An opinionated list of great places to see--some well-known, some obscure--on both sides of the border. Click on the maps to get larger, interactive versions. Scroll down for the historic sights and the toxic tour.
Top Niagara Attractions
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Niagara Falls State Park (New York): A great place to start a walk around the American side of the Falls. Most tourist head straight to LUna Island, but in fact the Three Sisters are far more impressive. In the off season, drive onto Goat Island to park for free.
The Cave of the Winds: In my opinion, the best place to get up close and personal with the waterfall. After you pay, get outfitted, stand in line, and descend through the cliff in an elevator, the boardwalks take you directly into the spray of the Bridal Veil Fall. Those who want to get wet will get very wet. Those who want to stay dry . . . won't. It's all oddly exhilarating.
The Three Sisters: This sylvan trio of tiny islands, surrounded by ecstatic rapids, gives you a small feeling for what Goat Island was like in the nineteenth century. Upstream, you can see the International Control Structure that's making all this water look good.
Schoellkopf Geological Museum (New York): The museum's interesting for geology buffs, but the viewing platform that lets you look over what's left of the ruined power plant is great. If you look closely, you can see an old penstock outfall. Hike down into the gorge on the gorge trails and you'll find a ruined turbine. From the Schoellkopf site you can walk under the Rainbow Bridge to the New York State Park.
Niagara Aquarium (New York): Cross the overpass from the Scheollkopf Museum and you come to the aquarium. This is not one of the new generation of spectacular, mega-aquariums like Atlanta or Monterrey; just a good old-fashioned, education-focused aquarium. Exhibits on local ecosystems are especially interesting.
Whirlpool State Park (New York): A few miles north of the Falls on the Robert Moses Parkway, a brisk hike takes you to the brink of America's own Charybdis, the Whirlpool and its famous rapids--Class 6, the roughest rating there is. More than one stunter made it over the Falls but expired by getting caught in the Whirlpool and running out of air.
The Power Vista (New York): At the Robert Moses Niagara Power Plant visitor center, displays explain hydroelectricity and a model lays out how Niagara's power is harnessed. Out on the deck, the air is filled with the hum of turbines and the screaming of gulls feasting on stunned fish coming from the outfalls. Go down to the fishing platform below if you want to look up at the massive dam, a concrete Niagara of its own.
The Castellani Art Museum (New York): Niagara University's art museum is a surprisingly airy, exciting collection of contemporary art. They have a small but well-displayed exhibit on the Underground Railroad that gives a good overview of fugitive history in the Niagara region. They also recently acquired a spectacular collection of Niagara prints, many of which were on display at a satellite space downtown the last time I checked.
Maid of the Mist (New York and Ontario): You can take the famous Maid of the Mist from either the Canadian park or the American state park, and it's worth doing once in your life. The plastic ponchos are sweaty, the taped narration is tinny, and the tourists step on your toes in their eagerness to photograph the most photographed waterfall in the world. Yet, when the little boat pauses in the swirling water and the Captain cries "Ladies and gentlemen: THIS is Niagara Falls!" I defy you not to think, at least for one second, "Awesome!"
Table Rock House, (Ontario): If you walk along the lushly landscaped Canadian promenade to enjoy the panoramic view of the Falls, this sprawling set of food courts and souvenir stands will likely be your main stop. The view from the sidewalk outside is undeniably impressive: the massive Horseshoe, up close and personal. Inside, you can buy tickets to descend into scenic tunnels behind the waterfall. You peer down a tunnel at a froth of white, and if you go outside on the platform provided, you'll be misted, but not drenched. Walk upstream to see the magnificent old Ontario Hydro building.
Clifton Hill (Ontario): Niagara's Street of FUN! Here's where you'll find the souvenir shops, wax museums, haunted houses, arcades and themed attractions--Marvel superheroes, dinosaurs, Dracula--that continue Niagara's tradition of sideshows. While they strike some visitors as tacky, you have to admire their celebration of artifice: The world, they suggest, can be endlessly remade.
White Water Walk (Ontario): On the Niagara Parkway north of town, you'll find a variety of attractions, including this elevator-serviced boardwalk along the Class 6 rapids of the Niagara River Whirlpool. Of course, an equally good view of the Whirlpool Rapids is free in the State Park on the American side, but if you're not up for a somewhat strenuous hike, or have accessibility issues, this gives you a good view with less work.
Whirlpool Aerocar (Ontario): Previously called the Spanish Aerocar, because its original owner was Spanish, this charming contraption sails you out over the Whirlpool and back. Not the most scintillating ride ever, but pretty, and slightly scary if you consider the tramway was built in 1913. My favorite part is when the tour guide asks everyone to file neatly around the car, swapping sides for the return trip--a mid-air game of musical chairs.
Evel Knievel Museum (Ontario): This is the gnarliest museum at Niagara Falls, an old-style curiosity cabinet packed with memorabilia organized by theme: Indians, Marilyn, the Titanic, netsuke, horror movies, Hitler, Dan Ackroyd, and of course, Evel. Owner Mark DeMarco has amassed a huge collection of Evel memorabilia and bikes, including the famous SkyCycle. If you're a motorcyle fan, it's a must, but even if you're not, there's bound to be something of interest here, and the museum rambles in the style of the old curiosity cabinets that once flanked the Falls. An added plus: the antique store and pawn shop up front. If Mark's there, tell him I sent you.
Niagara History Sites
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Griffon Park (New York): Here, in this little park adjacent to a giant landfill (see the Toxic Tour for more on that), is a commemorative rock marking what's thought to be the spot where explorer Rene-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, launched the first sailing ship to ply the upper Great Lakes. He sailed it all the way to Wisconsin, filled it with furs, and sent it home to Montreal. It vanished somewhere along the way, and no one has ever figured out what happened to it.
Old Fort Niagara (New York): If you're a lover of old forts, this is the one in the area to see. Try to come during one of its frequent re-enactments. The French and Indian War re-enactment here is the nation's largest. The fort is beautifully preserved and the visitor center is informative about the fur trade, the French and Indian War, and the arrival of the Americans. A great place for a picnic. And toy muskets for the kids!
Devil's Hole State Park (New York): Just a bit beyond Whirlpool State Park, you climb down to this impressive natural amphitheater and beautiful view of the rapids. Expect a vigorous climb back up! Here about 300 renegade Senecas and Algonquian Indians attacked a British wagon train in 1763, at the start of what later became known as Pontiac's Rebellion. As described in the book, the Devil's Hole Massacre is often mentioned in guidebooks, but what's rarely mentioned is that it was partly an act of labor unrest. The Senecas had previously done the heavy lifting for the portage, and they were unhappy at being recently replaced by Conestoga wagons.
Brock's Monument (Queenston Heights, Ontario): The bus tours, for some reason, disgorge their loads endlessly at the lame floral clock while this lovely battleground park is largely ignored by tourists. The War of 1812 was largely fought on the Niagara frontier--half its casualties happened here. The grandest of the war's battlefield memorials, Brock's monument was hugely popular in the nineteenth century; today, the restaurant and tea salon offers lovely vistas over Niagara wine country and the park itself has nice paths for strolling. Regular signs explain the exciting battle fought here: the Canadians rebuffed a midnight sneak attack by U.S. militias, though Brock himself was killed.
Alfred's Cenotaph (Ontario): Below Queenston Heights, in a small grassy park, there are two more monuments for heroes of that fateful night. One is for the Canadian's Native allies, whose fearsome war whoops caused many American troops to decide not to even risk rowing across the river. The other is to Alfred, General Brock's horse. "They also serve," the cenotaph reads, "who only stand and wait." It seems they also get shot, too.
Lundy's Lane Historical Museum (Ontario): In a part of town featuring pawn shops and stores hawking what looks like regulation attire for dominatixes, the Lundy's Lane Historical Museum offers hokey wax dioramas and dull cases full of military uniforms downstairs, but upstairs are interesting exhibits on daredevils, colonial era artifacts, and a fabulous collection of Niagara Falls souvenir china. If you like battlefields, the Lundy's Lane War of 1812 battlefield is nearby.
The Niagara Falls Power Company Transformer Building (New York): On Buffalo Avenue, just past the wastewater treatment plant, sits the only remaining structure from the McKim, Mead & White powerhouses built when Niagara was first harnessed in 1895. The transformer building is a gorgeous, classic structure, designed to showcase the achievement of Niagara's first power brokers.
Echota (New York): The old gabled houses on these lettered streets are what's left of Echota, a utopian "workers' town" designed by star architect Stanford White for the first wave of laborers who came to Niagara after its 1895 harnessing for electricity. The homes had running water, electric light and modern appliances; family units even had indoor toilets! The town included a community center and public baths. Today, the neighborhood has fallen on harder times and some of the homes are boarded up, but their beauty still shines through.
Old Industrial District (New York): If you love decaying industrial architecture anywhere near as much as I do, you'll want to drive down Royal Avenue and north on 47th Street. Here's where many of the early industries of Niagara Falls had huge factories: Carborundum, Union Carbide, Vanadium, Frontier Chemical. Some of the buildings remain; others have been demolished, some after being contaminated by their government atomic work. Much of the empty space in Niagara Falls is brownfields: it's cheaper for companies to own a vacant lot forever than to clean it up for redevelopment.
Shredded Wheat Grain Elevators (New York): The Shredded Wheat factory, once one of the most famous buildings in America, was sadly demolished. A tourist attraction almost equal to the Falls, thousands of visitors filed through it to see its spotless, electric operation and the cafeteria, locker rooms, library and game rooms for its mostly female employees. Only these grain elevators remain, a beautiful tribute to the early industries that came to the Falls in search of not only cheap power, but a better world.
Ontario Hydro Powerhouse (Ontario): Built by the Electrical Development Company, this spectacularly grand classical powerhouse began generating electricity in Canada in 1906. It was taken over by the public Hydro-Electric Power Commission of Ontario in 1922. It's not in use today, but makes a nice stroll from the Table Rock view of the Falls.
Niagara Toxic Tour
Toxic waste is a big--but often ignored--part of Niagara history. Here are some of the more interesting sites, some of which are discussed in Inventing Niagara.
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