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500 days on the road: Reflections on the last 100 days

globetrottergirls in north america

Each time we sit down and reflect on the last one hundred days, the initial feeling is always a stunned sort of shock at just how much we have seen and done in the last quarter of a year. In our pre-nomadic era, one hundred days could have come and gone without much more changing than a few new purchases, a short city break or two and some crazy nights out with friends. Now, as nomads, we move continents, lifestyle patterns, languages and learn new things almost every day.

500 days Canada Portugal USAIn the last 100 days we have been to (only) three countries, driven well over 4,000 miles in three different rental cars, been on several boats, crossed countless major bridges, tasted dozens of new dishes from a handful of entirely new cuisines, met loads of new, interesting people (and made some great new friends), relaxed in our own personal jacuzzi, stayed at a few exclusive hotels as well as some dingy roach motels, and had the opportunity to tour through the eastern and southern US states to get a feeling for what life in America is like today.

500 days Canada US PortugalWe love Lisbon

One of the best aspects of nomadic lives is that we can cancel or change plans at the last minute. A three-week stay in Lisbon happened randomly when our planned Cross-Canada Road Trip fell through and we were looking for somewhere warm, cheap and European to spend three weeks before beginning our housesit in Ottawa. Lisbon couldn’t have been a better choice. The city has the metropolitan, multicultural feel, casual lifestyle, clear and sunny skies and miles of beaches that come together to be the sort of place we could live in one day.

lisbon portugal

North American car dependency

Instead of just unpacking and staying in the Portuguese capital, we instead flew into Toronto for the beginning of over three months in North America. Just two days after arriving, it was time to pickup a rental car in Buffalo, New York. The sense of freedom we have while traveling in Europe disappears here, as the availability of public transportation is either negligible (United States) or expensive (Canada). In the last months we have gone on to rent two cars for a total of 11 weeks which has been a budget breaker, but totally worth it.

Our Ford Focus at Boone Hall Plantation

Housesitting in Ontario

Six of those weeks were spent housesitting outside of Ottawa. This period of time was the longest we have stayed in one place since before our official GloberotterGirls adventure even began. We enjoyed the peaceful, safe neighborhood, the well-maintained house, making our own food and actually settling in to a routine that was really key to several professional and personal successes. In the end, however, that tingling excitement of our next steps started to slowly envelope us into the cloud of euphoria that hits each time we are about to make our next bold move.

Mailbox Canada

Montreal, Quebec and learning about Canada

After the homeowners returned, we hopped in the car and headed to Montreal and Quebec for a week. By that time we realized just how much we learned about Canada. As most Americans can admit, we don’t learn all that much about the neighbors to the north in school, and  Canada doesn’t make headline news much either. We were there for national celebrations like Canada Day and Colonel By Day, ate national foods like Poutine, Beaver Tails and Tim Hortons (it is practically a national cuisine!), visited cities like Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec and explored the expansive countryside, watched shows like Corner Gas and heard enough people tacking ‘ey’ on to the ends of sentences that it almost slipped out our mouths a couple of times.

canada 2011

From stationary to constantly mobile

And so began our mega road trip, through Montreal and Quebec, down across the border in to Boston, and to Manhattan, NYC, where we started the longest ‘leg’ of our trip: the Great American Road Trip: NYC2NOLA. It was an intense four weeks. Constantly on the go, we took a bus from NYC to Philly, on to DC, rented a car and drove over to Asheville and Charlotte before heading down to Charleston, west to Savannah, up through Atlanta and over to New Orleans. Then we extended the trip up through Memphis to Chicago.

usa 2011 road tripThe road trip has been as enthralling as shocking, a slap in the face of the hardships of life in America right now. Long talks ensued about life here – from the blatant disregard for health and wellness, crumbling infrastructure (Memphis) to the fascinating bits of local culture we discovered throughout the Northeast and the Deep South. I am from Chicago, which is very different to anywhere we just got through visiting, and as I haven’t lived in the US since August 2001, it is a true eye-opener to rediscover post 9/11, post Katrina, post Great Recession, post Bush, post first-election-of-black-president America.

us road trip 2011This was no vacation for us: the whole road trip was about keeping our eyes open all the time, taking everything in, and coming to understand America in a deeper way.  It hasn’t been about confirming or changing stereotypes, but witnessing first hand what each place is like, the feel, the attitude and the people.

Next Stop: South East Asia

After a few weeks of friends, family, rest and relaxation here in Chicago, we are heading to Denver for a few days before flying off to South East Asia! We are ready for a new and even bigger challenge after so long on the road. We have never been to Asia and don’t speak any of the languages like we do in Latin America, Europe and the U.S., so this will be a huge step out of our comfort zone. We couldn’t be more excited to explore an entirely new part of the world in as much detail as we have examined our own!

asian vibes

Thank you

The past 100 days have been so successful only thanks to the people & friends who have helped us make the most of this amazing adventure:

  • Jenne and Marcel for taking care of us so well in Canada
  • Irene for the great advice and taking us out to see a great band in Ottawa
  • Ottawa Tourism for all the advice and bike rentals
  • Jacob, Jenne and Brent for bonfires and Dani’s first-ever s’mores
  • Brad of Brad Sucks for good music and computer advice
  • Dave & Deb from ThePlanetD for the great Toronto recommendations
  • Manuela and Lahcen in Montreal for the hospitality and taking us out for some great Middle Eastern music
  • Bernarda in Toronto for opening her couch to us and letting us use her Lonely Planet
  • Weena and Daniel in Quebec for super sightseeing advice, very comfortable beds, great cheese and a gigantic, delicious chocolate muffin
  • AdventurousKate in Boston for recommending that great Thai place and taking the time to hang on her last night in the U.S.
  • Aaron of Aaron’s Worldwide Adventures in New York for showing us the Highline Park, sheltering us from the rain at Chelsea Market, feeding us great Mexican food and showing us all around his fav. Manhattan neighborhoods
  • The Library Hotel Collection for being excellent hosts while in Manhattan
  • NYCGo for providing CityPasses which helped us to maximise our time in NYC
  • Don Faust for his amazingly thorough and helpful advice about almost everywere on our trip – Philly, New Orleans and Washington, DC
  • Page from AllOverTheMap for the off-the-beaten-track D.C. advice
  • My Costa Rican ‘brother’ Jorge, who I haven’t seen since my exchange year in Costa Rica in 1999-2000 and his wife Emily, who now live in Washington DC and took us to Little Ethiopia for great Ethiopian food
  • Caz and Craig from yTravelBlog for all their road trip recommendations
  • Traci from GoBigOrGoHome for the Philly and Virginia tips
  • Andi from My Beautiful Adventures for a fabulous lunch and girly afternoon and Charleston travel tips while at Cafe Monte in Charlotte
  • Caroline from CarolineInTheCity for the Charleston recommendations
  • Our reader Camella for more fantastic Charleston tips
  • The Charleston Visitors Bureau for top tips and the city pass which allowed us to see so much of the city in such a short period of time.
  • Mike and Juergen from For 91 Days for their in-depth posts on Savannah and putting us in touch with the lovely Erica at the Visitors Bureau who helped to pimp our Labor Day weekend by pumping us full of delicious Craft Brews
  • Alex at the Westin who took on the vegetarian food challenge to cook us up some amazing grits patties
  • Nicole at Visit Atlanta for great advice on vegan restaurants and two CityPasses
  • Nicole, our long lost Georgian friend we know from our time in England at the University of Sussex – it was so great to meet up, drink wine and eat some super yummy southern food at Mary Mac’s Tea Room in Atlanta!
  • We’d also like to thank our reader Ann who sent us through great recommendations on what to see and eat in New Orleans
  • The New Orleans Visitors Bureau for CityPasses
  • InterContinental Hotel New Orleans for providing a lovely room in the heart of Nola
  • Last but not least, we would like to thank everyone who is following our journey!

globetrottergirls in north america

Looking back:

Reflections of 100 days of travel
Reflections of 200 days of travel
Reflections of 300 days of travel
Reflections of 400 days of travel

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Ooh la la – Cycling in Montreal is a dream

montreal marie reine du monde cathedral

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.cycling in MontrealBeginning 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 street artMontreal’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 montrealStart at the payment machine by swiping your credit card to pay $5.25 for the 24 hour bike rental, or $15 for 3 days. 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.montreal by bikeShould 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.biking in MontrealThe 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. Cycling in Montreal is a beautiful way to see a lot of the city in a short time.notre dameA 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.street artNot 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 Fontaine 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.breakfast egg benedictAfter 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. Exploring Montreal by bike couldn’t be easier.
Cycling in MontrealThe 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.montreal gay streetFor more information on cycling in Montreal, read:

 

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500 days on the road: Tops & Flops of the last 100 days

500 days Canada US Portugal

While we were finishing up our five-week, 5,000 miles (8,000km) road trip last week, we used the long hours in the car to reflect on the last 100 days, which we spent in sunny Lisbon, in Canada, where we traveled in Ontario and Quebec, and finally road tripping along the East Coast and through the South of the U.S.

Lisbon to Toronto

north america road tripHere are the Tops and Flops of our last 100 days:

**Top Travel Moments

Beach days in Cascais, Lisbon

One of the best things about the Portuguese capital is the miles and miles of beaches that surround the city and the best part about that is how easy it is to get to these beautiful beaches. The popular beach town of Cascais is an easy 40 minute train ride along the coast (sit on the left of the train for the best views!). There are beaches all along the way to stop at, but we really loved arriving in Cascais, walking up and down the promenade and lazily laying on the sunny Atlantic shores. The town itself is well worth exploring too, with beautiful tiled houses, and plenty of narrow alleys to get lost in. Because we knew that this would probably be our last chance to be a beach bum for the next three months, we made a few train trips out to Cascais, and we discovered several great restaurants of all budget ranges and cuisines.

Read more: 33 Things we love about Lisbon

reflections cascaisCycling through Ottawa

We love renting bikes in almost every city we visit, but what we loved about Ottawa was just how easy it is to cycle in, through and around this Canada’s capital city. Ottawa has over 200 miles of perfectly-maintained cycle paths that can take you from the city center to lakes or farmland within 30 minutes. Our day saw us spend over seven hours on our Ottawa rental bikes exploring and enjoying Ottawa.

Ottawa parliament sunsetNYC2NOLA Great American Road Trip Highlight: Labor Day weekend in Savannah

Our Great American Road trip from New York to New Orleans brought us to Savannah for Labor Day weekend. Our long weekend there was as relaxing as it was active and a major highlight on our road trip! We were very lucky to be able to party hearty at the Craft Brew Fest at the Westin Savannah. We tasted tons of domestic and international craft brews, bellied up to one of the best Sunday brunch spreads we have ever had, and slept in the most comfortable hotel bed since leaving our Ottawa housesit in early August.

african beers at savannah craft brew festNYC2NOLA Great American Road Trip Highlight: New Orleans

Finding the right way to express just how much we enjoyed New Orleans is still a difficult task, as we were just so surprised at the incredible layers of this fine southern city. Of course we knew that New Orleans was much more than Bourbon Street, but had no idea how fantastic this city is – from the Garden District and Magazine Street to Treme, the sculpture garden in City Park and of course the entire deliciously charming French Quarter.

new orleans louisiana picturesArriving to Chicago in time for my birthday

Our 500th day of travel sees us reaching Chicago just in time for my birthday. This is the first time I have been home to celebrate my birthday since 2003, and only the second time since 1998, so it means a lot to be able to spend time with friends and family while we gear up for the next major leg of our travels. One of my bestest besties from back when phones still had cords threw me a birthday bash with my closest friends and I couldn’t have asked for more. After such a long time on the road, it really warms your heart and eases your soul to be surrounded by your friends.

Favorite Places in the last 100 days

Lisbon

We decided to head to Lisbon on a whim back in May, and the city quickly eclipsed almost all other European cities for us. It’s hard to describe the feeling of sunny freedom we felt here, but it was also the cultural diversity, rich history, tiled houses and exotic-sounding language that sits just outside of our Spanish-speaking reach.

lisbon pictures portugal

Montreal

The largest city in French-speaking Canada, Montreal is a healthy balance between all that is good about Europe and all that we love about North America. Montreal is a cycling city, easy to explore by bike, the food is delicious, and the culture incorporates the laid-back coffeehouse culture we love so much abut Europe.

montreal canada

Charleston, SC & Savannah, GA

Putting both these small southern cities on our itinerary put us smack in the center of a long-standing rival between Charleston and Savannah. Which do you like better, nearly everyone asked. What do you prefer about Charleston? Don’t you just love Savannah, it has so much more to offer than Charleston, and so on. So, rather than put our foot in it either way, we’re choosing both cities as some of our favorites in the last 100 days – and there is no compromise being made here as we truly loved both! Savannah is quirky, mystic while Charleston oozes that classic southern charm.

charleston & savannah

New York, New York

Anytime and always, we love New York. This time around we spent most of our time in Manhattan exploring the quintessential New York stops: The Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and a trip on Top of the Rock. We padded the pavement north, south, east and west through Central Park early one morning as well as taking long night strolls through Greenwich Village, Times Square and along 5th Avenue. We also explored some areas that we hadn’t been to before, including parts of Brooklyn, Coney Island and the Little Odessa area around Brighton Beach and are already looking forward to our next visit to the Big Apple!

new york new york

Most disappointing places

Atlanta, Georgia

Maybe we built it up too much and were too excited about spending time in Atlanta, but it turns out – we don’t really understand the city at all. We relate Atlanta to hip hop and R&B, but couldn’t find a trace of promotion around this aspect of the city. Sure, we experienced Buckhead, Vinnings, drove past the Governor’s Mansion and we loved the only-in-Atlanta experiences like the CNN studio tour and the World of Coca Cola, but felt no connection at all with the city. Its expansive, suburban set-up was difficult to navigate without a car, and each trip in the car must be destination based – you have to know where you want to go, you never just happen to pass a great bar or restaurant from the six-lane highways and jump off.

CNN studio tour atlanta

Interstate Highways

We traveled over 3,000 miles from NYC to NOLA, and over 5,000 miles on our Canadian and our U.S. road trips combined, so while we wanted to do a lot of back roads driving, much of the time was spent on Eisenhower’s interstate highway system to get from point A to point B. Some of the drives were breathtaking – especially from Washington, DC to Asheville, but otherwise highway life is an unhealthy, uninspired blend of the same fast-food and budget hotel chains. Finding anything fresh or creative on the interstate is like needle hunting in a haystack.

american interstates highways

Memphis

Blues, Soul, Elvis…Memphis has a rich music history, but we had a hard time finding much of anything left. Beale Street, once the beating heart of the blues, now seems like a cheap commercialization of its past, and the downtown area lacks charm. But it is the rust on signs and bridges, falling down signs and city center office buildings sitting completely empty that made us so sad.

memphis beale street

Toronto

Don’t get us wrong – Toronto is a very cool city. Great food, creative street art, very plenty to do, but we didn’t feel the charm of Montreal or Quebec, the ease of Ottawa, and because we had expected to adore the city, we ended up feeling disappointed by Toronto – which doesn’t mean we didn’t like the city, though!

toronto canada

Best food moments

Indian Food in Lisbon

Goa, India was a territory of Portugal until the mid-20th century – a happy discovery for us as we dined at Indian restaurant after Indian restaurant throughout our three weeks in Lisbon. While seafood fans can eat like absolute kings in this port city, vegetarians could have a much harder time finding veggie dining options, but the dozens of affordable, quality Indian restaurants really save the day.

lisbon indian food

La Grande-mere Poule breakfast cafe – Montreal

Cute as a button from the outside, this breakfast cafe offers up hearty but healthy plates of pipping hot pancakes, french toast and enough egg dishes for an entire summer of breakfasts in this fine francophone city.

breakfast montreal

Eggplant Parmesan pizza in New York

We have a must-eat dish in many cities we visit often. In Leon, Nicaragua, we would make a beeline for Desayunazo’s gallo pinto, in Germany it’s pretzel rolls, and in New York City it’s eggplant Parmesan sandwiches…until now. Rarely do vegetarians get to cram an entire baguette of heavy, meaty, saucy Italian deliciousness into their mouths, so eggplant parm sandwiches really used to hit the spot. Until this time. We found this great place off Wall Street that puts thin slices of eggplant Parmesan on pizza. Not eggplant cubes or anything we’ve had infinite times in infinite places. We mean an entire layer of thinly breaded eggplant parm slices on top of delicious New York style pizza with cheese and sauce on top. We now have a favorite New York food, ladies and gentlemen.

eggplant pizza

Mary Mac’s Tea Room – Atlanta, Georgia

If you’re looking for down-home southern cooking with a smile and you happen to be in Atlanta – make sure to eat in one of the six tea rooms at Mary Mac’s. The menu is about as traditional as southern cookin’ can get – drink Mint Julip or Peach Iced Tea to wash down Chicken and Dumplin’s, Crawfish, fried green tomatoes, mac-n-cheese, broccoli-cheese souffle or fried breaded okra. For dessert, we sampled the banana pudding and peach cobbler.

Mary Macs tea room vegetable platter

Travel recommendations

Couchsurfing

We did not spend one cent on accommodation throughout our time in Canada. This was primarily accomplished through our five-week housesit outside of Ottawa, but in the last 100 days we’ve also really gotten involved with couchsurfing (finally!). We were hosted in Toronto, Montreal and Quebec, and couldn’t be more pleased with how it went, having met interesting locals who gave us tips and showed us around town in a way we never could have otherwise seen those two cities. Not only does couchsurfing save us a lot of money on accommodation, but we also appreciate getting to know areas outside of the downtown hotel areas and getting insider tips from people who live in the towns we visit.

couchsurfingHotwire.com

Hotwire.com is one of the booking websites that offers great mystery deals, whereby if you give up your right to know exactly which hotel you will stay in until after booking, you can choose an approximate area of the city and how many stars the hotel has, and get up to a 60% discount on rooms. We used Hotwire quite a lot on our U.S. road trip, as the site has great deals in many cities allowing us to remain within our comfortable budget range, but stay in hotels that would normally be out of reach for us. We were never disappointed, and stayed in some great hotels thanks to Hotwire in the last 100 days.

hotwire.com

Worst travel moments

Movie tour in Savannah

Savannah is famous for both the book and the film version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, as well as the setting for much of Forest Gump, so we thought a movie tour would be an interesting addition in our touring of this city. We were excited to watch the film clips as the bus went from location to location. Unfortunately, and for the first time ever, we actually recommend our readers NOT to take part in something – avoid the Savannah movie tours. The information was shallow, not knowledgable, there was little passion involved on the part of the guide, and at one point, he offered for everyone to get off the bus and eat ice cream at a well-known ice-cream parlor (aka tourist trap). This was the only tour we had to book a day in advance for, but don’t waste your time or money – these tours are not worth it!

Laptop burn-out

Over 500 days ago we purchased our little Asus Netbooks and loved them as family until one day, Dani’s netbook crashed. Luckily Dani is good at backing up and so didn’t lose everything, but she did lose loads of recent documents and downloads, and we had a heck of time transfering data and getting back up and running on a new computer (a brand-new Apple Macbook Air). The second netbook is on its last leg and also about to crash as well, so we are on the hunt for a new laptop for the next big stop on our trip – Asia!

Dani with her Asus Netbook

Travel mishaps

No Map, No Hotel Room in Boston

Luckily, we have no major mishaps to report in the last 100 days, but we have to admit to one mishap which should not have happened to the well-traveled globetrotting people we claim to be. It was a long, hot drive from Quebec City, across the border (with some hassle to get Dani back into the U.S. which caused a two-hour delay) and into Boston. When we arrived in the dark of night, we were focused only on making it to a bar to meet Adventurous Kate before she left for Europe. We had booked no room in Boston, had no map of the city, and didn’t leave the bar til around 11pm. We headed over to the hostel which was conveniently just around the corner from the bar where we had met, but was completely booked.

We were so ridiculously relaxed about the whole ordeal until it was 2:30am, we had driven for over three hours, couldn’t find an affordable hotel or motel that didn’t have roaches, and, without really saying it out loud, had decided that checking into a hotel wasn’t really worth it anymore, since we had planned an early start on the next day. So we headed over to Cambridge because we knew that sleeping in the car would be safer in Good Will Hunting’s academic stomping grounds. Yes, we slept in the car off of a quiet little side street just around the corner from Harvard University. Oops…

harvard book store in cambridgeIf you enjoyed that, check out more of our Tops and Flops:

Our Tops and Flops of 400 days of travel: Panama, Germany, Italy, Spain
Our Tops and Flops of 300 days of travel: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica
Our Tops and Flops of 200 days of travel: Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador
Our Tops and Flops of 100 days of travel: Las Vegas, California, Arizona, Mexico

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Polaroid of the week: Sunset Cinema in Ontario

polaroidoftheweekphoto11

polaroid of the week canada ontario sunsetWe have been in Ontario for over four weeks now and almost every night, whether the day is filled with rain or sunshine, the big Canadian skies end the day with wildly vivid, dramatic sunsets. It started our first night in Toronto with an awe-inspiring all-pink sky, followed next by a brightly celebratory sunset over the Parliament in Ottawa on our first-ever Canada Day. Thankfully we are now based right off the Rideau River where, as the sun sets, the sky blends radiant reds, burning orange and countless shades of pink. It is amazing how much movement the scene has, with colors bouncing off the cloud formations above and reflecting off the water blow. Each night we pedal our bikes along the river to find the perfect front row seats of the nightly showing of the Ontario sunset cinema.

If you enjoy this weekly Polaroid series, ‘Like’ our Facebook fan page where we post  photos from our travels every day.

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

niagara falls bridal veil falls

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.

Niagara 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.

Also read: The Niagara Falls Smackdown: The American Falls vs. the Canadian Falls

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.

visit Niagara FallsSecond, 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.

visit Niagara Falls

The Maid 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. We say: The Maid of the Mist is a MUST when you visit Niagara Falls!

visit Niagara Falls

Indeed, these imposing waterfalls are one of nature’s incredible wonders, and everyone should visit Niagara Falls 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 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 ontario

Tip: 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 stand

Niagara Falls Tip:

If you visit 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.

The best hotels in Niagara-on-the-Lake:

Inexpensive hotels:

  • Hilton Garden Inn Niagara-On-The-Lake: Small hotel with an indoor swimming pool, free parking and an on-site restaurant. Double rooms start at US$90 per night
  • Holiday Inn Express: 3-star hotel with indoor pool, fitness center and spacious rooms. Double rooms start at US$89 per night.
  • Best Western Butler Colonel Inn: Small hotel with fitness center, comfortable rooms and a good location. Double rooms start at US$89 per night, including breakfast.

Mid-range hotels:

  • 124 on Queen Hotel & Spa: Charming small hotel in historic buildings right on Queen Street in the Old Town with large rooms and luxury villas. There is a spa, a cafe and a restaurant on site. Deluxe rooms start at US$154 per night.
  • Historic Wilson Guy House: B&B in a historic 1816 building near Queen Street. Rooms start at US$150 per night, including breakfast.
  • School House Bed & Breakfast: Small B&B with a shared lounge and a garden. Rooms start at US$181 per night, breakfast included.

Splurge:

  • Pillar & Post Inn & Spa: The small boutique hotel features an outdoor swimming pool, a spa and an onsite restaurant. Premium rooms start at US$268, which includes breakfast and dinner.
  • Prince Of Wales: An intimate luxury hotel in a historic Victorian building. Rooms are decorated with antiques. there is an art-lined indoor pool room and whirlpool. The spa offers a variety of massage and tea-based treatments; the restaurant offers daily afternoon tea. Room start at US$284, which includes breakfast and dinner.
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Ottawa UnLOCKed: Finding the key to conquering Canada’s Capital City

Ottawa parliament sunset

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…things to do in Ottawa

Keep 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 ottawa

Beaver 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.

things to do in OttawaBeaver 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.

things to do in Ottawa

Just 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 socio-cultural 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 dani

Ride 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.

things to do in Ottawa

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

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Polaroid of the week: Canada Day in Ottawa

polaroidoftheweekphoto11

.polaroid of the week canada day in ottawa

We spent Canada Day, the country’s 144th birthday on 1 July 2011, in Ottawa. Canada’s capital has the country’s most spectacular celebrations, a passionate patriotism that literally paints the entire town red – like this happy guy here!

The city’s Jazz Fest was on at the same time, with stages set up and street music played throughout the city center. Every patch of grass in the very green city was taken by picnicking families out celebrating the nation, almost everyone in red and white, maple leaf flags flying high.  It was fun for us to see hundreds of thousands Canadians celebrating their ‘big day’, and this year everyone was extra charged, as even Prince William and Catherine, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, attended the celebrations on Parliament Hill.

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Low-Budget Niagara Falls Itinerary

niagara falls horseshoe falls water power

As the largest and most magnificent waterfalls in North America, Niagara Falls rightfully holds a place on most people’s travel bucket lists. Thanks to centuries of world fame, the destination has become a popular tourist attraction, bringing in more than 30 million visitors every year. As a result, Niagara Falls isn’t always ideal for the globetrotter: Prices can be high, and reservations can be necessary. I’ve always been a budget-conscious traveler, which is why I put together a low-budget Niagara Falls itinerary for you.american falls and bridal veil fallsBecause, fortunately, it is possible to see the best of Niagara Falls on a small budget. Here’s how you can make the most of your visit to these famous waterfalls and the surrounding countryside on a short, affordable trip to Niagara:

Stay Close to the Falls

Since you likely don’t have much time to explore the whole Niagara region, you should try to find accommodations close to the action. On the Canadian side of the falls, there are a number of affordable, deluxe hotels and resorts within walking distance of major attractions, and many of these accommodations boast rooms with outstanding views. I highly recommend the Marriott on the Falls, which is the closest hotel to Niagara Falls and offers award-winning amenities, including a spa and an upscale restaurant. Plus, you can usually find last-minute bookings for low prices because major hotels like Marriott are eager to fill their rooms. You can check out room rates for the date of your visit here:

Tip: Read my Niagara Falls Smack Down : The American Falls vs the Canadian Side for more accommodation recommendations near Niagara Falls, both on the American side and the Canadian side.

niagara falls

Buy a Niagara Falls Trip Package

During a last-minute vacation, you don’t have time to waste trying to plan an itinerary, compare prices or perform other preliminary research on your destination. Therefore, it is likely worth your money to buy a vacation package, which will include admission to various attractions as well as some meals during your trip. Because Niagara Falls is a popular tourist destination, you have hundreds of tour packages to choose from, but I suggest choosing one offered through your hotel. These will be more convenient, often including transportation to and from different attractions. Marriott’s Niagara Falls, Canada vacation packages include family-friendly waterpark days, adult casino nights, wine-tastings, luxurious breakfasts, spa services and more.Budget Niagara Falls Itinerary

Decide How to Get Around At Niagara Falls

As long as you stay in the heart of the tourist areas of Niagara Falls, Canada, you won’t have to worry too much about transportation – you can just use your two feet. Major attractions like Queen Victoria Park, the Rainbow Bridge and boat tours are easily accessible by pedestrians. If you want to venture slightly farther afield, perhaps to the wineries of the Niagara countryside, you might consider renting a bike or even signing up for a cycling tour of Niagara’s vineyards.Niagara Wine countryIf neither of these sounds appealing, you shouldn’t opt for a rental car just yet. Niagara also boasts a unique visitor transportation system called WEGO, which connects hotels with all major attractions in the Niagara area, from Niagara-on-the-Lake in the north to the Floral Showhouse in the south. For two days of unlimited rides, you pay only $12.50 per adult or $9 per child between 6 and 12 years. That’s a steal compared to rental car prices, which can be upwards of $25 per day – and that’s for compact models.

Save money by shopping at a Niagara Falls Outlet Store

Forget the overpriced shops near the Falls – if you want to do some shopping, but you’re visiting Niagara Falls on a small budget, head to one of the outlet stores instead. There are two big outlet stores in Niagara Falls, one on the American side and one on the Canadian side of the Falls.

The U.S. Niagara Falls Outlet Store is:

Fashion Outlets

Address: 1900 Military Road; Niagara Falls, NY 14304, USA

Some of the stores you find here: Adidas, Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Bath & Body Works, Hugo Boss, Calvin Klein, Coach, Cole Haan, Columbia, Crocs, Eddie Bauer, Footlocker, Forever 21, Fossil, GAP, Guess, H&M, J.Crew, Kate Spade, Levi’s Marshalls, Michael Kors, Nike, Oakley, Old Navy, PINK, POLO Ralph Lauren, Puma, Rainbow, Skechers, Sunglass Hut, Swarovski, Timerbland, Tommy Hilfiger, Under Armour, Vans, Victoria’s Secret, and more.

The Canada Niagara Falls Outlet Mall is:

Outlet Collections at Niagara

Address: 300 Taylor Rd, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON L0S 1J0, Canada

Stores you find here include: The Northface, Michael Kors, Adidas, ALDO, American Eagle, ASICS, Banana Republic, Bath & Body Works, Hugo Boss, Calvin Klein, The Children’s Place, Columbia, Coach, Cole Haan, DKNY, Crocs, Ecco, Eddie Bauer, Fossil, GAP, GEOX, GNC, Guess, Jack Jones, Kate Spade, Lacoste, Levi’s, L’occitane, Lululemon, Marshalls, Mountain Warehouse, New Balance, Nike, Old Navy, Pandora, Puma, POLO Ralph Lauren, Reebok, Saks Off Fifth, Samsonite, Skechers, Sunglass Hut, The Body Shop, The Shoe Company, Tommy Hilfiger, UGG, Under Armour, Vans, and more.

Niagara Falls Attractions that don’t cost much

Now that you have your logistics sorted, you can focus on the fun. Niagara Falls has grown into a tourist’s playground, filled with adventures and excitement that can last weeks, so if your time is limited, you will have to pick and choose from the following list of low-budget activities you can’t miss.Budget Niagara Falls Itinerary

Niagara parks and gardens. Queen Victoria Park offers the best view of Niagara Falls, but you can also mosey around Dufferin Islands, Niagara Glen, and the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens to see beautiful scenery.

Clifton Hill. Playing any arcade games will cost you a few quarters, but you can also enjoy the lights and action of the iconic Street of Fun for free.Budget Niagara Falls Itinerary

Niagara Falls History Museum. If your last-minute trip coincides with a Thursday evening, you can get into this museum free of charge. Exhibits include the history of Niagara Falls, especially the region’s role in the War of 1812.

Niagara Falls Farmer’s Market. Niagara is one of the must productive regions in Canada, bringing forth bushels of fresh produce. You can sample the fare at local farm-to-table restaurants, or you can create your own culinary masterpieces by picking up ingredients at the Farmer’s Market, open 6 A.M. to noon on Saturdays.

 
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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, the American Falls and the Canadian Falls, I realized just how different both sides are. This is why I wanted to share the pros and cons of American side and the Canadian side, their similarities and the main differences. And finally, 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 rainbow

Some 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 canadian side or american sideNiagara 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.

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

Niagara Falls, USA & Canada

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

Iguazu Falls, Argentina & Brazil

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

Victoria Falls, Zambia & Zimbabwe

  • 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, Niagara Falls – both American side or Canadian side – 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 rainbow

American Falls & Canadian Falls – The Similarities

Let’s start with what’s similar on both the American side and the Canadian side. 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.

Niagara Falls American Side or Canadian Side
Getting close to the Falls from Canada and from the U.S.

Niagara Falls American Side or Canadian Side – The Differences

The biggest difference between visiting Niagara 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:

Niagara Falls: 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 Side or Canadian Side
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 US$12.70 if you book it online! The popular Sunday Brunch Buffet at CAD32.50 is actually pretty good value, considering it includes the observation deck as well – but make sure to book your table well in advance.

Tip: You can now also see the Falls from the brand new Skywheel! Grab a ticket now for the bargain price of only US$11.10Niagara Falls SkyWheel TicketsYou 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.

Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the more tours you can take at Niagara Falls.

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. This is something to consider when you decide if to stay on the American side or the Canadian side: the light show is only visible from the Canadian side, and getting there at night would be easier from a hotel on the Canadian side.

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 American Side or Canadian Side
The Falls lit up

Niagara Falls: 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

Niagara Falls: The cities

Niagara Falls Canada

It’s no secret that we 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. I’ve listed some of the attractions on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls in this article.

When debating if you want to stay on the American side or the Canadian side, keep in mind that families with kids might prefer the Canadian side for entertainment value – or do the exact opposite: stay away from it to avoid spending loads of money.

Niagara Falls American Side or Canadian Side

Niagara 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 falls

American Side or Canadian Side? Which Falls 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 American Side or Canadian Side
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 only $1.00 in both currencies if you cross on foot, but more expensive 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

The Best Tours In Niagara Falls

As you would expect for one of the most visited tourist attractions in all of North America, there are plenty of tours you can book as a visitor. But which ones are worth it?

I am sharing the most popular tours you can take from both, Niagara Falls American side and Canadian side.

    • American Falls Half-Day Tour: This includes a boat ride on the “Maid of the Mist” and the Cave of the Winds for a close-up Falls experience. Furthermore, you’ll get to see the Falls from the top of the American Observation Tower and you will visit all key viewing areas of Niagara Falls including Goat Island.
    • Above & Behind the Falls (Canadian Side): This 5-hour tour includes a Hornblower Niagara Cruise, a visit to the tunnels underneath the Horseshoe Falls, and the observation deck on top of the Skylon Tower to enjoy panoramic views of the Falls.
  •  
    • Treat Yourself to the VIP Experience: A Niagara Falls Helicopter Flight, Boat Ride & Skylon Lunch: This 5-hour tour includes the Hornblower Niagara Cruise boat ride (seasonal: April – December), a helicopter ride directly above the falls and the whirlpool rapids, a stunning lunch at Skylon Tower’s revolving dining room; and the “Journey Behind the Falls” tour for a behind the scenes look at the Horseshoe Falls

Check out all available tours at Niagara Falls here:Best tours Niagara Falls

Where To Stay In Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls is one of the most popular tourist attractions in North America, so naturally there are plenty of hotels around here. Be careful though: There are also a bunch of cheapie motels that are very basic and some are downright filthy. They are cheap, but not enjoyable, trust me. Before you book a hotel or motel, make sure to check the latest reviews before going for what may seem like a bargain deal, and the review score. I’ve put together a few options on both the American side and the Canadian side for you, for all budgets.

Note: The Canadian side has considerably more options, including some hotels with direct views of the falls from your hotel window. It’s definitely worth to splurge on a room with a view of the falls! Another thing to consider when deciding if to stay on the American side or the Canadian side.

Niagara Falls American Side or Canadian Side

Where to Stay in Niagara Falls on the Canadian Side

Budget: There are a couple of gorgeous B&Bs which offer accommodation for under $100, including breakfast.

Mid-range: The mid-range hotels are pretty much all major hotel chains. The Sheraton and even the Radisson are much better than the overpriced Hilton, both have rooms for around $160, compared to a starting price of $300 for the Hilton. And both have spectacular Falls vistas!

Niagara Falls American Side or Canadian SideHigh-end: There isn’t much here in terms of truly luxurious hotels, but the Marriott Fallsview Hotel & Spa is your best option. Note that Marriott has two other properties here, the Marriott Courtyard and the Marriott on the Falls (in case you want to use your Marriott points).

Where to Stay in Niagara Falls on the U.S. Side

Budget: There are several sub-par motels here, read some reviews before you book. A B&B will be a much more pleasant choice.

Mid-range: You’ll find all the common hotel chains here: Best Western, Quality, La Quinta Inn, Howard Johnson, Holiday Inn, Wyndham, Four Points by Sheraton, etc. The best ones:

High-end: Just like on the Canadian side, there aren’t any truly luxurious hotels around here, but the Giacomo boutique hotel stands out. All three options are still under $200 per night.

Stay at an Airbnb and cook for yourself!

Having a kitchen and being able to cook for myself is always the biggest draw for me to stay in an Airbnb, and after two visits to Niagara Falls with a number of disappointing restaurant visits there (read: overpriced and forgettable meals), I’d stay in an Airbnb on my next visit. There are a number of rooms and entire apartments listed on the website on both the Canadian and the U.S. site, starting at $30.

Use my referral link to sign up for Airbnb and get up to $30 off your first booking!

Have you been to Niagara Falls? What is your take on this hot topic, Niagara Falls American Side or Canadian Side? 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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Niagara Falls American Side or Canadian Side

 

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Polaroid of the week: Burritts Rapids Locks along the Rideau Canal

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polaroid of the week canada rideau canal burritts rapids locks

Our temporary home is not far from the Rideau River and the Rideau Canal which connects Ottawa with the town of Kingston on Lake Ontario. The Canal was opened in 1832 and is the oldest continuous waterway in North America. There are 45 locks along the canal and we took our bicycles out for a long ride to the Burritts Rapids locks near Merrickville, where we enjoyed a picnic in the sun while watching boats come and go.

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