parks. In either direction from the falls you’ll find preserved parkland that parallels the Niagara River. Active visitors can walk or cycle the Niagara River Recreation Trail, which winds 33 miles between Fort Erie and Niagara-on-the-Lake. You’ll pass attractions such as Niagara Glen, with 2.5 miles of hiking trails that descend from the top of the Niagara escarpment into a Carolinian forest where tulip trees (a kind of magnolia) grow near the river’s edge.
Accessible highlights along the trail include the Whitewater Walk, a quarter-mile wooden boardwalk with interpretive signage adjacent to fearsome Class VI rapids that course through the Niagara Gorge. This is the spot where Lois Lane jumped into the river to try and trick Clark Kent into revealing his superhero identity in Superman II.
Also nearby is the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens. The 99 acres of beautifully maintained gardens are laced with wide, flat brick pathways and lots of spots to sit and smells the roses. There’s a butterfly conservatory ($13.60) on site, too, where more than 2,000 butterflies, including red lacewings and blue morphos, flit between flowering tropical plants and Romanesque statuary. The two attractions together offer a soothing respite from the crowds near the falls.
Tour wineries. In the past 20 years the number of Ontario VQA wineries has exploded from 44 to 185, with 95 of them located on the Niagara Peninsula. It’s fun to spend an afternoon stopping in at two or three to sample cool-climate varietals such as Riesling for white wine lovers and Cabernet Franc for those who prefer big reds.
Vineland Estates, less than a 30-minute drive from Niagara Falls near the village of Jordan, combines the historic charm of an 1840s Mennonite homestead with the modern trend of farm-to-table dining in its restaurant. This boutique winery makes only 52,000 cases a year and you can sample the range inside a restored 1877 barn that functions as a tasting room and wine shop.
For a grander tour and tasting experience, try Peller Estates near Niagara-on-the-Lake, just 13 miles north of the falls. Embark on the Greatest Winery Tour ($29), an educational vine-to-glass experience that takes you to the vineyard, down into the cellar, and finishes off inside the 10Below Icewine Lounge. You can’t leave Canada without sampling icewine, a dessert wine made by pressing grapes that have frozen on the vine. (Modified tours are available to wheelchair guests. For a complete listing of accessible wineries, visit accessibleniagara.com.)
Visit Niagara-on-the-Lake. This historic town on the south shore of Lake Ontario offers a nod to the past with horse-drawn carriage rides and stores including an apothecary and old-time candy shop. Spend time strolling past colonial buildings and the statue of playwright George Bernard Shaw on Queen Street, the three-block main drag.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is also the home of the Shaw Festival Theatre, Canada’s second-largest producing theater. Performances run this year from May through December at three theaters, plus an outdoor theater, with wheelchair seating available.
Food and drink
Yes, there are plenty of mediocre tourist restaurants in Niagara Falls, but you can find unique and tasty options, too. They include the Tide & Vine Oyster House, on the pricey side but offering delicious seafood; the Queen Charlotte Tea Room, where you can indulge in a fancy high tea (reservations required) or go more everyday British with some fish-and-chips or steak and kidney pie; and the Taps Brewhouse, where you’ll find good bar food, including the classic Canadian poutine (fries with cheese curds and gravy).
For a view of Horseshoe Falls, try Table Rock House Restaurant. Holland-born chef Elbert Wiersema uses as much locally sourced food as possible, including vegetables from nearby farms and Great Lakes-caught fish.
And if you’re among the many wine lovers flocking to this region, head to Two Sisters Vineyards for a classic al fresco winery dinner at Kitchen 76, whose large outdoor patio overlooks rows of wine grapes. Grab your glass of un-oaked Chardonnay and wander through the vines before digging into rustic Italian-inspired dishes.
Hotel room prices rise higher than the falls during the busiest season (July and August), even with the exchange rate. Consider traveling during the spring or fall shoulder seasons for better rates and fewer crowds. You’ll also save if you forgo a room with a falls view or visit during the winter. In fact, to lure travelers in January and February, many hotels include free breakfast or tout a romance package that includes a dining voucher and bottle of wine.
The Embassy Suites by Hilton Niagara Falls and the Niagara Falls Marriott Fallsview Hotel offer good midweek rates during shoulder seasons, with prices in the $100 to $110 range per night for a city view. Both properties have on-site restaurants and accessible rooms. There’s also the Sterling Inn & Spa, a downtown boutique hotel whose spacious rooms are often available for less than $150, with breakfast included. It also has a swank restaurant on-site, AG Inspired Cuisine.