Spin the globe and plant your finger somewhere for a getaway trip. You would be lucky to hit Niagara on the Lake. Often dubbed as Canada’s prettiest town, this historic hamlet that straddles the border of Canada and the USA might seem all Downtown Abbey-ish with its caleche rides transporting canoodling couples past pretty gingerbread gabled mansions. However, you’ll be surprised at the variety of things to do in Niagara on the Lake even though it’s quite a contrast to nearby Niagara Falls, where things to do there are more adventurous.
The heritage buildings are mostly 19th-century originals and the town itself predates Canada as a nation.
But on this getaway, it’s all the pampering, local shops and divine culinary sensations that tickled the imaginations of two gals, as my friend and I ventured to Niagara on the Lake for a short country retreat.
Here are the best things to do in Niagara on the Lake for a fun and interesting getaway.
- 12 Things to do in Niagara on the Lake
- History of Niagara on the Lake
12 Things to do in Niagara on the Lake
1- Niagara on the Lake High Tea
Nothing beats civility and yes, Downtown Abbey tones (we are big fans of the Crawley family) than afternoon tea at the Prince of Wales Hotel.
Inside the fabled Drawing Room, amid polished silver tea settings and frilly laced accessories with fabulous splashes of roses we escaped to the solarium overlooking the manicured gardens to participate in the age-old tea ritual.
Find a rich tea menu created by Canada’s first certified tea sommelier, Sloane Fine Tea Merchants.
Mine was the Persian Palace with hints of Jaipur roses that was presented in fine porcelain china.
I chose it because the Victorians had a love-in with Persian elements so it rekindled that vibe.
The highlight: The gift of the gab and experiencing a collection of delectable bite-sized sandwiches alongside the decadent Devonshire clotted creamed, butter and jam scones.
2- Stay at the Prince of Wales hotel
What better way than to overnight with, I mean at, the Prince of Wales?
The historic hotel has rich elements of bold Victorian accents.
The lobby is lined with a big statue, stained glass and inlaid parquet flooring that beautifully meshes with the vast array of vases teeming with red trimmed white roses alongside a glorious collection of royal portraits (albeit these are reproductions).
The Prince of Wales Hotel is part of the Vintage Hotels Collection that includes the Pillar and Post, and Queen’s Landing.
There are complimentary shuttles (enquire at the front desk) between properties so guests at any of the three hotels can enjoy the outdoor hot springs, saunas and hot tubs at the Pillar and Post or bask in the dining scene at Queen’s Landing, home of the Tiara Restaurant.
3- Check out the award-winning restrooms!
Normally one doesn’t discuss les toilettes, but in Niagara on the Lake one woman’s washroom has garnered the best restroom in Canada award.
Located at the Shaw Club Hotel and Spa it’s a great spot for touch-ups and refreshers.
The other fun discovery goes to the Prince of Wales Hotel.
The love of porcelain and ceramic is so obvious the women’s loo is styled in a matching floral print ceramic sink and the uh-hum.
4- Wine and Dine at Niagara on the Lake
When there’s a cheese plate accompanied by local fruit preserves as an appetiser and a wine list that celebrates Niagara’s rich vineyards, you suspect the dining scene can’t be too shabby.
At Zee’s Grill, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality in service and selection.
The wait staff promptly seat you at this bustling eatery located directly across from Niagara on the Lake’s mainstay, the Shaw Festival Theatre where the plays of playwright George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries are performed.
Being girlfriends we ordered the same entree, seasoned beef tenderloin triple A in a whisky shallot jus that floated over our carmelised onion potato mash, heavenly!
Jackson Triggs Cab-Shiraz and Coyote Run Estate Winery’s Pinot Noir perfectly finished off the evening.
The highlight: The gift of the gab while sharing the cheese tray in a bistro packed with quirky statues.
5- Relax in a Niagara on the Lake spa
No, you will not smell like a wine bottle was poured on you when you visit Niagara’s first spa devoted to the grape.
At the Shaw Spa, you won’t be doing any acting but you will be doing a lot of reclining and catching some R and R as the spa therapist douses your body in its acclaimed vino remedies.
I went for the Divine facial. The vine skin care from France is anti-oxidant rich with its bio organic ingredients.
The highlight: the fuss-free removal of the grape jelly-like mask that came off in one clean swoop.
6- Shop til you drop at Niagara on the Lake
Niagara on the Lake is compact and blessed by one main stretch of shops on Queen Street.
Within a few short blocks, you get your fix for shoes, bling, apparel, and retro candy (yes the Olde Tyme Candy Shoppe specialises in nostalgic candy from your youth.)
The store owner scoured the earth to find specific brands you didn’t think existed anymore.
Some shops unique to Niagara on the Lake include Kurtz Culinary Creations, local third generation orchard farm purveyors, and the Niagara Apothecary.
While the drug store isn’t open for business anymore the location is now a museum and makes a fascinating drop-in to see what the old-fashioned miracle cure-alls were.
Gallery lovers will definitely need to make a detour to explore the local celebrated artist Trisha Romance whose art is highly collected in Canada and around the world. Her painting subjects take inspiration from the Victorian past.
Highlight: buying a winter coat when you least expect it … at the end of summer.
7- Explore Niagara on the Lake parks
The entire Niagara on the Lake looks like a garden.
The garden beds are exploding in colours with pretty picture boxes cascading in petunias and coleus plants.
Meanwhile the rows upon rows of tall Cana lili,es along the sidewalk can have you lose your friend if you’re not watching.
Nice heart to hearts and even quiet contemplation between two friends can easily be done at a few locales.
There’s a popular park for the stroller crowd and pet owners but Simcoe Park also has nicely appointed benches under the old oak trees.
The lakeshore is fabulous.
There’s a nice scenic lookout at the end of Queen Street as the road takes a sharp turn left.
Convenient benches are well appointed making it a great spot to reflect on great Lake Ontario.
History of Niagara on the Lake
One of the things to do in Canada is to visit its historic places.
Before Canada became the nation we know of today, there was Upper Canada and Lower Canada.
We won’t get into the long history lesson but we will hopefully spark your interest to explore one of the capitals that made headlines back in Britain pre-Confederation during the early 19th century.
Niagara on the Lake (NOTL) was the first capital of Upper Canada.
This waterfront settlement held great significance as it was located where the mouth of the Niagara River spills into Lake Ontario.
The forested flat area was a hop, skip and a jump to the river’s other side where those “Damn Yankees” lived in the neighbouring United States.
Gun powder soon filled the air and battles were fought and won. It was down to one critical war known as the War of 1812 which solidified the future of Upper Canada.
8- Discover Fort George National Historic Site
This British garrison, while it’s largely been recreated, represents an early 19th-century military fort located on the outskirts of town by the river’s edge with Fort Niagara in perfect view over in the United States.
The main purpose of the fort was to defend the Niagara peninsula which was part of Upper Canada.
It also housed soldiers and was the headquarters of top military officers like Sir Isaac Brock.
Head inside this fort, watch re-enactments, participate in programs and learn about Canada’s early days before Confederation.
The National Historic Site is managed by Parks Canada and for the 150th Canadian anniversary, Parks Canada is offering free admission to historic sites and parks.
9- Visit Queenston Heights National Historic Site
I love heading to Queenston Heights.
The setting is gloriously rich in walking trails and panoramic vistas from this lofty perch situated on the Niagara Escarpment.
The absolute must-do when here is to ascend the corkscrew staircase at Brock’s Monument which is not for the squeamish or those who dread heights.
The monument is in commemoration of Major General Sir Isaac Brock, Commander at Fort George who died defending this turf.
It is the largest monument of its kind in Canada and is comparable to the other great British hero’s monument: Lord Horatio Nelson whose statue graces Trafalgar Square in London.
Some records indicate Brock’s Monument is even four metres taller than Nelson’s monument.
This location holds huge significance as soldiers like Brock fought here during what is known as the War of 1812 which was the brutal Anglo-American conflict that occurred in 1812 to 1815 over a lot of territory.
It remains the last time that the Brits and Americans fought against each other.
10- Learn about history at Willowbank
See one of Canada’s first thriving shopping centres of its day where trade was booming.
Goods arrived daily on the Niagara River and that included bundles of mail and parcels.
Welcome to the country’s first post office which amazingly was in the home of the first postmaster.
The palatial home with river views was built for Alexander Hamilton, the son of Robert Hamilton, Queenston’s first mayor and a founding father of Upper Canada.
It’s a fabulous impressive Greek Revival mansion which was the fashion of the day.
The home was designated a national historic site in 2003. In May 2006, Willowbank was recognised as a site of national historic significance by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.
Today the heritage property houses the School of Restoration Arts. Events and festivals are regularly scheduled and the historic space is available for event rentals.
11- Laura Secord Homestead
You’d be surprised at what an unassuming wife of a United Empire Loyalist (this is a term used to describe an American loyal to the British Crown who moved to Canada) who while stirring her pot might overhear in her kitchen.
For Laura Secord, considered a Canadian legend, it was a top secret plan of an American military invasion.
One day in 1813, three American officers who were billeted there became way too relaxed and boasted how they would finish off one of the Canadian military outposts.
The long and short of it was Secord went on an arduous 32-km journey to warn the local British commander, Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon, of an imminent American attack.
All she had for this dangerous covert mission through enemy lines was her cow and a milking pail used to disguise her harrowing journey.
She hiked through thick brambles and swampland to successfully deliver the message to the Lieutenant.
Today, visitors can see the humble abode of the Canadian heroine Laura Secord.
The restored historic home under the stewardship of the Niagara Parks Commission is open to the public.
Guided tours are available. And, yes for the chocolate lovers, it’s a “must” to purchase some famous Laura Secord chocolates.
12- Cycle Niagara River Parkway
The best way to arrive at NOTL is via this winding roadway known as the Niagara River Parkway. The road snakes along the mighty Niagara River.
From the Niagara Falls, you drive north passing along a route which defined the nation’s founding.
See landmarks and monuments that proudly stand as a testament to Canada’s early days.
Cyclists enjoy the leafy river trail maintained by the Niagara Parks Commission that has its own designated path called the Niagara River Recreation Trail, which makes biking here very enjoyable.
You head through sacred Carolinian forests and inch by the glorious vineyards but make sure to take the time to stop along the way.
There is a fabulous collection of heritage plaques.
These chunks of stone have chiselled stories that tell passers-by what used to be here.
Some of my favourites belong to Thomas Moore, the Irish poet who illustrated this dreamland of Niagara to fellow Irish countrymen who later immigrated and made homesteads there.
His creative inspiration it’s been said was found beneath a large oak tree outside the McFarland House.
Another fabulous plaque is the story of the McFarland House (open to the public).
During the War of 1812, it was used as a hospital by both British and American forces and a British battery.
Niagara-on-the-lake (NOTL) is 22km (27 minutes) from Niagara Falls.
If you’re wondering where else to go while in Canada, consider staying overnight at the historic village of Val Jalbert in Quebec.
Another beautiful spot to visit in Canada is the Thousand Islands, where you can take a Boldt Castle cruise.