Niagara Falls is one of those tourist destinations that children in the United States learn about in school. Growing up, you read historical accounts of
crazy adventurous people going over the falls in a wooden barrel, or suicidal people choosing to end their life by leaping from the side into the mist below. So, as an American, the falls have always been a bit fascinating to me. I grew up in the southwest, so traveling to Niagara Falls wasn’t exactly easy or cheap. In fact, it is about the same distance from my childhood hometown to Niagara Falls as it would be from Paris, France to Istanbul, Turkey.
I told myself I would go someday, and finally in June 2016, I made the trek.
I traveled solo, and wanted to check out the falls from both the American and Canadian side. You can easily see and experience both sides in one day.
How to get there
Most people fly into Buffalo, New York, which is about a 30 minute drive from Niagara Falls. It is very easy to navigate to the falls as there are a ton of road signs leading you there. You don’t really even need a GPS to get you from the airport to the border. Crossing the border is relatively quick and easy. There were two tolls I paid to get to the border that cost an whopping $4.50 combined. There is no entrance or exit fee at the border, and I only had to pay one of the tolls on the way back into the states. That toll only cost me one dollar. (Cash only unless you have a toll pass.) Don’t forget your passport!
Niagara Falls: American Side
I started on the American side. I paid my $10 to park, and made my way to the iconic waterfalls. The American side was a bit disappointing. The area surrounding the waterfalls leaves a lot to be desired. It appears run down and poorly laid out. This became even more obvious the minute I crossed into Canada. It is a night and day difference! Now, as an American, I typically route for my country in basically any Olympic sport or competitive event, but when it comes to Niagara Falls I am Team Canada all the way!
Cave of the Winds
With that said, I think the American side is still worth a visit. You can get much closer to water than you can from the Canadian side. On the American side they offer two popular tours. One of which is The Cave of the Winds. It allows you to climb a walkway right up next to the American Falls. I did not actually do this, but I have heard from those that have that the wind feels like you are in a category one hurricane when you are standing next to the falls.
Even though it is called The Cave of the Winds, you do not actually go into a cave behind the falls. Instead, it takes you to an area between the American and Canadian falls where you can climb a short stairway to stand next to the Bridal Veil Falls. The Bridal Veil Falls are much smaller waterfalls that can almost be mistaken for part of the larger adjacent American Falls. This activity takes you so close to the waterfall that you will get wet. The cascading water actually runs under the platform you are standing on. No change of clothes is needed though. They give you a poncho that covers you head to toe. This activity can only be done from the American side of Niagara Falls.
Maid of the Mist
The other main attraction, Maid of the Mist, can be done on either the American or the Canadian side. Maid of the Mist is a boat tour that takes you into the giant cloud of mist at the base of Horseshoe Falls. This is a must-do at Niagara Falls! The boat ride itself is about 22 minutes long. It cost $18.25 per adult and $10.65 per child under 12. Young kids under the age of five are free! (These prices are as of June 2016.)
I would have probably felt comfortable taking my toddler on this boat ride, although I would have stayed on the lower level of the double decker boat and possibly avoided standing too close to the side of the boat. Once again, they give you a poncho that keeps your clothing dry, and they have smaller ones for the kids. Before going to Niagara Falls, I had heard the Maid of the Mist was a great experience but it far exceeded my expectations. It is truly the best way to experience this powerful wonder of water!
A side note, if you do the Maid of the Mist tour on the American side, once you exit the boat you can walk up a short staircase to stand next to the American Falls at no additional cost. It’s a great photo op, a quick climb, and if you aren’t going to do the Cave of the Winds, then this will be the closest you can actually stand to the falls. This option is not available on the Canadian side.
Canadian side of Niagara Falls
As I previously mentioned, I am Team Canada when it comes to Niagara Falls. The Canadian side offers you a view of the falls that you simply cannot get from The States. You can get much closer to the Horseshoe Falls from the Canadian side. The Horseshoe Falls are the largest, prettiest and most powerful of the three waterfalls that make up Niagara Falls.
At night, the falls are illuminated in a rainbow of colors which can truly only be experienced from the Canadian side. The Maid of the Mist boat tour also operates on the Canadian side. So as I said earlier, you can experience it from either country.
Besides the spectacular views, where Canada really wins this competition is in the atmosphere. Granted, it is completely touristy, and I realize some people are turned off by that. There is a Hard Rock Cafe, a Starbucks on every corner, and a bunch of chain restaurants and hotels. With that said, you can still find some great local attractions and ultimately the atmosphere offer more variety.
Kids will love the Canadian side of the falls. There is an indoor waterpark, a ferris wheel, a Hershey’s store, live music on outdoor patios, and a lot of family friendly options for dining.
There is also a lovely walking path right next to the river and the falls and a quaint park with a good amount of green space for little ones to roam.
Where to Stay
I stayed at the Crown Plaza Niagara Falls Fallsview Hotel. The hotel is located directly next to the Rainbow Bridge as you cross into Canada from America. You will actually see it on your left as you cross the border.
The hotel is older, and the rooms are simple and small but adequate. However, the hotel has a lot of charm, with an elegant staircase and chandelier in the lobby. The staff was very friendly and accommodating.
There are also a few perks included in your resort fee. You get discounts at the attached indoor waterpark, beer tasting for two at Niagara Falls Brewery, a family picture at Hershey, and two passes for the WeGo shuttle that takes you to the tourist attractions. I did not use the shuttle, as it wasn’t that far of a walk to the falls and the weather was nice while I was there. You can also book a room with a view of the falls, which is especially great on weekends when they light off fireworks over the American Falls.
I chose to watch the fireworks, which start at 10 p.m., from the crowded walkway next to the falls. Even as a woman traveling solo, I felt perfectly safe doing so. But if you’re tired or don’t want to fight the crowds, the fireworks are quite visible from the hotel.
Where to Eat/Drink
I wanted to experience something a bit more local while I was there, so I stopped in at Niagara Falls Brewing Company for a late lunch/early dinner. They brew their own beer, and have several different types from which to choose. There is also a nice patio where you can sit and listen to live, acoustic music. The service was wonderful, the entertainment was great, the food was good and the beer was cold! I even purchased a few beers to take back with me for my husband, who is a serious connoisseur of craft beers.
I enjoyed Niagara Falls. If I had to chose between the two sides, I would stick to the Canadian side, but I think both sides offer something unique.
The actual waterfalls were impressive. However, I had imagined them taller than they really are. I’ve learned isn’t necessarily the height but the sheer amount of water and power cascading down to the river below that makes Niagara Falls one of the seven wonders of the United States. Overall, I would say it is definitely worth a visit!