Niagara-on-the-Lake: The prettiest town in Canada

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This small town located at the northern terminus of the scenic Niagara Parkway is my heart magnet. Each time when I need to elate my soul I go there. I love this place in bright and colorful summer days, in a magic golden fall or in an emerald green spring. It is always warm and peaceful even in an endless and melancholic Canadian winter. A lot of sweet memories forever connected with a wonderful Victorian mansion where my husband and I spent a few days of our honeymoon. There is something special and enigmatic in the air that makes me feel as if I am in a fairytale.

Niagara-on-the-Lake, located where the Niagara River enters Lake Ontario, is one of the best-preserved 19th-century villages in North America. Named the Prettiest Town in Canada in 1996, the town is the jewel of the Province of Ontario.

National Historic District

Niagara-on-the-Lake played a significant role in the establishment of many of the national and provincial institutions: parliament, the first newspaper, lending library, historical museum, and governing body for the legal profession. Critical battles in the defense of Upper Canada took place here, at Queenston, including one in which heroine Laura Secord gained her fame.

The town gave many black Americans their first taste of freedom. Its unique collection of preserved architecture dating from the 1815-1859 period includes the Niagara Apothecary, MacDougal-Harrison House, Kirby House, and St Andrew’s Church. The town has many national historic sites including Fort George, Brock’s Monument, Willowbank, Fort Mississauga and Butler’s Barracks. Historic properties of the Niagara Parks Commission include McFarland House, Mackenzie Printery, and Queenston Chapel. The Niagara Historical Museum was the first building constructed in Ontario specifically as a museum and displays a collection of early artifacts related to the history of the town. All these facts led the Canadian Government to designate the old town of Niagara-on-the-Lake as a National Historic District in 2004, the only one in Ontario.

St. Mark’s Church (built 1791) – oldest Anglican Church in Ontario

The Court House, a Shaw Festival theatre and Parks Canada headquarters of Niagara National Historic Sites.

McFarland House is the oldest surviving building in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Built in 1800 by John McFarland and his sons, on land granted to him by King George III, and located in a picturesque park, McFarland House has stood as a monument to the impeccable manners, good taste and gracious living that epitomizes Niagara-on-the-Lake for more than two centuries. During the War of 1812 the house was used as a hospital and headquarters for both the British and American armies. By the way, the House is the oldest property owned by The Niagara Parks Commission. It was opened to the public in 1959. You can take a guided tour or have a cup of the finest tea at its patio or both. McFarland House is open daily from early May until Labour Day weekend, and weekends from Labour Day until Thanksgiving weekend.

Niagara Apothecary Museum (built 1820) is the oldest pharmacy in Ontario.

The Shaw Festival

The Shaw Festival was founded to boost tourism. Together this was a magical formula. Tourists began visiting to enjoy the history, the restored buildings and increasingly to attend the Festival.

The Festival’s roots can be traced to 1962 when Ontario playwright Brian Doherty staged the summertime “Salute to Shaw” in the town’s courthouse, later known as the Courthouse Theatre. For eight weekends Doherty and his crew produced Don Juan in Hell and Candida to promote the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries. It was an immediate success.

With the addition of Barry Morse as Artistic Director in 1966, the Festival gained huge international publicity and its productions garnered sold-out performances. From 1967, Paxton Whitehead served for twelve seasons as Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival. He was able to push through a plan of building the purpose-built 869 seat state-of-the-art Festival Theatre to expand considerably the capacity for audiences. Queen Elizabeth II, Pierre Trudeau, and Indira Gandhi, were among those who attended the Shaw Festival Theatre during its inaugural season in 1973.

In 1980, Christopher Newton, joined the company and continued to foster its development with the addition of a third theatre. The acting ensemble was carefully cultivated until it was widely recognized to be one of the best in the world. Under his direction, the Festival’s mandate became more narrowly defined: to produce plays written during the lifetime of Bernard Shaw  (1856-1950). His successor, Jackie Maxwell (2002-present), has strived to program increasingly with a view to a younger audience.

The Shaw Festival is a major Canadian theatre event, the second largest repertoire theatre company in North America. The festival operates three theatres in the centre of the town: the Festival, Royal George, and Court House theaters


Today, Niagara-on-the-Lake has population about 15,000, but only 15% of it is under 14, those over 65 years number 22.6% and constitute a fast-growing population, of almost 1% yearly, partially due to a large number of retirees moving to the town.

The major industries of Niagara-on-the-Lake are agriculture and tourism. Its mild climate and fertile soils permit the growing of tender fruit and grapes. Internationally acclaimed wineries have become a huge business making the world’s largest volumes of ice wine. The town is also known for its gardens, art galleries, antique shops, and golf courses. There are many cozy hotels, inns, and B&Bs in the area to accommodate everyone who wants to see the loveliest town in Ontario.

What to Do

  • Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours, 61 Melville Street. Powerful Jet-boats speed upriver, making their way into the breathtaking stonewalled canyon that is the Niagara Gorge. The anticipation builds as the boats splash into the whitewater of Devil’s Hole Rapids. April – October.
  • Peach Festival, Queen Street. First Saturday in August to celebrate peaches. It starts at 9AM sharp and the day is full of jams and pies and peaches.
  • Take a wine tour – The many wine tours of Niagara on the Lake are an excellent way to spend an afternoon. Several companies downtown offer the tours – it’s not strictly necessary to book, and you might want to take a look at the offerings. Choose your mode of transportation – by bike, bus or several other ways, and head off to between 3-5 wineries. Each winery offers a brief tutorial on wine-tasting, as well as a sampling of 2 or 3 of their vintages. Since you will be consuming alcohol it is strongly suggested that you consider joining a tour.
  • The Ghost Walk of Niagara-on-the-Lake, 126 Queen Street, 855-8GH-OSTS (844-6787) x4. Niagara-on-the-Lake is Canada’s Most Haunted Town! 200 years of history and ghosts featured on this outdoor walking tour, with tales of haunted pubs, inns, and homes. Experiences abound with over 80% of homes and businesses reporting a ghost story or two. Hear about the violent ghost of the Angel Inn, the headless solider, town secrets, séances, legends and more! Walks offered every single night from June – Halloween – with Winter & Spring walks too. See for details. Starts from The Haunted Shop – just a 1/2 block from Starbucks Coffee.
  • Take a horse-drawn carriage ride or sleigh ride through the old town.
  • The Niagara Wine Festival, takes place September 19 – 28, 2008. There is also an Icewine Festival in January and a New Vintage Festival in June of each year. Festivals include winery tours and tastings, cuisine, and entertainment.
  • Bike the scenic bikepaths along the Niagara River.
  • Mystery on the Lake (interactive theatre), (Niagara-on-the-Lake), 1-866-386-2921. A new adventure in interactive theatre! You aren’t just the audience, you’re in the show! Stroll through picturesque Niagara-on-the-Lake for this memorable 2.5 hour show as you discover new places and work with fellow audience members to solve historical puzzles. Have fun interacting with unusual characters played by actors as you are caught up into an historic plot of mystery and intrigue. Admission to two of the town’s premiere historic attractions is included in your ticket price! Season: May to October…
  • Great Lakes Pyrate Lore & Harbour Walks (Historical NOTL Walking Tour), 26 Queen St (Lower Level), 905 381 0396. Join Pyrates in an historical walk through the town as they regale ye with true tales of Pyrates that used Niagara on the Lake as a base of operations! Sunken ships, daring raids, men “put on account”, merchant ships and sunken wrecks that sit at the bottom of Lake Ontario. Learn the secrets of Fort Mississauga & Fort Niagara, and what role Pyrates may have played in the disappearance of a notorious NOTL resident. $10.
  • Art by the Lighthouse, 247 Ricardo St (on the river, between Navy Hall and the marina), +1 905 468 5455. 30 Jul – 1 Aug 2011: Sa Su 10AM-6PM, M 10AM-4PM. Art by the Lighthouse is a juried fine art show held on the grounds of the Niagara Pumphouse Visual Art Centre, accompanied by live music. Running concurrently; a free gallery exhibit of Robert Uhre and Katherine McDonald inside the Pumphouse Gallery. Free.
  • Spa at The Oban Inn, 160 Front Street, 866-359-6226. 9am-8pm. Intimate boutique spa located in The Oban Inn overlooking Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Course and Lake Ontario offering personalized massage, body treatments and aesthetics. Open daily, year-round. Outdoor pool, whirlpool and fitness room.
  • The Shaw Spa, 92 Picton Street, 905-468-5711 or 1-800-511-7070, – offers a unique variety of treatments including ones specializing in vinotherapy, chocotherapy, and bio-maple
  • 100 Fountain Spa , 48 John Street E, 1-888-669-5566, 100 Fountain Spa – enjoy one of Canada’s top spa locations
  • Ronald J. Dale, Niagara-on-the Lake: Its Heritage and Its Festival (1999)
  • Brian Doherty, The Pictorial Stage, 25 Years of Vision and Design at the Shaw Festival (1986)
  • Margaret Dunn, Historic Niagara-on-the-Lake: A Pictorial Discovery (1995)
  • Keith Garebian, George Bernard Shaw and Christopher Newton (1993)
  • John L. Field, ed, Bicentennial Stories of Niagara-on-the-Lake (1981)
  • Nick and Helma Mika, Niagara-on-the-Lake: The Old Historical Town (1990);
  • Richard Meritt, Nancy Butler and Michael Power, eds, The Capital Years: Niagara-on-the-Lake, 1792-1796 (1991)
  • Michael Power and Nancy Butler, Slavery and Freedom in Niagara (1993)
  • Peter J. Stokes, Old Niagara-on-the-Lake (1971)
  • Kyle Upton, Niagara’s Ghosts at Fort George, By Kyle Upton Copyright ©1999
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