When you go to visit Niagara Falls, most people assume you need to dig out your passport to hop over to the Canadian side of the border. However, the American side of the falls has plenty to offer travelers, whether you want to hike a gorge, grab a stellar, locally sourced meal, traverse class five rapids or explore one of the charming towns around The Falls. You may want to consider sneaking a vacation into your schedule this autumn - Niagara Falls is an hour away by plane and some of the best meals and attractions are cheaper than the average D.C. price point.
Here's our guide to exploring Niagara Falls and beyond:
What to do at The Falls
Maid of the Mist: We know that boarding the Maid of the Mist and getting close to Niagara Falls is kind of what everyone does when they visit, but the views are truly unrivaled. The boat ride is quick, but just long enough to let you fulfill your fantasies from that episode of The Office where Jim and Pam eloped. After the boat ride, keep your poncho on and take a quick hike up to the Crow's Nest, a lookout point that will get you close to American Falls. If you're keen on getting dry, be sure to check out the observation deck over Niagara Gorge, which you an access with your Maid of the Mist ticket.
Be prepared to get soaked - when you're visiting Niagara Falls, it's never a bad idea to pack an extra set of clothes.
Cave of the Winds: When you buy a ticket for the Cave of the Winds, you'll be able to learn more about this history of Niagara Falls at the high-tech World Changed Here Pavilion. After a quick lesson on The Falls, you'll hop in an elevator and plummet 175 feet and walk towards Bridal Veil Falls. Braver (or more water-resistant) visitors can also check out the Hurricane Deck, where you can get up close and personal with the full power of The Falls.
Three Sisters Islands: Niagara Falls is a state park and there are plenty of free hiking and walking paths, many of which are ADA compliant. If you're seeking a place to enjoy The Falls in peace, walk over to Three Sisters Islands. It's a quick jaunt from the main walkways surrounding The Falls, but you'll be able to feel a little closer to nature and catch a glimpse of Horseshoe Falls.
Falls Illumination: The Falls are illuminated in colorful LED lights by night and the view is spectacular. If there's a photographer in your group, you won't want to miss out on this sight.
Hiking Niagara Gorge: Although boat rides can get you up close and personal with The Falls, you can get a new perspective by hiking the Niagara Gorge. Although there are trails for every hiking level, there's a loop starting at the Schoellkopf Power Station that takes about an hour and features crazy views of the Niagara Gorge. More curious hikers will also spot abandoned cars that have plunged over the cliffs over the years. The benefit of starting at the power station is that you can grab a free elevator ride down, which will spare you a potentially slippery trek to the hiking trail.
Niagara Jet Adventures: Just outside of the city of Niagara Falls you can take the ride of a lifetime with Niagara Jet Adventures. You'll board a specially designed boat from Youngstown, New York, and whisk over class three and class five rapids. It's intense, exciting and you'll walk away with your adrenaline pumping. Although the boat ride can feel a tiny bit scary as you plunge into waves, the company has a perfect safety record and the seats are surprisingly supportive when you get tossed around in the rapids.
Lockport Cave & Underground Boat Ride: If you like boats but you're not keen on going that fast, check out the Lockport Cave and Underground Boat Ride. You'll learn about the history of Lockport, a small town outside of Niagara, before checking out a cave that was manually carved by laborers. It's a neat spot for history buffs and who doesn't love checking out creepy caves?
Culture and Oddities
Old Fort Niagara: History comes alive at Old Fort Niagara, which has a history that stretches over 300 years. There's nothing about Old Fort Niagara that feels stale - the employees are dressed in period costumes and are happy to tell you about the fort's history or give you a musket demonstration. On clear days, you can also make out the Toronto skyline from the fort.
Oakwood Cemetery of Niagara Falls: Over the years, daredevils have tossed themselves over The Falls. Whether or not they survive the fall, many of them end up at the Oakwood Cemetery of Niagara Falls. You can pay tribute to Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to ever survive tumbling over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Third Street Art Alley: Niagara Falls is pushing to revitalize its downtown area and one initiative is the Third Street Art Alley, which is covered in murals. Local artists will sometimes hang around in the area or tinker on the piano just outside the alleyway.
Second Coming House of Prophet Isaiah: Isaiah Henry Robertson thought doomsday was coming in 2014. In an effort to help people see the light before the end times, he decorated his home in strikingly bright colors in order to draw their attention to his message. Although the world hasn't ended, Isaiah still occupies his home and it's become an offbeat roadside attraction.
Where to eat and drink
Frankie's Donuts and Pizza: Although we only stuck to the donut menu, there's a reason this 24-hour spot is a local favorite. Their lemon-filled doughnuts were a tart and delicious way to start the day.
Power City Eatery: This lunch spot a few blocks from Niagara falls prominently features pastrami on many of their sandwiches, and for good reason - they have thick, delicious cuts of meat that make for a satisfying meal.
New York Beer Project: This locally-owned brewery has a massive brew menu that changes seasonally, but everything I tasted was delicious, subtle and left me with a craving for more, even after my flight back to D.C. New York Beer Project also has a spacious quarters and a mouth-watering menu, meaning it'll be a hit with everyone you're travelling with.
Wine on Third: This quirky little wine bar near The Falls has an approachable beverage list, but even if wine isn't your thing, they offer beer and cocktails. The star of the menu is their pear and prosciutto pizza, which is so good you may not want to share it.
Lake Effect Ice Cream: This small-batch ice cream place in Lockport, New York, has won awards for their salty caramel ice cream, but it won over my heart with their frozen hot chocolate scoops. You can't order wrong at this charming spot.
Flight of Five Winery: The Flight of Five Winery is in a historic building just outside the Lockport Cave, but it's a gem in its own right. The wine grapes are locally sourced, but you should splurge on the local chocolate and cheese pairing, which you can order with your wine tasting.
Spring Lake Winery: This winery on a lake is a lovely place to spend an afternoon, especially if you grab a glass of their riesling before walking around the water.
The Griffon Gastropub: This Lewiston spot is a step above the average pub, with a locally-focused menu and an incredible beer selection. I completely cleared the plate after dining on their parmesan-crusted steak and Korean short ribs - which is no small feat for someone that dabbled in vegetarianism for several years.
Hibbard's Original Frozen Custard: Although this Lewiston staple is only open seasonally, it's been open since 1939 - and with good reason. The custard is thick, creamy and the staff often invents new flavors. I opted for the cinnamon toast crunch custard, which was creamy, not overwhelmingly sweet, and had chunks of one of my favorite guilty-pleasure cereals.