Niagara Falls: The Next Budget Destination?

by  Alex Schechter | Jul 18, 2013
Niagra Falls
Niagra Falls / Vito Palmisano/iStock

Ever wanted to hang out at America's oldest state park? No time like the present, as they say.

Niagara Falls, which draws over eight million visitors per year, is in the midst of a $60 million downtown revitalization project –  resulting in greater accessibility and renewed interest in the area's many attractions. A recent spate of film shoots around the Falls (including a new Susan Sarandon movieTammy) is also adding to the buzz, though the waterfront destination has plenty more going for it than just star power.

From Manhattan, the nine-hour journey by train is long, but boasts incredible scenery along the Hudson River and Erie Canal, and costs just $62 each way. (Travelers can choose between two routes: Empire Service, which connects Niagara Falls, Albany, and NYC, or the Maple Leaf Service, which crosses the Canadian border.) For those with less time and more money, the closest airport is Buffalo Niagara International Airport, and flights from NYC start at around $209 round-trip. Once you arrive, a fleet of buses and trolleys makes getting around downtown Niagara Falls easy; though the town itself is quite pedestrian-friendly.

As for budget-oriented activities, a good starting point is Niagara Falls State Park itself. Entry is free, meaning you can show up, waltz in, and, within minutes, come face-to-face with the roaring falls. Wanna get even closer? For $33, the Niagara USA Discovery Pass grants access to Maid of the Mist, Cave of the Winds, Niagara Aquarium, and several other park attractions. Scenic trolley rides also run through the entire three-mile park.

Across the way is Goat Island, accessed via a pedestrian bridge; wedged between Bridal Veil Falls and Horseshoe Falls, the uninhabited island makes for great hiking, biking, and picnicking, with its surround-sound experience of the falls. The lesser-known Luna Island is also benefiting from recent renovations.

Facebook/Old Falls Street

Meanwhile, in Niagara Falls proper, there's a lively scene most days over at Old Falls Street, a historic three-block stretch that hosts weekly outdoor film screenings (every Thursday at 9pm through August 29), food truck lunch hours (every Monday and Tuesday), and concerts (10,000 Maniacs are scheduled to perform on July 27). One block over, Wine On Third offers an extensive and affordable wine list (including several New York-based wines) and frequent jazz nights by local performers.

Additionally, the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute recently opened inside an old shopping mall – here, visitors can stop in at several student-run dining facilities, including La Patisserie, a European-style bakery and café, and Old Falls Street Deli. Feel like getting your hands dirty? Classes are offered on subjects ranging from knife-sharpening to sauce-making, and start at just $35.

For nature-lovers looking to get away from the crowds, a good destination would be Letchworth State Park, located 80 miles south of Niagara in Wyoming County. Known as the 'Grand Canyon of the East,' Letchworth is a 17-mile long gorge along the Genesee River. The striking 600-foot-high cliffs and ample hiking trails demand at least a day's worth of sightseeing. Though if you feel like staying longer, that's no problem: tent and trailer campsites stay open year-round, with winterized cabins for the colder months.

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