Fame can be a hassle—just look at Niagara Falls. Even if you’ve never beheld their magnificence in person, you’ve probably got an opinion about the place. You probably think it’s a tourist trap. (It can be.) People go to hang out in heart-shaped Jacuzzi tubs. (Some do.) It used to be a really big deal. (So was disco.)
It’s true—Niagara’s luster can be a little faded, at least on the American side. Which can be a bummer. But then you cross to the Canadian side, where a rather unholy cluster of humanity awaits in a setting that feels like a soulless Branson, or a rush-job Las Vegas knock-off. Whether you choose windswept and vaguely decrepit or chaotic and overwrought, it’s all kind of unfortunate.
And yet! The falls themselves are a triumph, comprising one of the most inspired and inspiring natural wonders of the West. Everyone should see them, at least once. (The recently-upgraded Goat Island, part of Niagara Falls State Park on the American side, is our favorite vantage point.) Better still? Once you’ve cross-posted those selfies to your various social media channels, there’s so much more to do.
Hanging out on a narrow strip of land between two Great Lakes (Ontario and Erie), the Niagara region boasts not one, but two great wine-producing regions (one among Canada’s best; the other a hidden New York State gem), world-class theater and music for months out of the year, plus outstanding little towns like Niagara-on-the-Lake and Lewiston, each with their share of very nice places to stay (and plenty to eat, too). Canadians love it—The Niagara Peninsula is one of the most popular weekend getaways from Toronto, that country’s largest city. Americans? Not so much. For now, anyway. What are you waiting for? Here are five reasons to head up this fall.
#1 It’s nearly harvest time in the East’s most seductive wine region.
No matter how many times Canada offers proof to the contrary, a surprising number of outsiders can’t accept that Canadians know a great deal about making wine. Not that Canadians care—they’re too busy getting high off their own supply. Skeptical? Book a tasting at the wondrous and secretive Pearl Morissette, sample the sparkling rosé at Henry of Pelham, the eminently quaffable Ladybug rosé at Malivoire, the family of Rieslings at Cave Springs. You could also just kick back on the vineyard-facing patios at stunning estates like Jackson-Triggs or Peller or Stratus, preferably with a glass of something—you’ll wonder what took you so long to get here. And while it’s probably the most touristy of all the wineries, definitely don’t forget to swing by Inniskillin, forefather of the Canadian industry and home to some of the world’s most sought-after ice wines. Pick up a bottle of their sparkling Vidal; a glass of that, served just-this-side-of-frozen (maybe in a heart-shaped Jacuzzi tub, with someone special) is something you won’t soon forget.
#2 Of course, it’s also about to be harvest time in New York’s most underrated wine region, just across the river.
Cross the gorge back into the United States and you’ll find a similar geographical setup that favors grape growing. But when it comes to wine, let’s just say that the folks in Niagara County have a lot of catching up to do. They’re hard at it, though — for proof, look to wineries like sustainability-focused Arrowhead Spring, near the historic Erie Canal town of Lockport. Mead, cider and many more wines can be sampled along the region’s growing Niagara Wine Trail, where enthusiasm will often exceed expertise, but there’s a pleasing, grass-roots feel here, a refreshing contrast to the more commercial, Canadian side.
#3 One of the best theatre festivals on the continent is still in full swing.
Drawing from a pool of world-class talent in nearby Toronto, the annual Shaw Festival takes over a variety of venues in the quaint Ontario town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Never mind the scenery, forget the wine—the Shaw alone is plenty of incentive to make the trip up here, featuring everything from flawless executions of Broadway favorites to thought-provoking smaller productions. Started more than half a century ago to celebrate the plays of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries, the festival—which runs through November 1—has evolved to become one the best of its kind in North America. Best of all, ticket prices can be extremely reasonable.
#4 The region is home to what Sir Winston Churchill dubbed “The prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world.”
Churchill was speaking specifically of the Niagara Parkway, which winds above the river from Niagara-on-the-Lake and south toward the thundering falls. He was and is still 100 percent correct, particularly during the fall, when the leaves begin to change. Of course, driving is so last decade—these days, what you want to do is rent a bike in town and strike out along the 35 mile-long Niagara River Recreation Trail. Along the way, plaques and markers brief you on the historic relevance of the region, particularly as regards the War of 1812, that minor kerfuffle that Canadians can’t stop banging on about, all these years later. (Kidding, you guys!)
#5 The region’s small towns can be beyond charming.
Speaking of Niagara-on-the-Lake—perhaps you’ve never heard of it, in which case, here’s the deal: This is one of the most perfect little weekend towns, anywhere near the East Coast. A firm favorite with the Toronto crowd, Niagara-on-the-Lake is about as far as you can get from Niagara Falls as most people know it. Meanwhile, back on the American side, Lewiston, New York remains a largely undiscovered gem, offering similar charm at a fraction of the cost, simply because Americans just don’t get up this way as much as they used to. Add in the tiny and impossibly quaint towns of Queenston, Ontario and Youngstown, New York (up in the shadow of ye olde Fort Niagara), and you’ve got four very unique and appealing addresses, all along one stubby little stretch of river. Impressive? You bet.
Booking a trip?
If you’re looking for the lowest airfares to Buffalo (the nearest major U.S. airport), start by noodling around on CheapFlights or BookingBuddy—both will compare multiple sites at once, saving you a lot of running around. When you’re ready to book, we recommend Orbitz or Expedia—both offer 24-hour cancellation policies, allowing you to lock in the lowest fare while you finalize your plans. (As always, read the fine print first.) Just on here looking for the best Niagara hotel deals? Start by searching TripAdvisor, or Hotels.com, but don’t book anything without a stop at Priceline, where you can save up to 60% on any given night by taking advantage of their Express Deals feature. (This simple tool has probably saved us—no joke—thousands of dollars, over the years.). Finally, if you need a rental car, begin your search by swinging wide to get a sense of the market—BookingBuddy lets you check pretty much every site worth knowing, with just a couple of clicks.