The Niagara Escarpment is one of the natural wonders of the world. Seven hundred and twenty-five kilometres long and hundreds of millions of years old, this UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve encompasses cliffs, rolling hills, wetlands, pebbled beaches, waterfalls, and historic sites, villages, towns, and cities. One of those towns is the Niagara-on-the-Lake, the centre of Ontario’s wine region and capital of Upper Canada until 1796.
The charming and historic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is just 20 minutes from Niagara Falls, but it’s a world apart from the bright lights and fast pace of the tourist attraction. Beautifully landscaped parks, colourful flower beds lining the streets, and refined wineries serving up Canada’s ice wine are the just some of the highlights of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
1. Have an unforgettable theatrical encounter at the Shaw Festival
Since 1962, the Shaw Festival theatre has been putting on world-class productions in Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s the second largest repertory theatre in North America with shows that embody the spirit of George Bernard Shaw: challenging the status quo in unique and exciting ways. Every year from April to October, the Festival draws audiences from around the world to over 800 performances of more than a dozen different plays, ranging from Elizabethan era tragedies to contemporary plays and musicals. In 2018, see Stephen Fry in Mythos, uncover the mystery of The Hound of the Baskervilles, or go classic with Shakespeare’s Henry V.
10 Queen’s Parade
2. Explore an authentic 19th century pharmacy
Learn how pharmacists once practiced their profession at the Niagara Apothecary Museum. The painstakingly restored Victorian building has the original Italianate style façade and black walnut and butternut fixtures dating back to 1869. The apothecary opened its doors during Canada’s Confederation period and had six owners over the span of nearly a century in usage. Explore the old house and its walls of ‘miracle cure-alls’ — liquor, leeches, tobacco, and snuff — that were thought to cure all kinds of ailments.
5 Queen St
3. Walk the ramparts of Fort George
Step back into time when soldiers donned red coats and shot muskets to defend Upper Canada from American invaders during the War of 1812. History and military buffs will enjoy exploring this former British Army headquarters. Though the stone powder magazine is the only original building — the rest were destroyed during the Battle of Fort George — the barracks, mess hall, and officer’s quarters are authentic as can be. Look out from the ramparts over the Niagara River to see Fort Niagara, the stronghold British soldiers were forced to retreat from. In summer, visitors have the opportunity to see musket and artillery demonstrations, as well as reenactments of various battles.
51 Queen’s Parade
4. Tour Niagara-on-the-Lake’s wineries by bicycle
The millions-year old ecosystem of the Niagara Escarpment is part of what gives Niagara wines their distinct and complex flavours and aromas. With nearly 30 wineries scattered around Niagara-on-the-Lake, taking a bike to explore the vineyards and orchards of the ‘Fruit Belt’ should not be missed. From the family-owned Peller Estates (290 John St E) to the grand Château des Charmes (1025 York Rd), every winery is a new discovery. Be sure to make a stop at Inniskillin Wines (1499 Line 3), purveyor of some of Canada’s best ice wines. With a variety of canals and riverside trails, even teetotallers can enjoy cycling Niagara-on-the-Lake’s gorgeous natural landscape.
5. Take a ghost tour of Canada’s most haunted town
Between the only war fought on Canadian soil, the slaying and displacement of First Nations People, and serving as the site of some of Ontario’s first public executions, it’s no surprise Niagara-on-the-Lake is considered one of Canada’s most haunted towns. Three hundred years of settler history marked by tragedy and violence certainly make for spooky ghost stories. Ghost Walks organizes evening ghost tours of Niagara-on-the-Lake, stopping at key historical sites and buildings that have been marked by paranormal activity.
6. Stroll the town’s Old-World shoppes in the heritage district
Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Old Town will take you back to Old World high streets: Victorian buildings filled with handmade treats and designs, locally made goods, and horse-and-carriages to boot. The main street of Queen Street features antique shops, galleries, wine shops, and fashions. Stop at Beau Chapeau (42 Queen St) for a handcrafted hat; take home some sweets from Maple Leaf Fudge (114 Queen St), fine fudge made with real butter; or Greaves Jams & Marmalades (55 Queen St), a 100% Canadian family owned and operated shop selling natural jams, jellies, condiments, and spreads. Step off the high street and into the residential areas with heritage houses and beautiful gardens.
7. Explore the natural beauty of the Niagara Escarpment
Once you’ve sauntered down Queen Street and collected all the goodies, pack them in a picnic basket and commune with Mother Nature. Head to Two Mile Creek Conservation Area to walk along the local trail provides access to Colonel Butler’s Burial ground or Queen’s Royal Park. The latter is a nice spot to kick off your shoes and relax under the beautiful trees alongside Lake Ontario. For something a bit more manicured, visit North America’s oldest surviving golf course. Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club (143 Front St) was opened in 1875; its waterfront patio, friendly service, and upscale pub fare makes it one of the city’s favourite restaurants.