Often maligned as tacky, dingy and disappointingly kitsch, Niagara Falls suffers a bad rap.
Recently, it has even had to fend off the dubious distinction of being named Canada’s worst tourist trap. But as a long-time Ontarian (albeit one who now lives full-time in Paris), I’m throwing out an unpopular opinion: anyone who berates the Falls didn’t do them the right way.
Most international visitors who visit the Falls do so as a day trip from Toronto or elsewhere. They will head straight to the star attraction, the Horseshoe Falls, take their obligatory selfie, then dart in and out of the city – which is, admittedly, like Las Vegas, only perhaps gaudier – before hopping in their tour bus or car and back to their point of origin.
Yet as many locals know, the best way to experience the Niagara Peninsula, bordered by Lake Eerie to the south and Lake Ontario to the north, is to tack on some of the region’s award-winning wineries, quaint villages, noteworthy theatrical performances, craft breweries and nature trails to round out any visit. Expand your itinerary, and you’ll come away with a richer, much more rewarding experience.
Stroll the streets of a beautifully preserved heritage town
You could call the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake the antithesis of Niagara Falls, where flashy neon lights, casinos, theme rides and chain restaurants in neighborhoods like Clifton Hills and Lundy’s Lane dominate the cityscape.
Just a half hour’s drive north of Horseshoe Falls, NOTL (as the locals call it) is by contrast a picture-postcard heritage town where baskets of pink and purple petunias hang from Victorian street lamps and charming boutiques sell everything from antiques and handmade pottery to maple fudge and homemade jams.
Think the Gilmore Girls’ Stars Hollow come to life.
Sure, the town also swells with tourists during high season. But the brick heritage buildings (the Prince of Wales Hotel is the city’s landmark), colorful storefronts, genteel avenues and horse-drawn carriages offer visitors a leisurely respite from the loud and garish atmosphere of Niagara Falls (the city).
Visit the rolling vineyards of Canada’s wine country
Thanks to the area’s lake-moderated microclimate, Niagara is Canada’s largest wine region and counts more than 120 wineries – many small-batch, boutique producers.
Though Canada is best known as the world’s largest producer of ice wine (an intensely sweet and complex dessert wine made with frozen grapes), the Niagara region has also gained recognition as a notable producer of cool-climate wine varieties like Riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet franc.
Alongside the more established wine brands such as Inniskillin and Jackon-Triggs, check out newer and smaller, specialty wineries in NOTL like Frogpond Farm, Ontario’s first organic winery; and Two Sisters Vineyards, which recently won a gold medal for its 2020 Chardonnay at the 2023 Chardonnay-du-Monde, a a prestigious international wine competition in Burgundy, France.
Several companies also provide full-service tours that include transportation to and from the wineries (thus eliminating the need to designate drivers), tours, tastings and on-site meals.
Set off on an ale trail
If you’re not a wine drinker, fret not: a dedicated Niagara Ale Trail leads beer lovers to more than a dozen standout breweries stretching from the Benchlands of the Niagara Escarpment in the west, to the city of St Catharines and NOTL on the east.
At The Bench Brewing Company in Beamsville, beers are barrel-aged and brewmasters specialize in sour and mixed fermentation beers.
The Merchant Ale House in St Catharines has been brewing on-site for more than 20 years. Customers can wash down their beer-battered pickles, Québec poutine and generous brisket burgers with blueberry wheat ale, pina colada sour beer aged in coconut barrels, nitro stouts and non-alcoholic brews.
And in NOTL, The Exchange Brewery uses local fruits – Niagara is also Canada’s stone-fruit belt – like blue plums and sour cherries for their fruit beers. The region also produces ciders (Ironwood Cider House) and fruit-based spirits (Spirit Niagara).
Take in a show
Launched in 1962 as a showcase for the works of brilliant Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, the Shaw Festival has made NOTL a premier theater destination. Today, it’s the second-largest repertory-theater company in North America and stages everything from classics and comedies to musicals, mysteries and contemporary plays.
The festival runs from February to December and puts on about a dozen annual productions across its three stages, attracting some 250,000 spectators a year.
Rent a bike and hit the trails
Outdoor enthusiasts may also want to dedicate an afternoon to hitting the bike trails of the Niagara Parkway, an easy, paved riverside path that stretches 35 miles alongside the Niagara River. Be sure to factor in stops at historic sites and wineries along the way; scenic photo ops; a waterfront picnic; and snack breaks at the many roadside fruit stands. Both regular and e-bike rental services are available at NOTL.
Other bike trails include the “Fruitland Ramble,” which passes fruit orchards, farms, beaches and prime picnic areas from Beamsville to Grimsby; and the “Garden City Glide,” circling the city of St Catharines (nicknamed Garden City for its many gardens, parks and trails).
Experience the Falls differently
If you’re an adrenaline junkie, forgo the traditional Maid of the Mist boat tour – and strap yourself into a zip-line to whip along the edge of the Niagara River at speeds of up to 40 mph instead. Or board the historic Whirlpool Aero Car: dating back to 1916, the open-air cable car recently underwent a refurbishment and glides 3500ft across the Niagara whirlpool.
One of the newest attractions at the Niagara Parks Power Station is The Tunnel. Opened last year, this 2200ft-long underground passageway once expelled the station’s spent waters back into the Niagara River. The viewing platform at the end of the tunnel rewards visitors with a new perspective of the Horseshoe and American Falls.
Conclusion: give the Falls a chance
When the Falls was named Canada’s worst tourist trap in a report released in April 2023, it kicked off a storm of split reactions.
As a repeat visitor, I’m of the humble opinion that either you go with the understanding that the city itself is camp to the point of absurdity and laugh it off – or you add on the aforementioned sites to round out the experience.
Because if you heed the haters and dismiss the Falls altogether, you deprive yourself of witnessing an exhilarating and powerful example of nature’s brute force that has been 12,500 years in the making.