Though Niagara Falls can empty your wallet in a hurry with all its many attractions, games and shops, there are plenty of free things to do, many of which can be more satisfying than mini-golf or buying tchotchkes.
A long pedestrian boardwalk runs the alongside the Niagara River allowing great vistas of the area. You'll have lots of great spots to get a photo or a get closer look through one of the many viewfinders. Kids will love the observation deck at the brink of the Horseshoe Falls where they see, hear and feel the power of gushing water plunging 176 feet / 53.6 meters to the gorge below.
A 15-acre municipal park on the shores of Lake Ontario in neighbouring St. Catharines, about 20 mins from Niagara Falls, that boasts beautiful gardens and pathways, including the 9/11 Memorial trail, a petting farm (May - October), picnic area and playground.
Getting There: Follow signs for St. Catharines to Niagara Street down to Lakeshore Road, turn right on Read Road. Sanctuary is on Read Road, just east of the Welland Canal.
Morningstar Mill & Mountain Mills Museum
Perched atop the Niagara Escarpment, historic Morningstar Mill is one of Ontario's oldest flour mills. . Located on the original site, and fully powered by water, Morningstar lets visitors observe mill operations, tour the house, blacksmith shop and grounds, see the display of local artefacts and access the Bruce Trail which follows the ravine across the top of the escarpment.
Morningstar Mill & Mountain Mills Museum website
OK, so it's not technically free, but pretty darn close. For 5 cents (and that's 5 cents Canadian!), kids can ride an antique, hand-carved merry-go-round that still operates from May – September. It is a Coney Island style carousel with 68 carved animals, 4 chariots and a functioning band organ, located in Lakeside Park, Port Dalhousie.
The Carousel is open 10am to 9pm from Victoria Day weekend until Labour Day.
Directions to Port Dalhousie
Welland Canals Centre at Lock 3
Home to the largest canal observation deck in Niagara, it’s the best view of ships using the Welland Canal. Also home to the St. Catharines Museum, and the Ontario Lacrosse Hall of Fame. Small admission fee applies to Museum and Hall of Fame visits, but the rest of the Centre, including parking, observation platform and the new indoor Lock View Lounge on the 2nd floor are free of charge.
Outside, enjoy picnic area, playground and Discovery Park with educational write-ups about the canal.
Getting There: Take the QEW Toronto. Exit at Glendale Avenue. Turn left at the set of lights (Glendale Avenue). Cross lift bridge. Turn right on Welland Canals Parkway.
Welland Canals Centre at Lock 3 website
Niagara Glen Nature Area
A seasonal hiking locale, the Niagara Glen is a unique area of the Niagara River carved out thousands of years ago due to the erosive forces of Niagara Falls. This designated nature area is a globally important birding area and is home to rare flora and Carolinian forest types.
Just 10 minutes away from the Falls on the Niagara Parkway, the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens is 40 hectares (99 acres) of beautiful gardens, an aviary, and rose garden featuring over 2,400 roses. The Butterfly Conservatory, located within the Botanical Gardens, though not free, is a great place for families to visit.
Getting There: 2565 Niagara Parkway, 9 kilometers (6 miles) north of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls near the Lewiston-Queenston International Bridge. Directions to Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens