Rainbow follows the Maid of the Mist Niagara Falls

Explore Niagara Falls: Top 10 Questions Answered

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If you are considering a trip to Niagara Falls, you probably have a lot of questions. Here are answers to the top 10 questions we had when planning our trip. From knowing which side of the falls to spend the most time, to what to wear, and what attractions are free. Let’s jump right in.

1) How touristy are Niagara Falls?

Ahh, this was our biggest fear and why Niagara Falls was regretfully so low on our travel list for a long time. Though it does have touristy areas, both the U.S. and Canadian sides do a fantastic job of minimizing that sticky, touristy feeling next to the falls. Large green spaces line both sides of the river, which keeps the tourist tat shops and other clutter at bay.

There’s still the zip line, tourist boats, and poncho covered walks to the falls. Considering the falls have been a tourist hot spot since the 1800’s, we feel they do a great job at keeping it beautiful.

But hey, if that touristy feeling is what you are after, just head up Clifton Hill on the Canadian side (think of a smaller International Drive in Orlando). This is where you will find adventure golf, fun houses, a midway and tons of souvenir shops.

Tourists watch the MistRider zipline at Niagara Falls

2) How long to spend in Niagara Falls?

Many folks think of Niagara Falls as a day trip, but we recommend at least two to three days. We stayed three days in the area and were happy with the time spent.
  • 1 day on the U.S. side of the falls
  • 1 day and all 3 evenings on the Canadian side of the falls
  • 1 day exploring Niagara-on-the-Lake wineries and northern side of Niagara Falls.
For a three day sample itinerary of Niagara Falls, see our post: How To Spend A Long Weekend At Niagara Falls

3) When is the best time to visit?

For a first-time visitor, summer is definitely the best time to visit. It’s a bit more crowded when the kids are out of school, but it’s also a lot warmer. This is important since many activities revolve around the water. We went in mid-August, just as most schools were going back, and found we had the best of both worlds.

Once you do all the typical tourist activities, the next best time to visit is for winter to see the partially frozen falls.

Maid of the Mist in front of Niagara Falls

4) Which side of Niagara Falls to visit?

Located on the Canada – U.S. border, a question visitors often struggle with is which side of the falls to visit. This is an easy one…Both!

By far, Canada has the best views of this impressive natural wonder and deserves most of your time. However, you can get a lot closer to the falls on the U.S. side which provides a very different perspective. Plus, we really enjoyed the Cave of the Winds which goes down to the bottom of the falls. 

We chose to stay on the Canadian side. We wanted to be closer to the majority of the attractions. Though we heard the U.S. side can be cheaper for hotels, we didn’t find a significant difference when we visited.

Sign at the international boundary line between the US and Canada Niagara Falls
US Observation Tower at Prospect Point, Niagara Falls

5) What do I need to know before crossing the Canada – U.S. Border?

There are three bridge crossings in Niagara Falls;

  • Rainbow Bridge – Closest to the falls, so can often be busy. It is the only bridge that allows pedestrians.
  • Lewiston-Queenston Bridge – Furthest out, known to have the least wait times, though this really depends on time of day.
  • Whirlpool Bridge – Automated Nexus only crossing. Global Entry cards are not accepted here.

These are real border crossings. Even if you are only crossing for a few hours, you need your legal travel documents, like a passport. Canadian eTA’s and U.S. ESTAs are not required for ground travel, but you may require a visa depending on your nationality. 

If driving, be prepared for tolls. Plus, car rental agencies often do not allow border crossing. Check with your agency ahead of time.

Cars line up at the border cross on Rainbow Bridge at the U.S. - Canada border

We crossed into Canada via the Peace Bridge in Buffalo since we went to Toronto before visiting Niagara. It took about 45 minutes in the evening. The bridge has a toll going into Canada, but not to go into the U.S.  

Once we were in Niagara, we walked across Rainbow Bridge when going to the U.S. side. The bridge has a great view and is worth the walk, but you have to pass through immigration before being allowed on the bridge. There is a $1 toll (U.S. or Canadian) which must be paid in quarters before entering the U.S. A change machine is onsite.

View of Niagara Falls from Rainbow Bridge

6) Which Niagara Falls boat tour is better?

Both the Hornblower (Canadian side) and the Maid of Mist (U.S. side) provide boat tours that get you up and close to the falls. Highly recommended.

They take the same route, and it’s basically the same experience. Costs are similar. Though, depending on exchange rates, your credit card’s conversion fees, and if you have kids under 5, one might be slightly cheaper for you. The only real difference is the Hornblower also offers fireworks cruises.  

Both are crowded, depending on time of day. Both give you ponchos, but don’t let these fool you, you will get wet. Embrace it, it’s part of the experience.

The main consideration for us was not having to carry around our passports and a change of clothes when getting wet. We felt it was more convenient to do the Hornblower and head back to the hotel afterwards to change.

View of Hornblower in front of the Cave of the Winds and American Falls at Niagara Falls

7) What to wear to Niagara Falls in summer?

As mentioned above, you will get wet. If you go in summer, the cold water feels nice in the heat of the day. However, there are a few things that will make you more comfortable.

  • Casual warm weather attire – Short sleeved T-shirts, shorts, and sundresses.
  • Sunglasses and/or hat – Days can be very bright with the sun bouncing off the water
  • Comfortable shoes – You do a lot of walking.
  • Waterproof clothes – Waterproof jacket, pants and shoes. We felt all the plastic ponchos that don’t actually keep you dry were a waste. We brought our own gear and were very comfortable. So many folks approached us and said they wish they did the same.
  • Dry bag and/or backpack rain cover – If you’re carrying around a passport, camera, cellphones, etc., a dry bag will give you piece of mind.
  • Evening attire – There are nice restaurants to try and the casinos where you’ll want something a little nicer than your casual day wear.
  • Light jacket and jeans – Evenings get cool, even in summer. You’ll want something to keep you comfortable while you’re watching the evening fireworks and lit falls.

Pro-tip:  The Cave of the Winds on the U.S. side gives away souvenir water sandals with entry. These can then be used for the boat rides. However, if you don’t plan on taking them home with you, return them to Cave of the Winds for recycling before leaving the area.

The Maid of the Mist getting up close to Horseshoe Falls covered in a shroud of mist

8) Will my cell phone service work on the border?

This really comes down to your service provider. If you do not have an international service plan you will want to turn off roaming as signal bounces back and forth, no matter what side you are on.

We have U.S. connections with AT&T and Verizon. My Verizon phone picked up a few texts on the Canadian side, though it wasn’t reliable. Jeremy’s didn’t work at all. On the U.S. side of the falls, my phone worked great. Jeremy’s took a few restarts before finally picking up the U.S. towers again.

9) Is Niagara Falls an expensive destination?

We didn’t feel Niagara Falls was any more expensive than other tourist areas. Saying that, if you do a lot of the tourist attractions in the area, then YES, expect to spend quite a bit on your trip

There are also lots of discount packages available, check with some of the major hotels in the area. Plus, tons of attractions do discounts if you purchase online ahead of time. The Niagara U.S.A Discovery Pass is good value if you plan to do multiple attractions on the U.S. side.

Typical costs of Niagara Falls (2020 in USD)

  • Hotels – summer a double room is between $170 – $220., rooms with a view of the falls are typically $250+
  • Meals for two – Lunch $20 – $30, Dinner $35 and up
  • Boat cruises – $20 per person
  • Cave of the Winds – $20 per person
  • Parking – Some hotels offer free parking, but most charge $15 – $35 CAD or $10 – $15 USD per day depending what side you are on. Canada has municipal lots which you may find cheaper, though not all of them allow overnight parking. The Seneca Casino (U.S) also offers free parking.
Rainbow following Hornblower Cruise at Niagara Falls

10) What are the best free or cheap things to do?

Though you can blow a ton of your vacation fund doing all the touristy things, there are a lot of things that are free, or close to it if you include parking.

  • Seeing Niagara Falls! The best views are free.
  • Falls lit up at night (every night) and firework show (select nights and summer weekends).
  • Dufferin Islands (Canada)
  • Whirlpool State Park (U.S.)
  • Flower Clock (Canada)
  • Prospect Point Observation Tower (U.S.) – $1.25, free in Winter
  • Niagara Falls History Museum (Canada) – $5 or free on Thursdays after 5pm
  • Niagara Botanical Gardens (Canada) – $5 CAD parking fee
  • Niagara Glen (Canada) – max $10 CAD parking per day
  • Clifton Hill and Great Canadian Midway – It’s expensive to participate in the attractions, but it’s fun and free to walk the strip and peek into the Midway for all the lights and sounds
  • Niagara-on-the-Lake – This is Ontario’s winery district. Though it may seem like wineries are expensive, many of them will allow you to do free samples.

Need more inspiration or ideas on how to spend your time in Niagara Falls, see our guide : How to spend a long weekend at Niagara Falls.

Fireworks over Niagara Falls

Did we miss something you want to know about Niagara Falls? Leave us a message in the comments below.

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