Head straight for the Niagara Falls State Park (tel. 716/278-1796; www.niagarafallsstatepark.com), the oldest state park in the United States. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, its natural beauty is still the best thing about the American side of the falls. In winter it's quiet and serene; summer is a different story. It costs $10 to park, and you can either walk through the park or ride the trolley ($2 adults, $1 kids 6-12; year-round) along its 3-mile route. Don't miss the view from the recently renovated Observation Tower, which stretches out over the Niagara River ($1 Apr-Oct; free Nov-Mar).
For a closer encounter with the falls, visit Cave of the Winds (tel. 716/278-1730; Apr-Oct, $11 adults, $8 kids); the entrance is right in the park. An elevator takes you down 175 feet, where you'll walk out along wooden scaffolding constructed right on the rocks, bringing you up alongside the Bridal Veil Falls. You'll be given a raincoat and sandals beforehand -- and you'll want to use them.
Accessible both from the New York Observation Tower and from the Canadian side is the famous Maid of the Mist boat ride (tel. 716/284-8897; www.maidofthemist.com; Apr or May-Oct, $13.50 adults, $7.85 kids). This is the most popular attraction here, and for good reason. Aboard this famous boat you'll cruise right up to the base of both the American and the Horseshoe Falls, surrounded by a deafening roar while mist sprays up on your face. Don't worry, they provide slickers to keep you dry. The downside: The trip lasts only 30 minutes, and the boat will be jampacked.
Over on the Canadian side, the view is pure panorama and absolutely stunning. A walkway winds along the edge of the Niagara River, offering a picture-perfect view with every step. When you get out to the newly renovated Table Rock, take the Journey Behind the Falls (tel. 905/354-1551). An elevator brings you down to tunnels, where you'll get to view the blur of water right behind Horseshoe Falls through little portholes cut in the rock. There's also a midfalls platform that provides a dramatic view of Horseshoe, just off to its side. Admission is C$12.50 for adults, C$7.50 for kids 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and under. Also at Table Rock is Niagara's Fury (tel. 877/642-7275), new in 2008, a "4D" multimedia -- and multisensory -- experience that simulates the creation of the falls. It costs C$15 for adults, C$9 for children 6 to 12, and free for children under 5.
The falls are illuminated by cascades of colored lights every night of the year -- the best view is from the Canadian side, though along the bridge it's not bad, either. There's also a concert on the Canadian side every Friday and Sunday from 8 to 10pm, May to September, followed by a fireworks show.
On the Canadian side, take a ride on the Whirlpool Aero Car, 3 miles north of the falls, at 3850 Niagara Pkwy. (tel. 905/354-5711), a cable car that takes you high above the churning white water of the Niagara Whirlpool, created by an abrupt change in the river's direction. Admission is C$12.08 for adults, C$7.14 for children 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and under (May-Nov). It closes down in the heart of winter. The Botanical Gardens, 9 miles north of the falls, 2565 Niagara Pkwy. (tel. 905/358-0025), boasts 100 acres of formal and informal gardens open dawn to dusk. Admission is free. On the grounds, kids and nature lovers will love the Butterfly Conservatory, where more than 2,000 tropical butterflies flutter around in a rainforest-like setting. Admission is C$11.50 adults, C$6.80 children 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and under. Both of these are open year-round.
On the American side, the small, year-round Aquarium of Niagara, 701 Whirlpool St. (tel. 800/500-4609 or 716/285-3575; www.aquariumofniagara.org), lets you get up close and personal with penguins, sea lions, and sharks, as well as rare species of fish. The best time to come is at the penguins' mealtime -- either 10am or 3pm. Time it right and you can also catch the sea lion show (10:30am and 2:30pm) or the seal show (11am and 3:30pm). Admission is $9.50 for adults, $7.50 for seniors, $6 for kids 4 to 12. On the Canadian side, Marineland, 7657 Portage Rd. (tel. 905/356-9565; www.marinelandcanada.com), is a lot more like SeaWorld (with prices to match) -- a huge, summertime-only park with killer and beluga whales jumping out of the water, a petting zoo, and amusement park rides. Hours vary throughout the summer, so be sure to call ahead. Admission is C$39.95 for adults, C$32.95 for kids 5 t010.
On a rainy day, head to Canada's IMAX theater, 6170 Fallsview Blvd. (tel. 866/405-IMAX), to catch "Legends and Daredevils" or "Mysteries of the Great Lakes." Either one costs C$12.50 for adults and C$9 for kids 4 to 12. Or, on the American side, check out "Niagara: Legends of Adventure," a dramatic 40-minute action movie shown hourly on the 45*25-foot screen at the Adventure Theater, 1 Prospect Park (tel. 866/750-4629). Admission is $11 for adults, $7.50 for kids 6 to 12.
Old Fort Niagara, in Youngstown, NY (tel. 716/745-7611; www.oldfortniagara.org), is a 17th-century fort on one of the most scenic (and strategic) pieces of land in upstate New York -- right on Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Niagara River. Believed to be the longest continuously operating fort in North America, it has been used by the French, British, and Americans over its more than 300-year history. Cannons, living quarters decked out for the time period, and underground gunpowder-holding rooms are on display, along with a preserved 24*28-foot 1812 flag that once flew here. The fort is open year-round; admission is $10 adults, $6 children 6 to 12. Hours vary throughout the season, so call ahead. Over in Canada, Old Fort Erie, 50 Lakeshore Rd., Fort Erie, Ontario (tel. 905/871-0540; www.oldforterie.com), is a series of flint-stone buildings 17 miles south of the falls, which saw action only during the War of 1812. Interiors are also reconstructed, with gunpowder storage, officers' quarters, and soldiers' living areas giving insight into the conditions at the time. Open mid-May to mid-October from 10am to 5pm; admission is C$9.25 adults and C$5.15 kids 6 to 12. Be on the lookout for events commemorating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.
Back on the American side, the Castellani Art Museum, at Niagara University, Senior Dr., Niagara Falls, NY (tel. 716/286-8200), has a small but impressive collection of modern works, including lesser-known pieces by Dalí, Haring, de Kooning, Picasso, and Warhol. There's also a fascinating exhibit exploring the Buffalo Niagara region's Underground Railroad activity. Admission is free; the museum is open Tuesday to Friday 11am to 5pm and Sunday 1 to 5pm.
Looking for something a bit more active? Snow Park, 427 First St. (tel. 877/TUBING4; www.snowparkniagara.com), opened in 2009, offers year-round winter-style fun, including skating on a synthetic ice rink, and shooting down a 12-lane tubing hill. And if you've never been in a jet boat (okay, even if you have), get ready for an exhilarating ride with Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours (tel. 905/468-4800; www.whirlpooljet.com). Tours leave from 115 S. Water St., Lewiston, and 61 Melville St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. The cost is C$57 for adults and C$48 for kids 6 to 13 -- and everyone must be at least 44 inches tall. The "Wet Jet" boat skims along the Niagara River at speeds up to 65 mph, barreling through the Niagara Gorge and into the Whirlpool on this 1-hour, 18-mile ride. Yes, you will get wet -- drenched is more like it. Either bring a change of clothes, or take the less extreme "Jet Dome" boat (available on the Canadian side).
Finally, oenophiles will want to head to the utterly charming historic village of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, to hit the wine trail. Some must-visits: Hillebrand Winery, 1249 Niagara Stone Rd. (tel. 800/582-8412); Peller Estates, 290 John St. East (tel. 905/468-4678); Stratus, 2059 Niagara Stone Rd. (tel. 905/468-1806); and Jackson-Triggs, 2145 Niagara Stone Rd. (tel. 905/468-4637).
Niagara Falls Attractions Passes -- If you plan on doing several of the falls attractions, consider buying a pass. On the American side, the Park Service's Discovery Pass (tel. 716/278-1796) gets you into all of the state park attractions, including Maid of the Mist and Cave of the Winds, plus unlimited free rides on the Niagara Scenic Trolley ($33 adults, $26 for ages 6-12). You can get these online at www.niagarafallsstatepark.com, or at the visitor center inside the park. On the Canadian side, the Niagara Falls & Great Gorge Adventure Pass gets you into the Journey Behind the Falls, Maid of the Mist, Niagara's Fury, and the Butterfly Conservatory (plus transportation and discount coupons) for C$43 adults, C$27 for children 6 to 12. On both sides of the falls, admission to the attractions is free for kids 5 and under.
Niagara Falls' skyline is punctuated by the distinctive Skylon Tower, 5200 Robinson St., Niagara Falls, Ontario (tel. 905/356-2651; www.skylon.com), which rises 775 feet above the Maid of the Mist pool. It's been taking people high above the falls since 1965, and on a good day you can see Toronto and Buffalo. Ride one of the yellow elevators up the outside of the tower for the view (C$12.95 adults, C$7.55 children 12 and under), but skip the overrated restaurant at the top. Helicopter tours are more expensive but do make for the most rarefied experience of the falls. The rides last about 12 minutes; Niagara Helicopters, 3731 Victoria Blvd., Niagara Falls, Ontario (tel. 905/357-5672; www.niagarahelicopters.com), costs C$118 (C$73 for kids under 12) and Rainbow Air, 454 Main St., Niagara Falls, NY (tel. 716/284-2800), charges $85 ($50 for "small" kids). If you want to stay closer to the Earth, there's the Niagara SkyWheel, 4946 Clifton Hill, Niagara Falls, Ontario (tel. 905/358-4793). The gondolas circle up to 175 feet in the air, year-round, and it's open late. Tickets are C$10 for adults, C$6 for kids (under 11).
The Underground Railroad and Buffalo Niagara
For many fugitive slaves traveling through the Underground Railroad in the early to mid-19th century, the Buffalo Niagara region represented the final stretch in their long journey to freedom. Two major escape routes passed through Buffalo and Niagara Falls, helping thousands of African Americans make the crossing into Canada. The courageous men and women escaping slavery, the "passengers," were aided by the "conductors," heroic people who fed and cared for the fugitives as they fled. Dozens of farmhouses, houses, and churches served as "stations," places where the refugees could find temporary shelter. For a good overview, check out "Freedom Crossing, The Underground Railroad in Greater Railroad," an exhibit at the Castellani Art Museum, 5795 Lewiston Rd., Niagara Falls (tel. 716/286-8200). Better still, take an Underground Railroad Heritage Tour with Motherland Connextions, 176 Bridge St. Station, Niagara Falls (tel. 716/282-1028; www.motherlandconnextions.com), which includes visits to some of the churches, farms, and other "stations" in the area.
Kid Stuff in Canada's Clifton Hill
A veritable Disneyland of the north, the Clifton Hill area on the Canadian side (www.cliftonhill.com) abounds with haunted houses, theme rides, and tons of video games. At the Ripley's 4D Moving Theater, 4983 Clifton Hill (tel. 905/356-2261), ride the virtual roller coaster (buckle up -- your seat heaves and pitches in sync with the roller coaster movie). You can skip the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum; the Guinness World Records Museum, 4943 Clifton Hill (tel. 905/356-2299), is more interesting -- you'll learn useless trivia like the largest collection of navel fluff (.54 oz.). Itching for a terror fix? The Nightmares Fear Factory, 5631 Victoria Ave. (tel. 905/357-FEAR), actually claims to be for adults -- but they let kids in, too. Creep through at your own pace, if you dare -- but wimp out in the middle and you'll be added to their "chicken list."
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.