It’s hard to imagine a location that could top Niagara Falls, home to the 188-foot cascades that have been captivating visitors for decades. And yet, only a 30-minute, tree-lined drive north is Niagara-on-the-Lake, a quaint town set on the shores of Lake Ontario.
Niagara-on-the-Lake offers a more mature experience to the gaming hot spots and neon nightlife of the ever-popular honeymoon capital. (Think double-digit anniversary celebrations and wine-focused girlfriend getaways rather than Niagara Falls’ rowdy bachelorette parties and early 20s shenanigans.) Snippets of conversation waft out from café patios as you walk through the town’s Heritage District, which offers a mix of antique sellers, independent shops, and bed-and-breakfasts. Evenings are all about enjoying local wine and food at farm-to-table restaurants. And the art and culture experiences, including theater, galleries, and concert venues, are both award-winning and intimate. It’s the kind of place you settle into. And for a weekend stay, you can do exactly that. Here’s how to spend a few days in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
The 90-minute drive from Toronto isn’t particularly pretty—the smokestacks and boxy buildings are indicative of what was once the industrial heart of the province. The scenic rewards begin once you hit the Burlington Skyway bridge and first see the bright blue of Lake Ontario below. Set on the edge of the Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, Niagara-on-the-Lake is home to just over 19,000 people, and it feels like it.
Upon arrival, head directly to your hotel, the recently renovated and expanded 124 on Queen Hotel & Spa (from $430 a night). While the modest facade fits seamlessly with the well-preserved 19th-century village, inside the boutique property stretches several blocks and sports a bright, modern design. Rooms make use of the natural light and some offer views of Queen Street, the town’s main drag.
Once you’re settled, grab lunch at 11th Post on Queen, a quick walk from the hotel. The latest venture from local Two Sisters Vineyards, its quaint, central location is perfect for patio dining if the weather cooperates—favorites include the Post Burger and the tuna rice bowl. Then, hop on one of the hotel’s complimentary bikes and set out to explore the 3.7-mile Commons Loop trail loop, or head further afield on the area’s 32 miles of bike lanes and paths that include sections along the tree-lined Niagara River Parkway. Or let a local introduce you to the place: Tour de Vine’s bike tours visit the region’s renowned wineries and Niagara Bound Tours dives into the region’s connection to the Underground Railroad. Other guided or self-guided options connect the area to the War of 1812 and Indigenous Nation building.
Make a reservation at the Riverbend Inn for dinner, where you can enjoy a lighter menu on the Ansley Sparkling Terrace or a more traditional meal (think duck confit or braised lamb shank) inside at Oaklands. When you’re done, you’re only a 20-minute walk or a 3-minute drive over to the Maxwell Studio Theatre, where you can catch The Apple Cart from June through October this year. The production is part of the Shaw Festival (running February through December), brainchild of an area lawyer who loved the works of George Bernard Shaw. Since 1962, the festival has showcased his theatrical productions alongside other notable plays.
After a cold water dip at the new Spa at Q (its new hydrotherapy circuit includes the only Snow Room in Canada), succumb to the area’s reputation as a wine haven. More than 50 wineries dot the region, which has been home to some of the best wineries in Canada. While over 46 grape varieties are grown in the area, its best known for its cool climate varietals, including riesling, chardonnay, and cabernet franc.
Tour companies like Niagara Vintage Wine Tours or Winery Guys offer the chance to try a few wineries without worrying about having to drive yourself, with options for meals overlooking the vines. If you’re planning your own tour (Uber and cabs are available), consider visiting Two Sisters, where a wood oven produces perfectly crisp pizza to enjoy with your sips. Another option: Trius, which offers a two- or three-course menu that includes a prosciutto-wrapped Cornish hen and Ontario beef striploin.
Ready for a walk? Back in town, take an hour to wander the Victorian-era shops along Queen Street. The eclectic mix of purveyors means you can pick up everything from a leather ottoman in the shape of a rhino to locally made bath bombs. For a late-afternoon nibble, pop into Budapest Bakeshop or Il Gelato di Carlotta for a quick treat. Or settle in for a classic high tea, complete with scones and cucumber sandwiches, at the Prince of Wales Hotel.
Tonight, dine at Treadwell, where the seasonal four-course prix fixe menu can include dishes like seared scallops with pork belly, maple chile, and radish, or cocoa nib–crusted Muscovy duck. And an optional (but recommended) sommelier pairing features a mix of regional and international suggestions. Once you’re happily sated, you’re steps from your hotel.
Sleep in—you’re on vacation, after all. Then cross the street to the Niagara Juice Co. for the Giant Breakfast Croissant, stacked with bacon, egg, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, and lemony hollandaise. (One will easily satisfy two people.) Pair it with a coffee or hand-squeezed orange juice and sit at a table out front while you watch the street wake up.
Before you head back to Toronto, be sure to pick up a few souvenirs of your stay. Foodie options are best (spreads from Greaves Jams, oil from OLiV Tasting Room, or nostalgic candies from the Olde Tyme Candy Shoppe are winners). But non-food options also abound from local artisans, designers, and crafters. Pop into Natasha Bradley for modern home decor picks, or choose a piece from the Inuit and Iroquois artists featured at the Upper Canada Native Art Gallery.
Heather Greenwood Davis Heather Greenwood Davis tells stories from places around the world primarily as a contributing writer, keynote speaker, and on-air personality for recognizable brands including National Geographic, The Globe and Mail, Good Morning America, and CTV.