The rain poured down hard as Adam, my dad, and I stared out the window of the Original Pancake House, 20 miles away from Niagara Falls in Williamsville, New York. We had known for a few days that our visit to the Falls would likely be a wet one, or it might be washed out entirely. Sure, you expect to get a little wet when you visit the trio of waterfalls situated along the Canadian-American border, but there’s a difference between a little spray that latches onto a gust of wind and a continuous downpour that soaks you to the bone.
“I don’t know if it’s going to stop,” Adam sighed.
“I forgot my Fitbit at the hotel,” I observed, staring at my bare wrist. It was the first time I had ever forgotten something in a hotel. 58 countries, 50 states, and 6 continents, all without forgetting so much as a sock or a hair elastic. I called the hotel to ask them to please check the room for it, ordered a Dutch baby pancake (the Original Pancake House’s specialty), and tried to think positive thoughts about the fate of my poor step tracker. It was bad enough that we were going to spend the day wandering around in the rain; it was worse to think I wouldn’t have a record of all of those steps.
Breakfast was delicious, and less than an hour later I humbly collected my Fitbit from a wonderfully kind desk attendant at the Reikart Hotel. As I climbed back into the car, it hit me: not a single drop of rain had fallen on me walking into or out of the hotel. Sure enough, in the distance, we saw the gray clouds breaking apart with glimpses of brilliant blue peeking through.
“The weather gods smile upon us again,” I said. With that, our trip to Niagara Falls brightened up a bit—figuratively and literally.
Niagara FallsAdam and I visited Niagara Falls in 2008 during our first international trip together. We drove up to Toronto, explored the city for a day, and stopped overnight at the Canadian side of the Falls. We both loved the experience. It was the middle of July, the weather was perfect, and the views were inspiring—during the daylight hours sunbeams sparkled as the water rushed from the crest to the base below, and at night they shone through a rainbow of colors as the evening light show played out. Niagara Falls wasn’t out primary destination on this trip, either; we spent the previous day exploring wineries along the Finger Lakes, and Niagara Falls was really just an added stop born of the fact hotels around the lakes were expensive that weekend, and Buffalo wasn’t too far away.
Really, Niagara Falls does deserve to be the star of a vacation, even a short weekend trip. The three waterfalls form part of the border between the United States and Canada; standing on one side you can look right into the other country just across the Niagara River. Horseshoe Falls is the largest of the three waterfalls and straddles the border between the neighboring countries. It also is the most powerful waterfall in North America based solely on flow rate, or how fast the water moves. The second largest waterfall is American Falls, followed by Bridal Veil Falls, both of which are located on the American side. To see them is to recognize their majesty and their natural splendor. Niagara Falls formed during a glacial period 10,000 years ago; while plenty of natural wonders—and even other waterfalls—are much older, there is no denying that Niagara Falls is an incredible sight to behold.
How to See Niagara Falls
There are three great ways to see Niagara Falls: above the Falls, below the Falls, or in front of the Falls.If you want to stand above Niagara Falls, you will want to stay on the American side. There are several viewing decks, but our favorite was located at the observation deck just above Bridal Veil Falls, where we stood right next to the crest and watched the water tumble over the edge. The view from the top isn’t going to be the impressive panorama so often captured in pictures, but it’s the best way to appreciate the sheer power of nature and experience the rush of the water’s speed. From where we stood we could see rainbows form in the mist, adding to the magic and the ambiance. Despite how crowded it was (Labor Day weekend brings out just as many local tourists as it does international tourists!), we had no trouble carving out quiet spots to take in the view without distraction. Spending some time walking around and exploring the paths will undoubtedly help you uncover your perfect spot.
If you want to experience Niagara Falls from below, you have a couple of options, most of which will cost you both time and money. The most popular option is to sail aboard one of the ships that journey around the falls, including the Maid of the Mist (on the American side) and the Hornblower (on the Canadian side). Both experiences will outfit you in colorful ponchos before sending you out on a boat for a 20-30 minute ride around the waterfalls. You’ll get incredible photos from numerous angles during the journey.Alternatively—or perhaps in addition—the Cave of the Winds lets visitors walk down a series of wooden walkways before depositing them right next to Bridal Veil Falls—practically in the waterfall itself. Standing on the Hurricane Deck, tourists do indeed get a taste of what it might feel like to stand outside during hurricane conditions due to the proximity to the wind and the water pushed off from the waterfall. There is a price to pay for both experiences, though—in addition to the cost to visit the Cave or take a boat ride, you may also spend some serious time waiting in lengthy lines. When we arrived at Niagara Falls, the line for Maid of the Mist tickets stretched into more than a three hour wait; visiting the Cave of the Winds offered only a slightly shorter line. Both activities are worthwhile, but if you have a limited schedule or just don’t want to burn daylight waiting in line, you may elect to skip them in favor of another viewpoint.
If you are looking for great pictures, your first stop should be the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Because all three of the waterfalls are, at least in part, on the American side, the Canadian side is the best place to get a great glimpse of them. There’s almost no bad spot to stand, including on the Rainbow Bridge that connects Canada and the United States. The bridge primarily serves as the border, which means vehicle traffic crosses between the two countries and stops for document inspection on the bridge, but there are sidewalks for pedestrians who enter either country on foot. Views are terrific from that vantage point, so it’s worth walking a bit slower than usual to take it all in. The Canadian side also features long paved walkways extending along the border, and while the view attracts more people than the American side, we still found it easy to find a spot to stand for pictures and just to gaze out at the waterfalls whenever we decided to take a break.
Niagara Falls Experience: Canada vs. the United States
If you are planning a day (or more!) at Niagara Falls, you will have more than enough time to experience both the Canadian side and the American side. We found that each country provided an entirely unique experience—and we were glad not to miss either one!Although we left our car parked in the USA, our first stop was Canada. The Canadian side was much more crowded with regard to the number of people who were doing what we were doing—finding the perfect spot to take pictures and enjoy the view. Even still, people moved at a more relaxed pace; we also slowed down to enjoy the moment. Although we were there for the Falls, the Canadian landscape was significantly more manicured than the American side. There were more flowers, more intentional green spaces, and more benches. No matter where we looked—even when our backs were to Niagara Falls—the area was clean and beautiful.
We spent a good amount of time walking around the American side of Niagara Falls as well, and the experience was more hectic and more commercial than the Canadian side. Billboards unabashedly advertised cheap souvenirs and free restrooms. Traffic backed up along every road, and drivers honked their horns out of sheer frustration. Thousands of people stood in place, some in large groups arguing over what to do first, and many more in long lines for the main attractions. We agreed to spend as little time as possible in those areas, and when we escaped the crowds and made our way toward some of the observation decks we found our experience quickly improved. The American side doesn’t offer much in terms of pristine landscaping, but the shaded pathways that terminate in spots overlooking the waterfalls make up for it. We were much more a part of nature on the American side than on the Canadian side, which was a nice alternative to that experience.
If you have just a little bit of time and need to pick only one side, which should you choose? If you want classic views, visit from the Canadian side. If you want to appreciate the Falls from as close to them as you can get, pick the American side. No matter which side you pick, you can’t go wrong.
Be Prepared for Border ControlNo matter where you start, if you plan to see Niagara Falls from both sides, you will be crossing an international border. Crossing by vehicle can take significantly longer—sometimes several hours depending on the time of day or volume of cars—so walking across the Rainbow Bridge is more than likely going to be your best bet. We started on the American side, so our first crossing was into Canada. As American citizens, we only needed to present passports with a minimum of six months before their expiration to the customs agent at the border. We were asked a few basic questions, including the purpose of our visit and expected length of our stay, before we were sent out the door and on to Canadian soil. We were the only ones in line, which meant the process took less than a minute of our time.
Leaving Canada presented our only surprise of the day: before we could cross the bridge to return to the United States, we found ourselves staring blankly at a pair of turnstiles, each demanding a 50 cent toll before we could pass through. Fortunately, there was a machine dispensing change for a dollar not far away, so $1.50 later all three of us were on our way back to the USA. Once we arrived at US customs, again with no line in front of us, a customs officer scanned our passports and asked us a similar set of questions about how long we had been away (in our case, just about an hour) before clearing us for reentry into our home country. We got lucky because we didn’t have a wait at either border, but even with a line in front of us it would still have been faster than driving. Be prepared with the right documentation—including visas if needed for either country—and don’t forget your 50 cents!
Visiting Niagara Falls for Just $21.50On a budget? Niagara Falls doesn’t have to break the bank, even though spending any significant time there can be costly because it is a major tourist destination. Our single biggest expense was parking, which cost $20 USD—the going rate for most of the lots in the area. Many lots charge $20 USD for a single day, and some lots will allow you to move your car and return to the same lot later in the day without paying to park a second time.
Our only other expense was the 50 cent toll to return to the United States after visiting the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Multiplied by the three of us, that was just an extra $1.50.
Because we skipped the Maid of the Mist and the Cave of the Winds, and because we ate breakfast before arriving and waited to eat lunch once we left the area, we saved a great deal of money. You will find plenty of restaurant options on both sides, but you will also pay inflated prices, even at chain restaurants. If possible, bring a few snacks to tide you over until you can have a full meal away from Niagara Falls, where you will pay less and likely enjoy it even more.
Bonus Stop: Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New YorkNiagara Falls isn’t far from Buffalo and its famous Anchor Bar, home to the Buffalo wing. We stopped in for dinner the night before our visit to Niagara Falls. We had just left the Finger Lakes a couple of hours before, and we decided to have an order of wings and a few sandwiches for dinner before ending the evening at the hotel. Anchor Bar lived up to the hype. It has tons of character, including license plates and police badges from around the country (and around the world) adorning the walls. We waited just under 15 minutes for a table for three on a Saturday night, and we each ordered a Buffalo chicken sandwich and shared an order of medium wings. The wings were tasty, the sauce had a little bit of a spicy kick to it, and the sandwiches were big and filling—and the potato wedges that came alongside the sandwiches were equally good!
Anchor Bar was a great stop, and the prices were much more reasonable than what we saw at restaurants closer to Niagara Falls.
More Information: AnchorBar.com
Quick Tips for Visiting Niagara Falls
► Park your car on the American side of Niagara Falls
Even though traffic will likely be terrible, parking is more plentiful and less expensive than on the Canadian side.
► Carry a couple of extra quarters for the toll
I can’t emphasize this enough! Paying the toll is the only way to gain access to the Rainbow Bridge to visit (or return to) the USA.
► Go as early as possible
Niagara Falls fills up fast—from cars in lots to people in lines—so the earlier you can arrive, the less likely you will be to spend a full day waiting for activities.
Niagara Falls Hotels
Ready to book a room for your own Niagara Falls vacation? Here are some hotel deals to consider:
See Niagara Falls from Canada and the American sides!
Niagara Falls is an incredible spot to visit, and now that we have been twice we’re convinced it’s a destination you shouldn’t skip during a visit to America’s northeast. As we retrieved our car and drove away, I was grateful the weather had turned for the better and we had enjoyed a lovely day under sunshine and blue skies to explore this incredible natural wonder. And I was even more grateful for the kind staff at our hotel who watched over my Fitbit until I could collect it; we walked well over 10,000 steps that morning, and I was very happy to have each and every step captured as proof of how much ground we covered during our trip to Niagara Falls.
Planning a visit to Niagara Falls? Check out these posts for some fun day trips from the falls.