Visiting Niagara Falls is an American and Canadian rite of passage. Families flock in groves during summer vacations. Visitors from all countries visit these iconic waterfalls that border the American-Canadian border. Visitors from other countries should learn some cool and interesting facts about the USA before their trip too. As part of a summer road trip, many families combine visiting Niagara Falls with spending several days in New York City. It was a quick detour when I attended a conference I attended in nearby Corning, New York.
But the question arose: if you only had one day to visit Niagara Falls, should you visit the US or the Canadian side? Was there something in particular on each side that had to be seen? And what if you wanted to see both sides? This post will let you know what you absolutely should do and what you can do if you’ve got extra time. This quick trip itinerary covers the best of both countries’ Niagara Falls attractions.
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My travel plans got discombobulated a bit when the weather changed into the first cool weekend in September. Add to it an overcast sky on Saturday, followed by rain on Sunday. But what are you going to do? Just adapt to the weather!
Day Trip to Niagara Falls: US Side
Three falls comprise Niagara Falls: the Horseshoe, Bridal Veil, and American Falls. All three falls are located along the border between the two countries. You can do a lot of things on the US side, but the best views (and even more activities) are on the Canadian side.
The US National Park runs the immediate area around the US attractions. This means that if you’re a hiker or nature lover, you’ll want to visit and spend more time on the US side.
Start on the US side. Parking at the US National Park lots costs $10 (cash or credit). Hold on to your ticket because it is good for the entire day. If you want to go from the Cave of the Winds (lot 2) to the Maid of the Mist (lot 8), you don’t have to pay again. Thank goodness!
Park in lot 2 and walk from there.
Cave of the Winds
This was on my “must-see” list. Purchase a ticket, but be aware that you might have to come back at a later time. You’re shown a short movie about the history behind Niagara Falls. Don’t worry that you just wasted $19.95 on something really stupid. After the movie, you’ll be given a plastic bag to put your shoes and issued some fancy footwear. You proceed to the elevators that take you down. At that point you’re issued a very thin poncho.
PRO TIP: Wear your own thicker poncho and wear studier sandals, such as Merrell water sandals. You’ll stay drier and have a steadier footing on the wet steps.
Follow the crowd down to an observation deck where you’ll get some okay views. But turn around for the master piece! The piece de resistance is the Bridal Veil Falls up close and personal! As you climb up the stairs, the wetter (closer) you will get. Dare to go on the Hurricane Deck! No matter which poncho you’ve decided to wear, it will be completely useless at that point!
Purchase tickets online or as part of a discounted ticket, but keep in mind that you will still need to exchange them for a timed entry, so plan accordingly!
PRO TIP: Walk around Goat Island first and take the photos from the top of the falls. Once you go to the Cave of the Winds, you’ll be soaked!
While you’re waiting for your Cave of the Winds time, walk around Goat Island. You’ll be able to get very close to Bridal Veil Falls. If you walk over to Terrapin Point, you’ll see magnificent views of Horseshoe Falls as well. Take some great shots of the waterfalls. The water and noise are thunderous, so keep that in mind if you have little ones with you.
After completing these activities, move your car to parking lot 8 to access the next two places. Your parking ticket will allow you to change parking lots without an additional fee.
Prospect Point Observation Tower
Most observation towers go straight up and allow you to see a larger view. The Prospect Point Observation Tower extends out over the Niagara Gorge. This is where you take the elevator down to the Maid of the Mist boat ride. If the ride is operational, it will cost you $1.25 per person to walk out onto the deck. Since I’m terrified of heights, I did not do this!
Maid of the Mist
Full disclaimer – I did not take this boat tour. This is the same activity as the Canadian Hornblower. They are literally across the river from each other and take the exact same route. The Maid of the Mist ticket is slightly cheaper than the Hornblower one. You can find their schedule and prices here.
Day Trip to Niagara Falls: Canadian Side
If you’ve only got a day, you have time to include the Canadian side into your itinerary (or vice-versa if you’re from Canada!).
Journey Behind Niagara Falls
After a great experience at Cave of the Winds, you may worry that Journey Behind the Falls might disappoint. But it was another great experience but in a different way. Go first thing in the morning to have the tunnels all to yourself for a few minutes. You’ll ride down in an elevator and get to peer out of two holes made into the stone walls behind the falls. There is also a small deck where you can stand. You will get wet! You can find their schedule and prices here. The other difference with the Cave of the Winds is that Journey Behind the Falls remains open well into the evening, so you can see it when it is lit up at night.
Hornblower Niagara Cruise
The Hornblower boat ride is a more recent addition to the Canadian side. It provides the exact same 20-minute itinerary along the falls as you would get on the Maid of the Mist tour. The tickets were just slightly more expensive, at CDN$25.95. The primary difference in the companies is that the Hornblower also offers a 40-minute Falls Illumination cruise and a 40-minute Falls Fireworks cruise. Both of the evening tours are light mist (meaning you’ll get wet but not necessarily drenched). During the busy season, you’ll want to purchase tickets ahead of time as they sell out. You can find their schedule and prices here.
Clifton Hill Skywheel
While I debated getting on the Skywheel due to my fear of heights, it was worth every penny of the CDN$11.95 ticket! You’ll ride in a comfortable, climate-controlled cabin and go around for about 8 minutes. The views were magnificent and a great way to see the entire area.
Clifton Hill touts itself as the “World Famous Street of Fun” in Niagara. Located just a block up from the Hornblower boat ride and a quick walk from either the Rainbow Bridge or other attractions. This compact area has themed restaurants (think Rainforest Cafe), lots of fun attractions (a Ferris wheel, putt-putt mini-golf) and other odd places to visit like a wax museum or Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
Niagara Brewing Company
This is an active brewery right on Clifton Hill and just a block up from Hornblower. Included in many hotels’ resort fee, you’ll receive a pass for two sampling boards at Niagara Brewing Company. Since craft breweries are all the rage right now, take advantage of the benefit and enjoy some delicious beer. Their food was appropriately priced for a great bite. Look at this great charcuterie plate! It is a great place to get out of the cold or the heat depending on what time of year you are visiting. Don’t be afraid to try lots of other Canadian foods too while you’re here!
WeGo Public Bus
Also included in the hotel fee is a 48-hour pass for the WeGo public bus system. Use it! This bus connects all of the touristy places so that you can avoid walking. With three lines in the area, it will take you where you want to go. It even connects the campgrounds that are farther away to the tourist areas. And with free WiFi, this was a win-win partnership. Download the app to find out when the next bus is coming. More details can be found here.
The Niagara Falls Fireworks
A quick note about the fireworks. During the high season, you’ll catch a beautiful firework show daily. If you go in the Spring or Fall, the fireworks show is only done on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Keep in mind that the fireworks are weather dependent. Because of the rain and the wind when I visited, they were canceled that night. Be prepared.
This quick day trip to Niagara Falls can be done easily, and if you’re looking for a place to stay, I highly suggest the Sheraton on the Falls on the Canadian side!
Annick, The Common Traveler