According to the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, more than 12 million people visit Niagara Falls every year.
Many flock to the area on the New York or Canadian side to see the majestic beauty of the waterfalls, but just as many congregate here because of all the great low-cost activities for families.
What can you do here without spending? This guide will explore all your options.
See the Falls
Are you still debating whether to take your family to Niagara Falls? This is the sign you’ve been waiting for that you should enjoy the wonders together.
My family most often visits from the New York side, but the Canadian side is just as accessible and breathtaking and offers even more attractions and activities for toddlers through teens.
It’s free to enter Niagara Falls State Park in New York; you just have to pay for parking.
There’s no cost to view the falls from the Canadian side, but here again, you’ll have to find a place to park, usually in a paid lot.
Make an afternoon out of it and try to see all three waterfalls from your side of the park. The Horseshoe Falls is the biggest and most monumental of the three, visible between the American and Canadian borders.
The Bridal Veil and American Falls are smaller and on the US side but visible from the Canadian side of the gorge.
It only takes several hours to see all three parts of Niagara Falls, so if you have impatient young ones, you don’t have to stress about them getting cranky or bored.
Enjoy the Winter Festival of Lights
Niagara Falls is as incredible to visit at night as it is by day because it comes alive after dark with gorgeous illumination throughout.
Never is there a better sight than when the Winter Festival of Lights comes to town around the holidays.
A Niagara Falls tradition for more than 40 years, this Canadian event runs from November to February.
More than merely a celebration of Christmastime, the Winter Festival of Lights was created to bring more tourists to the area in the winter. It worked, as more than one million people visit Niagara Falls for the Winter Festival of Lights.
This event has the distinction of being the biggest illumination festival in Canada. Over three million light displays of all kinds abound. Clifton Hill and Niagara Parks also participate.
The display routes include Lundy’s Lane, the Hot Chocolate Trail, Fallsview Boulevard, the Enchanted Forest, Dufferin Islands, the Great Canadian North, Frosted Falls, the Royal Promenade, and the Niagara Parkway.
Keep in mind that while it’s free for families to enter the attraction, refreshments and merchandise aren’t.
Explore Niagara Glen
Get away to Niagara Glen after you and your family have had your fill of Niagara Falls. This Ontario spot within the Niagara Gorge is walkable, including the 2.5 miles of rocky hiking stairways and paths.
You’ll be greeted with views of native fauna, flora, and the Carolinian Forest as you walk. Some of the rock formations in this part of Niagara Glen are prehistoric, so you’re witnessing the rich history of Niagara Falls with every step.
Continuing through Niagara Glen is a treat for the eyes, as you can see the Niagara River Whirlpool and the Niagara River.
Further, many of the animal and plant species native here are vulnerable, so you can’t witness the nearly 500 species elsewhere.
Niagara Glen is open from 6 a.m. to midnight.
See Some Fireworks
I told you Niagara Falls is most magical at night, especially when fireworks flash brilliantly across the sky. You and the children will marvel and delight in the larger-than-life fireworks and accompanying booms.
Find a comfy place to sit, lay out a blanket, grab a few snacks you packed, and gather the family close to watch the show.
Fireworks occur all summer, nearly nightly, during the Winter Festival of Lights, and on occasional dates throughout the spring and fall.
Check the event calendar before you plan to see a fireworks show, which is free to enjoy.
The fireworks schedule is subject to change due to weather.
Experience Queen Victoria Park
One of Ontario’s longest-standing parks is Queen Victoria Park, near the Horseshoe Falls. The park first welcomed visitors in 1888 and is run by the Niagara Parks Commission today.
Like many parks nearby, it’s free to visit Queen Victoria Park. There’s something stunning awaiting your entire family no matter the season, as the blooms here are some of the finest in all of Canada.
The daffodil displays are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and rivaling them from prominence are the rose displays.
Flowers and plants are strewn across the ground like carpet here. Benches give you a place to stop and watch the views.
Queen Victoria Park’s biggest distinction is being the main gathering point of the Winter Festival of Lights, so it’s truly worth visiting any time of the year.
Take a Scenic Drive
Niagara Falls has some of the world’s most stunningly beautiful scenic drives, which I’ve written about on the blog. Here is a recap of routes to explore:
- Niagara Scenic Parkway in the US begins in Devil’s Hole State Park through the Niagara Power Vista Dam, Joseph Davis State Park, and Route 18F before reaching Old Fort Niagara and Lake Ontario.
- Niagara-on-the-Lake to Fort Erie in Canada takes you from Fort George to the McFarland House, Laura Secord Homestead, Butterfly Conservatory, Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens, Kingsbridge Park, and finally, to Fort Erie.
- Fort Niagara State Park across the Lake Ontario Shore through Wilson-Tuscarora State Park, Golden Hill State Park, and arriving at the Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse.
- Twenty Valley to St. Catherines in Canada, where you’ll travel through the Niagara Escarpment, the Twenty Mile Creek, and Short Hills Provincial Park before you get to St. Catherines.
Spend a Day at the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens
Here’s another exemplary attraction you’ll hardly believe is free: the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens!
Opening in 1936, this enchanting Ontario garden is nearly 100 acres. The landscapes have received awards for their lovely seasonal gardens and blooms.
You can see even more roses here than at Queen Victoria Park, with more than 2,400 on display in the rose garden.
Beyond the Victorian rose garden, you can explore the trees of Canada at the Botanical Gardens. Niagara Parks School of Horticulture displays herb, vegetable, rose, and parterre gardens.
The Butterfly Conservatory is housed here, although it’s not free to tour it.
You can take a guided tour through the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens on weekends in front of the conservatory, which costs $8 a head.
However, unguided tours are free.
Relax at Dufferin Islands Park
When was the last time you and the family spent any meaningful time outside? If you can’t recall, it’s time to plan a restorative, relaxing day at Dufferin Islands Park. You’ll find this park near the Table Rock Welcome Center in Ontario.
Dufferin Islands Park is 10 acres and includes footbridges, walking paths, and plenty of greenery to take you through the wildlife and plants of Niagara Falls.
The light display of the Winter Festival of Lights comes through here, so the park is especially delightful to visit in early winter.
Here’s some history about this fascinating spot. The Ontario Power Generating Station, which operated at the start of the 1900s, used water from the Dufferin Islands, although it stopped functioning in 1999.
What else can you do here but stroll? Sit in the grass and relax, listen to some birds, watch for wildlife, have a picnic, and pick up some food and wares at the Table Rock Market if you don’t mind spending a small fee.
Watch the Floral Clock
One of the finest curiosities in Niagara Parks is the Floral Clock. This Ontario attraction is a real working clock inlaid in seasonal displays of flowers and grasses, surrounded by stone architecture and a shallow pond.
You can reach the Floral Clock through the Niagara Parkway if you take the Niagara-on-the-Lake trail.
Ontario Power Generation keeps those minute and seconds hands ticking while the horticulturists at Niagara Parks maintain the clock’s face across the seasons.
Westminster chimes in the working clock will sound their melodic gong every quarter hour.
Stroll the Niagara River Recreation Trail
The Niagara River Recreational Trail is a great way to get a taste of Ontario’s side of Niagara Falls without spending a dollar.
Did you know that when Winston Churchill ventured to meet with Prime Minister Mackenzie King, he chose this area to take a break? Churchill later fell in love with the Niagara Parkway, favoring it for dreamy Sunday drives.
The Niagara River Recreation Trail was built in 1986 and permits non-motorized traffic for more than 30 miles. The trail is excellent for walking, as you can cross four ways and complete the route in an hour or two.
Your options are Black Creek to Fort Erie, Chippawa to Black Creek, Queenston to the Whirlpool Aero Car, and Niagara-on-the-Lake to Queenston.