Last updated on September 1st, 2020
Cool off on a hot day as the wind sprays mist in your face. Feel the raw power reverberate through your body as millions of gallons of water flow by so close that you can practically touch it. Taste award winning wines and beers. Or walk in the footsteps of revolutionary war soldiers or escaping Civil War slaves. Visiting Niagara Falls in New York for a long weekend gave me all these sensory experiences and so much more.
Visiting Niagara Falls, USA
Niagara Falls certainly has something for all tastes. On the Canadian side you can find a bevy of hotels, casinos, and other touristy attractions to satisfy the masses. On the USA side however, thanks to foresight and a value for preserving scenic beauty, you can experience the falls in a more open and natural environment.
I am sharing this list of all my experiences during my recent visit to Niagara Falls to inspire your exploration of the area. Whether you are looking to do a long weekend getaway or just want to explore for a day, this guide will give you the information you want.
Niagara Falls State Park
I don’t think there is any better way of getting up close and personal with the sheer power of these waterfalls than with a stroll through Niagara Falls State Park. After a recent multiyear $70 million dollar renovation, the park and the whole of the American side of Niagara Falls is a joy to explore. I had the pleasure of revisiting the area last May as a guest of Destination Niagara USA, and even though the weather was overcast and rainy (hence the black and white photos), the falls still did not fail to impress me yet again.
Niagara Falls State Park has the privilege of being designated the first State Park in the US. These majestic waterfalls were discovered by European explorers in the early 1600’s, but as the population on the American east coast grew so did the popularity of Niagara Falls, and with it the increased commercialization and exploitation of the falls and the surrounding area.
The creation and preservation of the land around the falls for public use was designed and promoted in 1879 by a group led by Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted is credited as the father of American Landscape architecture. He is also well known for designing New York City’s Central Park, among other natural looking settings.
Olmsted’s vision of preserving the natural state of Niagara Falls continues to be the driving force behind the experience on the US side. Today, Niagara Falls State Park is a large, green retreat with spectacular up-close get-wet views of all three waterfalls: Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls which is the smaller falls next to the American Falls.
I started my explorations at the Niagara Falls State Park Visitor’s Center. Here I found all the information I needed to make the most of my visit to the area. If you are interested in saving some money, consider buying the Discovery Pass here if you plan on doing a number of the available attractions.
You can also view a movie in the Adventure Theater and learn the story behind these thunderous falls and some of the brave souls that have tried to go over them. Make sure to also check out the landscaping around the Visitor’s Center which celebrates the Great Lakes region. Look for grassy areas shaped like Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake Huron and Lake Erie.
For an expansive panoramic view of all three waterfalls I headed over to nearby Prospect Point and the Observation Tower. The views from the top of the tower certainly provide the scope to appreciate the size and power of this incredible natural wonder.
At the base of the Observation Tower you can also catch the iconic Maid of the Mist boat tour which will give you a water level perspective of all three falls and take you up close into the boiling mists of Horseshoe Falls. You’ll be given ponchos to (try to) keep you dry. The Maid of the Mist has been ferrying visitors around Niagara Falls since 1846, but it only operates seasonally from about mid May to early Nov. On a hot summer day, this is a fun way to cool off.
Next, I drove over the Niagara River to Goat Island for the most up close and wet falls experience via the Cave of the Winds tour. My explorations started with the fun interactive displays about the history and ecology of the area at the World Changed Here Pavilion.
When my turn came, I was given a poncho (which may keep you dryer), plastic sandals and a bag for my shoes and then an elevator dropped me 175 feet to the bottom of the Niagara Gorge. Wooden walkways (which are taken down every fall and rebuilt every spring) took me to observation platforms at the base of Bridal Veil Falls.
At this point, I couldn’t tell if I was getting wet from the rain or from the falls. But being so close to the waterfall was definitely exhilarating even though not all of the observation areas were completely finished yet. Are you brave enough to experience the hurricane force winds and spray on the aptly named Hurricane Deck?
For a slightly different perspective of the falls, once I was back at street level, I walked over to the Luna Island viewpoint, which is the spit of rock in between the American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls.
To get an up close and only slightly wet view of Horseshoe Falls, I explored Terrapin Point which was also on Goat Island. While the majority of this waterfall is on Canadian soil, enough of this corner of the falls is also on the American side that I could feel its power vibrate through my whole body as the water surged over the brim into the cataract below.
For a lunch time break, I enjoyed The Top of the Falls Restaurant also located at Terrapin Point. I satisfied my taste buds with locally made products while looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows with views over the Horseshoe Falls.
The fun and beauty of Niagara Falls did not end when it got dark. Once the sun sets, hundreds of LED lights illuminate all three falls through a cycle of rainbow colors. Prospect Point or other spots throughout the Niagara State Park were great observation spots for this daily, free evening show.
Once you have had your fill of the waterfalls, check out these other fun and interesting things to do in the area around Niagara Falls.
Lockport Cave and Underground Boat Ride
About 30 minutes east of Niagara in the town of Lockport, you can experience something that is not available anywhere else in the US – the Lockport Cave and Underground Boat Ride. Over the course of the 70 min guided tour you will learn about the Erie Canal and see locks 34 and 35. You’ll walk through a 2100 foot long tunnel that was blasted out of hard dolomite rock by men and boys in the mid 1800’s. The tunnel was used as a raceway for water from the Erie Canal to power some of the local industries.
Then you’ll board a boat and gently float on the longest underground boat ride in the US. Don’t fret if your guide turns off the lights so that you can experience utter, total and absolute darkness. It only lasts a few moments and then the lights come back on and you can breath a sigh of relief.
Niagara Power Vista
The high volume and power of Niagara Falls has been a source of hydroelectric power generation since 1881. The New York Power Authority has set up a fun, instructive and newly renovated Niagara Power Vista Visitor’s Center that is on par with the best science museums. And it’s free.
With interactive and entertaining hand’s on exhibits you’ll learn all about electricity and how the mighty Niagara River is used as a source for the hydroelectric plants in the region. I especially liked the digital debate between Nikola Tesla who developed AC current and Thomas Edison who was the developer of DC current. Tesla’s AC process won out in the early history of electrifying the homes in the United States. But today, products such as computers, LED’s and solar cells use Edison’s DC technology. So, in the long term, both technologies found their uses.
The views from the visitor’s center over the Niagara River Gorge are pretty awesome also.
Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center
Niagara Falls, NY
Completed in 2018, the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center shares and preserves the stories of those people that participated in the Underground Railroad in this part of New York state. You’ll discover stories of white abolitionists and black freed slaves who put their lives and freedoms at risk by helping former slaves cross into Canada on a bridge near here.
You will learn about the most famous freedom fighter, Harriet Tubman, who personally led about 70 slaves to freedom into Canada. Hers is but one of the stories that is brought to life in the exhibits at this new museum.
Niagara Falls Art Alley
Niagara Falls, NY
This fun little alley is covered with colorful murals. The rainbow crosswalk on 3rd Str. will lead you right to it.
Old Fort Niagara Historic Site
There has been a fort at the mouth of the Niagara River since 1679. However, the structures you can still see today at the Old Fort Niagara Historic Site are from 1726. Due to its important location, the fort changed hands between the French, British and Americans numerous times before it finally ceded to the US at the end of the War of 1812.
What is most fun about visiting this historic site are the living history demonstrations. Reenactors demonstrate how the French, British, Americans and Indians lived and interacted in the 18th and 19th centuries.
You can see musket and artillery firing demonstrations, see artisans at work or take a guided tour and learn about the daily life of those living and working at Fort Niagara.
Be sure to check the website for upcoming activities, events and reenactments.
Tour Niagara Wineries
The Niagara Wine Trail has 22 wineries, breweries and cideries to tempt all taste buds. This is one of the few regions in the world that makes ice wine – that is, wine made from grapes that have gone through a freeze on the vine. This results in concentrating the sugars which produces a unique, sweet desert wine. I was definitely looking forward to trying some while I was here.
Schulze Vineyard and Winery
Schulze Winery is a family owned business set on 122 beautiful acres not far from the shores of Lake Ontario. They make a variety of wines including sparkling and ice wines. Of the ones I tried, I liked the lightly sparkling Bubbles for which they won a number of gold medals. I also liked and went home with a bottle of their gold medal winning Vidal Ice Wine. (Oh, and, I also took home the cute black lab bottle holder in memory of my own black lab).
Victorianbourg Wine Estate
Victorianbourg Wine Estate makes wines in the European tradition. They have a very nice selection of white and red dry and semi dry wines. However, the ones that really caught my eye – or rather, taste buds – were their chocolate collection (Chocolate Ecstasy, Chocolate Obsession and Chocolate Flirtation). Most of the chocolate flavored wines that I have tasted in the past tasted a little chemically. Here though, the wine was more like a chocolate flavored liquid desert. I had a hard time deciding which one to buy, but in the end chose the Chocolate Ecstasy which was the raspberry and chocolate combination. I went home with two bottles which we thoroughly enjoyed over the Christmas holidays with an appropriately indulgent desert.
Where to stay in Niagara Falls
I love to stay in old restored historic buildings, and that is exactly what I had with my wonderful stay at The Giacamo, a boutique luxury hotel just steps away from Niagara Falls State Park. With restored and beautifully renovated rooms that had all the conveniences I needed, the hotel has stayed true to its Art Deco roots. Built in 1929, The Giacamo is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has achieved a perfect balance of sophisticated elegance with modern amenities.
I loved my large, bright Grand Deluxe room with its corner views and electric fireplace. After a long day of sightseeing in cold and rainy weather, the fireplace was a nice and warming touch. So were the chocolate and the fresh cookies that are part of the standard turn down service. The room was bright and light during the day and had a warm glow at night.
Besides single rooms, The Giacamo also offers a number of larger suites for families or those that just want a little more room. There are also two accessible rooms.
All stays include a European style continental breakfast in the bright and airy eating area. The choices were surprisingly varied and much more abundant than the usual continental breakfast.
There is also a lounge where you can sip on specialty martinis or other libations while enjoying the unique and intimate decor.
More food and drink options in the Niagara Falls area
Niagara Falls, NY
I really liked the open, modern setting at Chill 443 which is located in the center of Niagara Falls (and is an easy walk from The Giacamo hotel). There were quite a few items on the menu that sounded interesting, but in the end I chose their version of street tacos which I really enjoyed.
New York Beer Project
For beer lovers, the New York Beer Project offers a large choice of great craft brew options made on site. You’ll be able to choose from their flagship brews like Lockport Lager and New York Amber, as well as from unique seasonal flavors. The eatery also offers an extensive gastropub menu with creative burgers, sandwiches and a rotating seasonal menu of entrees which use locally sourced ingredients. You can also take part in an interesting brewery tour that will give you lots of information on their beer making process along with plenty of tastings.
Orange Cat Coffee Co.
I stopped here for a cup of tea and a muffin after visiting the Niagara Power Vista. For coffee lovers, they have a full espresso bar, and for later in the day, there is also a lunch menu.
Power City Eatery
Niagara Fall, NY
This little eatery is across the street from Art Alley in the heart of downtown Niagara Falls. They specialize in fresh made breads and bagels and home cured meats. I am always a fan of a good grilled cheese, and their three cheese panini sandwich hit the spot. The outdoor seating area is decorated with its own fun murals.
Wilson House Restaurant and Inn
The cozy and warm setting of the Wilson House Restaurant and Inn was a wonderful respite after a wet morning at Fort Niagara – the French onion soup on the menu really hit the spot. It’s also a good option if you are touring the wineries in the area.
I really enjoyed my explorations around the US side of Niagara Falls in New York and am glad I had a chance to experience the area more in depth. I hope this post has inspired you to visit this unique part of the US as well.
Be sure to check out some of my other posts about New York for more travel inspiration including discovering the wines and sights in the Finger Lakes region and camping like a Vanderbilt at Great Camp Sagamore in the Adirondacks.
Please note that my visit was hosted by the Destination Niagara USA Visitors Bureau. All opinions and content are my own.
Thanks for visiting.