Sixty-three-year-old Annie Edson Taylor launched herself over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel in 1901 to become the first to survive such a stunt, changing the reputation of schoolmarms everywhere and helping cement an already legendary place in the popular imagination.
Fearless Annie Edson Taylor. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Since then, the falls have served as the backdrop for countless films, including the iconic Niagara (the 1953 production starring Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotton), Superman II (who could forget Clark Kent zooming past the falls in the 1980 sequel?) and of course, Sharknado 2.
The falls, in geological terms, are newborns. They began a mere 12,000 years ago, when water began pouring over the edge of the steep-sloped Niagara Escarpment. The formation of the falls was slow, and continues even now. The annual freezing and thawing of the Niagara River slowly wears away at the rocks making up the falls. To preserve the drop’s full drama, the volume of water that pours over the falls has been reduced (and the water that is diverted is used for hydroelectric power).
News of the incredible natural wonder arrived in Europe after French priest Father Louis Hennepin published an account of his 1678 journey to the region. In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte’s younger brother Jerome is said to have honeymooned there, and the railway system opened the area up to less flush nature gawkers soon thereafter.
An estimated 7.6 million people visited the falls last year, and no one leaves untouched by their majesty.
But that is far from all that the region offers. It is a veritable treasure trove for nature, food, adult beverage, and art lovers. And even better, the New York side’s relative under-the-radar status compared with the Canadian side of Niagara Falls means that the region is a still a relative bargain.
Here are a few of our favorite places.
Seeing the falls is obviously the first priority. You can simply walk along the edge of the waters rushing to go over the falls -- or picnic -- and you will not need to pay a penny.
However, we highly recommend the classic Maid of the Mist boat tour and observation deck, which provides an unparalleled up-close-and-personal perspective on the power and beauty of the falls. The boat cruises to the base of the American Falls (there are technically three falls in the Niagara Falls), then to the basin of Horseshoe Falls. On the way, boaters see crashing water and massive rock formations. The 30-minute tour ends with a dramatic view of the falls from an observation deck, which extends out past the gorge.
Photos from a recent New York Makers trip to Niagara
Another option is to check out the Cave of the Winds, which begins with an elevator ride 175 feet into the Niagara Gorge. Then, wearing a rain poncho and sandals (you know you’ll want to post this heinous sight on Instagram), participants follow a guide over wooden walkways to the Hurricane Deck, less than 20 feet from Bridal Veil Falls.
AROUND THE FALLS
A stunning 435-acre State Park surrounds the falls. Niagara Falls State Park, the oldest state park in the country, contains numerous islands, several miles of hiking trails, interactive exhibits, and dining options.
The Top of the Falls Restaurant, a retro American classic serving, among other dishes, Niagara Fish & Chips, burgers, beef on weck -- a Western New York specialty believed to have originated in neighboring Buffalo that consists of rare-cooked, thin cut roast beef inside a kummelweck roll (distinctively sprinkled with salt and caraway seeds) served with its top bun typically dipped au jus and spread with horseradish -- and daunting wedges of chocolate cake slathered in buttercream frosting, with panoramic views of the falls.
Vegan dish at Top of the Falls Restaurant. Photo: @lana.online
The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, of Central Park fame, so prepare to seriously upgrade your backyard’s #landscapinggoals.
About 20 minutes from Niagara Falls sits Old Fort Niagara, at the base of the Niagara River. It was established in 1679, and played a pivotal role in the War of 1812. Kids and history buffs will love climbing around and learning about events that unfurled here, and who can resist an artillery demo? The newly opened Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Center aims to shed light on the pivotal role the city had in abolition.
Old Fort Niagara. Photo: @hendylim83
The Niagara Arts and Cultural Center features 12 annual gallery shows (usually featuring local artists), live theater, opera performances, workshops, music, and dance classes. The Niagara University Castellani Art Museum has a permanent collection of 5,700 works of art from the likes of Picasso, Miro, Dali, Calder, Nevelson, and Warhol. And yes, art should be high and haute and serious...but it can also be fun. The Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum is an aggressive and exuberant exploration of a different side of art, featuring the history of carrousels and roller coasters (visitors can also ride an early American carrousel).
Herschell Carrousel Factory. Photo by @gillmmmm for Documentary Heritage & Preservation Society Services for New York
Appreciating the great outdoors and taking in events and locations of historical and artistic import works up an appetite. Since there are only so many retro throwback meals one can consume with a waterfall sending more than 6 million cubic feet of water down a 165-foot vertical drop as a backdrop, try Niagara Fall’s 700 Bistro Café and Wine Bar, an organic café by day and elegant wine spot by night. Savor, located in the midst of tourist-y hubbub and run by the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, is also an oasis of calm and quiet with a spectacular (though limited) menu including options for vegans and the gluten-free. Lockport, a 30-minute drive from the falls and a hipster enclave, offers up post-mod seafood haven Shamus (think king crab risotto) served with relaxed panache.
Pork Belly with a Szechuan-Bourbon Glace, Miso + Sweet Corn Puree at Savor. Photo: Savor
Family vacation zones often come with too much “whine” at dinner. One of the best ways to counteract itis, of course, is with a little vino.
The Niagara Wine Trail meanders across Niagara, Orleans, and Monroe counties. The region features a unique microclimate producing cool-climate wines, including whites like Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Vidal Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and reds like Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc. The wines produced on the trail are compared to wines from Alsace in northeastern France. There are several tours and car services available, but if you’re mapping your own route and don’t want to visit all 21, here are a few of our favorites: A Gust of Sun Winery, for its excellent Cabernet Franc, and its wine-chocolate pairings; Black Willow Winery, for its honey wine (Mead) and laid-back vibe; and the Flight of Five Winery, for its urban location (in Lockport’s Old City Hall), its live music, and tropical-tasting white wines.
Photo: Niagara Wine Trail
There’s really no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to accommodations in Niagara Falls. It’s an affordable, relatively frill-free vacation destination for families where the whole point is checking out the sights. There are, as ever, plenty of Airbnb options, plus hotel chains like DoubleTree and the Hilton for frequent travelers who want to know exactly what to expect, off-the-beaten path Moonlite Motel for budget-friendly digs with a great neon sign, Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino for those who love to roll the dice, and for those on their honeymoon, from our Valentines article.
Moonlite Motel. Photo by New York Makers from a recent trip
Niagara Falls became a classic destination for a reason: the falls, even in our social media-soaked landscape, offers an unfiltered vision of nature’s majesty. There are always rainbows at the falls, and somehow when you’re there, you forget it’s an illusion.
Niagara Falls pennants made by Oxford Pennant.