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Wine and waterfalls: Things to do in Niagara on the Lake, Canada

Wine and waterfalls: Things to do in Niagara on the Lake, Canada

When I found out my summer travels Stateside would take me from New York to Toronto with a couple of days to spare along the way, there was only one place I could really stop off at – Niagara Falls. It’s one of those places that although you know it’s going to be really touristy, it’s such an iconic sight that you really have to see it for yourself at least once.

Though after hearing about the high-rises and casinos I was having second thoughts, until I found out there was another Niagara we could base ourselves in. Bursting with small-town charm, Niagara on the Lake is the perfect place to experience the area’s wine and waterfalls.

Read more: A weekend in Toronto, Ontario: A 48-hour itinerary

Things to do in Niagara on the Lake

Niagara-on-the-Lake's heritage district
Niagara on the Lake’s heritage district

The town

Where Niagara Falls is big and brash, Niagara on the Lake is the complete opposite – exchanging high-rise hotels for cute B&Bs and giant casinos for boutique shops and restaurants. The town is set on the edge of Lake Ontario and is directly opposite Toronto, but as you arrive you’ll feel like you’ve travelled back in time as well as 130km across the province.

Niagara on the Lake was the first capital of Upper Canada – now Ontario. And its heritage district is one of the best preserved 19th-century towns in North America. It’s all gorgeous Victorian red-brick buildings, perfectly manicured lawns, tree-lined streets and window boxes overflowing with flowers. It’s so perfectly pretty it could almost be a film set.

Red brick buildings in the historic district of Niagara-on-the-Lake
Street strolling

It’s a bit of a favourite for a Torontonians on a romantic weekend break, and as I sat on a patio drinking a glass of local wine at sunset and watching a horse-drawn carriage trot by, I could see why. It sounds like it could be a bit twee, but somehow it skates just the right side of the line. It’s a place where time slows down – where all you have to do is relax and unwind.

The historic Queen Street District is easy to get around on foot, and full of beautiful buildings to admire. Many are now home to independent boutiques, antique shops, art galleries, cafés and restaurants. It’s perfect for an afternoon of window-shopping, preferably accompanied by an ice cream from my favourite Prince Edward Island producer Cows.

Looking over Lake Ontario from Queens Royal Park
Queens Royal Park lakeside

As well as browsing the town’s present-day stores, you can get a glimpse back in time to shopping 1820s style at the Niagara Apothocary. One of the oldest pharmacies in Canada, it’s been converted into a tiny museum with many of the original goods on display.

Other great things to do in Niagara on the Lake include catching a show at the Shaw Festival theatre, wandering the ramparts of Fort George or around the lakeshore at Queens Royal Park, a bit of fantasy house-buying to pick which multi-million mansion you’d choose to live in, or a night-time ghost walk around what’s allegedly ‘Canada’s most haunted town’.

Horseshoe Falls at Niagara in Canada
The Horseshoe Falls

The waterfall

As hard as it was to drag ourselves away from Niagara on the Lake, you can’t go to Niagara without seeing the Falls. We didn’t have a hire car but had no problem getting around using the buses. To get from Niagara on the Lake to Niagara Falls you can catch the hourly shuttle bus from Fort George to the Floral Clock ($14 CAD return), where it meets up with the WEGO bus which runs past all the main Niagara Falls attractions ($9 CAD for a 24-hour pass).

There plenty of different things to do in Niagara Falls – zipline, 4D cinema, whitewater walk, aero car, sky wheel, viewing towers, walk behind the falls and various boat trips. If you fancy trying them out there are passes available that bundle them together to save money.

Niagara Falls views and boats, Ontario
Niagara Falls views and boats

But the main attraction for us was always going to be the Falls themselves. As a former geography student and environment geek, the feeling of getting up close to such a force of nature was incredible. Canada’s Horseshoe Falls are the biggest, stretching 790 metres wide by 57 metres high, with an immense six million cubic feet of water flowing over every minute.

The path runs right along the edge of the Falls so you can hear the roar, feel the spray on your face and look right down to the blue Maid of the Mist boats getting buffeted by the waves (bring a good waterproof camera case and prepare to get wet if you want to get up close). Yes it was pretty much as touristy as I imagined, but nature is still very much the star.

The American Falls at Niagara Falls
The (smaller) American Falls

The wine

Away from that waterfall, the other thing the Niagara region is famous for is its wine. It’s the only place in the world warm enough in summer to make red wine and cold enough in winter to make ice wine. If you’ve not tried ice wine you’re missing out. It’s made using frozen grapes, picked by hand in December when temperatures get down to around -10°C/14°F.

When the grapes are crushed a lot of the water is left behind as ice, concentrating the flavour and the sugar that’s left behind. The end result is full of sticky, tropical fruit flavours, like pudding in a glass. Ontario is one of the best places for ice wine, but there are other local white and red wines like Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling.

Peller Estates winery in the Niagara wine region
In the gardens at Peller Estates

There are about 28 Niagara on the Lake wineries, but they’re pretty spread out. If you don’t want to drive, you can take a guided winery tour* by bus or explore on your own by bike. Bike hire costs around $25 CAD/US$20/£14 for half a day – or around double that if you want to hire an e-bike, which lets you cover more ground with less effort.

We picked up a map of the Niagara wine region along with our hire bike and chose a few wineries which weren’t too far apart to visit. One of the easiest cycle routes is along the Niagara River Parkway. You start at Fort George Historical Park, cycle through the park and then just follow the path along the edge of the Niagara River.

There’s a separate cycle path and it’s fairly flat so it’s an easy ride – though there isn’t a lot of room in your saddlebag (and the extra weight combined with a few tastings can make things a bit wobbly!), so if you want to buy wine you can arrange to collect it later.

Wine tasting at Peller Estates winery near Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
Peller Estates wine tasting

Our first stop was Peller Estates, just a couple of kilometres south of town. It’s a grand-looking place with a French château meets Southern ranch atmosphere. They even have an underground frozen ice bar if you want the full ice wine experience and on a sunny day the gardens were full of people having a BBQ. But we headed straight into the tasting room.

In a weird coincidence, there was an Ice Cuvée wine my mum and I loved when we did a cruise with P&O – a Champagne-style sparkling wine topped up with a drop of ice wine to add sweetness. I’d never seen it anywhere else but it turns out Peller Estates make it, so I had to do a thorough tasting to make sure I still liked it (the answer was a definite yes).

Vineyards at the Inniskillin winery in the Niagara wine region
Inniskillin winery

From Peller it was another 3km along the Parkway to Reif Estate, a family-owned vineyard set up by a wine-making family from Germany. It has some of the area’s oldest vines which give the wines lots of flavour. Next up was Inniskillin, a short hop away, where we chatted to a guy on the tasting desk who’d emigrated to Canada from South Wales 30 years ago and now spent his retirement teaching people about wine – not a bad way to spend your days.

Our final stop was 4.5km away at ice wine specialists The Ice House, whose ice wine slushies were just what we needed to set us up for the ride back to town. Four wineries were just a taste of Niagara’s wine region, but a pretty perfect way to spend a stopover.

Historic buildings at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada
Love those red brick buildings

The details

How to get to Niagara on the Lake

We took the train to Niagara Falls from New York Penn Station for US$88 (£65) per person. It took about 9.5 hours, but the seats were really comfy with tons of leg room. You go through Canadian immigration when you get off at Niagara which was pretty quick and easy. Do beware though that the train is often delayed, so allow plenty of spare time.

There are several car hire offices near to Niagara Falls station if you want to rent a car. Otherwise you can take a taxi to Niagara on the Lake (ours cost $40 CAD/US$31/£23) and then get around by bus. There’s a shuttle between Niagara on the Lake and Niagara Falls from April to September which runs once an hour and costs $14 CAD (£8) return.

To travel on to Toronto, we took the bus to Burlington then the GO commuter train to Toronto’s Union Station, which took two hours and cost $19 CAD/US$15/£11 in total.

Church in Niagara on the Lake
Niagara on the Lake church

Where to stay in Niagara on the Lake

Cape House B&B is a traditional – but not too chintzy – B&B 30 minutes’ walk from the centre of town (Niagara on the Lake is bigger than it looks). Recognised for its eco credentials, the B&B has just three cosy bedrooms, and has been recently taken by new owners who plan to give it an update. Guests eat breakfast together and there’s a lounge and deck so you can sit out with a glass of wine in the evenings so it has a friendly, communal atmosphere. Rooms from $180–$200 CAD (US$141–$156/£103–£115) a night in high season.

Colourful flowers and historic houses in Niagara on the Lake
Colourful flowers and historic houses

Where to eat in Niagara on the Lake

Because we were out of town we thought we’d have to take taxis for dinner but it turned out there were a couple of good restaurants nearby. The star was Backhouse, which looked a lot like an office building tucked away in an unassuming shopping mall. This farm-to-table restaurant is known for its tasting menus, available with or without paired wines.

We went for their Signature nine-course tasting menu ($79 CAD/US$62/£45), which uses local Canadian produce and changes daily, and sat at the chef’s bar in front of the open kitchen so we could see the chefs at work. It was one of the best meals I’ve had in years, with beautiful presentation and inventive flavours (and no problem making it gluten-free).

We also liked The Old Winery, close to our B&B, for its Italian woodfired pizzas, pastas and grills – and a good local wine list. Also recommended is Grill On King in the centre of town, especially if you can grab a table on their pretty flower-lined terrace out the front. They (unsurprisingly) specialise in grilled meat, and do burgers and sandwiches at lunchtime too.

And if you fancy a change from wine, the Exchange Brewery is right in the centre of town and has a tasting room where you can try their beers. There’s usually a mix of their main and seasonal brews on tap, and their roof terrace is perfect for sunny afternoons.

Beer on the patio at Exchange Brewery
A change from wine at the Exchange Brewery

Looking for somewhere to stay in Niagara on the Lake?*

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What to see and do in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, a pretty historic lakeside town with cosy B&Bs, boutique shops and great restaurants which makes a perfect base to explore Niagara Falls and the Niagara wine region | Things to do in Niagara on the Lake | Niagara on the Lake travel guide | Weekend in Niagara on the Lake | Weekend break from Toronto | Places to visit in OntarioTop things to do in Niagara on the Lake, Canada, a pretty historic lakeside town that's a perfect base to explore Niagara Falls and Niagara wine region  | Things to do in Niagara on the Lake | Niagara on the Lake travel guide | Weekend in Niagara on the Lake | Weekend break from Toronto | Places to visit in Ontario

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34 Comments

  • Reply
    Bethaly
    March 8, 2018 at 12:42 am

    Wow gorgeous photos! I really need to visit Toronto one day. The farthest I’ve been from BC is Winnipeg, Manitoba!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 9, 2018 at 9:04 pm

      Canada is such a big country, and so much to see! I would love to see more of BC next time I make it over.

  • Reply
    Jill Wiggins
    March 9, 2018 at 3:41 pm

    Of all the amazing, exotic places you have been to that I have not, Niagara-on-the-Lake is one I actually have visited, and loved it just as much as you did. We only ate a meal there and walked around a bit, but we found it utterly charming. Also worth a stop if you’re in that area is a fabulous butterfly conservatory, probably one of the best anywhere. Both educational and beautiful!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 9, 2018 at 9:21 pm

      Brilliant! It was such a lovely spot, we were only there a couple of days and came away feeling so relaxed. We did miss the butterfly conservancy though so will hopefully make it back someday to see it.

  • Reply
    MummyTravels
    March 9, 2018 at 8:15 pm

    It always sounds like such a lovely spot – even apart from the falls. I never knew about the wine though, that’s quite a weather combination. And a lovely place to test out the results.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 9, 2018 at 9:32 pm

      I can never resist a wine region! This was a great one too – easy to get around and do some tastings.

  • Reply
    Rachel @ Never Enough Novels
    March 9, 2018 at 8:41 pm

    I haven’t been in a few years, but need to go back for the ice wine! I love the idea of a bike tour. We drove around, so it’d be a neat experience to bike to a few wineries instead.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 9, 2018 at 9:34 pm

      The ice wine is so good! I only had room to bring a tiny bottle home unfortunately but you can get some in the UK. The bike trip was fun too, and flat enough that it wasn’t too hard work.

  • Reply
    MoKath
    March 11, 2018 at 8:45 am

    After seeing this post, this is added to my growing list of places to visit.
    Put it pretty high up!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 15, 2018 at 11:23 pm

      That’s great, hope you get to make the trip someday soon!

  • Reply
    Kieren
    March 12, 2018 at 8:14 pm

    These photos are amazing – Canada is definitely one on the bucket list (the list is just too long!).

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 15, 2018 at 11:17 pm

      Thank you! Yes I know that feeling too – the list never gets any shorter does it!

  • Reply
    Kayla
    March 12, 2018 at 10:56 pm

    I’m currently sitting in my office, procrastinating doing any work and now, thanks to you, day dreaming of being in Canada. Everything looks and sounds absolutely divine! How cute is Niagara-on-the-Lake?! Thanks so much for bringing this to my attention, I’ll have to add it to my ‘travel ideas’ notes on my iPhone haha 😛

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 15, 2018 at 11:16 pm

      Ah thank you! I didn’t know much about it before I booked the trip but it was a great discovery, so relaxing too.

      • Laurie
        September 22, 2019 at 6:56 pm

        I’m a Canadian and I love every minute of it!! So close to Niagara on the Lake, Toronto, Stratford. I’m looking to travel to France, particularly a quaint little place in the countryside. I’ve heard of house switching and would like to try that someday. I think that would be an amazing way to travel if you really hit it off with the person.

      • Lucy
        September 23, 2019 at 1:17 pm

        I have relatives who swear by house swaps and have done them all over the world – it’s definitely a good way to travel on a budget!

  • Reply
    Laura
    March 13, 2018 at 2:41 am

    Looks so beautiful here! Had no idea there were so many wonderful things to see there.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 15, 2018 at 11:15 pm

      It’s such a cute place!

  • Reply
    Suzanne Jones
    March 16, 2018 at 7:19 pm

    I had a few days in Toronto about 12 years ago! We went to Niagara for the day spending a few hours at Niagara-on-the-Lake and stopping at a winery on the way back, although I don’t remember which one. I do remember the ice wine though which is delicious! This was a lovely reminder of our visit to this pretty little town.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 19, 2018 at 5:21 pm

      Ice wine is so good! I wish we could have brought more back with us.

  • Reply
    alison abbott
    March 19, 2018 at 1:15 am

    I’ve been to the US side of Niagara Falls, but see now I really missed its Canadian sister! Niagara-on-the-Lake is another great place to see the falls and take in a few wineries. I see a road trip in my future!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 19, 2018 at 5:33 pm

      It’s a great base for a weekend break – enough to see but relaxed too and lots of great food and drink.

  • Reply
    Sara @ Travel Continuum
    March 19, 2018 at 2:11 pm

    I’m not much of a wine-drinker but I’d go to Niagara-on-the-Lake just for its retro feel and tree-lined streets…AND because I too love looking for those lesser-known yet nearby attractions. This reminds me a lot of Ecuador, where there are two ‘equator’ attractions, the main official one, and the quainter, but less touristy Intinan site nearby.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      March 19, 2018 at 5:34 pm

      It’s always nice to find a bit of a more hidden gem!

  • Reply
    David
    June 12, 2018 at 12:02 pm

    This is truly amazing! Enough inspiration to want to visit Niagara. Lovely photos.

    • Reply
      Lucy
      June 14, 2018 at 8:32 am

      Thanks – really enjoyed my trip there!

  • Reply
    Ava
    October 5, 2018 at 6:39 pm

    Well done! This post carries its title like a charm! This is more than a mouth full and all that one truly need to know in just one post!
    The pictures are STUNNING! I have never been to Niagara Falls, but I hope to go one day. I knew that the falls crossed the borders, but I didn’t realize that there was a difference in the views/experience! Truly informative guide that I plan to save for when I am able to go on the trip.
    Thank you

    • Reply
      Lucy
      October 10, 2018 at 10:04 pm

      Thanks so much – so glad it was useful!

  • Reply
    Rob
    July 31, 2019 at 10:05 pm

    Good info and looking forward tout visit next week from the UK. Keep up the good work

    • Reply
      Lucy
      August 1, 2019 at 9:10 pm

      Hope you have a fantastic time!

  • Reply
    sarah
    February 18, 2020 at 12:29 am

    I go to Niagara nearly every summer to visit relatives and absolutely love it there! It’s so charming and picturesque and the way you described it is exactly the way it feels!

    • Reply
      Lucy
      February 25, 2020 at 4:49 pm

      Ah thank you, I loved it there, such a charming place!

  • Reply
    Al Legal
    January 27, 2021 at 3:34 pm

    Lucy, just a short note to say that Phyllis and John have retired from the B&B business, having sold it to Shari and I last year right at the time the pandemic hit. We are updating the décor and menu (we will update the website soon!) and hope that you choose to come stay with us the next time you are back! Stay safe, be well

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      February 3, 2021 at 1:51 pm

      Thanks for the update, and congratulations on taking over the B&B! Wishing you all the best with it, it’s a lovely place – and hope to make it back sometime too.

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