Historic Niagara-on-the-Lake – Niagara Falls Canada

Visit Niagara on the Lake, a well-preserved heritage village is known throughout the country as one of Canada’s prettiest towns. Discover what keeps so many visitors coming back.

Horse-and-buggies trot down the street. Flower baskets hang from old-fashioned lamp standards. Shoppers bustle from boutique to boutique, pausing to admire 19th-century storefronts.

Above: Photo by David Cooper (Courtesy Shaw Festival).

Theatre-fans whisper at wine-bar tables, jogging elbows when they think they’ve spotted an actor from the Shaw Festival Theatre at the door. At the waterfront, where the Niagara River runs into Lake Ontario, a charming park and beach welcome families toting picnic baskets.

This is Niagara on the Lake, a well-preserved heritage town known throughout the country as one of Canada’s prettiest towns. Being just across the border from the United States, it also attracts regular visitors from the New York region. Busloads of international tourists stop here on their way to Niagara Falls Canada and the vineyards of the Niagara Region. Many visitors treat themselves to a visit at least once a season.

There are many reasons why Niagara on the Lake is so popular.

A Lakeside Setting

The setting is a big part of the appeal. If you have a weakness for water, then you’re going to love this place. The town is situated on a tract of land bordered by Lake Ontario and the Niagara River, just a short (and beautiful) drive north of Niagara Falls. From here you can look across the water and see the shore of the United States. You can take a cruise that visits both bodies of water, and you can follow along the edge of the river by car, bike, rollerblade or foot, thanks to the lovely Niagara region waterfront trail that hugs the parkway.

Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Course
View from the Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Course; Photo by Guylaine Spencer

In fine weather, you can stroll the beach or dip your toes into chilly Lake Ontario. The kids don’t like sand in their toes? Try the outdoor wading pool in Simcoe Park.

Historic Niagara on the Lake

Another big attraction is the amazing historic architecture. First, there’s the fort – historic Fort George. How many towns have a restored 19th-century British fort in their back yard?

Then there are the houses. According to the Parks Canada Agency which protects nationally significant structures, Niagara on the Lake possesses Canada’s best collection of heritage homes from the period following the War of 1812 (1815 to 1859). Many were built in the Georgian style so popular at the time in England, the Mother Country of many inhabitants.

You’ll find well-preserved heritage homes on the side streets running off Queen (which is the main shopping street). Many of them have been turned into Bed and Breakfasts. Baskets full of flowers in the summer, carved pumpkins in the fall, urns with serious plants, wicker rocking chairs, and the occasional quirky garden sculpture decorate white Georgian clapboard homes with wrap-around porches. This is the kind of leafy picture-perfect neighborhood you usually only see in the movies.

In fact, if some of the buildings look familiar, it’s probably because you’ve seen them on the silver screen. The former courthouse and several of the houses and hotels have been used as film settings. Down at the lakeshore park, you’ll even find a Victorian-style gazebo facing the water. This gingerbread confection blends perfectly with the rest of the town, but – surprise! – it’s much younger than everything else. It was built for the movie The Dead Zone when it was shot here in 1983.

The main shopping street, Queen Street, is probably one of the most photographed streets in the country and a great glimpse into what small Ontario towns looked like over a hundred years ago.

Clock Tower
Clock Tower; Photo by David Cooper (Courtesy Shaw Festival).

The Clock Tower Cenotaph (pictured above), built to commemorate local lives lost in World War I, is a Niagara-on-the-Lake icon. Many of the shops along Queen Street feature brick walls, gingerbread trim, wood floors, and tin ceilings. Some of them even have lighting fixtures from years past.

History is also on display at the Niagara Historical Society Museum which always has lively changing exhibits.

On Queen Street, you’ll find an old-fashioned pharmacy known as the Niagara Apothecary (built in 1819), which is now a museum operated by the Ontario College of Pharmacists. It’s a great chance to have a look at the so-called “cures” of generations past.

Just on the edge of town on the scenic river-hugging Niagara Parkway, you’ll find McFarland House, which is one of the oldest buildings in the area.

McFarland House
Above: McFarland House. Photo by Guylaine Spencer

It was used as a hospital during the War of 1812 and is now a period museum. It’s worth the trip even if it’s just to have tea in their gorgeous greenhouse tea room!

Art and Culture

Every year, thousands of visitors attend plays and readings at the Shaw Festival Theatre, which boasts three different venues. The company specializes in plays by George Bernard Shaw and other playwrights from his era like Noel Coward but includes more contemporary works on occasion as well.

If you love art, you’ll find several art galleries, including The Romance Gallery which sells paintings by Trisha Romance, a popular local artist.

Music fan? Don’t miss the Music Niagara Festival in the summer.

Shopping in Niagara on the Lake

Shopaholics love Niagara on the Lake. I can’t help dropping into the fudge store, the jam store, the Irish Design Shop, the hat shop, and the wonderful Niagara Book Shop whenever I visit. I love art galleries and home décor places too.

Irish Tea Room
Irish Tea Room. Photo by Guylaine Spencer

But you’ll find more than boutiques here. Niagara-on-the-Lake is in the heart of the Niagara Region, the fruit belt of southern Ontario. On the edge of town, you can visit farms and buy produce direct from roadside stands, or if you’re energetic, pick your own fruit on farms that provide this opportunity. Check this site to find a farm to suit you: http://ontario.farmvisit.com.

Niagara wineries are world-famous. Many visitors build their entire vacation around winery tours. You can pick up a map and go at your own pace, or join an organized tour with experts.

Niagara on the Lake Restaurants

The town offers a range of eateries, and though they tend to be on the pricier side, there are some that are a little more affordable. We almost always have lunch at the Epicurean, which offers gourmet sandwiches, quiches, and great salads… a few dollars more than a typical sandwich joint but well worth it for the quality. Plus, you can’t beat their backyard patio under the trees if you need an escape from the crowds out on Queen Street. Discover more Niagara on the Lake restaurants on a budget.

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