As you near Niagara Falls the air suddenly becomes noticeably cooler, like you just walked into an airconditioned building except you are still outside. Then you hear it, the thunderous roar of 168,000 cubic metres (6 million cubic ft.) of water plunging up to 57m (188ft) every minute (during summer months) from Lake Erie, into the Niagara River! You know then, what you are about to witness will be breathtaking – a majestic testament to the raw power and beauty of mother nature.
Follow this two-day, Niagara Falls weekend getaway itinerary to take in all the glory of these amazing Falls and the surrounding wine region. If you’re in search of a romantic weekender, short friends trip or solo retreat – look no further!
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Niagara Falls primer
In short, Niagara Falls is a cluster of three waterfalls that drain Lake Erie into the Niagara River, which carries the water into Lake Ontario. Therefore, the Falls straddle the border of Canada and the United States. Horseshoe Falls is the largest of the three and sits right on the border, while American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls are entirely on the American side.
During the last ice age about 18,000 years ago, glaciers carved out the Great Lakes, and when the ice sheets melted around 12,500 years ago, the water filled those huge basins. The waters of Lake Erie spill over the Queenston-Lewiston escarpment which forms Niagara Falls and drain through the Niagara River to Lake Ontario. Due to the erosive power of the Falls, they have moved approximately 11.25km (about 7mi) from their original position, backing up the Niagara River towards Lake Erie. The Falls are not only a tourist attraction for their great beauty but are an important source of hydroelectric power for the surrounding area.
Niagara Falls – Canadian side vs. American side
Without a doubt, the Canadian side is the better side to observe the Falls in their entirety and the Canadians have done a far better job of maintaining surrounding infrastructure. Aside from Niagara Falls State Park, the US side looks largely neglected and there are many vacant businesses, leaving little in the way of accommodation and dining options. If you are travelling from the US, by all means, stop along the way and check out the Falls from the American side, but plan to cross-over and stay on the Canadian side. Allow about an hour for the border crossing, particularly during the day, as there is often a great queue of cars that need to be processed.
Best time to visit Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls tourism peaks in the summer season between June and August. The upside of this time of year is warmer temperatures and all attractions are open and operational including the Discover Niagara Shuttle. The downside of a summer visit to Niagara Falls is more expensive accommodation and increased crowds.
Spring and autumn see fewer visitors due to lower temperatures. As well as fewer crowds, fall is harvest season at local wineries. We have found the very end of May to be our sweet spot for Niagara Falls visits.
Winter is the least desirable time to see Niagara Falls which is reflected in cheaper prices. However, of sub-zero temperatures can make your visit uncomfortable and some attractions are closed for the season.
How to get to Niagara Falls
If you are flying into the region for your Niagara Falls visit, there are three airports: Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ), Canada or Niagara Falls International Aiport (IAG) and Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF), USA.
For those driving across the border from the US, there are a few bridges you might take. The best option varies on your point of origin, time of day and whether you plan to visit the US side of the Falls first.
From Buffalo Airport, the Rainbow Bridge is usually best, especially during rush hour as you avoid downtown Buffalo. The Rainbow Bridge is also the closest if you plan to stop and explore the US side of the Falls before crossing. Our experience of the Rainbow Bridge on weekends is long queues at border stations travelling USA to Canada, but much shorter waits travelling in the reverse direction.
The Peace Bridge is another option if you want to skip the USA side of Niagara Falls. If you take this route, instead of continuing on Queen Elizabeth Way into downtown Niagara Falls, Canada, take the Niagara Parkway for a more scenic drive along the River. Note, the Peace Bridge is not necessarily a good option during football season, as Canadian fans of the Buffalo Bills travel to and from games. Check the game schedule here.
Passport and visa requirements for your Niagara Falls visit
This brings me to the question of passport and visa requirements. If you are crossing the Canadian/US border you are going to need a passport no matter what. A visa, however, will depend on which country issued your passport. US and Canadian passport holders won’t need a visa for a 2-3 day Niagara Falls weekender. Everyone else should check requirements here.
Where to stay at Niagara Falls on your weekend getaway
We went against some very solid advice and stayed on both sides of the Falls (a night on the US side and two on the Canada side), rather than the highly recommended Niagara-on-the-Lake – big mistake! As long as you have your own vehicle or are prepared to Uber, definitely stay at Niagara-on-the-Lake, especially if you want a romantic weekend or just prefer to distance yourself from the touristy crowd. Niagara-on-the-Lake township sits on the shores of Lake Ontario near the mouth of the Niagara River and offers a serene and sophisticated little paradise away from the casino and fun-park attractions closer to the Falls.
Day 1 – Niagara Falls Weekend Getaway
Get an Adventure Pass
Visit the Ontario Parks Welcome Centre at the base of Clifton Hill and buy an Adventure Pass. Do this first thing in the morning so you can select your preferred time slots for Journey Behind the Falls and Niagara’s Fury. Choose a time for Journey Behind the Falls 2-hours or more from the current time when you purchase your ticket and select a time 1-hour later than that for Niagara’s Fury. Do not book a time for the White Water Walk.
Cruise into the spray
In the 2-hours in between, head down to Hornblower Cruises, the Canadian equivalent of Maid of the Mist. We opted out of the cruise because we had done a similar boat ride at Iguassu Falls in Brasil a couple of years before. However, if you have never taken a boat up close to the base of a mighty waterfall, make sure you take this opportunity. Expect to get wet and dress accordingly! Even with the poncho issued by Hornblower, you are going to get a drenching if you stand outside. Waterfall mist isn’t like rain, it comes from every direction so it has a way of getting into places you wouldn’t expect, like up your sleeves.
Journey behind the Falls
Following your cruise, wander riverside about 1.2km (0.75mi) back to the Table Rock Welcome Centre where you will find Journey Behind the Falls. The Journey takes you behind the Falls in 130-year-old tunnels. The “Portals” behind the Falls are an anticlimax, all you see is a sheet of water with no context. However, the outdoor observation deck is a great spot to take in another angle of the Falls, right up close and get some great pictures.
Next, take in the 15minute show – Niagara’s Fury – which will take you through the formation of Niagara Falls in cartoon animation and a 4D film. After the show is a good time for lunch.
Splurge on a helicopter ride
The standout 12-minutes of our Niagara Falls weekend getaway was taking my first ever helicopter ride. The views over the Falls and surrounding landscape were spectacular. The short ride includes a flyover of Sir Adam Beck Hydroelectric Generating Station, Niagara River, and The Whirlpool.
A helicopter flight is pricey, but well worth every penny if you can manage it. We found a coupon online that got us a discounted price with Niagara Helicopters. Currently, Niagara Tourism are offering a $10 off voucher, valid until April 2020, but be sure to look around for more of these deals. Book your flight on the Niagara Helicopters website, and be wary that flights are weather dependent.
Take a White Water Walk
After your incredible helicopter experience on high, get down deep into Niagara gorge at the White Water Walk. The Walk is a self-paced stroll alongside the Niagara River, taking in the rapids and wildlife.
After dark, take a walk down the south rim of the gorge again and see Niagara Falls lit up at night.
Day 2 – Niagara Falls Weekend Getaway
Drive, or make use of the WEGO/Niagara-on-the-Lake shuttle included in your Adventure Pass and spend the day exploring Niagara-on-the-Lake township and surrounds. The neat little town is quiet and picturesque with cute residential streets, boutique shops and nice cafes. I also recommend investigating the plethora of wineries that are located between Niagara Falls and Niagara on the Lake and make stops for wine tastings and dining along the way.
Sip & Sizzle in May each year
We visited during May when the annual Sip & Sizzle event is taking place. This was a great way to sample wine and food from the different wineries at an affordable price, however, you will need your own transport. A Sip & Sizzle Pass entitles you to a wine tasting and appetizer size food pairing at all the participating wineries in the area. See more details on a Sip & Sizzle pass here. May is shoulder season in Niagara, so if you plan to visit at this time, make sure all the Falls-related attractions have opened for the year.
Have you been to Niagara Falls? What was your favourite way to experience them? Tell us in the comments below. If you are tying up your Niagara Falls trip with a visit to Toronto, see this 2-day itinerary.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,