Niagara-on-the-Lake: Victorian Elegance in Ontario's Wine Country

Niagara-on-the-Lake across from Old Fort Niagara at Queen's Royal Park

FunkinsDesigns / Getty Images

Niagara-on-the-Lake is a delightful town just 25 minutes by car from the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. If you want to see the Falls but prefer to avoid huge hotels, flashy signs, and kitschy souvenir shops, consider staying in Niagara-on-the-Lake instead. It's easy to drive to the Falls along the lovely Niagara Parkway, and there is plenty to do and see in Niagara-on-the-Lake itself. The downtown area was designated as a Historic District in 2004.

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Prince of Wales Hotel on Queen Street

Prince of Wales Hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada
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Many people who stay in Niagara-on-the-Lake rent vacation cottages or stay in bed and breakfast inns. You'll find plenty of lodging choices in Niagara-on-the-Lake, ranging from affordable chain hotels to luxurious boutique hotels and B&Bs.

Even if you prefer the intimacy of a B&B or the privacy of a cottage, you can't help but be impressed by the Prince of Wales Hotel. Occupying a prestigious corner in downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake, the Prince of Wales Hotel offers elegantly-appointed rooms, fine dining, spa treatments and even pet-friendly accommodations. From the Prince of Wales Hotel, you can walk to all the restaurants, shops and theaters on Queen Street.

Queen Street is the main thoroughfare of Niagara-on-the-Lake and the heart of the town's theater, dining, and shopping district. Many of the shops on Queen Street appeal primarily to tourists; you'll find shops selling souvenirs, Irish apparel and gifts, lovely items for your home and so on, but you will also find the necessities of life, including groceries, alcoholic beverages, snacks and ice cream. For a real treat, try an ice cream cone at Cows, a Prince Edward Island ice cream retailer on Queen Street. The blueberry ice cream bursts with flavor. Take a look at Cows' whimsical T-shirts while you enjoy your ice cream cone.

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Queen Street Clock Tower

Memorial Clock Tower, or Cenotaph, in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada
Bruce Yuanyue Bi / Getty Images

Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake's main shopping and dining destination, is known not only for its well-preserved Victorian architecture but also for its natural beauty. Floral plantings on street corners, in the center of the street and in front of significant buildings remind visitors and locals alike that Ontario's climate brought farmers and grape growers to the area long before tourists arrived.

Queen Street's Clock Tower is one of the most famous landmarks in town. Officially named the Cenotaph, the Clock Tower is a memorial to the soldiers from Niagara-on-the-Lake who gave their lives in World War I, World War II and the Korean War. It stands right in the middle of Queen Street (its official address is 1 Queen Street). A commemorative plaque lists the names of the fallen and the years of each conflict.
Many bed and breakfast inns refer to the Clock Tower when describing their location, indicating their proximity to the theaters, shops, and restaurants of Niagara-on-the-Lake. On Remembrance Day, November 11, a memorial ceremony takes place each year at the Clock Tower.

Two statues in Niagara-on-the-Lake are almost as famous as the Clock Tower. A statue of playwright George Bernard Shaw stands in the courtyard of the café that bears his name, and a statue of John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada and the man credited for preparing Canada for a potential American invasion before the War of 1812 and defending the area when war came, stands in Simcoe Park. 

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Niagara-on-the-Lake Wine Tasting and Dining and Wine Tasting

Waiter in Vineyard at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada
Jeff Speed / Getty Images

Many visitors come to Niagara-on-the-Lake with wine tasting in mind. The Niagara-on-the-Lake wine region (technically a regional appellation under the Niagara Peninsula appellation, with four sub-appellations of its own) is famous for its ice wine, but don't make the mistake of skipping the other wines on offer. You'll find fruit wines, chardonnays, pinot noirs and much more, made from grapes particularly suited to the area's cool climate.

Most Niagara-on-the-Lake wineries are small, family-owned and family-staffed. You may be asked to pay a small tasting fee, but this fee is often waived if you purchase a bottle of wine. Be sure to taste a variety of wines, not just the ice wine; the wine expert conducting your tasting will appreciate your interest in all of the winery's products. It's even more fun to visit Niagara-on-the-Lake during a wine festival.

Dining in Niagara-on-the-Lake

Foodies can't go wrong in Niagara-on-the-Lake. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from, although you won't find a lot of chain restaurants here. Several wineries serve food, too. (Tip: Eat early, as there are often lines to get in and restaurants do not stay open late).

You can buy local foods at shops, wineries and farm stands. Picard's Peanuts, a family-owned peanut farm, sells the not-to-be-missed "Chipnut," a potato-coated peanut available in a multitude of flavors, as well as chocolate-covered peanuts and gift boxes. You can sample all the Chipnut flavors in the store. Three farm markets in Niagara-on-the-Lake offer locally-grown produce, jams, jellies and more. Cows, a popular ice cream manufacturer, has a store on Queen Street; stop by and check out their whimsical parody T-shirts.

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George Bernard Shaw Festival

The Royal George During the George Bernard Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada
Ken Gillespie / Getty Images

Niagara-on-the-Lake's George Bernard Shaw Festival attracts thousands of visitors each summer. Performances of plays by Shaw, his contemporaries, and Canadian playwrights run from April to October. Special events include sing-alongs, workshops related to Shaw's plays and the annual Shaw Symposium. 

Two of the four festival theaters are on Queen Street; the rest are at the Shaw Festival's Production Center, just a short walk away on Queen's Parade. You can choose between evening and matinée performances. All of this theater-going means that early evening in Niagara-on-the-Lake is a very busy time, but most shops and restaurants close fairly early. Plan ahead and allow plenty of time for your evening meal, as restaurants are generally quite busy.

Tips For Visitors With Mobility Issues

Visitors with mobility issues should check with each theater to find out about accessible seating and washrooms (restrooms). The newer theaters have special access seating, but all of the theaters require you to ascend and descend steps to get to most or all of their seats. Many of the shops and restaurants along Queen Street also have steps, making it difficult for wheelchair and scooter users to enter.

Accessible Niagara, a website created and run by Linda Crabtree, offers detailed, up-to-date evaluations of restaurants, wineries, hotels, and attractions in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Niagara Falls. Accessible Niagara is an invaluable tool for travelers with mobility impairment. Crabtree has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and uses a mobility scooter, so she understands the needs of travelers who use mobility aids.

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