How to make the best of your trip to Niagara Falls, New York

We’ve been to the Niagara Falls on the American side thrice now. Having visited during three different times of year, and after trying a variety of different restaurants, hotels, and activities, we’ve come to the conclusion that while the immensity and beauty of the Falls is inescapable regardless of when you visit, there are a few things you can keep in mind to make the most of this memorable trip.

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View of Bridal Veil Falls from the American side, observation deck. Horseshoe Falls in the background, Canadian border on your right!

Do: Visit in the late summer/fall

We’ve visited in May, and early and late August respectively. Buffalo is a tricky place to visit due to its frigid temperatures. Warmer temperatures hit Buffalo quite late, and cold temperatures pervade into early June.

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We were freezing in May!

There are two versions of Buffalo: Buffalo during cold weather and Buffalo during warm weather. We were shocked to see the difference when we visited in early August: ice cream shops, lovely outdoor seating at restaurants with excellent, varied menus, and trees in bloom, lining the way to and from the Falls. Visiting during the colder months means that you struggle to find a good place to eat, as most places close up, and there’s not much else to enjoy other than the Falls themselves. We would strongly recommend that you try to visit the August, when the summer crowds start to thin out but the weather is still fine and enjoyable (not to mention you can enjoy the Cave of the Winds experience without the threat of catching pneumonia! See below for more).

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We caught four rainbows in late August. None in May…

The Falls themselves are better viewed when warm, as there is higher visibility.

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The Falls in spring
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While mist over the Falls is inevitable due to the force of the water on the rocks, it is clearer during the summer months. The observation deck on the US side over the Falls is visible on the left.

Regardless of when you visit, a scarf and jacket may be useful to pack. We ended up prey to the hotel shops when we were freezing our bottoms off in May!

Do: Rent a car

Driving from New York up to the Falls offers you a great opportunity to explore the beautiful areas outside of New York City on the way to the Falls. Don’t miss the wineries of the Finger Lakes and the beauty of Ithaca (especially in the fall).

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Beautiful sunsets on your drive up!

On our third trip to the Falls, we decided to fly into Buffalo airport and take a taxi to our hotel at the Falls.

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Having driven the six hours to and from the Falls twice by then, we wanted to try something new. While flying into Buffalo is obviously the quicker option, taxis to and from the airport are expensive (around US$70) and public transport to your hotel in the Niagara area is virtually non-existent unless you are willing to spend a few hours waiting around/switching buses/on the bus itself. Our flight was also rescheduled twice. We strongly recommend driving to the Falls.

Do: Take in the Canadian skyline as you drive in, especially at night.

The Canadian skyline is a special sight to behold when you drive into the Niagara area, especially at night. Don’t miss it!

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Skyline during the day
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There’s usually a fair bit of construction going on around the US Falls area

Do: Book your stay at Days Inn Niagara at the Falls in advance

Note that we meant Days Inn Niagara AT the Falls and not NEAR the Falls. There are two and it can get complicated!

Days Inn Niagara at the Falls offers exceptional rates and excellent accommodation if you book a few months ahead. Try Booking.com to lock in a good rate! Having stayed at a variety of hotels at the Falls, this has been the best experience we’ve had by far. The rooms are very spacious, comfortable, and clean. The beds are excellent, with top of the line bedding. Certain rooms even have a view of the evening fireworks display over the Falls. The hotel is a ten minute walk to the Falls. The breakfast is good and filling, and the staff were very accommodating, calling us taxis, storing our luggage etc. If we were to go back to the American side of the Falls, we’d definitely stay here again.

Wingate at Wyndham Niagara Falls offers competitive last minute rates, but we found the hotel subpar for the money we paid. The breakfast especially needed a lot of improvement, with barely enough tables to host the guests. While the rooms were comfortable, our stay left a lot to be desired.

Do not: Stay at the Quality Hotel & Suites at the Falls if you can help it. This hotel has seen better days. Stay here if you have no other choice. The cleanliness of the hotel, the quality of the beds, the mouldy smell of the rooms, and the heater that smelt like it was burning were not balanced out by the fact that this hotel is three minutes from the Falls. We booked multiple rooms at this hotel and every room had the same issues. Breakfast is served at Legends Grill, which is adjacent to the hotel. Legends is good for a quick bite, and offers a buffet-style breakfast. It’s a good place for a quick stop, but while the area offers little in the way of scrumptious variety of food, there are a few other places you can rather try.

Do: The Maid of the Mist boat tour

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The Maid of the Mist boat tour is a must-do when visiting the Niagara Falls on the American side. The immensity of the Falls can only be appreciated when you’re up-close and personal on the water, feeling the spray of this beautiful natural wonder on your cheeks as you take it all in.

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On the Maid of the Mist!

Try to get to the top deck of the boat for the best views. We preferred staying in the middle of the boat instead of fighting for a place by the handrails as the former offers the best views when the boat turns 180 degrees by the Horseshoe Falls. You have a great view of the Bridal Veil and Horseshoe Falls during the entire trip when you elect to in the middle, with the added bonus of not being jostled by the dozens of visitors on the boat.

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The lines for this tour are virtually non-existent when you visit in the Spring and Fall (late August onwards), due to the colder weather. We stood in line for around forty minutes when we visited in early August (after having purchased our tickets).

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Entering the Maid of the Mist tour, post buying your tickets

Given the warmer weather and the fact that we like to avoid long lines, this helps us recommend that you visit in late August rather than early May or the summertime. The summertime crowds at the Falls are really something you should try to avoid.

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Horseshoe Falls from the Maid of the Mist tour

You have an opportunity to climb up the left side of the Bridal Veil Falls at the end of the Maid of the Mist tour. Hang on to your rain jacket as you leave the boat if you’d like to try this out, especially if you won’t be visiting the Cave of the Winds!

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Horseshoe Falls from afar

We however recommend skipping going up this way and suggest you head straight to Cave of the Winds (with the detour of Goat Island, see below!) as Cave of the Winds offers a much better close-up experience with the Falls.

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View from Cave of the Winds

Do: The Cave of the Winds experience

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Exhausted but loved the Cave of the Winds!

Don’t miss out on experiencing the Falls up close and personal! Don’t leave the Falls without trying this in the summer/fall (the cold water may be too much during the colder months, even spring in May). The Cave of the Winds experience lets you climb up the stairs they build and take town every yearly cycle (to ensure its sturdiness and to withstand the strength of the water) and literally bathe in the Falls. It is not as epic as going behind the Falls, as they allow you to do on the Canadian side, but it is still a great alternative. As it is a more adventurous activity than standing on a boat, there tend to be fewer tourists at this attraction which makes it an even better experience. It is about a twenty minute walk from the Maid of the Mist tour to the Cave of the Winds attraction, and we recommend looking it up in advance as the lack of signs around the Park make it complicated to find. You can also usually get a free map of the Falls Park at your hotel tourist desk. We promise you, the lines (similar to the Maid of the Mist tour) and the walk to the Cave of the Winds is worth the experience.

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Cave of the Winds

Do: Visit Goat Island

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View from Goat Island

Goat Island is a short detour on your way to Cave of the Winds.

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It’s worth taking this twenty minute detour between the Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds tours as Goat Island offers unparalleled views of the Falls from above.

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Standing at the railings and looking at the Falls as it hits the rocks below is an experience not to be missed.

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Catching the rainbows over the water and the lively Canadian border are added bonuses.

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Fair warning: The Canadian side of the Falls is significantly more beautiful than the New York side.

Yes, what you’ve heard is true. It really hits you when you stand at the American border looking over to the Canadian side, lined with countless hotels and casinos offering direct views of the beautiful Horseshoe Falls. The hotels on the Canadian side of the Falls also tend to offer very competitive prices, especially with the room views of the Falls they afford, so if you can go over to the Canadian side to enjoy the view and experience, we suggest you do so!

That being said, Goat Island on the US side makes for a pretty memorable experience as well!

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US-Canadian Friendship bridge

Do: Remember that you may need a visa to get to the Canadian side of the Falls

…unless of course you are a U.S. or European national. If you need a visa to enter Canada, you’d need a visa to cross the Rainbow Bridge from the American side over to the Canadian side of the Falls. We haven’t done this yet, since I need a visa to enter Canada of course (#SriLankanpassportproblems) but we’ll be doing it very soon! If you’re unable to cross over due to visa regulations, the American side of the Falls does offer an extremely memorable experience, especially during the Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds tours.

You don’t need a package deal to the Niagara Falls

If you don’t mind quick walks and are visiting in the summer, you absolutely don’t require the package passes to the Falls offered by the Park, which includes a tram that takes you from one attraction to the next. It’s a great option however if you’d prefer not to walk the twenty or so minute distances between the attractions.

We also noticed that when looking to buy tickets online, you are almost always directed to buy the passes for the entire Park. As a result of this, we ended up buying our passes at the Park, and never stood in line at the Maid of the Mist, and only had to wait for fifteen minutes or so at Cave of the Winds. Note that most of the lines come after having bought the tickets.

Do: Arrive early

The earlier you arrive, the fewer lines you’d have to stand in. We strongly recommend coming to Maid of the Mist as early as 8:50am, as the ticket booths open at 9am. Depending on how long you take at each attraction and the time of the month, you should be done with the Park in around four hours tops.

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The Canadian side offers night tours of the Falls. Whaaat!

Do: Catch the fireworks display over the Falls

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This is an incredible (free!) experience. The fireworks over the Falls are done nightly over the weekends and intermittently during the week. No one on the American side really seems to know when they will be – but it’s worth heading over the to the Falls at 21:00 when they light it up (every night) and sticking around to catch the fireworks. Once we were told that the Falls only light up on Saturday and Sunday (and we visited on a Friday) and ended up running to the Falls in the middle of our dinner when we suddenly heard the sound of fireworks at 21:30! There is an observation deck you can go up to (for free) at night to enjoy the beauty of the multicolored Falls, but do keep in mind that it does tend to get quite crowded and you may be better off at high vantage points below the observation deck. Either way, don’t miss the fireworks!

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A suggested itinerary for a day trip to the Falls would be a good breakfast before going to Maid of the Mist at 8:50am, then Goat Island and Cave of the Winds, followed by lunch and rest before checking out the Falls again at 21:00.

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The Falls get crowded at night during the summer/fall, so arrive early to secure a good vantage point!

Do: Try the movie at the visitor’s center

The Visitor’s Center can be a tricky place to navigate. If it’s your first time at the Falls, remember that you need to go through the Center to get to the Maid of the Mist boat tour. Ticket booths are located outside of the Center. The Center is where you can get a hot beverage following your tour (especially if you’re visiting during the colder months!) and where you can enjoy a movie about the legends and history of the Falls. We’re usually hesitant to recommend such movies, but we enjoyed this quick film, tracing legends and facts surrounding the Falls, which include a host of dare-devil stunts performed at this wonder.

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Do: Be mindful of the crowds at the multiple gift shops

There’s a main gift shop as you leave the Maid of the Mist tour and multiple other opportunities to buy souvenirs if you head to one of the several ice-cream and convenience-style shops in the Park. The Park gift shop is a good place to get a souvenir of your trip if you prefer, and if you don’t mind the perpetual crowds.

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We love gift shops
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View of Rainbow/US-Canadian Friendship bridge from Goat Island

Niagara Falls is really an attraction worth visiting on your US travel itinerary. I couldn’t believe it was water falling with such immensity and beauty over the Horseshoe and Bridal Veil Falls, and it really makes you appreciate the importance of preserving the incredible, natural wonders our world has to offer.

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In summary:

Do: Visit in the late summer/early fall to avoid the bulk of the crowds and still enjoy warm weather. You definitely want to avoid the Buffalo winters!

Do: Try to book your stay at Days Inn Niagara at the Falls in advance.

Do: Rent and car and drive up from New York. Don’t miss the Finger Lakes and Ithaca on the way to or back from the Falls.

Do: Partake in the Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds attractions.

Do: Visit Goat Island for the views.

Do: Have a good breakfast and arrive early for your day at the Falls. Try to hit the Maid of the Mist tour at 8:50am.

Try: The movie about the legends of the falls at the Visitor’s Center.

Don’t: Miss the fireworks and/or lighted Falls from 21:00 to midnight. The fireworks can happen anytime between this period.

Try: To see the Falls from the Canadian side, although you may need a visa for this!

Don’t: Buy a package deal in advance unless you prefer the tram ride between attractions.

Do: Enjoy yourself! Niagara Falls an incredible sight to see on a budget.

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Bridal Veil Falls from the Maid of the Mist boat tour

Been to the Niagara Falls? Planning a trip there? We’d love to hear about your experiences! Share your stories with us below!

As always, be a conscious traveler: Take nothing, and leave nothing behind. Be conscious, be welcome! Read more about conscious travel here.

 

 

 

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