For every travel destination, there are 20 “can’t-miss” lists detailing the activities that every visitor can and should take part in — but veteran travelers know that many of the items on those lists can and should be missed. For Niagara Falls, arguably one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world, you can easily find hundreds of these lists, many of them including the same or similar stuff. So the question is: If you can’t trust a can’t-miss list, what Niagara attractions should you spend your time and money on?
The truth from a Niagara native: There are activities you can skip, but there are some activities featured on those lists that you really, really don’t want to miss. Here’s a guide to telling the difference.
Can’t Miss: River Cruise
You likely know the Niagara River Cruise as the Maid of the Mist, the exceedingly popular tour that takes travelers up the roaring base of the enormous waterfalls. In truth, there are two companies that operate river cruises on Niagara River: Maid of the Mist and Hornblower Niagara — and both are incredibly worth your time and money. There is something indescribably exhilarating about hearing and feeling the thundering waterfalls from this vantage point; it is an experience you can enjoy literally nowhere else. Of course, you will get wet — so plan to stop back at your hotel near Niagara Falls, but don’t skip this world-famous attraction.
Miss: Skylon Tower or SkyWheel
Both of these attractions take you up and above Niagara Falls, providing a birds-eye panorama of the falls, the city and the surrounding countryside. They are fun — but they are also somewhat expensive, and since they provide essentially the same views, you really only need to do one. I suggest Skylon Tower; you can get a meal at the rotating restaurant, and that comes with a free pass to visit the observation deck.
Can’t Miss: Niagara-on-the-Lake and Wine Country
Just outside of Niagara Falls is a beautiful and quaint countryside filled with rolling hills covered in orchards, farmland and, most importantly, vineyards. Niagara Wine Country offers some of the best new winemakers in the world, which means you should spend at least a day exploring the area and enjoying the slower pace outside the main tourist center around the falls.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is the epicenter of Niagara Wine Country, and it offers some excellent cultural experiences, as well. The town is filled with quaint shops worth perusing, and you can catch outstanding theatrical performances during the Shaw Festival. Even if you have small kids in tow, it’s fun to get out of Niagara Falls and enjoy what the rest of Niagara has to offer.
Miss: Butterfly Wonderland and Bird Kingdom
Every major vacation destination has a few attractions that seem like thrilling, un-miss-able experiences, but in truth, you can probably find them in several places, even around your own home. Butterfly Wonderland and Bird Kingdom are among this category; while they do offer some exciting opportunities to get up-close with nature, in truth they don’t offer any Niagara-specific experiences. It’s likely that a zoo or wildlife park near your hometown has butterflies and birds; they might even offer programs that allow visitors to hold them or feed them, as you can do in these parks. To top it off, Butterfly Wonderland and Bird Kingdom are costly — so if your kids are clamoring to visit these spots, promise them a trip to the zoo after you get back from Niagara Falls.
Can’t Miss: Whirlpool Rapids
Niagara Falls is easily the biggest natural wonder in the area, but it isn’t the only one. Just north of the falls the Niagara River has carved a deep canyon into the terrain, where the river is squeezed into tumultuous, fast-paced rapids. In fact, the Whirlpool Rapids are class-six whitewater, meaning they are exceedingly dangerous to traverse and undeniably exhilarating to behold. A pathway allows you to walk alongside the rapids, getting close enough to feel the water splash, but far more fun is the Whirlpool Aero Car, which allows you to cross the river on wires, seeing the roiling rapids from above. This is an important piece of Niagara’s geologic and cultural history that you absolutely must make time for in your itinerary.
Niagara Falls is a well-known vacation destination, and much of its economy is based on tourism. However, that doesn’t mean that you need to indulge in every single attraction you see during your trip. If you stick to what’s important, you’ll enjoy a more memorable vacation and leave with your budget intact.