Everyone's seen a Kodachrome photo of Niagara Falls, that stupendous curve of cascading water that lies between the United States and Canada. It's one of those sites, however, to which postcards will never do justice: To stand on a viewing platform and see, really see, how big it is, to hear the thunder of falling water, to feel the mist spritzing your face and the earth shaking under your feet, is another thing altogether. Kids don't understand how amazing it is until they're actually there.
There are actually two waterfalls here, both of them doozies: the American Falls and Horseshoe Falls. Both are around 175 feet high, although Horseshoe Falls, at 2,500 feet wide, is more than twice as wide as its sibling. The Canadian shore has the real panoramic view; both falls can be seen from the American side, but not together (Prospect Point for the American Falls, Terrapin Point for Horseshoe Falls). The Canadian side tends to have better hotels and more attractions, as well. No matter where you stay, you can easily visit both, by crossing the Rainbow Bridge, preferably on foot -- it's only the length of a couple city blocks. Bring a passport (or a driver's license and original birth certificate; you'll need birth certificates for the kids as well).
On the U.S. shore, head for Niagara Falls State Park (tel. 716/278-1796; www.niagarafallsstatepark.com) to explore the falls: An Observation Tower overlooks the river, and the Cave of the Winds tour (Apr–Oct; tel. 716/278-1730) takes you by elevator down onto boardwalks, where you can walk around the base of the American Falls. Canada's 775-foot-high Skylon Tower, 5200 Robinson St. (tel. 905/356-2651; www.skylon.com), has a revolving restaurant on top, and the Journey Behind the Falls (tel. 905/354-1551; www.niagaraparks.com) allows you to descend via elevator to tunnels punctuated with portholes that look out through the blur of water right behind Horseshoe Falls. The coolest way to see the falls, of course, is the classic Maid of the Mist boat ride (Apr–Oct; tel. 716/284-8897; www.maidofthemist.com), which plays no favorites; it departs from either shore. You'll chug upriver toward the American and Horseshoe Falls, sailing right up the base of both (don't worry, blue slickers are provided to keep you dry).
Want more of an adrenaline rush? Book a 10-minute helicopter ride over the cascades with Niagara Helicopters (tel. 905/357-5672; www.niagarahelicopters.com) or Rainbow Air (tel. 716/284-2800; www.rainbowairinc.com), or crash through the white waters of the Niagara gorge with Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours (Apr–Oct; tel. 888/438-4444 in the U.S., or 905/468-4800 in Canada; www.whirlpooljet.com). This being a major tourist destination, there's a ton of other attractions around, from historic old forts and botanical gardens to aquariums and amusement parks. But overdeveloped as it may be, the spectacular Falls are still there.
Nearest Airport: Buffalo Niagara International, 34km (21 miles).
Where to Stay: $$ Courtyard by Marriott, 5950 Victoria Ave., Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada (tel. 800/771-1123 or 905/358-3083; www.nfcourtyard.com). $$$ Red Coach Inn, 2 Buffalo Ave., Niagara Falls, NY, USA (tel. 866/719-2070 or 716/282-1459; www.redcoach.com).