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Niagara Falls for First-Timers (US and Canada!)

By March 31, 2021April 5th, 2021No Comments

You don’t have to travel very far to see one of the world’s most beautiful natural wonders. Niagara Falls lies between New York state and Canada, with 150,000 gallons of water cascading down every second. Mix a little bit of the outdoors with some city attractions and you’ve got yourself a great long weekend away. Let’s dive into (or over?) the falls and everything you can experience there!

What is Niagara Falls?

Officially there are three waterfall parts: American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and the Canadian Falls. From boat tours and aerial views you can see all three, they’re all close by. It’s surrounded by Niagara city, as well as a state park. 

Of course the main draw is the waterfalls themselves. It’s good to plan your visit, because on the surface the destination can look a little kitschy with lots of casinos and chain-like tourist attractions. But the entire Niagara region is a vibrant place to visit, on both the U.S. and Canadian sides.

How to Get to Niagara Falls

You can fly into the Niagara Falls International Airport, but those in the U.S. might have better luck flying into Buffalo, New York, which is about an hour away from the falls. Check Skyscanner and search nearby airports to find the best option. If you like road trips, it’s a hearty 6-and-a-half hour drive from New York City to Buffalo.

Aerial view of niagara falls landscape size

Once you arrive along the New York and Canadian border, there are Ubers and Lyfts available alongside regular taxis. Some drivers maybe be willing to take you across the border, but I recommend simply walking the bridge instead if you are on foot.

Crossing the U.S.-Canadian Border in Niagara Falls

When I was a kid in our camper, we zipped across the bridge from the New York side of Niagara Falls to the Canadian side with little fanfare. During college, my buddies and I would park in New York, walk across the Rainbow Bridge and simply flash our driver’s licenses for access either way. The view from the bridge of the falls is gorgeous, by the way, day or night.

bridge over niagara falls

These days, the crossing is a little more complicated. If you’re American, you need your passport to get to the Canadian side, no excuses. You actually can’t go on the bridge at all without a passport. Most other countries (if not all) will also need their passport for travel into Canada, so check your specific country’s rules. We were visiting in the summer, so there was about a 45-minute line for pedestrians to enter Canada on the bridge. You need a few dollars in cash to get back across the border, so keep that in mind as well. There’s currency exchanges, duty free shops and ATMs right before the crossing.

Of course you can drive over the bridge too, but if you go during peak times, be prepared to wait in line. There’s also cash tolls both ways for this method of crossing too.

Where to Stay in Niagara Falls

You can certainly stay nearby the falls to be as close to the action as possible. However, if you’re staying for a few days, it can be worth having your base be nearby Buffalo. We absolutely loved Buffalo and enjoyed spending time between the city and the falls on our most recent visit. Many people fly into Buffalo anyways. The Marriott HarborCenter was an ideal choice in the city for couples or families with lots of amenities. 


VRBO
If you would like to stay closer to Niagara center, there’s some wonderful, personalized properties on VRBO available year-round. Some locations are a walking distance from the falls, and can offer a bigger home if you are with a larger group and want to all stay together. Chain hotels are available on both the New York and Canadian sides you can search via Expedia. 

What to do in Niagara Falls

Grab the kids and kids at heart to dive into all the activities surrounding this natural wonder!

Maid of the Mist

The Maid of the Mist boats have been a Niagara Falls mainstay since 1846. The boats used to be on both the Canadian and New York sides, but the official Maid of the Mist boats are just boarded on the New York side now. However, the ride will take you past all the waterfalls and up close as possible. It’s a quick boat tour with a few fun facts that end at its crescendo with a dizzying look up at the cascading Canadian horseshoe falls.

If possible, try to avoid this super popular attraction on the weekends in the summer. We were lucky to score VIP treatment on the Saturday we visited, but it’s a mob scene. Any other day during the week, or any other season will be more than fine. You can purchase tickets online ahead of time, but still have to wait in the line. Remember, there might be a line going back UP the elevator on your way off the boat as well, so plan accordingly.

Boats are seasonal and open back up every April.

Cave of the Winds

The caves used to be more prominent, but nowadays it mostly an outcrop that serves as a great viewpoint of the horseshoe falls. Do know though – you’ll get soaked. Bring your Maid of the Mist poncho or grab one of the yellow ones provided.

Skylon Tower

Have a drink or a meal with gorgeous aerial waterfall views. We didn’t have a chance to experience the revolving restaurant on this trip, but as a kid it used to be a special treat while on vacation. There is also an observation deck if you’d like to skip dinner that’s 775 feet above the falls.

Niagara falls as sun is setting-02

Silly Fun in Niagara Falls Centre

Everything under the sun is available on the Canadian side for entertainment. There’s Ripley’s Believe it or Not, haunted houses, carnival rides, arcades and themed restaurants. The kids we saw were loving every minute of it. If you have a couple hours to kill, you can pick your poison along offshoot roads from the Niagara Parkway.

Adults will have their choice of casinos too. We dabbled at the Fallsview Casino Resort and enjoyed their fairly casual but filling buffet. If you sign up for their free Player’s Club, they offer access to a complimentary shuttle that takes you to their sister casino closer to the Rainbow Bridge. We used this to bypass an Uber and get back to the pedestrian crossing.

Note: As of March 2021, the casino is temporarily closed due to COVID. Definitely check local information if you’re planning your trip this year.

Day Trips from Niagara Falls

Once you’ve had your fill of the falls, it’s well worth exploring more of the region and its natural beauty.

Buffalo, NY: We’re big fans of Buffalo, especially in the summer when all the magical breweries fling their doors open to embrace fresh air imbibing. Not to mention, you can kayak through the city, take an architecture tour, and enjoy some late night bites. Have a peek at our full Buffalo post for some great ideas!

Niagara county wine: Niagara-on-the Lake on the Canadian side is a premier spot for wineries in the area. You can certainly tour and taste all day at a variety of properties, from small batch family-own businesses to larger, more well-known national operations. If you want to avoid too much driving, consider a tour that takes you behind the scenes at wineries or offers a quick taste at a few different ones on the same day. Craft beer, artisan hard cider and spirits can be found in the region too.

Toronto: This destination is only 90 minutes from Niagara Falls and gives a more urban vibe to your trip. Try a CityPass to hit a few of the major attractions, then enjoy some Canadian specialities for dinner.


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Thanks to Buffalo Tourism for hosting our stay! All options, tips and itineraries are our own.
Eileen Cotter Wright

Author Eileen Cotter Wright

Eileen Cotter is a freelance travel journalist and owner of Pure Wander. She's our resident expat extraordinaire and falls down a lot in yoga class. Follow her on Twitter @Crooked_Flight

More posts by Eileen Cotter Wright

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