Niagara County, which straddles the U.S. and Canada, is best known for one of the world’s most famous and most recognizable natural wonders. But while Niagara Falls has delighted visitors for decades -- earning it the title of “honeymoon capital of the world” -- there’s plenty to see beyond the falls, too. Greater Niagara County has some of the most important historical sites in American history and some of the most entertaining characters that bring them to life, all within a short distance from the city.
What to Do
In Niagara Falls State Park, which was designed and preserved by famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, you can walk through the country’s oldest state park while you explore the many vantage points of the three waterfalls (Bridal Veil Falls, American Falls, and Horseshoe Falls). If it’s sunny, you’re guaranteed to see plenty of rainbows. The advantage to visiting Niagara Falls on the U.S. side is that you can get up close and personal with them at spots like the Cave of the Winds, a thrilling series of walkways that begins with a 175-foot elevator descent that brings you to the base of the waterfalls. The aptly named Hurricane Deck allows you to get as close as possible to the roaring falls, which drop roughly 750,000 gallons of water per second. (Yes, you will get wet.) No trip to Niagara is complete without a ride on the iconic Maid of the Mist boat. Don your complimentary colored poncho and hop aboard the ferry, which brings you from the Friendship Bridge to the basin of Horseshoe Falls. By this point you'll have seen the falls from ground level and lake level, so the only thing left is to see them from the sky. Rainbow Air’s spacious, glass-sided helicopters can get closer and lower than any other helicopter company in the area, giving you a real sense of how large and magnificent the falls actually are.
Niagara Falls isn’t just a pretty face -- all of that water helps create clean energy. At the new Niagara Power Vista, the New York Power Authority (NYPA) explains how hydroelectric power works in an engaging way that truly is fun for all ages. You could easily spend a whole day with the interactive exhibits: Watch Nikola Tesla argue with Thomas Edison, and then follow the life of a drop of water in the power-up simulator.
Fifteen minutes away in Lockport, the complex history of the Erie Canal comes to life at the Erie Canal Discovery Center. The revolutionary Erie Canal connected New York City (and the Atlantic) to the Great Lakes, which opened up shipping and trading to the Midwest (before, it took a month to transport one barrel of grain by land). It took thousands of men three years to dig the five Lockport canal locks by hand in the early 1800s -- a feat which can only truly be appreciated with a Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride and walking through the tunnels used by the men who built the canal.
Old Fort Niagara, which sits on the banks of Lake Ontario, was built in 1679 -- making it older than the United States itself. Over the next century, the French and British empires battled for control of this region, leaving behind some impressive architecture and haunted history. A tour of the scenic and incredibly well preserved grounds will teach you everything from the origins of the terms “upper crust” and “big wig” to the ins and outs of historical weaponry.
Where to Eat & Drink
The farms along the Niagara Wine Trail have their own microclimate, which enables them to grow fruit and grapes you’d never expect to find in upstate New York. The unpretentious family-run Midnight Run Wine Cellars offers wine education and pairings for even the most beginner oenophiles. The award-winning BlackBird Cider Works is Niagara County’s only craft hard cider producer, with an on-site distillery that uses apples grown on the property’s many acres. The family behind the sprawling Becker Farms and Vizcarra Vineyards keeps innovating and building up this fifth-generation family farm, which grows all of the ingredients for its fruit wines on-site. Soon, they’ll add a brewery to their three tasting rooms.
If you need a break from the wine trail (or just need some good food), head to Woodcock Brothers Brewery in Wilson. Do yourself a favor and try the homemade spent grain pretzels, made from malt used in their brewery. Family owned Hibbard’s Custard in charming Lewiston has been serving the best ice cream and custard around since 1939.
Where to Stay
The Giacomo Hotel is a glamorous step back in time. The Niagara Falls boutique hotel features Art Deco touches, a nod to its beginnings as the United Office Building in 1929. It was reincarnated as The Giacomo in 2010, earning it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. From May to October, the 19th floor lounge is the perfect place to watch the fireworks over the illuminated falls three times a week.