Niagara Falls is arguably the most famous waterfall in the world, and most of us have a stunning postcard-perfect image of it in our mind. However, the geography of the popular attraction may be a little fuzzier. So, let’s clear things up. Niagara Falls is located 20 minutes north of Buffalo Niagara International Airport in northwestern New York and 90 minutes south of Toronto, Ontario. The falls are situated on the Niagara River, which is a dividing line between the United States and Canada. On both sides of the Niagara River is a town appropriately called Niagara Falls. That said, you can visit Niagara Falls in either country. What we think of as Niagara Falls, by the way, is technically three separate waterfalls: the Horseshoe Falls, which sits in Canada and is named for its shape; the American Falls; and the much narrower Bridal Veil Falls, which is also named for its appearance. Now, on to the smackdown for which side you should visit.
What the Sides Have in Common
Before discussing the differences between both sides, it can help to first know what they share in common. It’s a fair amount, actually, slight variations not withstanding. In both places, visitors can see Niagara Falls and stroll around the area for free. However, there are also opportunities to upgrade your experience with paid attractions on both sides.
From either side, you can take a boat ride to the Horseshoe Falls. Though you’ll be donning a poncho, prepare to still get wet. Tip: Wear flip flops or other footwear that you don’t mind getting soaked. The primary difference is the name of the vessel — the U.S. sends off the iconic blue Maid of the Mist, while Canada steers the red Hornblower Cruise.
A helicopter ride over and around the falls is a pricey extra you can splurge on no matter which side you choose. By all accounts, it’s worth the money, so long as you’re not afraid of heights. Bonus: The helicopter floor is clear for prime viewing.
Both places also sell tickets that offer tourists the chance to get close to a part of the falls via a walkway. Once again, you will be outfitted in a thin poncho, but plan to still get wet. On the American side, this trip is called the Cave of the Winds. You’ll walk up, down, and around the American Falls, while being surrounded by plenty of sea gulls. If you take the final flight of steps up to the Hurricane Deck, expect to go from a little wet to drenched. Just make sure to leave your phone and camera with someone staying down below. In case you’re wondering, there is no true cave at the Cave of the Winds. (There allegedly was a cave, but it succumbed to the elements long ago). Meanwhile, Canada offers the Journey Behind the Falls experience. After getting off an elevator, visitors will walk through a series of caverns and wind up at an observation deck next to the Horseshoe Falls.
On both sides, you can take advantage of a hop-on, hop-off trolley that travels around the immediate area for a nominal fee. (Americans extend that hop-on-and-off convenience 14 miles to farther attractions via the Discover Niagara Shuttle.)
The falls are lovely to gaze upon during the day, but they’re arguably even more spectacular at night. They’re illuminated in different colors after dark, and during the summer, fireworks go off at 10 p.m. As you might imagine, there is no difficulty in seeing these displays no matter which country you’re standing in.
The Canadian Side
The panoramic, sweeping vista you hold in your mind’s eye can only be seen from the Canadian side. Walk alongside the Niagara Parkway, right on the rim of the gorge, and see all three falls — the American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and the Horseshoe Falls — across from you. There are plenty of benches where you can sit and take it all in, too. Many of the hotels here are clustered on the hills that lead up from the river and gorge, meaning that jaw-dropping views can be enjoyed from hotel rooms as well. In other words, Canada drew the long straw in this respect.
The American Side
While the views here might not be the ones you had in mind, they could very well be the ones you didn’t know you wanted to see. At Prospect Point, the main public observation area, you are right next to the Upper Niagara River rapids as they approach the brink of the American Falls. The wooded trails of Goat Island and Niagara Falls State Park’s cliffside pathways put the falls close. You’ll be so close, in fact, that there’s a constant mist hanging over the entire area. If you tried, you could even touch the water, but don’t, as you’ll get slapped with a fine. Niagara Falls State Park is also the oldest state park in the nation, boosting its cool factor.
Looking Beyond the Falls
The type of view offered is the first difference travelers may notice between the two sides of Niagara Falls. The second is the surrounding area — what you’ll be experiencing when you’re not gazing at the falls and snapping pictures. The Canadian side is a tourist’s playground, complete with neon lights, several casinos, wax museums, haunted houses, fast food chains, and souvenir shops galore. The American side, however, is generally less crowded, quieter, and has more green space, though only one casino. Plus, you’re close to a state park on the American side (the oldest in the country), and that provides plenty of opportunities to go hiking for both novices and experienced trekkers. Even a short walk along the footpaths makes for a serene hour with nature. And the fact that the American side offers the famous Niagara Wine Trail doesn’t hurt, either.
Where to Stay
If you prefer to stick with the American side, it’s hard to go wrong at The Giacomo. It’s a charming, intimate hotel with a lively lounge that hosts happy hours, live music, tastings, and other events. Guests will appreciate the small touches, like custom chocolates in the rooms upon arrival, freshly-baked cookies at evening turndown service, and a free hot breakfast. Wi-Fi and valet parking in a gated lot are also free. Their popular sunset toast on Fridays and Saturdays in the Sky View Lounge offers guests a beautiful view of the sunset over the falls.
Those dropping their bags on the Canadian side may want to check out the Sheraton on the Falls. This highly-rated property with great views is connected to a casino, as well as an indoor water park. It’ll please a wide-range of travelers, not only because of those amenities, but also because of its full-service spa, indoor and outdoor pools, and well-equipped fitness center.
Where to Eat
A quick, tasty lunch is easy to grab on either side, but when you’re ready to enjoy a top-flight dinner, there’s more to consider. On the American side, consider heading to family-run Fortuna’s, which has been at its location since 1945. Here, traditional southern Italian favorites are homemade with locally-sourced ingredients. The gnocchi is a standout menu item. On the Canadian side, take advantage of the view and dine at the Skylon Tower, which stands 775 feet high. Once an hour, the restaurant slowly and silently revolves 360 degrees, so you have an ever-changing vantage point to go along with their famous duck pastrami and a glass of local Canadian wine.
Still Can’t Decide? Visit Both Sides.
If you really can’t choose which side to visit, see them both. Thanks to the Rainbow Bridge over the Niagara River, it’s simple to go from one side to the other. You don’t even have to get into your car if you don’t want to. You can hoof it across the bridge, poke around on the other side, and walk back. The big caveat: everyone in your group needs a passport. Those who don’t have one, or don’t have time to get one (wait times for passports in the U.S. can take as long as eight weeks), the decision becomes easy.
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