So, it’s your first time visiting this Southern Ontario region called Niagara; nestled amongst vineyards and orchards between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, Burlington and New York State. You’ve packed up the car and driven down from Northern, Eastern or Western Ontario for the weekend, or maybe you’ve flown into Toronto from afar and are making a day trip down to see that big waterfall everyone’s talking about. Regardless of where in the world you’re from or why you’re here, here are a few things to get you acquainted with this unique little region of Canada.
First and foremost, you’re probably wondering what even makes up the Niagara Region. No – it’s not just the city of Niagara Falls or the waterfall itself. When referring to Niagara, you are talking about a whole slew of smaller towns, which have confused visitors since the dawn of time. You may be “in Niagara,” but are you in St. Catharines, Pelham, Welland, Thorold, Niagara Falls, Niagara on the Lake, Fort Erie, Port Colborne…need I go on? And yes, I could go on. Niagara is made up of 12 municipalities, each with their own quirks and features, so don’t feel bad if you’re totally lost during your stay. We’ll try not to judge you.
Niagara Falls + Niagara on the Lake
If you’re here to hit as many world renowned tourist attractions as you possibly can for the gram, you’re going to want to stick to Niagara Falls and Niagara on the Lake. These two municipalities run along the Niagara River and are connected by the Niagara Parkway and the QEW, making them easily accessible to one another.
A girl’s weekend to Niagara sans children wouldn’t be complete without sipping your way through wineries, shopping ‘til you drop, and indulging in some spa pampering in Niagara on the Lake. Might I suggest The Spa at White Oaks for some R&R, the Outlet Collection at Niagara for some retail therapy, and The Hare Wine Co. to sip some lovely wine?
A family expedition with little ones in tow will definitely require a visit to Niagara Falls, featuring an endless number of attractions and activities to keep them occupied. Spend a rainy day at an indoor water park, face your fears in a haunted house, live on the edge with a ride on the Whirlpool Jet Boats or zip line along the Niagara River rapids at Wild Play. Of course, a first-time visit to Niagara must include a trip down to the waterfalls. Hop on the Hornblower to get up close and personal with the falls, if you’re not afraid to get a little wet! With over 14 million visitors each year, prepare for a bit of tourist chaos, especially in peak summer season. Just wrap your head around it now, because you are not going to want to miss this impressive natural attraction!
Twenty Valley (Jordan, Vineland + Beamsville – AKA the Town of Lincoln…I told you it was confusing).
If you’re looking for a quieter, less tourist saturated area for wine tours and tasting, you can find that amongst the quaint villages of Twenty Valley. This wine region is perched along the Niagara Escarpment and features over 50 vineyards and boutique wineries. Although you won’t find any of the large, corporate players here, you will find several family run, small lot hidden gems! If you’re a lover of fine wine and are hoping to beat some of the crowds often found in Niagara on the Lake, this is the spot for you. There are also fantastic restaurants in the area, from pubs to fine dining establishments. You might even fancy a hike during your stay, which you can enjoy at Rockway Conservation Area, Ball’s Falls, or the Cave Springs Conservation Area.
Although St. Catharines doesn’t boast the greatest number of tourist attractions, there are several places in this mid-size University town that the whole clan will enjoy during a first time trip to the area. Hockey fan? Basketball junkie? Enjoy concerts? Check out the schedule at the Meridian Centre and catch an Ice Dogs game, River Lions game or a concert while you’re in town. The arena is surrounded by unique dining options, pubs and cafes too. Theatre goers will enjoy the newly built FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre which hosts live performances and feature length films. If you’re visiting in warmer seasons, you might catch a regatta or Dragon Boat race at the Royal Henley Grand Stand or take a walk through the pathways leading you between Jaycee Park and Port Dalhousie where you’ll find a beach, a few bars, coffee shops and a brewery! The late summer and fall months in St. Catharines are notorious for festivals such as the Civic Holiday Weekend Ribfest and the annual Grape and Wine Festival, running weekends throughout late September. Grape and wine is sometimes deemed “Christmas time” in Niagara for those of you who are into a party celebrating local wines and live music at Montebello Park.
As a local, I feel I can say that if you’re making a trip to Niagara for any reason other than visiting family perhaps, you likely won’t find yourself in any town not listed here (unless it’s by accident). As much as we may love our little hometowns, no one dreams of visiting Welland, Thorold or Fort Erie…let’s be real. We hope you enjoy your time in Niagara. Let us know your favourite Niagara hot spots in the comments!