Niagara Falls smack down : The American falls vs The Canadian Side

niagara falls bridal veil falls

Now that I have been to both sides of Niagara Falls, I realized just how different the American and the Canadian side are and wanted to share with you the pros and cons of each side, similarities and the main differences, and which side I think you should visit when you plan a trip to Niagara Falls.

Unless you’re a total geography buff, you’re probably not familiar with the exact location and division of the Falls between the U.S. and Canada, so let’s start with some background information.

horseshoe falls and rainbowSome background info on Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls are located 20 minutes (17 miles / 27 km) north of Buffalo, New York on the American side, and about 90 minutes south of Toronto, Ontario (75 miles / 121 km) on the Canadian side. The Falls are located on the Niagara River, a short river that connects Lake Erie with Lake Ontario (two of the five Great Lakes). Each side has a city right by the Falls, and both are appropriately named Niagara Falls. More on both later.

Niagara Falls actually consist of three sets of waterfalls: the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side, and the Bridal Veil Falls as well as the American Falls on U.S. soil.

Together, they make for the world’s biggest waterfalls by flow rate, with an average of 4 million cubic feet (110,000 m3) of water falling over the crest line every minute and up to 6 million cubic feet (168,000 m3) in high flow.

American Falls and Horseshoe FallsIn comparison to other famous waterfalls, Niagara Falls are fairly small though:

Niagara Falls

  • Width: Horseshoe Falls 2,600 feet (790 meters), American Falls 1,060 feet (320 meters)
  • Height: 167 feet (51 meters)

Iguazu Falls

  • Width: 8,858 feet (2,700 meters)
  • Height: 210 – 269 feet (64 – 82 meters)

Victoria Falls

  • Width: 5,604 feet (1,708 meters)
  • Height: 360 feet (108 meters)

Niagara Falls MapWhile they are only about a third in width of Iguazu Falls and less than half the height of Victoria Falls, they are still an incredible sight and well worth a visit, and they are still the biggest waterfalls in North America.

As I mentioned before, the Falls can be either visited from the American side or from the Canadian side, and I have compiled everything you need to know about visiting either side.

niagara falls with rainbowSimilarities

Let’s start with what’s similar on both sides. No matter if you’re visiting from the States or from Canada, you can take a 30-minute boat ride close up to the massive Horseshoe Falls; the Maid Of The Mist leaves every half hour from the U.S. and its Canadian counterpart is the Hornblower Niagara Cruise. Another thing that both sides offer is the possibility to get close up to the Falls with a set of walkways / viewpoints that are right by the Falls.

It is possible to visit Niagara Falls entirely for free anything from either country.

Getting close up to Niagara Falls
Getting close to the Falls from Canada and from the U.S.


The biggest difference between visiting the Falls from Canada and the U.S. are the views you get. Let’s be honest, Canada just lucked out here and simply has the better vistas: you can get the entire panoramic view of all three waterfalls from the edge of the gorge here, while from the U.S., you’ll have difficulties seeing the entire ‘horseshoe’, despite the various observation decks. The American Falls themselves can only be seen if you pay to enter the Cave of the Winds walkways, but then you also only see them from the bottom and not in full panorama.

The U.S. side has an advantage though: here, you can get really close to the Falls. While you can get close to the Horseshoe Falls in Canada, you can truly feel the American Falls.niagara falls

Here is some more information on each side:

The Canadian Side

The Canadian side of Niagara Falls offers you the full panoramic view of all the falls. You can walk along a wide sidewalk along the Niagara Falls Parkway right on the rim of the gorge for about a mile and look down into the Niagara River and see the Falls across from you.

niagara falls american falls from canada
The American Falls seen from Canada

If you want even broader views of the Falls, you can go up on the Skylon Tower from where you have stunning overhead vistas. The Skylon Tower also has a revolving restaurant, so that you can enjoy a meal or some drinks with those epic views. Reserving a table here includes free access to the observation deck If you book only a ticket, it’s only CAD10.71 if you book it online! The Brunch Buffet at CAD27.50 is actually pretty good value, considering it includes the observation deck as well.

You can get really close to the Horseshoe Falls if you pay for the Journey Behind The Falls experience. You get to take an elevator down 150 feet (45 meters), walk through a series of caves and finally get to an observation deck right next to the falls. While it is called Behind The Falls, don’t expect to actually get behind them: it’s more like getting a glimpse behind them. You will get drenched though (rain ponchos are provided), and will hear the thundering noise of the rushing water really close up. Admission for the Journey Behind The Falls is CAD15.95 plus tax.

Niagara Falls Journey Behind the Falls
The Journey Behind The Falls

If you stay overnight, make sure to come back at night to see the Niagara Falls light show. After sunset, the falls are illuminated in changing colors – it is a neat sight. During the summer months, there are also fireworks on Fridays and Sundays and on public holidays.

If you have difficulties walking, there is a hop-on hop-off bus service that connects the main attractions in town and several lookouts along the Falls; a day ticket is $7 per person. You can find the schedule and route map here.

niagara falls at night
The Falls lit up

The American Side

The American side might not have the panoramic views that Canada has, but it lets you get super close to the water. There is one big observation deck which you can enter for free and where you get the best vistas of a big part of the falls.

You can also take the 30-minute boat ride into the rushing Horseshoe Falls and get soaked that way, or you walk along the wooden walkways of the Cave Of The Winds experience. The cave that it is named after is long gone (it collapsed in 1954), but the walkways and viewing points, 175 feet (53 meters) deep into the Niagara Gorge, get you so close to the waterfalls that you basically get a free (and strong!) shower, especially on the appropriately named Hurricane Deck at the bottom of the American Falls. On this deck, you are only 20 feet (6 meters) from the Bridal Veil Falls! Admission for the Cave of the Winds experience is USD12 per person, the Maid Of The Mist is USD17.

niagara falls hurricane deck
Getting soaked on the Hurricane Deck

In addition to these paid-for experiences, there is are several viewing points at the rim, one right in between the two American Falls (on Goat Island, a little Island that separates the American Falls from the Horseshoe Falls).

There is a hop-on hop-off trolley service in the Niagara State Park for only $2 per person if you have difficulties walking.

Winner: Canada, these views are just unbeatable!

horseshoe falls with mist
The Horseshoe Falls seen from Canada

The cities

Niagara Falls Canada

It’s no secret that Jess and I weren’t the biggest fans of this town when we visited the Canadian side in 2011. The city felt tacky, everything was set up to get every tourist dollar possible: haunted houses (seriously, who needs four haunted houses? Especially in a city that small.), wax museums, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, Hershey’s Chocolate World and many fast food chains.

If you can’t entertain your kids with an awe-inspiring natural wonder, you’ll get the chance to do that here (and spend lots of cash). Ironically, most of the chains who set up shop here are American, it seems like even they knew the Canadian side is the one that’s bringing in the big bucks. For the grown-ups in need of additional entertainment, there are not one but TWO casinos to carry your money to.

Niagara Falls Canada with Skylon TowerNiagara Falls USA

The American side feels more tranquil, less crowded and less tacky – other than a Wax Museum of History, a haunted house and an aquarium, and the giant casino that’s towering over all the other buildings, there is not much here. The town makes an effort though to provide some entertainment that you don’t have to pay for and that’s more family-friendly, like free board games, outdoor movie nights in the summer, concerts and even fitness events. You can find the entire program here.

I thought that there was much greener here, and it is known that you can go on better hikes along the Niagara River from here. This side is definitely right for you if you’re planning a couple of hikes in addition to visiting the Falls. You can find some more details on the hiking options here.

Winner: Niagara Falls USA

niagara fallsWhich side should you visit?

Absolutely no question: Visit both sides! I’d recommend planning in enough time to visit both Canada’s and the American side to get the full Niagara experience. I thought it was very similar to my experience at Iguazu Falls – while I got to get a real close-up encounter with the Falls on the Argentinian side, the breathtaking vistas are what you only get from Brazil. At the Niagara Falls, you get the greatest views from Canada, but the better close-up experience from the U.S.

niagara falls close up
Getting close to the Falls on the American side

How to cross the border at Niagara Falls

Thanks to the Rainbow Bridge, which connects Canada and the U.S. right by the Falls, you can easily cross from one country into the other – as long as you pack your passport! Make also sure to check visa regulations for your country of origin. The toll to cross the bridge is 0.50 Cent if you cross on foot, but higher for cars, RVs and trucks. You can find the current prices here. If you visit the Falls with your car, there’s no need for you to take it to the other side – you can just walk over the bridge and explore the Falls on foot, unless you aren’t in good health.

niagara falls panorama
The panoramic views from the Canadian side

Have you been to Niagara Falls? If you have tips and recommendations how travelers can maximize their experience, feel free to share them in the comments below!

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Facing my fear of heights in Whistler, Canada

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I remember standing on top of the Eiffel Tower and how my knees turned to jelly when I looked down. How my heart rate doubled when I was walking across the bouncing suspension bridge over the Rio Grande Gorge in New Mexico last year.

One of the worst experiences was walking along the indoor balcony of Mexico City’s Fine Arts Palace, where only a small balustrade keeps people from falling down onto the ground floor. Just coming somewhat close to that balustrade caused me to nearly hyperventilate. Even being inside of high buildings is enough to make butterflies swirl around in my tummy – not the good kind though… More like thousands of annoying little ants running around my intestines. Reading this story about the floor of the glass bottom viewing boxes in Chicago’s Willis Tower cracking was enough to give me sweaty palms.

I remember how everyone was hanging out in that box the last time we went up there to enjoy the views over Chicago, seemingly careless and happy about the thrill of seeing the street right below their feet, and me just wanting to pull them all out of that damn thing, sweating heavily and my heart racing.

Willis Tower Chicago Glass Bottom

My fear of heights is bordering on a panic of heights. The edge walk on top of Toronto’s CN Tower? My nightmare. Abseiling from the highest building in La Paz? Horror. Walking on a tiny walkway hundreds of meters above an abyss? Unthinkable. And just looking at the height in these pictures of the world’s tallest rope swing make me feel like throwing up. Bungee jumping o skydiving? Only over my dead body.

death road bolivia
But then I did this recently. Don’t ask! I’ll be sharing the full story behind this photo soon.

And yet, here I was, standing on the lowest step of a set of stairs that led into nothing but thin air, about to step off it, into… nothing. The ground hundreds of feet below me (apparently the height is equivalent to a 20-story building), and I was only hooked to a small metal snap hook via a thin rope that was holding my harness (and my entire body weight!), connected to an over 2,000ft long steel rope; the end of it not even visible from our starting point. What the hell was I doing here?!

Rease Ziplining
Not everyone was as terrified as I was. Certainly not Rease!

This wasn’t my first attempt at zip-lining. The first one in 2007 seemed even more pathetic now that I was about to whiz from one mountain to another with speeds up to 90kmh/55mph. Back then, Jess and I were visiting Cornwall and were invited to try out a brand new zip line off a cliff over a beach – one single short zip line, and we’d be lowered to the ground (which was much closer to the zip line than this one) after a quick 20-second ride. We were standing next to each other on the parallel steps, counting down: three, two, one… And neither of us let go. This went on for about fifteen minutes until we eventually jumped off the cliff (literally), even though we were both terrified and convinced that we were stupid for doing this. I felt sick to my bones all day after that.

Fast forward seven years and here I am on a parallel zip line again, this time about to jump off a stair that leads into the air, and four more ropes like this one after that.

Admittedly, I wasn’t here because my idea of an awesome afternoon in Whistler involved whizzing through tree tops, but because the fab team behind the Great Coast Road Trip had arranged this activity for us two adventurous girls. And at the time, it had seemed like a splendid idea. Now that I was actually about to jump off these stairs, not so much anymore. Like, not at all. Could I possibly chicken out?

dani ziplining

When the first two people went, I felt my heart sink to my boots. I told Rease we’d had to go soon after – I knew that if I waited too long, my fear would turn into panic and there was no way I would be able to let go once that happened. The next two people went, and we were up next. I felt like crying. Why do people do this, I thought to myself. Rease on the other hand was beyond excited and couldn’t wait to go. I had to do it. Back in Cornwall, it was just the two of us – we could have chickened out – but here was a whole group that was in search of a thrill, which meant if I would take as long as I took in England, I’d slow down (and annoy) the whole group.

dani ziplining in whistler canada

Three, two, one… And I let go. My heart skipped a beat as I sped off into the unknown – truly the unknown, because you couldn’t see the other side – down the line, faster and faster, the giant gap between me and the ground always right in front of my eyes. A million thoughts raced through my head, from ‘Oh my god the rope is gonna snap, I will die’ to ‘I really want to see a bear.. Is that one down there?!.. Not so fast!!’ to ‘WTF am I doing here!?’.

ziplining whistler

When we, after what seemed like an eternity but in reality was probably not more than 60 seconds, finally reached the other side, I could barely feel my legs. I was so shaky that I was almost not able to walk. For a moment I thought I might pass out.

dani ziplining

All I could think was: I have to do this four more times. Instead of facing my fear only once, I had to go through this nightmare five times. This was insane!

The rest of the group had a blast. The faster, the better, it seemed, and people were even zipping hanging upside down (hi Rease, you daredevil!), with their arms spread wide open, enjoying the exhilarating thrill of flying through the air. For me, every ride was basically like this :

*You can turn on the sound to hear my terrified screams by clicking on the speaker symbol in the left hand corner of the picture*

You would think it’d get easier with each time, but it didn’t. Each and every time I was convinced the rope would snap, and I would reach the other side shaking. I only wanted to make through it…. Which, in the end, I did.

Was it the most horrible thing I’ve ever done? Probably not. Would I do it again? Probably not. But it also wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever done – and I faced my fear.

What’s your biggest fear? Have you faced it?

Thanks to Rease for capturing my terrified face and screaming.
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Polaroid of the week: The winter wonderland of Whistler, Canada

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polaroid of the week canada whistlerWhen we arrived in Whistler, the second stop on our Great Coast Road Trip, on a beautiful spring day, we had no idea that a couple of hours later, we would be walking through snow instead of green grass! But the higher we took the gondola up to Whistler Mountain, the more the grass was replaced by patches of snow, until eventually a thick blanket of snow covered the entire ground. We couldn’t believe how much snow there still was, and that people were still snow tubing! At an altitude of 2,284 meters/ 7,494 feet, the snow lasts here until deep into the summer months – apparently, it doesn’t melt until August!

Whistler is one of the most popular ski resorts in Canada, but even now that the ski season has officially ended, the village was buzzing with people! We learned that Whistler was not only a mecca for ski and snowboard aficionados but also for downhill mountain bikers, hikers, water sport fans and climbers, who keep the village nearly as busy in the summer as it is during the winter months. I can’t wait to share more about my time in Whistler with you, which was jam-packed with gondola rides (including the Peak2Peak gondola which holds the record for the longest unsupported span with 3.024 km/1.88 miles), ziplining through the treetops around Whistler, exploring lakes and waterfalls and some seriously good food!

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Polaroid of the week: Walking on rainbows in Vancouver, Canada

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polaroid of the week canada vancouver rainbowHello from Canada! I arrived in Vancouver on Friday for the Great Coast Road Trip with my friend Rease (more details on that trip here, plus two awesome giveaways!) and we’ve had an amazing start to the trip with a picture-perfect spring weather this weekend! There was not a single cloud in the sky when we took a cable car up to Grouse Mountain, the Peak of Vancouver, to take in the splendid views over the city and the Strait of Georgia. We didn’t quite expect snow up on the mountain, but it turns out that up here at 4,000ft /1,200m there’s still snow in June!

After our mountain visit we returned to sea level and started our exploration of Vancouver. We rented bikes and cycled for hours through the city, checking out neighborhoods like Gastown (the historic birthplace of Vancouver), Granville Island, Yaletown (a revitalized waterfront neighborhood) and Davie Village, Vancouver’s gayborhood, where we stumbled upon these colorful rainbow pedestrian crossings. They were introduced here last summer just in time for Vancouver’s big Gay Pride celebrations and have permanently replaced the black and white crossings.

Our next stop is Whistler, and I can’t wait to head up into the mountains! Luckily I’ll be back in Vancouver to explore more of the city mid-next week – I know I have only scratched the surface so far, but watching the sunset at the beach (with huge crowds!), running in Stanley Park, eating ridiculously good ethnic food and getting a feel for the different neighborhoods made for an excellent start.

You can follow my Canadian adventure live on Instagram and Twitter #greatcoastroadtrip.

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Goodbye 2011: Our year of travel in pictures

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Another unforgettable year is coming to an end – this time it is our second year as full-time travelers! We’ve literally been around the world this year and, rather than rattle off a list of everywhere we’ve been, this Goodbye 2011 post will highlight our favorite pictures of the year, starting in Central America and ending in Thailand after stints in Europe, the U.S. and Canada.

January 2011

As we mentioned in our Goodbye to 2010 post, we began the year at Lake Yojoa in Honduras, where we were the only guests at our hotel. 2011 started out as laid-back as can be…

January Lake Yojoa HondurasFor more January highlights, check out our Facebook album Best of 2011: January (Honduras & Nicaragua).

February 2011

Shortly after the start of the New Year, we moved on to Nicaragua – and fell head over heels in love with the country. The picture was taken in Masaya, just outside of Granada…one of Nicaragua’s most visited cities. Throughout the country, the horse and buggy is still a common and totally valid form of transportation – alongside cars, buses, SUVs, motorcycles and bicycles.

february nicaragua masaya church &horse carriageFor more February highlights check out our Facebook album Best of 2011: February (Nicaragua & Costa Rica).

March 2011

After three relaxing weeks in Costa Rica we made our way to Panama and were most impressed with the Casco Viejo area of Panama City (check out our picture post of Casco Viejo). We resisted actually picking up a Panama hat, but couldn’t resist photographing them. Panamanians have certainly got style!

March Panama hats in Casco Viejo panamaFor more March highlights check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: March (Costa Rica, Panama & Germany).

April 2011

Going from six months in the developing countries of Central America to visiting the mighty castles of Germany was an extreme contrast. This is what we love most about our nomadic lifestyle! At the end of the month we completed our first year on the road (find out how much we spent in one year of travel here).

april neuschwanstein castle bavaria germanyFor more April highlights check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: April (Germany, Austria & Italy)

May 2011

In Spring we traveled in Europe, from Germany and Austria to a few weeks in Tuscany. While we were both blown away by the romance of the countryside, the taste of the wine and the warmth of the locals, it was the pizza…the glorious pizza…that became the highlight of May 2011 for us.

may italy montaione pizzas & wineFor more May 2011 highlights including Jess with a group of aliens in Spain, check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: May (Italy & Spain).

June 2011

In the first week of June, we went on our first ever cruise and followed that up by reaching 400 days on the road! Just a week later we would discover a city that could possibly, one day, be called home: Lisbon, Portugal. The Portuguese capital just ticks so many boxes – laid-back, sunny, warm, good (and cheap) coffee, beaches as far as the eye can see, plenty of history and oozing with charm. What struck us most was how similar Lisbon is to San Francisco. We spent three fabulous weeks here in June (despite a near heart attack experience that still has us cracking up).

june portugal lisbon tram 28For more June highlights, check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: June (Spain, Corsica, Portugal).

July 2011

From Lisbon we flew directly to Toronto to begin an entirely new North American chapter of our travels. We spent six weeks house-sitting outside of Ottawa. These weeks were filled with exploring adorable villages, peaceful sunset bike rides, evenings in the jacuzzi and hanging with the friendly neighbors drinking great Canadian micro-brews.

july kemptville ontario sunsetFor more July highlights, check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: July (Canada).

August 2011

August was truly an unforgettable month that brought us through Montreal, Quebec, Boston, and the start of our NYC2NOLA road trip through New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC on our way down to New Orleans. While we loved the freedom of the open road, it was our four nights in New York that dazzled us the most. There is just something about this concrete jungle that gets us every time.

For more August highlights, check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: August (Canada & USA).

September 2011

After four weeks and over 4,000 miles we finally made it to New Orleans in September. What we found when we arrived is a city with style, individuality and people with a zest for life and love of music like we’ve never experienced before. We could easily spend more than a week in the Big Easy…in fact we toyed with the idea of a few months here sometime in the future, too. On September 13th, just before reaching Chicago, we hit 500 days on the road.

september New Orleans voodoo skeletonsFor more September highlights, check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: September (U.S. Road Trip).

October 2011

And then we flew to the other side of the planet – for our first trip to South East Asia! We started in Thailand, and it was definitely a relief to gaze out at this crystal blue water after a few chilly weeks in Chicago and Colorado!

thailand long tail boats phi phi lei islandFor more October highlights, check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: October (Chicago, Colorado & Thailand).

November 2011

After finding a good place to settle down to work in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, we hopped a series of buses and boats to travel around northern Laos for the last two weeks of November. While the two countries have their similarities, we were struck by how much simpler life in Laos is compared to fast-paced and modern Thailand. We have learned so much since arriving in Asia, especially about Buddhism – and have become accustomed to sharing our daily lives with the hundreds of monks populating cities and villages across the Buddhist nations.

november young monks luang prabang laosFor more November highlights, check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: November (Thailand & Laos).

December 2011

The last month of 2011 marked a major milestone for us, as we hit 600 days on the road! In some ways it feels as though we have just started traveling. Looking back at everything we have done in these six hundred days truly feels like an accomplishment. One lesson we have learned is that in order to be happy as nomads, we need to know when to take longer breaks and relax. That’s why we booked ourselves in to an apartment in Chiang Mai for one month in December. We love this city, as it has everything we could ever need or want. We celebrated Christmas with friends, went on hikes, spent time with elephants, eaten endless veggie cuisine and learned so much about Thai culture and tradition.

december moat at sunset chiang mai thailandFor more December highlights, check out our Facebook album: Best of 2011: December (Laos & Thailand).

Happy New Year 2012 to all our readers!

We would love for you to tell us about your travel highlights for 2011 in the comments below – we’re always on the lookout for new locations about where to travel next!

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Ottawa UnLOCKed: Finding the key to conquering Canada’s Capital City

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Canada’s capital city is clean, green, and home to some of the world’s friendliest citizens, so it is easy to feel immediately at ease here. However, the key to truly conquering Ottawa is all about the locks…ottawa view over river and parliamentKeep Out: Constructing the Canal

While Ottawa is more than welcoming now, the city hasn’t always been that way.  Nearly 200 years ago, a British colonel, Colonel By, was sent over and put to the task of protecting Canada from its pesky American neighbors, rumored to be planning an invasion of Canadian territory by way of the St Lawrence Seaway. It turns out that while we made our way through the city this summer, I wouldn’t have been the first American attempting to conquer this area of Ontario.

It was Colonel By’s task to construct the Rideau Canal, which, in bypassing the St Lawrence River bordering New York, would secure the supply and communications route between Montreal and the British naval base in Kingston. Travel would proceed along the Ottawa River to Bytown (named for Colonel By, this was originally a makeshift town in the swampy wilderness. It’s known today as Ottawa) and then continuing southwest via the canal to Kingston before emptying into Lake Ontario.

ottawa rideau canal locksToday, these eight mighty locks are a perfect starting off point for exploring Ottawa. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Locks 1-8 lower the waters of the Rideau Canal to meet the Ottawa River 30 feet below. Both the majestic Parliament Hill and magnificent Fairmont Chateau Laurier castle hotel rise high above the Rideau to give this part of Ottawa an entirely old-world feel. Strolling along the path by the locks here is relaxing, and the Bytown Museum (can you guess its namesake?) is a great little spot to learn more about the building of this engineering marvel.

ottawa view over ottawa riverCycling in Ottawa

Looking to cover more ground, we headed to Rentabike, not 50m from the museum along the canal. After stocking up on heaps of great advice from the owner, we hopped on our fancy cruiser bikes and never looked back. First we shot up the canal away from the river, past the paddle boats on Dow’s Lake, and stopped at the sound of pounding water – the waterfalls of Hog’s Back.

ottawa hogsback fallsAlready feeling free of the city just 30 minutes after renting the bikes, a quick turn to the northwest led to a patch of rural farmland. We were now riding through the area known as the Central Experimental Farm, a true urban oasis filled with acres of crops, lush green grass, classic red barns and their barnyard animals. From here, signs for the cycle paths back to the city were easy to follow. Continuing westward, the path met up with the Ottawa River, and it was here we discovered the rock art by Jean-Félice Ceprano, a truly inspiring find we would have never come across without the bikes.

rock art in ottawaOttawa is a cycling city and thousands of Ottawans (very courteously, of course) commute back and forth from work as much as to enjoy the outdoors. In fact, Ottawa has over 200 kilometers of bike paths, we had been told, but in our six hours out on the bikes, we only managed 30 km.

jess cycling along lake dow ottawaBeaver Tails and Boats

Before bringing the bikes back, it was time for a late lunch at the Byward Market. Established by Colonel By in 1826, this is Canada’s oldest public market, covering nearly four square blocks of restaurants, pubs and some incredible specialty food shops. After lunch we popped in to a cheese shop so specialized, it even carries our favorite brand of Norwegian cheese! In an amazing case of self-restraint, however, we walked out empty handed – but only because we knew where we were headed next: the Beaver Tail stand.

ottawa beaver tails stallBeaver Tails are Ottawa’s classic deep-fried, doughy delights and are best enjoyed in Winter with a hot cup of coffee to warm up. You might be enjoying a break from ice-skating along one of the world’s longest ice rinks. Stretching seven kilometers from the Ottawa river, the frozen length of the Rideau Canal converts Ottawa into a winter wonderland and when it re-opens in mid-May, several boats pass through the locks each day, some heading down to the Ottawa River. While one hundred years ago, the river would have been packed with thousands of logs rushing down it as a part of the logging industry, today this aquatic hotspot is packed with speed boats, kayaks, yachts and even white water enthusiasts – although that takes place up the river about 90 minutes from downtown.

ottawa rideau canal boats in lockWe wanted to get out on the river, but also wanted to do a city tour – Lady Dive amphibus tour met both those needs. In its bus form, we tooled through town on four wheels, marveling the architecture and learning about Ottawa’s complicated past. We then plunged into the water next to the Britannia Yacht Club and, as soon as we got our sea legs, we floated past the Museum of Civilization, a mega-museum which takes visitors through 1,000 years of Canadian history and also has a children’s museum and a 3D IMAX theater. Make sure to plan at least one day here, if not two.

ottawa parliament and chateau laurier hotel from riverAlso set on the river is the National Gallery, considered Canada’s premiere art museum. We really enjoyed the permanent exhibits, which are on par with top international galleries. True culture vultures might want to plan in at least half a day to visit, though any travelers on a budget should visit on Thursdays, when entrance to the National Gallery is free from 5-8pm.  Ottawa has plenty of public art as well, from the statue of Canadian blues legend Oscar Peterson (at the corner of Elgin and Albert) to the many statues located on top of Parliament Hill: The ‘Women are persons!’ sculpture and the Queen Elizabeth II statue accurately characterize the history of women in Canada.

Women are persons statueAfter the river cruise, we sprinted up to Parliament Hill for a look at these statues and to take part in the free guided tour of the Parliament building’s Centre Block (daily, more frequent in summer). This tour was the best to help us grasp the political history of the nation as a whole.

Ottawa parliament buildingJust over the Ottawa River

While out on the Ottawa River, it was not immediately clear that we were floating along a heavily-contested, well-protected border. There are no border control guards and we didn’t need our passports. We didn’t even leave the city.

But, as we learned on the Parliament tour, the Ottawa River is where English and French-speaking Canada converge, and this border, a sociocultural one, is fervently protected on either side. This fact is not obvious to casual visitors except for strict language difference on either side of the river. We had overheard snippets of French throughout our time in Ottawa, but our day trip over the bridge to the Gatineau Park on the Quebec side saw us struggling to order lunch in some pretty rusty French. Luckily most of our day hike through the gorgeously green Gatineau required very few words at all.

gatineau park viewpoint daniRide along the Rideau Canal

Both sides of Ottawa boast such fresh, green space, as do the 202km along the Rideau Canal. These calm waters can be explored by boat, which takes up to seven days to make it through all 49 locks along the Rideau Canal to Kingston on the St Lawrence River. During our time in Ottawa, we chose to cycle and drive most of the way, meandering along country back roads and through picture perfect towns like Merrickville and Perth. There is also a trail for hikers, bikers and cross-country skiers.

No matter how you choose to explore Ottawa, whether by boat, bike, car or kayak, the key to discovering the city’s heart begins along the city’s locks.

ottawa rideau canal sunset

For more information on the Rideau Canal, check out the Rideau Heritage Route.

A big genuine Thank You goes out to Ottawa Tourism, who provided some great tips and tricks to help us get the most out of our Ottawa trip.

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Street Art special: Oh Canada!

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We’ll be the first to admit that before spending so much time in Canada this summer, we pictured wide open spaces and wild life roaming, not urban centers wrapped in world-class street art. We certainly saw a lot of rural locales, but often this was as we city-hopped through Ontario and Quebec, spotting murals and graffiti popping off store fronts, taking over entire buildings and catching our eye around every corner. As huge fans of street art, we were excited to find many terrific pieces everywhere. So which Canadian city do we think has the best street art?

Street Art in Quebec City

quebec city street art On our short visit here, we spotted just a bit of street art in Quebec City, but may have missed a lot touring mainly the historic Old Town area. We’re guessing there is much more, considering the amount of creativity put into the free, nightly Cirque du Soleil show, which combines urban art with classic dance, set outside under an overpass just beyond the city walls.

Street Art in Ottawa

shepard fairey ottawa obey Ottawa had some street art, and while much of it wasn’t too spectacular, Ottawans were able to boast the giant Obey poster by Shepard Fairey, one of the most influential and worldwide known street artists, thanks to that iconic Hope poster of Barack Obama.

Street Art in Montreal

montreal street art woman In Montreal we saw plenty of street art, especially in the Plateau neighborhood which has larger-scale murals.

montreal street art ladyThis lady with her rooster was definitely one of our favorite pieces – check out her ‘gringo’ tattoo!

montreal street art

Montreal had really great street art, but there was no way it could keep up with what we considered the best city for street art in Canada that we have found so far:

Street Art in Toronto

toronto street art toronto graffiti catToronto was heaven for us street art fangirls, in particular the area around Queen Street. Here we found entire alleys that served as outdoor galleries, filled with innovative, clever work.

toronto street art alleyAnd there was so much more urban art than just graffiti in back alleys, like this great guerrilla gardening graffiti combo… toronto graffiti car toronto car & mural…and loads of urban art in other forms. We loved seeing these neon bikes permanently affixed to stairwells and various sign poles throughout the city.

toronto pink bikeToronto definitely has the most original and inspiring street artists! The best thing about this form of art is that it lives and breathes, and changes constantly, so we can’t wait to see something completely different on our next visit!

toronto street artCheck out this slideshow for a more complete collection of Canadian street art:

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Have you been to Canada? Where have you seen the best street art? Share in the comments below

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A little piece of Europe: 24 hours in Quebec City

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Enjoying the sounds of surrounding French chatter, we considered dipping in to another creperie when the sound of clicking of hooves on the cobblestone street distracts us and we swivel around to get a shot of the horse-drawn carriage as it comes into sight. The symphony of sounds on the streets are so classically French it is hard to believe we are actually in Canada.

quebec city horse-drawn carriageWhile a city 400 years old might not be much in Europe, it makes Quebec City just about the oldest city in North America. The French influence here is as much in the architecture as the language, with the gray brick houses that line the streets harking back to a village in Normandy.

quebec city housesTo remind ourselves that we are indeed in Canada, we stop for the classic (French) Canadian dish, Poutine, at Chez Ashton, and make sure ours is loaded with cheese curds and gravy from the best poutine makers in town.

Canadian PoutineAfter the quick carb overload, we walk it off with a hike up to Parliament, passing through the only intact city walls north of Mexico. The Parliament building itself is a testament to the French settlers who founded Quebec in 1608, and several snap-happy tourists (yes, us included) line up to take pictures of the intricate sculptures and frescoes on the building.

parliament sculpture quebec cityFrom here we walk over to La Citadelle, the city’s former fort which protected Quebec from the Americans in the 19th century (Quebec was actually taken at that time by the British). Today, looking out here over the views of the mighty St. Lawrence river, the imposing canons placed all around the fort remind the relaxing teens and tourists of a time when Canada was at odds with its neighbor to the south. If you happen to be in Quebec between June and September, make sure to get to the Citadelle just before 10a.m. to witness the traditional changing of the guard ceremony in the capital of French-speaking Canada.

quebec city cannons
Château Frontenac might make it on every ‘Must-See List’ written on Quebec, but witnessing the building close up, it is impossible to consider it any other way.  Towering over all the buildings of Quebec and visible from far out of town, the castle hotel is the center point of Quebec’s skyline and featured on every postcard of the city. The hotel makes for a great stop to indulge in a glass of champagne and to take in the views over the city.

view over quebec cityNext stop is the Terrace Dufferin, a large boardwalk promenade high over the river, as we leave Haute-Ville, the Upper Town, and make our way down the hill to Place Royale in ‘Basse-Ville’, the Lower Town. Some take the 2 minute, $2 ride down the steep hill in the Funiculaire du Vieux-Québec, but we prefer snake through alleyways and scale staircases on foot down to Place Royale. The story goes that Place Royale  is the actual square where French explorer Samuel de Champlain began the settlement of Quebec.

In the calm before the storm we are touched at how charming this area of Quebec is, until we are suddenly constricted within these narrow alleyways, surrounded by masses of cruise ship passengers in full on group-think mode who pass by in waves, following their tour guide from place to place. The city is definitely sweeter earlier in the morning and after dark, when many of the big tour groups have left the city.

quebec city lower town alleyAlthough the Place Royale is probably the most picturesque part of the town, this army of determined tourists is hard on our exploratory spirit, and we take a seat at a typically French cafe to rest. I couldn’t be happier with my French style Café au Lait, and Jess loved her super strong espresso shot.

quebec city coffeesBack up to the Haute-Ville again for dinner, we scope out several locals’ eateries on Rue Saint-Jean towards the university, far away from the overpriced tourist traps around Place Royale. As we poke our heads in and out of shops on this road, we are now reminded of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile rather than France.

quebec city houses old townAfter powering up on veggie sushi (what could be more French, after all, than sushi) we just make it over to the free outdoor Cirque de Soleil show, held under an unusued underpass in the center of town. Called Les Chemins Invisibles, the quality of this free show is top standard Cirque de Soleil at its best.

The perfect way to end a perfect day in Quebec City…

Travel Tips for Quebec in the summer

The Cirque du Soleil show: Les Chemins Invisibles
As we mentioned, we couldn’t get enough of this one hour show, so if you do visit Quebec during the summer months, you can visit the free Cirque du Soleil show Les Chemins invisibles (Invisible Paths). This urban renewal project was created for the city’s 400th anniversary celebrations in 2008, but has been maintained ever since due to its extraordinary popularity.

cirque du soleil les chemins invisibles quebecThe Summer Festival
During Quebec’s summer festival at the beginning of July, hundreds of musical acts at various indoor and outdoor venues play to over 1 million visitors, making it the largest festival in Canada.

Travel Tips for Quebec in the winter

The Ice Hotel
Quebec City is home to one of only two ice hotels in the world. From January to March visitors are able to stay in beds completely made of ice and quipped with deer furs and Arctic sleeping bags. Even if you don’t dare spend the night, stop in for a visit, and make sure to grab and ice-cold drink in a glass made of ice!

The Winter Carnival
Held every year in February, the winter carnival is a big outdoor festival in the Plains of Abraham, where you can pursue winter activities such as skiing or snow rafting, ride in snow sled-slides, see some fantastic ice sculptures and outdoor shows or ice skate on the giant ice rink.

quebec city art

Have you been to Quebec City? We would love you to share other must-see or must-do tips in the comments below.

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Why we didn’t like Niagara Falls (but still recommend you go!)

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This is Niagara Falls?

On our way to visit Niagara Falls, Dani and I had both been picturing rustic log-cabin restaurants, maybe a few lumberjacks, a small town feel and definitely something a bit more romantic. After all this is supposed to be the Honeymoon Capital of the World. We never expected this…mega tourist trap.

Pulling into town, however, we found ourselves suddenly driving downhill on a wide street with cheesy tourist attractions stacked up tightly on either side. A wax museum, a haunted house, Ripley’s Believe it or Not…

“Wait, is that another wax museum?” I asked.  “I think so,” Dani remarked. “And I just saw two more haunted houses on my side.”

niagara falls townAs we reached the bottom of this long, strange road, I turned right – away from the Hershey’s Chocolate store and toward the intense sound of rushing water.

The Falls are magnificent

Just a split second later, there it was! The awe-inspiring view of Niagara Falls. There are actually three sets of falls pounding into the Niagara river below – the American Falls and smaller Bridal Veil Falls on the American side and the massive Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side.  Immediately humbled, we cruised slowly along the four-lane thoroughfare which hugs the pedestrian viewing along the cliffs, gawking at the sheer size of this sight.

We managed to find $5 parking (instead of the lots with New York City level prices) and walked down to gaze at the Falls. Seeing Niagara Falls on postcards and in pictures does not compare to the sight of this incredible natural wonder in person. Two things really stood out. First, the water seems to speed up as it reaches the falls, as if it can not wait to plunge over the cliff. By the time it goes over, the water is moving so quickly and just looking at this makes you comprehend your own delicate mortality.

niagara falls horseshoe falls water powerSecond, the sheer force with which the 4 million cubic feet of water per minute hits the river below causes much of it to shoot back up into the air, with the spray reaching at least twice as high as the 180 feet it dropped in the first place. This ‘cloud’ of mist can be seen even when the Falls themselves are out of view. This part of the walkway, and all onlookers standing here, is soaking wet.

niagara falls horseshoe falls with mistMaid of the Mist is a must

Being such a popular tourist attraction, there are several tours to choose from which will get you up close and almost within reach of the Falls. We steered away from the package deals and chose only the 30-minute Maid of the Mist boat tour. With all passengers covered in plastic ponchos, the boat set off onto the Niagara river, which drains Lake Eerie into Lake Ontario and forms the border between the U.S. and Canada. The steady ship reached the Horseshoe Falls within minutes and we were immediately drenched by the mist. Actually feeling how much water soaked us at the edge of the mist helped to visualize just how much water is contained within the waterfalls themselves. We can highly recommend doing this tour as it is quick, painless and gets right to the point. While it feels adventurous, boats leave every half hour from the dock to the falls, making this a common and safe experience for everyone.

niagara falls from river tour on maid of the mistIndeed, Niagara Falls are one of nature’s incredible wonders, and everyone should see them if they get the chance. Most agree that the views are better from the Canadian side, but cross the Rainbow Bridge to the American side and check it out for yourself. From what we could see, there are far less tourist eyesores and it could well be a more natural experience. Back on the Canadian side, we just couldn’t help but be disappointed by the fact that the Niagara Falls might just be the most unnatural wonder we’ll ever visit. Luckily, we found a solution, a way out of the tourist trap – and it involves a lot of wine.

Winding our way through the wineries

No, there was no drowning of sorrows in copious amounts of wine. Instead, after beating the crowds to some breathtaking early morning views at Niagara Falls, we set off into the Canadian wine country. Sleepy narrow two-lane roads weave through historic villages which open up into vast fields filled with countless rows of wine as far as the eye can see. We glided along the road, stopping in for samples at a few charming wineries and picking up fresh organic peaches, pears and veggies from farmers stands along the way.

niagara wine country ontarioTip: try the sweet dessert ‘ice wine’, a local Ontario wine which uses grapes picked only after the first frost of the year.

Suddenly, 15km from Niagara Falls, a spot of slow traffic began when there had previously been only a few cars on the road. Where were we all of a sudden, we wondered?

Love at first sight: Niagara-on-the-Lake

This charming, historic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is everything Niagara Falls is not. Independent shops and restaurants fill the bottom floors of historic buildings, which are set back on streets lined with breezy trees, exotic flowers and lovely sidewalks meant for strolling. Everything in town seems to center around good food and good wine.

Whereas the town of Niagara Falls seems like Las Vegas without the flash and fun, Niagara-on-the-Lake is more like the Canadian version of Tuscany, with its Dolce Vita attitude. Surrounded by 26 wineries, it seems easy to focus on the ‘sweet life’ here.

niagara on the lakeIt was love at first sight, and as we rambled along peeking into shops and checking out restaurant menus, we made an even more exciting discovery. Food and drink here is more fairly priced for infinitely higher quality than the fast food tourist fare down the road. To add to our delight, we spotted plenty of affordable classic hotels and boutique bed and breakfasts throughout town.

As we left Niagara-on-the-Lake, the car was filled with delicious wine, fresh blueberry scones and our homegrown fruit and veg to enjoy once we got back home.

niagara wine country fruit standTip:

If you visit the Niagara Falls, which you really should, skip the cheapie budget digs on ‘motel row’ out of town, and don’t waste serious cash on the 42-story hotel/casino monstrosities all vying for the best views of the falls. We say make Niagara-on-the-Lake your base, take a couple of day trips to the falls and spend the evenings relaxing in this adorable haven just down the road.

Have you visited the Niagara Falls or other spectacular waterfalls? What were your impressions? Share your thoughts in the comments

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Ooh la la – Cycling in Montreal is a dream

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Slouched down on a Montreal curb just after 1pm, Dani and I were starving, fatigued and wondering how, after over 5 miles of pounding pavement, these aching feet were going to carry us through the remaining must-see neighborhoods on our list. We fell in love with Montreal instantly upon arriving the evening before, and knew that we had to pack in as much as possible into the 48 hours we had to spend in the city. From 8am the next morning we were out sauntering along wide thoroughfares, cutting through Montreal’s many green spaces, schlepping it up hundreds of steps in Mont Royal park to the incredible view point below followed by a forest hike, a stroll through a university campus and down to the Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde, which now loomed behind us as we considered napping out in front.

montreal marie reine du monde cathedralBeginning to feel defeated, we saw a glimmering light of hope in the distance in the form of a sleek steel bike rack loaded with shiny silver bicycles. We had discovered Montreal’s public bike rental system and, knowing we could easily pedal our way through town, it took only five minutes before we were whizzing away from the bike station.

Montreal’s Bixi bike rental system is similar to city cycling schemes in Paris, London, Mexico City, Munich, Seville and several North American cities. As of 2009, the publicly-funded Montreal system became the largest in North America, with over 5,000 bikes (worth $2,000 each!) available at 400 depots around the city. Even though we were faint and weary, jumping on a set of wheels couldn’t have been easier to use.

jess on bike in montreal

Start at the payment machine by swiping your credit card to pay $5 for the 24 hour bike rental. The machine gives a code which you enter in to any of the stations that hold a bicycle. Once the bike is released, you are free to ride around the city for the next thirty minutes at no additional cost. After 30 minutes, bring the bike to any of the nearby stations, dock it, and wait two minutes. Swipe your card again for a new code, unlock the new (or same) bike, and you’re off again on your way. The system is best used by locals who just need to get from point A to point B, but we easily used the bikes to tour the city. Montreal is loaded with these stations, conveniently located on corners throughout the city, so finding a drop off point was no problem, and it was almost always near something we had wanted to stop to see anyway.

Houses in Plateau Neighborhood

Should you accidentally run past the 30 minute mark without realizing it, your card will be charged $1.50 for every extra half hour. The system is also surprisingly fair. If you arrive to your drop-off destination to discover all docks are taken, just swipe your card, and the machine  recognizes no availability, gives you a 15 minute grace period and tells you all available nearby station and how many docks are available at each.

The system is a breeze to get the hang of, and within 10 minutes we had pedaled all way down to the old historic down town, riding past the Notre Dame, before riding along the riverfront all the way up to the town hall.

montreal notre dame

A looming thunderstorm sent us home earlier than we would have liked, but with the bikes, this was no problem at all. We just exchanged the bikes to get us a full half hour and pedaled back to the many stations in the Mont Royal Plateau neighborhood where we were staying.

Not a drop of rain fell that late afternoon, and after dinner and a quick rest, our hosts drove us to see a  live outdoor concert in La Ffontaine Park. They were ready to make a night of it, but we were exhausted. Luckily, instead of them having to drive the sleepyheads home, we still had nearly plenty of  hours left on our bike rental, so were able to just hop on two nearby bikes and make it home in no time at all.

After a deep sleep and a power breakfast we were back up on our bikes and squeezed in a full morning of sightseeing before heading  to Quebec that afternoon. Covering several miles, we were able to make it to the Fairmont and St Viateur bagel shops, where the best of Montreal’s famous bagels are made and weave in and out of countless alleys and side streets to spot so many samples of Montreal’s incredible street art. And this was all for the $5 we paid to rent the bikes the day before.

montreal street art

The Bixi system in Montreal couldn’t be easier to use and is the cheapest, yet most exhilarating form of transportation in town. Drivers in the city appear to really respect cyclists, so the nerves you might feel cycling in New York City, for example, are not an issue here. The cycleways are clearly marked on the street and while many of Montreal’s roads are one-way for cars, cyclists can often ride in both directions, making getting around by bike a breeze.

Have you rented bicycles in a city you visited, and would you do it again? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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