Niagara Falls: what you need to know before you go

August 5, 2016
Niagara Falls

When I told a friend I was planning a trip to Niagara Falls she was a bit horrified – ‘I’m surprised you’re going there, it’s so touristy it felt a bit cheesy to me. I hope you enjoy it more than I did.’

A week later she sent me a link, ‘5 of the world’s most overrated tourist attractions’. And guess what? Niagara Falls was number 1!

Hmmm. Not sounding promising. But you can’t judge a place on someone else’s opinion, you gotta go and find out for yourself.

So we did.

And what did we discover?

That Niagara Falls are absolutely spectacular. Close up, the falls are phenomenal. The power of the water is incredible. And the stories of people who have gone over the falls and survived are astonishing.

American and Bridal Veil Falls at Niagara Falls.

American and Bridal Veil Falls at Niagara Falls.

We also discovered that Niagara Falls on the Canadian side is what I would describe as tourist hell.

Horrid. Tacky. Overpriced. Overbuilt. Like a mini city of skyscrapers sitting on the edge of a stunning natural wonder.

Our hotel was like a zoo. People everywhere, queues for the lifts, a cattle run to get into breakfast, another cattle run to line up for an omelette. Horrific.

View from Goat Island towards Niagara Falls hotels on the Canadian side.

View from Goat Island towards Niagara Falls hotels on the Canadian side. It’s a mini city of high-rises sitting on the edge of a stunning natural wonder.

But there’s no escaping the fact that the Falls were simply spectacular. And we had the most amazing view from our room.

So is it worth going? Absolutely.

Here are a few tips on what you need to know before you go to Niagara Falls:

Tip #1. Stay on the Canadian side. The view is much better. 

There are three main falls – Horseshoe Falls which lies mostly on the Canadian side, the American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls which are both on the American side. You get a great view of all three from the Canadian side. In spite of the touristy tackiness, you should suck it up and stay in Canada.

Tip #2. Book a room with a view. 

If you’re going, make the most of it. You’re there to see the falls. There are so many high-rise hotels on the Canadian side towering over the Niagara River, go high and enjoy. We stayed at the Embassy Suites and the view was very impressive.

Tip #3. Cross the Rainbow Bridge into the USA

Walk across the Rainbow Bridge into the USA (you can straddle the border on your way over), turn right and head to Goat Island. It’s much quieter, there’s a beautiful walkway around the island and you can get very close to the Falls. You’re really missing out if you don’t see them from the American side as well.

As you walk around Goat island take a look at the Three Sisters Islands, three small islands connected by bridges which offer great views of the rapids that race into the Horseshoe falls. The islands are named after three daughters of an early Niagara settler.

Remember to take your passport (we had to backtrack to get ours)! And you’ll need some coins – oddly, it costs 50 cents to cross the border each way.

Tip #4. Luna Island and the Bridal Veil Falls

From Goat Island, wander out to Luna Island which is a tiny island between the American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. You’ll be amazed at how close you can get. You’ll get a bit wet, just from the spray. If you want to brave it and get really drenched you can take a Cave of the Wind tour down under the Bridal Veil Falls.

Taking a boat ride to get up close and personal with Niagara Falls from the water.

Take a boat ride and cruise into Niagara Falls from the water. It’s amazing how close you get. 

On the Hornblower cruise under Niagara Falls.

Even with a poncho you’re going to get wet!

Tip #5. Take a Falls boat ride

Take a Voyage to the Falls boat ride so you can get up close from the water. It’s amazing how much water comes thundering down every second. You’ll really feel in awe of the power of nature from here.

There are two options, Maid of the Mist, which leaves from the US side, and Hornblower Niagara, which leaves from the Canadian side (Hornblower was a lot more crowded than Maid). We were on the Canadian side so went with Hornblower. You get very, very close and while they provide you with a poncho (red for Hornblower in Canada, blue for the US-based Maids), you’ll get wet and so will your camera. From this perspective you can’t imagine that anyone could go over the falls and live to tell the tale.

Tip #6. Immigration – crossing the border takes time

If you arrive from the American side, by bus, train, taxi, car and have to go through Immigration to cross into Canada, it can take some time. Be patient. We caught the train from New York City and jumped off at Niagara on the US side. We grabbed a taxi to drive across the border. It’s generally much faster this way than staying on the train/bus where immigration officials have to work their way through all the passengers.

We caught a bus from Niagara Falls (Canadian side) to Toronto and the bus was very late leaving as it got caught up at Immigration as it crossed the border from the US.

Tip #7. Avoid the touristy restaurants

Avoid all the tourist trap restaurants around the high-rise hotels and the Casino. We made the mistake of going to the Ruth Chris Steakhouse (our hotel gave us a voucher), probably the most overpriced restaurant I’ve ever been to. The steak was $75. Wines were $25 by the glass. It was ridiculous. Their website menu doesn’t show prices so we learned the hard way.

Tip #8. Best restaurant in Niagara Falls

Go to a fabulous restaurant called AG. It’s a true farm to table experience – the produce comes from the AG farm each day and the menu changes regularly to suit what’s in season. We chose the ‘Field to Fork’ daily 3-course set menu, which features seasonal produce from the many Niagara region farms. It was $CAD53pp and absolutely delicious. There was a great selection of regional wines by the glass as well. All in all, a great taste of local flavours. Bon appetit!

Rapids leading into Horseshoe Falls at Niagara Falls.

Rapids leading into Horseshoe Falls at Niagara Falls.

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