About this series: With COVID-19 restrictions expected to ease over the next few months, Wheels wants to inspire you to get ready to explore – but only when it is safe to do so. This series of daytrips and weekend drives highlights great experiences you can have in the province once conditions allow and show you why Ontario is “Ours to Discover” this summer and beyond.
For the full series, click here.
It’s a single road trip but one where you will experience two different worlds. The morning takes you into the thundering glory of Niagara Falls and its eclectic, carnival-like atmosphere, followed in the afternoon by a relaxing journey among the lush vineyards of the Niagara region and the bucolic streets of Niagara-on-the-Lake. This is one journey that will guarantee something for everyone you take along for the ride.
In the morning
Leave Toronto around 7:30 a.m. driving west along the Queen Elizabeth Way. Allowing for some traffic, you should be in Niagara Falls within a couple hours. Take the exit for Highway 420, which turns into Falls Avenue. The drive will take you past the Bridal Veil Falls on your left and the famed Horseshoe Falls straight ahead. Pull into the park and pay lot at the Table Rock Centre.
Welcome to one of the world’s top tourist destinations. Follow the sidewalk north and take an iconic at-the-brink photo (where the water cascades down more than 50 metres) before venturing further along the walkway to capture additional images from all the great vantage points. Its OK to feel smugly Canadian as you realize our side of the Niagara River has far better views of the falls than the U.S. side does.
Once the shutterbugs are tired (or their smartphones are out of storage space), head to the Niagara City Cruises’ dock and board one of its boats. The 20-minute journey takes you into the swirling, spray-filled maelstrom of water at the base of Horseshoe Falls. After, your braver companions can walk over to Grand View Marketplace where Wildplay Niagara operates a zipline that feels like you are flying straight into the fall’s wall of water. The 670 metres journey ends at the observation deck below Horseshoe Falls.
Hungry after your adventure? Ask to be seated near a window at the Table Rock House Restaurant, which overlooks the falls. Its menu includes dishes made with locally sourced ingredients, like White Meadow Maple Yogurt Chicken with vegetables from area farms and Manitoulin Island Rainbow Trout served with Shoal Lake rice.
If you prefer a picnic lunch, grab sushi, burgers, pizza or wings from the to-go Table Rock Market below the main restaurant and spread out on a sunny spot on the grass around the falls. Or walk 20 minutes south to Dufferin Islands, a nature area where you can enjoy your meal while watching the ducks gliding on the water of this quieter inlet of the Niagara River.
In the afternoon
Get back into your car and turn north onto the Niagara Parkway, a road former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once called “the prettiest Sunday drive in the world.” You have a tough decision to make while driving along the roadway toward the quaint town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario.
Choice No. 1 is to pull into the parking lot at the Niagara Glen Nature Centre and hike its winding trail system to the banks of the Niagara River. The centre is home to four kilometres of trails, which provide the perfect vantage point to spot some of the more than 330 bird species that visit this nature area.
Choice No. 2 is to drive to Queenston, home to War of 1812 hero Laura Secord, and head to Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours to experience a wild ride on the rapids of the Niagara River. Be sure to opt for one of its boats without a covering so you can really experience the spray from the waves. (If we didn’t mention it earlier, you should pack a few towels in your vehicle for this road trip).
You will be spoiled for afternoon snack options once you arrive in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which was established as a settlement by United Empire Loyalists in 1781 and is full of period-restored homes and buildings. Stroll down Queen Street and take your pick of places to stop, shop and snack. Enjoy an elegant high tea at the Prince of Wales Hotel, a slice of sweet fudge from Maple Leaf Fudge or an old-fashioned ice cream cone from Taylor’s Bakery & Ice Cream. Before you leave, be sure to stop by Greaves Jams & Marmalades for a jar of its delectable offerings made using fresh fruit from the Niagara area.
In the late afternoon: Leave Niagara-on-the-Lake head south-west on Highway 55, deciding on the way who will be the designated driver for the next portion of your journey. Stop at Trius Winery, about a 10-minute drive away, for a tour of its vineyards and samples of some of its vintages, or head next door to the Wayne Gretzky Estates to taste some of its whiskeys instead. Be sure to try the Canadian Cream Whiskey, which tastes like dessert in a glass.
Finish your Niagara sipping and savoring experience by heading to the small town of Virgil to try some of the beer offerings at Silversmith Brewing Company and enjoy dinner at its prize-winning restaurant, The Altar Kitchen. Order the Sweet-and-Sassy Fried Chicken Sandwich or Blackened Haddock Sandwich.
Head back down Highway 55 to the Queen Elizabeth Way for your drive back to Toronto. If you have the time, exit at the Red Hill Valley Parkway in Hamilton to enjoy one final ice cream cone at Hutch’s on the Beach, on the shores of Lake Ontario while you watch the Toronto skyline light up at night.
For the drive
As you drive, tune into The Secret Life of Niagara Falls episode of the podcast The Secret Life of Canada (Archive) for a deep dive into one of the world’s most-visited tourist destinations. You’ll start with the geological birth of the Falls, learn about the political division between Canada and the U.S. and finish off with a fascinating overview of everything from the wax museums of Clifton Hill to the daredevils who challenged its roaring waters.
COVID-19 need to know
The Niagara region is currently under the province-wide stay-at-home order. Most Niagara shops provide curbside pickup only, while restaurants are open just for takeout service. Some parks have temporarily removed their picnic tables. Visit niagararegion.ca for the latest information on COVID-19 in the area.
• 7:30 a.m. Leave Toronto
• Drive west on the QEW
• Exit at Highway 420
• 9:30 a.m. Horseshoe Falls
• 10:15 a.m. Niagara City Cruises
• 11:30 a.m. Wildplay Niagara
• Side stop: Ride the Niagara SkyWheel on nearby Clifton Hill
• 12:30 p.m. Table Rock House Restaurant/Dufferin Islands
•Side stop: Visit the newly refurbished Niagara Parks Power Station
• Drive the Niagara Parkway
• 2 p.m. Niagara Glen/Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours
• 3:30 p.m. Niagara-on-the-Lake
• 5 p.m. Trius Winery/Wayne Gretsky Estates
• Side stop: Visit the roadside farm stands selling fresh goods
• 6 p.m. Silversmith Brewing Company
• 7:30 p.m. Drive toward Toronto
• 8:30 p.m. Hutch’s on the Beach
• 9 p.m. Drive back to Toronto
NOTE: Times are suggestions only