Niagara Falls: Tips for Visiting this Family Bucket List Vacation Spot
Hailed as one of the wonders of the world, Niagara Falls is a must-see destination for families. Its breathtaking beauty and wonder can't be overstated...and yeah, the pictures never do it justice. But planning a family vacation to Niagara Falls can be a little overwhelming, including trying to decide where to stay, which sights to see, what to do, and how to avoid the crowds. My family and I recently visited the falls, and we've got all the information you'll need to plan a successful trip with the kids.
Niagara Falls spans both the United States and Canada on the border between New York state and Ontario. It's widely agreed upon that the Niagara Falls Canada side offers the best views of the falls. On the flip side, the Canadian portion of the Niagara Falls park is also the most developed section and therefore touristy with casinos, tall towers, arcades, mini golf, and zip lines. You'll find more intact and pristine nature on the American side where Niagara Falls became known as the country's first state park. We spent three nights and two fulls days in Niagara, New York, in late summer 2021, and it was plenty of time to see all of Niagara Falls in addition to sights a bit further out. We decided to stay on the American side but will include everything you need to know about Niagara Falls Canada from a previous Mommy Poppins trip.
The park is particularly pristine on the New York side, but the views from the Canadian side are amazing.
Where Is Niagara Falls? And How To Get There
We drove from New York City. which took about 8 hours (including quite a few rest stops and bathroom breaks with a car full of kids) to get to downtown Niagara Falls, New York, the town where the American falls are located. Greyhound and New York Trailways operate buses to Niagara Falls. Amtrak Trains also offer service to Niagara Falls from many cities throughout the northeastern U.S. The trolley service in downtown Niagara Falls is a great option to get around locally and to see all the major sites, but you'll need a car to venture further. Taxis are few and far between.
Another option is to fly into Buffalo International Airport and rent a car. Buffalo, New York, is about half an hour from downtown Niagara Falls, New York, and 45 minutes to Niagara Falls Canada.
To enter Canada, you drive across the Rainbow Bridge and encounter border patrol. Please check Canada's travel website for the most up-to-date information about testing and vaccine requirements, and quarantine plans.
Niagara Falls Hotels
Because there are no Niagara Falls, New York, hotels on the American side that offer views of the falls, you'll want to find one that's centrally located instead. We stayed at The Giacomo, a historic hotel right in the downtown area. It had a lot of charm and offered plenty of amenities, including complimentary breakfast, and room and concierge services. It's great for large families because you can get a suite with multiple bedrooms and full-size kitchens. We could also walk to the Riverway to take in the views of the Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and the Bridal Veil Falls. Seneca Resort & Casino is also another great option for a Nigara Falls hotel in New York.
In Canada, it's all about the views. Popular choices for families include the Hilton Niagara Falls, Sheraton Fallsview Hotel, and Niagara Falls Marriott. Many of these hotels offer suites with multiple bedrooms or adjoining rooms for families with kids. Be sure to check if your room has a direct view of the falls.
Get soaked on the Maid of the Mist.
Niagara Falls New York: Top Sights on the American Side
If there's one thing you absolutely need to do in Niagara Falls, it's the Maid of the Mist. It's the legendary boat ride that'll get you as close to all of the major falls as you'll ever be to experience their magnitude. The boat ride itself is about 30 minutes, and you'll definitely get wet, even with the iconic blue ponchos, but that's all part of the fun. Get one of those plastic protectors for your phone if you want to take pictures.
The Maid only sails outside the visitors center on the U.S. side. Pick up tickets right outside the Observation Tower if you don't get them through a package tour. A similar ride leaves from the Canadian side; it's called the Hornblower, and her passengers wear red raincoats.
The Cave of the Winds leads to the bottom of the Bridal Veils Falls where you’ll get drenched and see a beautiful rainbow.
Another activity that's an absolute must is the Cave of the Winds tour. The entrance is only on the American side on Goat Island. After viewing a short movie about the history of the falls, you'll take a short walk through a tunnel that brings you right to the base of the Bridal Veils Falls. The wooden walkway, open May through October, leads directly into the path of the cascading water, allowing visitors to walk straight through and plunge hands in for a drink. Tip: bring along a plastic bag to put on your shoes, so they don't get wet.
Be warned: you'll get absolutely drenched. Ponchos and waters shoes (which you can take with you) are included in the price of admission. We saw some visitors abandon the ponchos entirely and opt for swimwear instead. My kids especially loved seeing the rainbows that form through the mist around the falls.
The views of the falls from the Riverway on the American side are breathtaking.
Things To Do in Niagara Falls, NY
Established as America's first state park in 1885, the vegetation around Niagara Falls on the American side is very much pristine and natural. One of the best ways to experience it is to hike the trails that lead around and down into the heart of the Niagara Gorge. Just a few miles from downtown, you’ll find Devil’s Hole State Park where you can hike down to the rapids of the Niagara Whirlpool. The main trail is steep and edged by rock formations and canyon walls, but my 5-year-old was able to hike it with no trouble. Once all the way down, you'll get amazing views of the Niagara River.
Another great activity is to visit Old Fort Niagara, right on the outskirts of Lake Ontario. About 15 minutes driving distance from downtown, it's full of old buildings and history as the area played a role in the French and Indian wars as well as the American Revolutionary War. Check its calendar for programing, including live reenactments.
Apart from the falls, one of my kids' favorite outings on our family vacation was touring the Lockport Caves along the Erie Canal and riding on an underground boat. The tour lasted about 75 minutes and we learned about the Erie Canal Locks and toured the caves underneath the Canal both on foot and then on a boat. It was a great tour, easily accessible for kids, interesting enough for adults, and a little excitement and mystery for everyone. Lockport is located about 30 minutes from Niagara.
Catch the beautiful rainbows that appear in the mist. Photo by Roberta Brown
Niagara Falls Canada: Top Sights on the Canadian Side
The biggest reason to cross to the Canadian side is the panoramic view as it's the only way to take in everything at once. The view is especially stunning after dark on the Canadian side when the falls are lit up in rainbow colors along with a fireworks display.
In addition to the sweeping views, the other thing Canada can offer that the U.S. side can't is the view from behind the waterfalls. Journey Behind the Falls follows a tunnel dug behind the actual waterfall, allowing visitors an extraordinary perspective on the power of water. The tunnel also includes a display with all sorts of historical info, including the bizarre tradition of daredevils flinging themselves into the water and occasionally surviving (now happily outlawed).
There is definitely more of a carnival-like atmosphere on the Canadian side with dozens of casinos, adventure parks for zip-lining and sky diving, golf, wax museums, and even a large Ferris wheel. For many people, though, the straight-on views of the falls are worth crossing the border.
There are plenty of excursions to take around Niagara Falls, including cave tours.
Should You Buy a Niagara Falls Package Tour?
There are a ton of offers online for package tours and many believe they aren't worth the cost. After doing a little research, we opted for a package tour for our first day mainly because we were short on time and didn't know where to start in planning. We went with Over The Falls Tours and found it was worth every penny. The tour operator picked us up right in front of our hotel and took us to all the major destinations with our tickets in hand.
We didn't wait in any lines (always a worthwhile perk when traveling with young kids), and the best part was our friendly and knowledgeable tour guide who provided us with the fascinating history of Niagara Falls and surrounding areas. The only extra stop she made was at a bakery where we stocked up on snacks and provisions. She gave us excellent restaurant recommendations and pointed out other sights we should check out. All in all, the tour lasted about five hours. It was convenient and efficient, especially since we probably saw a few things we wouldn't have had it not been on the tour.
The tour helped to shape our trip and helped all of us have a great time. A family vacation to Niagara Falls should be on everyone's bucket list in our opinion.
An earlier version of this article published in 2016 with reporting by Roberta Brown
Photos by the author except where noted