14 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Niagara Falls, NY
The Niagara Falls are among the most impressive and best-known falls in the world. They lie in the extreme northwest of New York State along the U.S./Canadian border, which is formed by the Niagara River. Here, masses of water from Lake Erie plunge over an almost 200-foot drop to flow into Lake Ontario, attracting more than 12 million visitors a year.
There are three waterfalls in total: Bridal Veil Falls; American Falls; and the widest, Horseshoe Falls. Downstream, the river rushes through a tight passage in Niagara Gorge then churns in a giant whirlpool. There are a wide variety of ways to view the falls, both from dry land and right up close in the spray. Once you have soaked up the spectacular falls, there are plenty of things to do in this lovely upstate town, as well as just across the river in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
Plan your next visit with our list of the top attractions and things to do in Niagara Falls, New York.
See also: Where to Stay in Niagara Falls
1. Niagara Falls State Park
Niagara Falls State Park is New York's oldest state park, opened in 1885, and home to a trio of impressive waterfalls and five islands on the Niagara River. Overall, the park covers 400 acres that include nature and bike trails, picnic facilities, and scenic photo-ops.
For those whose legs need a break, the park's vintage-style trolley brings visitors to the park's main attractions, like the Observation Tower, where there are panoramic views of all three falls. There are also sightseeing tours available, including boat tours like the Maid of the Mist and other close-up experiences.
The park's visitor center also has a lot to offer, including historical exhibits, a gift shop, multiple restaurants, and the Adventure Theater. Here, visitors can enjoy a 40-minute "4-D" presentation that combines film and sensory effects, like spray from the falls, to provide an immersive experience for the whole family.
Maps, area information, and tickets for the park's attractions and top places to visit can also be found at the visitor center. The falls are lit at night, and there are fireworks presentations throughout the year.
An excellent way to see the highlights of the falls while enjoying door-to door service is the Niagara Falls American Side Highlights Tour. This five-hour guided tour includes admission to Niagara Falls State Park, the Maid of the Mist tour, as well as tours of the Cave of Winds, the Niagara Falls Observation Tower, and Goat Island.
Official site: http://www.niagarafallsstatepark.com/
2. Prospect Point Observation Tower
The Prospect Point Observation Tower is the best way to admire the full grandeur of the falls from Niagara Falls, NY. Located close enough to the falls to occasionally enjoy their refreshing spray, the tower is accessed via a broad observation deck that extends beyond the tower and over the water. From here, tourists can get a clear view of all three falls, including American Falls, as well as the mesmerizing rapids.
The boarding area for the Maid of the Mist tours is located at the base of the tower, accessed by high-speed elevator from the observation deck. The base of the tower also provides access to the Crow's Nest, a smaller observation tower located much closer to the falls. The Crow's Nest is accessed via a trail and set of stairs. This short hike is also located within an Audubon Important Bird Area, which is home to several varieties of gulls, as well as peregrine falcons and bald eagles.
The tower is located on the site of the former High Bank Industrial Mill, now considered part of the Historic Mill District that was active between 1861 and 1918. Like many river-side towns, the quick rise in manufacturing also led to a hasty increase in pollution. The New York State Reservation Park was established in 1885 in an attempt to preserve some of the area's natural beauty, but the hydroelectric and industrial businesses continued to grow until the early 20th century, when pollution became too bad to ignore. By the 1940s, most of the mills had been removed.
3. Maid of the Mist
The Maid of the Mist is the longest-running boat tour of the falls, in operation since 1846. It is also the most popular of attractions at Niagara Falls State Park, and for good reason. Tourists embark from the base of the Observation Tower, donning the blue ponchos and setting out in the river into Niagara Gorge on a double-decker boat.
The 30-minute tour visits both American Falls and Horseshoe Falls, riding up close to the base where hundreds of thousands of gallons of water crash down each second. This unforgettable tour operates in season from April through November, and tickets are purchased in the state park's visitor center.
4. Goat Island's Cave of Winds
From Prospect Point, a path crosses a bridge on to little Green Island, in the middle of the rapids just above the American Falls, and then over another bridge on to Goat Island, between the American and the Horseshoe Falls. On Goat Island, at the foot of the American Falls, is the entrance to the Cave of the Winds from where boardwalks lead to just under the falls.
Prior to descending the 175-feet into the gorge, visitors to the Cave of Winds are provided with ponchos and souvenir sandals - a must for anyone who doesn't want to spend the rest of the day in soggy shoes. Named the "hurricane deck" for its constant state of stormy conditions, the wooden platform stands only 20 feet from the tumbling water of Bridal Veil Falls.
Tourists can also access Luna Island by gangway from the northern tip of Goat Island, and a network of walkways provide additional chances to see both American Falls and Horseshoe Falls from a different perspective.
5. Whirlpool Rapids
Three miles below the American Falls, the river changes course again, forming a whirlpool in the great cauldron originally created by tectonic movements, then turning northeast over the Lower Rapids towards Lake Ontario. These rapids are some of the world's most dangerous, with 100,000 cubic feet of water moving through the narrow Whirlpool Gorge each second.
From the New York side of the river, visitors can hike down a series of paths and stairs to an observation point that was once a stop on the Great Gorge Railway. A more navigable way to view the whirlpool and rapids is the Whitewater Walk, which is wheelchair accessible, but does require a visit to Canada's Niagara Park in Ontario.
Whirlpool Rapids Bridge is also a popular way to view the falls from above, spanning the Niagara River between the United States and Canada.
6. Niagara Gorge Trail (Rim Trail)
The Rim Trail offers a range of stunning views, running south to north along the top edge of the gorge. It is designated as "easy," offering a well-tended gravel base, however it does include several sets of rather steep steps. The trail is 6.2 miles long one-way, beginning at the Niagara Gorge Trailhead Center (by the Discovery Center) and ending by the Robert Moses Power Plant.
At the northernmost end of the trail, hikers can continue on Artpark Gorge Trail for another 1.3 miles (easy to moderate difficulty) to reach the Artpark State Park, which is just north of the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge.
River's Edge Trail is also located in this park, and as its name promises, it offers hikers the opportunity to see the river on its own level. This easy trail is only 1.2 miles and an excellent choice for those who might have difficulty on the other most challenging waterside trails.
Alternatively, hikers can double back and then diverge onto either the Robert Moses Recreation Trail (easy level), which traverses Deveaux Wood State Park, or the more challenging Devil's Hole Trail. The Robert Moses trail is fully paved and allows cycling, skating, and cross-country skiing in winter. It is 3.2 miles long and extends from its junction with the Rim Trail back to the Niagara Gorge Trailhead. The park offers guided tours from May through October, weather permitting.
Visitors who are looking for shorter paths that depart from the Trailhead Center have other options that explore the Niagara River Gorge. The Great Gorge Railway Trail (easy) is about 1.1 miles one-way, ending in a staircase that leads up to the Rim Trail; hikers can forego the stairs and double-back for a hike that's approximately two miles total. This trail descends from the trailhead gradually and offers great views near river level, as well as scenic views from overlooks.
The American Falls Gorge Trail (moderate) can only be accessed via the Railway Trail, extending along the water upstream to the Rainbow Bridge. It is about one mile round trip and offers great views of the Schoellkopf Power Station.
7. Devil's Hole State Park & Devil's Hole Rapids
Devil's Hole State Park is named for its position along the Devil's Hole Rapids, which are located downstream from the Whirlpool and Whirlpool State Park. The Devil's Hole Trail is rated moderate; however, it includes a great deal of stairs and some rock fall risk since it leads down the embankment and along the gorge near the edge of the water.
This 1.25-mile trail is accessed via the Niagara Gorge Trail (Rim Trail), either directly at its northern end or via the Whirlpool Rapids Trail to the south. Its proximity to the water at Devil's Hole Rapids makes it an excellent spot to appreciate the sheer magnitude and power of the water.
The Whirlpool Rapids Trail is the most difficult of the system's trails, including a steep staircase, a few areas with narrow passage, and some boulder hopping. It totals 1.3 miles one-way, but does not connect with any other trails at its southernmost end. Those on the Devil's Hole Trail can continue on this path upstream to enjoy the views of the Whirlpool and Whirlpool Rapids and then double back to return to the Rim Trail via the Rapids Trail staircase.
8. Aquarium of Niagara
The Aquarium of Niagara is a fun diversion for families and a great option for chilly or rainy days. Here, you will find more than 200 species of aquatic animals, as well as 30 educational exhibits. Aquarium presentations include a sea lion show, harbor seal presentations, and the penguin feeding.
Visitors can also choose to have an animal encounter with a behind-the-scenes look at the care, training, and social lives of seals and Humboldt penguins. The aquarium also serves as an animal rescue center for injured wildlife.
Address: 701 Whirlpool Street, Niagara Falls, New York
Official site: www.aquariumofniagara.org
9. Castellani Art Museum of Niagara University
The Castellani Art Museum was founded by the Castellani family in 1976 to further the study and appreciation of art at Niagara University and the region. The permanent collection includes more than 5,600 works in a wide range of media that dates from the 1850s to the present.
Examples include paintings, drawings, photos, and sculpture, as well as pre-Columbian ceramics. The bulk of the museum's collection is focused on artwork created since the 1970s and features prominent and emerging contemporary artists. The museum is located on the Niagara University campus.
Address: Niagara University, 5795 Lewiston Road, Niagara Falls, New York
Official site: www.castellaniartmuseum.org
10. Old Fort Niagara
Old Fort Niagara offers visitors the opportunity to explore one of the most important forts of the 18th century, crucial in maintaining control of access to the Great Lakes during the colonial wars. The visitor center and the fort's many restored original buildings include exhibits and artifacts. During the summer, there are living history interpreters who demonstrate what daily life was like, from routine chores to working artisans.
Guided tours are also available in-season, and during the off-season, visitors are encouraged to enjoy an orientation video and self-guided exploration of the grounds. The fort also hosts special events, including re-enactments, and there are hourly musket demonstrations year-round.
Address: 102 Morrow Plaza, Youngstown, New York
Official site: www.oldfortniagara.org
11. Excursions to Canadian Sites
One of the best things about Niagara Falls is its proximity to its twin, Niagara Falls, Ontario. Here, you will find a variety of tourist attractions, including some unique ways to enjoy the natural wonders of the river and falls. Visitors can take a peek at the underside of Horseshoe Falls from portals carved into the rock beneath, accessed by tunnels that were carved more than 130 years ago.
To get a thrilling view of the whirlpool, the vintage 1916 aerial cable car called the Aero Car offers unparalleled views from above. Visitors will also enjoy the Clifton Hill amusement park with a plethora of entertainment options, from midway games to bowling, arcades, and coaster-track go-karts. It is also home to the Niagara Skywheel, Canada's biggest observation wheel, which offers stunning views of the falls and Niagara Gorge.
12. Three Sisters Islands
Located off Goat Island upstream of Horseshoe Falls, this group actually consists of four small islands. The three largest were named after the daughter of General Parkhurst Whitney (Asenath, Angeline, and Celinda Eliza), and the fourth is referred to as Little Brother Island or Solon.
The three larger islands can be accessed via footbridges from Goat Island; the path to the bridge is located near the Terrapin Point Viewing Area. Like a peaceful oasis, the islands feature picturesque stone walkways and cheerful foliage while giving visitors a unique perspective of the Upper Falls area.
13. Schoellkopf Power Station Ruins
During its industrial heyday, Niagara Falls was home to numerous hydroelectric power stations. Construction on the Schoellkopf Power Station began in 1905 and continued through 1924, at which point it was the largest of its kind in the world. It gained infamy on June 7, 1956, when a small seepage detected in the morning gave way to a collapse by the end of the day, destroying two-thirds of the plant in a massive rush. The station was not rebuilt, and today the site is a testament to the impressive and enduring power of water.
The ruins can best be viewed from the American Falls Gorge Trail, accessed via the Rim Trail and Great Gorge Railway Trail.
14. Fashion Outlets of Niagara Falls USA
After a day of sightseeing or when the weather isn't cooperative, a visit to the Fashion Outlets is a great diversion. Located near the airport and just over the river from Canada via North Grand Island Bridge, it's a convenient place for both shopping and dining.
Unlike many other outlet complexes, this once features an indoor setting that allows shoppers to move from store to store without having to brave the elements. In addition to offering many well-known clothing brands, shoppers will find outlet shops for big-brand accessories, shoes, and personal care, as well as nail and hair salons.
Dining options include full-service restaurants, as well as quick-bite kiosks and specialty shops.
Address: Fashion Outlets Boulevard, Niagara Falls, New York
Official site: www.FashionOutletsNiagara.com
Where to Stay in Niagara Falls for Sightseeing
While there are several things to see and do in Niagara Falls, the main attractions are the waterfalls themselves, so the best option is to find a hotel within walking distance of the falls and Niagara Falls State Park, or along the river gorge. This is where most of the best hotels are found. Below is a list of some highly rated hotels in convenient locations.
- The Red Coach Inn Historic Bed and Breakfast Hotel is a charming and romantic 1923 English Tudor style inn, with a fantastic location overlooking the rapids, and just a short stroll to the edge of the falls and Goat Island.
- With a more modern feel, The Giacomo is a boutique hotel set in a 1923 Art Deco tower, and is within easy walking distance to the falls and the Cave of the Winds.
- A little farther back, but still within walking distance, the Sheraton at the Falls has an indoor pool and is close to several good restaurants and cafés.
- Just a short distance upstream from the falls and Goat Island is the Hampton Inn Niagara Falls, with an indoor pool and a complimentary breakfast.
- The Comfort Inn The Pointe is in a great location, just steps from Niagara Falls, and close to the aquarium and Rainbow Bridge.
- For something a little more cozy, the Bedham Hall Bed and Breakfast has tastefully decorated guest rooms with private baths while offering top-rate amenities, including free Wi-Fi, a mini-fridge, and use of the hot tub; rates include a fresh-cooked breakfast.
- Within walking distance of the falls, Rodeway Inn & Suites Niagara Falls is a good-value hotel, with some rooms offering a microwave and fridge.
- In a little better location, closer to the falls, the Howard Johnson is a pet-friendly hotel with a pool and complimentary breakfast.
- Further downstream, the Gorge View is a popular hostel with a variety of accommodation options for those who are on a tight budget.
Frequently Asked Questions
When is the best time to visit Niagara Falls?
The summer months are the most popular time for tourists to visit Niagara Falls, and as a result, this is when the hotel prices will be highest. Visitors can get better rates during the late spring and early autumn. Most outdoor tours, including the Maid Of the Mist boat tour, operate from the beginning of May through the end of October, with the winter and early spring months usually proving to be too cold to enjoy some the attractions.
Is it easy to cross the border to see the falls from Canada?
There are three bridges crossing the Niagara River into Canada near the falls, two of which have pedestrian lanes. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the border crossing here is just as stringent as any other, so be sure to have valid passports at the ready. Those traveling with children should be sure to have a valid ID and all appropriate paperwork showing permission, if needed.