I know what you’re thinking. “Why on earth would any sane person willingly visit Niagara Falls in the dead of winter?” Trust me though—it’s gorgeous up there!
With five days of leave in late December, my husband and I took a kid-free vacation to Toronto and stopped at Niagara Falls along the way. Niagara Falls is only about seven hours from where we are in Northern Virginia; Toronto is about nine. Fort Drum folks have it much easier since Niagara Falls is under four hours away.
Niagara Falls is a small town northwest of Buffalo and is the last American city you see before crossing into Canada. It’s cute, clean, inexpensive and friendly. Sure, it’s is an unusual destination this time of year, but it’s worth considering for your next getaway.
Where to Stay
We opted to stay on the New York side of Niagara Falls the first night of our trip. I now know why people gave me a puzzled look and said “Oh” when I told them that. It wasn’t until we got there that I realized why the 4-star hotel price was so appealing. Our hotel — Sheraton at the Falls — was absolutely fabulous. But, since the waterfalls themselves are (mostly) located in the United States, the gorgeous, sprawling views are on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.
But! The hotel couldn’t have been nicer. It was clean, recently updated, and the staff was amazing. In fact, I accidentally left my beloved pair of Frye boots in the hotel room when we left for Canada. I didn’t realize they were missing until we were already across the border. I thought for sure those things would be on the Black Market immediately. But, thanks to a hotel employee digging through lost and found, my leather babies were set aside and waiting for me at the front desk when we stopped by on the way back to Virginia. The Sheraton will forever be in my good graces because of that.
The hotel is across the street from a casino if you want to try your luck and make some extra cash. We aren’t into gambling, so we gave that a pass. But it looked cool from the outside!
How to see Niagara Falls
Once we were checked in, we layered up and headed toward Niagara Falls State Park. Fun fact! This is the oldest state park in the country. Instead of paying $10-20 for parking in the park’s lot, we opted to park outside the Made in America Store for $5. Suckers.
After a 10-minute walk through the park, we were overlooking the world-famous waterfalls. The main one on the New York side is perfect for serving as your selfie background. Plus, it’s fittingly named American Falls. It’s spectacular. I’m sure it’s cool to see in the summer as well, but seeing everything around the water covered in ice was surreal. It looked like Elsa just turned the joint into her palace.
After we took in American Falls, we opted to walk over the pedestrian bridge to Goat Island and continue on toward Bridal Veil Falls and Horseshoe Falls. At this point it was about 6pm and 11 degrees, so no one was out there. At night, giant lights illuminate the falls in blue, green, pink and purple. It’s a remarkable sight. But again, it was probably much cooler to see on the Canada side.
When temperatures are well below freezing, the mist from the water rises and immediately freezes anything is comes in contact with. Your coat, phone, camera, even your contact lenses will suddenly be covered in a thin later of crunchy ice. If you’re not appropriately dressed, you’re gonna have a bad time.
I’d seen women here in Northern Virginia wear knee-length down coats and thought they looked ridiculous. It’s like they’d taken a sleeping bag and added arms! Then. I tried one on. My opinion changed immediately. Holy moly are they warm. Thanks to the after-Christmas sales, I snagged a navy blue Cole Haan coat for under $100 (originally $275!). It likely saved my life in the frozen tundras of New York and Canada. With a hat on and the hood up, I was ready to take on anything!
I also wore a cheap pair of knit gloves underneath my Seirus Heatwave gloves.
Base layers are also vital. I picked up a base layer shirt from Target and wore my awesome LL Bean pullover on top. Between those two items and my new coat, my upper body was good to go.
If you try to wear jeans in freezing weather, you’ll be miserable. Corduroys or lined leggings will be your best friends. For extra warmth, add a pair of base layer leggings underneath.
On your feet, you’re going to want some lined snow boots. The higher the better. My snow boots hit just above the ankle, so for added warmth on my neglected calves I opted to wear my knee-high Hunter boots with a cheap pair of fleece boot liners (the $30 Hunter liners can kick rocks).
As with most things in life, men have it easier when it comes to winter attire. My husband was good to go in his fleece-lined jeans, base layer shirt, flannel shirt and Columbia jacket. He also wore his snow boots, a fleece hat, heavy gloves and a scarf.
I grew up in South Florida, so if I’m cold, I’m taking my ball and going home. But with all the gear listed above, I was nice and toasty despite the Arctic air.
Where to Eat
We got into Niagra Falls in the late afternoon and were staaarving. After a quick search, I suggested we hit Donatello’s Pizza. Being 80s babies, Aaron and I love all things Ninja Turtles. So if it’s named after my favorite crime-fighting teenage mutant, it had to be good. Boy was I right. We ordered a half tray of pepperoni pizza and 10 medium wings. Amazing. The wings are fried perfectly, giving the skin a distinct crunch without being greasy. A half tray is the size of a large pizza, but cooked on a baking sheet and cut into 12 squares. So good.
For breakfast we went to Third Street Retreat, which was a short walk from our hotel. I had the French toast while Aaron got an egg, cheese and sausage sandwich. It’s been over a week and he’s still talking about the hash browns that came with it. The prices were great and the food was fabulous—exactly what we needed before heading across the border. At night this place doubles as a hopping bar with craft beers on tap.
The Canadian Side
Driving through the border checkpoint requires a passport or a photo ID with proof of citizenship, like a birth certificate. You don’t have to get out of your vehicle, but you will have to chat with the agent in the “toll booth” and answer his or her questions. The process takes about five minutes.
From there, it’s a 10-minute drive to the best spot to view Horseshoe Falls: Table Rock Welcome Centre. Since we were in a rush and only wanted to quickly give it a look and take some photos, we parked on the side of the road and put our flashers on. It seems like a tacky American tourist thing to do, I know. But there were at least 20 other cars doing this exact thing! However, it apparently is frowned upon because after about 10 minutes a cop was (very politely – the Canadian way!) asking people to move along.
If we were going to stay longer or if it was the summer, we would have parked in one of the “official” lots instead. Or, if we’d opted to stay overnight on the Canadian side, we could have walked down there.
Seeing the falls here is magnificent. So, sorry America, but Canada definitely wins the “best view” competition. If you’re able to come here at night, be sure to check out the fireworks schedule. For other attractions on the Canadian side, visit the tourism website.
All in all, Niagara Falls was fabulous. We were only there for less than 24 hours, but it can easily be a long-weekend trip. We had a great time on the New York side, but if you want to take your time with your camera or take in the sights, staying in Canada is your best bet. Or spend one night on each! So bundle up and take in this world-famous natural beauty.
Warm Weather Activities
Niagara Falls sees millions of visitors every year with most arriving in the warmer months. In the hottest months of the year, this area tends to see temps in the low 80s. In other words: it’s perfect for outdoor exploring!
The famed attractions—like Maid of the Mist—are only open from April/May to early November. Maid of the Mist is a boat ride excursion that starts in New York and takes passengers to the roaring basin of Horseshoe Falls. The Cave of the Winds tour also opens in April. It’s a natural cave behind Bridal Veil Falls that’s 130 feet high and 100 feet wide. The tour starts with an elevator ride down 175 feet into Niagara Gorge where there are wooden walkways taking you within feet of the crashing falls. For more attraction ideas, visit the Niagara Falls attractions site.
If you want to take a break from Mother Nature, the Skyline Hotel and waterpark and Fallsview Indoor Waterpark are highly recommended. Fallsview is a 3-acre indoor waterpark with 16 waterslides, a wave pool, a tot pool and more!
About the Author
Rachel is the editor of Right and Up. She is an Auburn grad (War Damn Eagle!) and holds a degree in journalism. While working as a sports writer covering the Tigers, she met a cute, tall officer stationed at Fort Benning. A few margaritas, some conversations about why a no-huddle offense is superior and 18 months later, they got married. They have PCS’d to Fort Huachuca, Fort Riley and are now in the National Capital Region. Together they have a son and two dogs.