12 Top-Rated Things to Do in Niagara-on-the-Lake
Author Michael Law lives in southern Ontario and enjoys summer trips to Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is a national historic site of Canada, known for its large collection of buildings built following the War of 1812, constructed between 1815 and 1859. Many of these have been beautifully restored making a trip here like stepping back in time.
Although the town is definitely a tourist hot spot, it still manages to maintain its small-town, historical feel, unlike its more garish cousin, Niagara Falls, 25 kilometers up the way. Niagara-on-the-Lake is also famous for being the home of the Shaw Festival. So play all day and then in the evening, catch a show before retiring back to your luxury hotel or bed and breakfast. Not interested in staying the night? Niagara-on-the-Lake is a perfect day trip destination from Toronto.
The town is small and easily walkable, so grab any one of the plentiful pay parking spots along the main road or side streets. If you don't mind a bit of a walk, parking on the side streets farther back from downtown is free.
Plan your sightseeing and pinpoint the best places to visit with our list of the top things to do in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
1. Stroll Historical Queen Street
The number one thing to do in Niagara-on-the-Lake is to stroll up and down Queen Street. Wide sidewalks and incredible floral displays make this a beguiling activity. This historical roadway is home to many significant buildings and tourist attractions, including the courthouse building dating from 1846, the cenotaph, and one of the Shaw Festival playhouses.
In addition to these fine structures, you will also find Ontario's first pharmacy, which operated from 1820 to 1964. Inside is a faithful restoration of the pharmacy as it would have looked in 1869, complete with old bottles, displays, and counters.
Another famous sight not to be missed is the Prince of Wales hotel at the intersection of Queen and King Street. Dating from 1864, this luxurious hotel is one of the finest places to stay in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Queen Street is not all about history, it's also a great place to do a bit of shopping. Unique shops and galleries are hidden inside restored 19th-century buildings.
If all the history and shopping tire you out, see if you can snag a sunny patio seat at one of the many restaurants that also line the street. There's nothing quite like sitting under an umbrella with a cold drink and catching up on news with your friends while surreptitiously undertaking a bit of people-watching.
2. Explore Fort George National Historic Site
A key battle raged and was lost at Niagara-on-the-Lake and Fort George in 1813, and although you may think the guns are quiet today, you'd be mistaken. Today's Fort George exists much as it did back at the turn of the 19th century. Soldiers walk around in historical uniforms, and other inhabitants of the fort go about their daily business much as they did in 1813.
These friendly interpreters spread throughout eight buildings in the fort are here to answer your questions about what they are working on and what daily life entails. One of the most interesting exhibitions is live musket firings, when these ancient rifles fire in a huge puff of smoke.
The grounds are large and provide ample area to explore. Be sure to climb up to the gun emplacements to check out the views.
Address: 51 Queen's Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
3. Take a Horse-Drawn Carriage Ride
If you are looking for something romantic for you and your sweetie, climb aboard a horse-drawn carriage and tour the town. The carriages typically wait for customers outside the Prince of Wales hotel on King Street, or you can choose your own time and make a booking online at least 24 hours in advance.
Tours take either 30 or 45 minutes and follow a set route down Queen Street, along the waterfront, and through the quaint residential areas of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Along the way, you'll have a guided narration by a local guide.
The carriages can accommodate four adults and two children. Tours can be booked in advance at Sentineal Carriages.
4. Stay at the Prince of Wales Hotel
What better way to really make the most of your visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake than by staying at the luxurious and historical Prince of Wales hotel? Located in the very heart of the town, the hotel occupies prime real estate at the corner of King and Queen Streets.
The hotel is wonderfully decorated with fine artwork, and the delightfully restored architectural elements of the 19th-century building make staying here a special experience. If you've had a long day exploring the Niagara region, the Secret Garden Spa has a variety of soothing treatments to get you revived and ready for your evening ahead.
The hotel is also known for its restaurants: Noble for fine dining and the Drawing Room for traditional afternoon tea.
Address: 6 Picton Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
5. Drive or Bike the Niagara Parkway
Running from Fort Erie and passing through Niagara Falls and ending at Niagara-on-the-Lake is the Niagara Parkway Scenic Drive. The entire length of the roadway is 55 kilometers, and the section from Niagara Falls to Niagara-on-the-Lake is particularly scenic.
Along this roadway, you'll pass by several points of interest, including Queenston Heights Park, the Laura Secord Homestead, and Fort George. The roadway follows the Niagara River; however, it is generally not seen from the road, as the riverbank is populated with dense trees. The area surrounding Niagara-on-the-Lake is prime farmland, and it's here that you'll find some of the freshest fruits in season. Keep an eye out for farm stands selling peaches, nectarines, cherries, and plums.
The area along the roadway is especially scenic, as the area is also one of Ontario's premier grape-growing regions. The immaculately tended vines in their symmetrical rows are a photographic delight.
Many people choose to rent bicycles at one of the shops in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and pedal along the separate paved bike trail that parallels the road. It's mostly flat and well-marked and considered an easy ride, unless you try to ascend the Niagara Escarpment!
6. Catch a Play at the Shaw Festival
The Shaw Festival has been delighting audiences in Niagara-on-the-Lake and around the world since 1962. The Shaw Festival runs every year from May through November and attracts over 250,000 patrons a season.
Generally, eight to 10 productions are showcased each season, performed at one of the three theaters in town. The focus originally was exclusively on the works of playwright George Bernard Shaw who lived from 1865 to 1950; however, in recent years, the Shaw Festival has expanded its repertoire to include works from other artists.
The main theater area is located at 10 Queen's Parade, a short stroll from downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake. Here, you'll find the Festival Theater, the largest of the three with seating for 856 people, and the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theater, with seating for 267 patrons.
The historic Royal George Theater is located in the heart of downtown at 85 Queen Street, and seats 305 people. Be sure to check which venue your play is being staged at prior to heading out.
Parking at the main theater location at 10 Queen's Parade is very expensive. You may want to consider parking on the street at a meter, or back a few streets where parking is free.
7. Walk through Queen's Royal Park
One of the most overlooked places to visit in Niagara-on-the-Lake is Queen's Royal Park. This is unfortunate because this delightful park provides unparalleled views across Lake Ontario to the Toronto skyline. On a clear day, the buildings of downtown and especially the CN Tower are visible far off in the distance. On the far shore across the Niagara River in the United States stands the impressive Old Fort Niagara, not to be confused with Fort George closer to Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Queen's Royal Park is set on a rise above Lake Ontario and is home to large shade trees, a gazebo, and a short shoreline walking trail. The park is easily found by walking south on King Street from the Prince of Wales hotel until it dead ends at the lake.
8. Enjoy the View from Queenston Heights Park
One of the most impressive monuments in Ontario stands proudly on the bluff overlooking the Niagara River at Queenston Heights Park. A towering memorial is dedicated to Sir Isaac Brock, who was instrumental in his role in defending Canada in the War of 1812.
The views from the park out over the Niagara River towards Niagara-on-the-Lake are impressive and are a result of the ancient Niagara Escarpment. It was here that Niagara Falls started its backward journey to its present location approximately 11,000 years ago. The park is also the terminus of the world-famous 904-kilometer-long Bruce Trail.
The park extends back along the Niagara Escarpment and is one of the nicest places to stop along the Niagara Parkway for a picnic. Large lawns, beautiful gardens, and towering shade trees are the perfect spot to while away a warm summer afternoon with the family.
9. Relax in Simcoe Park
As you wander around Niagara-on-the-Lake, you'll soon discover that it's a gardener's delight. Planters burst with color, filled to the brim with interesting and unique plants that you have likely never seen. You'll know you've found the entrance to Simcoe Park when you see one of the largest displays at the corner of Queen and King Streets.
Walk past this incredible display and descend into the pleasant space, favored by locals and tourists alike. Large shade trees provide relief from the summer heat, and strategically placed benches are ideal for sitting in quiet contemplation.
On the eastern edge of the park is a statue of Lord Simcoe, the park's namesake. A plaque describes his exploits in the development of Canada in the mid-18th century.
If you are traveling with small children, a playground and a free water park are both good spots to burn off some youthful energy. Near the south side of the park, a large bandstand occasionally is home to summer concerts. The park also has public washrooms.
10. Visit McFarland House
Dating from 1800, McFarland House is one of the oldest and best-preserved buildings in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Today, the Niagara Parks Commission operates the wonderfully restored home as a living testament to life in the early 19th century.
McFarland House is an ideal attraction to visit as a family. Children and adults alike will enjoy interacting with the costumed interpreters and artifacts from that time who are more than willing to answer questions from curious folks of all ages.
Guided tours are available daily, and the stunning grounds with their wonderful gardens reflecting the plantings of the time period are not to be missed.
McFarland House is a National Historic Site of Canada.
Address: 15927 Niagara Parkway Recreational Trail, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
11. Take a Drive to Niagara Falls
Just a short and scenic drive up the Niagara Parkway is the impressive Niagara Falls. Here the Niagara River plunges over the remains of the Niagara Escarpment into the river canyon below. Park the car when you get to town and walk to the very edge of the falls to see and hear the roar of the water crashing over the precipice.
For a more in-depth visit, consider taking the Journey Behind the Falls where you take an elevator deep into the earth behind the falls and walk through tunnels to emerge just above river level.
The tourist town of Niagara Falls back from the falls is also worth checking out. Take a stroll up Clifton Hill to get your fill of kitschy and tacky entertainment, which may have adults rolling their eyes but will delight the kids.
If you have the time, consider sticking around after sunset to enjoy the falls illuminated in a kaleidoscope of colors.
12. Shop for Deals at the Outlet Collection at Niagara
If, in the unlikely event you were unable to find the outfit you were looking for at one of the boutiques on Queen Street in the historical district of Niagara-on-the-Lake, perhaps a trip to the Outlet Collection at Niagara is in order.
A 20-minute drive away, this enormous mall is home to over 100 stores selling all kinds of things you never thought you needed. Premier brands have stores here, including Nike, Michael Kors, and Banana Republic. The mall is primarily outdoors, with covered walkways between stores. At one end of the mall area, off on its own, is a giant Bass Pro Shop.
Address: 300 Taylor Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario