Niagara-on-the-Lake is one of the most charming places I’ve been to. Within 1.5 hours from downtown Toronto, it’s one of the best road trips you can plan, whether you’re an oenophile, foodie, lover of architecture, or just seeking a little change of scenery outside of the city.
A few weeks ago, my good friend, Soheila, and I went to Niagara-on-the-Lake on a girls’ road trip with Buick Canada. We spent a quick, 36 hours in the region, but managed to squeeze in A LOT! We did our own research (obvi to find the most Instagrammable spots in Niagara-on-the-Lake, hello?!) and reached out to friends/locals for recommendations too. So, I’ve put together this travel guide based on how we spent our 36 hours in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Know Before You Go
- I say “Niagara-on-the-Lake”, but I’m really speaking about the broader Niagara Peninsula, which includes NOTL, the Niagara Escarpment, St. Catharines, Beamsville, Jordan, Grimsby, Lincoln etc. The wineries and restaurants are not just concentrated in NOTL, but are spread out amongst these other towns too.
- If you plan to visit wineries, have a designated driver!!! Don’t ever, EVER drink and drive, and even if you aren’t driving, drink responsibly! While we did this road trip with Buick Canada, Buick in no way endorses drinking and driving. One day, I was DD, and on the other day, Soheila was, because safety was an absolute priority for us.
- Pick up a copy of the Wine Country Ontario Travel Guide. It’s the ultimate guide on all of the VQA wineries in Ontario Wine Country (I covered a couple wineries in one of the emerging regions in this blog post). It has super useful maps, and a detailed description of each of the wineries, including hours and location. Get a hard copy from any of the wineries or you can download here.
- The Niagara Peninsula, alone, has 84 wineries, so you’ll definitely want to plan your route. I recommend visiting some of the smaller wineries, not just the big, conglomerate-owned ones
- Grab a Winemaker’s Selections Tasting Pass before going too. A mere $25 earns you a free tasting at each of these 25 Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake any day of the year.
- Book your accommodations well in advance! This region gets a lot of visitors, especially on weekends in the summertime, and there are just a handful of good places to stay.
We traveled to NOTL and back in a Buick Encore, a beautiful luxury compact SUV. Okay, so I am NOT one to nerd out on cars – like never! But last year, I partnered with Buick Canada to test drive their Envision on a road trip from Toronto to Montreal. I was so impressed by its features and how it handled that I knew I’d want to travel in a Buick on future road trips.
The Buick Encore really checks all the boxes, when it comes to design, safety, and staying connected on the road. It’s super sleek on the outside, but spacious on the inside (and trust me, Soheila and I don’t pack light when we travel). The seats were comfy (and heated, just like the steering wheel). As a small person, I didn’t feel like I was being consumed by the whole vehicle, as I have when driving other SUVs. The handling was a breeze, and for the entire road trip, we only had to fill up once at the end for only $55!
In terms of safety, the back up camera came in so handy, when trying to reverse out of parking spots on busy streets, and the side blind zone alert was useful for changing lanes.
My favourite feature was the built-in Wi-Fi hotspot, which allows you to connect up to 7 devices at the same time. When Soheila was driving, I could still use the internet and Instagram, without having to worry about using my own data or losing a signal.
Some other key features of the Encore we loved were:
- Keyless entry, which meant we didn’t have to rifle through our bags to find the key to open the door every time
- SiriusXM/Apple CarPlay/Bluetooth, because it’s so essential to have good tunes on a road trip!
- QuietTuning in the cabin for a much quieter drive
- And while we didn’t need to use it, it was great to know we had the option of getting emergency assistance from OnStar, in case anything was to happen
The Buick Encore really made the road trip that much more pleasurable!
Where to Stay
NOTL is a great day trip, but I recommend staying overnight. We stayed at the South Landing Inn, which is about a 15-minute drive south of the heart of Niagara-on-the-Lake. We had a comfortable stay, but thought our room was overpriced, considering it’s not a luxury option. Depending on your budget, I would recommend one of the Vintage Hotels, which include Prince of Wales, Pillar and Post, Queen’s Landing and Inn on the Twenty, or one of Niagara’s Finest Hotels, which include the Charles Inn and Shaw Club. Otherwise, you may be better off searching for an Airbnb.
Where to Eat
Spending time planning where to eat and making reservations before going to NOTL will pay you back in spades! Unfortunately, there are many tourist traps restaurants along Picton St., and not gonna lie, we fell into one of them! If I’m being honest, I would avoid Zee’s Grill (although it turns up on many lists and articles on NOTL). I thought it was out-dated, and the food was mediocre and overpriced.
Kitchen76 at Two Sisters Vineyards
Give yourself ample time to explore Two Sisters Vineyards and make a reservation for lunch or dinner at Kitchen76. If you go on a nice day, snag a seat on the outdoor patio, as you’ll have a spectacular view of the vineyards while you eat. They serve up very good rustic Italian fare – we’re talking ooey-gooey burrata, pizza straight out of their wood burning oven, delicious orecchiette with Italian sausage and rapini, and carpaccio made from Ontario beef, to name a few items! The atmosphere is cozy (and lively!) and the staff are very friendly.
Sandwich Bar by Tide & Vine
We stumbled upon this little gem on Picton St. and knew we had to investigate. Owned by the same proprietors as the Tide & Vine Oyster House, Sandwich Bar has a cute aesthetic and façade and serves ‘elevated’ sandwiches, like bulgogi beef banh mis, albacore tuna tataki sandwiches, and lobster rolls. I tried the watermelon and tomato gazpacho and it really hit the spot.
Inn on the Twenty
We stopped for a quick breakfast at Inn on the Twenty Restaurant. Next time, I’ll have to check out the hotel and the lunch or dinner menu. The breakfast menu is small, but the food is tasty.
For coffee, head to Balzac’s Coffee Roasters, in the heart of the Historic District (although I wasn’t a fan of their croissants). There is also a Starbucks on Picton St. Your best bet for a pub would be the Irish Harp, which has a very good selection of beers and serves up an extensive menu of traditional Irish fare.
Some other places on our list that we didn’t get to try this time around were:
- Oast – this craft brewery was mentioned by every single person we asked for recommendations, which says a lot! Apart from craft beer, they apparently serve up a really mean barbecue on their outdoor patio.
- Treadwell – my only regret in NOTL was not having dinner at Treadwell and opting for Zee’s Grill, instead. Treadwell is a farm-to-table restaurant that also comes highly recommended. So, don’t make the same mistake we did when you go.
- The Pie Plate – this cute café serves up sandwiches on homemade bread, gourmet pizzas, fresh salads and soups, all using locally sourced produce.
- Beechwood Donuts – located in St. Catharines, this is the place to go for scratch-made donuts, which are also 100% vegan. When we visited, the line stretched out the door and we unfortunately didn’t have time to stick around.
What to Do
We are totally spoiled to have world class wine regions in our backyard. The Niagara Peninsula, in particular, produces award-winning wines, in part due to its proximity to 3 of the Great Lakes and the largest freshwater system in the world! I stock my wine racks with a healthy amount of VQA wines, and I’m always keen to try new ones! Since, the LCBO and Wine Rack don’t carry many local producers, the best way to discover new favourites is by taking a short drive into Wine Country Ontario and visiting a vineyard you’ve never been to. Between the 2 days, we visited 5 wineries.
This expansive, family-owned estate has been around since the 1790s and the winery opened about 18 years ago. They are known here for their Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs. Peninsula Ridge is one of the westernmost wineries in the Niagara Peninsula, so a great jumping-off point!
Soheila first introduced me to Angels Gate Pinot Gris a while back. So, we knew we had to make a stop here on our trip. Walking into the winery, I was equally impressed by the bright aesthetic as I was the selection of over 20 wines. I picked up a bottle of their 2009 Revenge White and their 2012 Archangel Chardonnay Sparkling to try for later!
Reif Estate Winery
This was my second time visiting Reif Estate Winery, which was founded in the year I was born (1982). On my first visit, I remember doing a blind tasting, which was a lot of fun. In addition to blind tastings, you can visit their educational tasting room, do food pairings, or enjoy a glass of wine in their sensory wine garden. This is one of the 25 featured wineries for the Winemaker’s Selections Tasting Pass.
Essentially a household name with locations in Ontario and in the Okanagan Valley, Jackson-Triggs is not to be missed! I enjoyed many a bottle of their Méthode Cuve Close Sparkling VQA wine this summer, so it was great to be able to see where it’s produced! Their Sparkling Merlot was offered to Winemaker’s Selections Tasting Pass holders; and flights of 4 wines were also available for $10!
Stratus Vineyards was the dark horse for me on this trip. Admittedly, I knew nothing about it before and likely would have overlooked it, had it not been close to where we rented our bikes. We came out of this winery with a wealth of knowledge and being very, very impressed. It’s the first LEED certified winery in Canada, and being committed to sustainability, they produce their wines using gravity flow, rather than pumps. They are known for their Stratus Reds and Stratus Whites, which are blends of about 5 different red and white varietals. I really liked their 2015 Cabernet Franc and 2014 Stratus White (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Viognier, and Gewürztraminer).
Wine Bike Tour
One of the most fun ways to experience the wineries in Niagara-on-the-Lake is by bike. You can go at a leisurely pace, while taking in the fresh wine country air along the way! I recommend Grape Escape Wine Tours, a family-owned and operated company that’s been around for about 11 years. They offer a variety of full and half day guided and self-guided tours. Since, we were on a tight timeline, we opted to do self-guided. But Rich (who runs the day to day operations) was helpful enough to give us a map with suggestions on which wineries to visit within close proximity. It’s best to call or book well in advance, since Grape Escape usually sells out of all 180 of their bikes every weekend!
Carve out some time to visit Dillon’s Distillery, when in Niagara. They’re a small batch distiller of spirits, including vodka, rye, whiskey, gin, bitters and absinthe. While they’ve only been around for about 6 years, they’re already making quite the impression. They distill the locally-grown rye grain, fruit and botanicals in the Niagara region for their spirits. They also have a killer space (which they do tours of) and a kick-ass Instagram account to match!
House Spotting & Other Sightseeing
I consider myself to be somewhat of a serial house-spotter, and one of my favourite things to do on any trip is admire the local architecture. There is no shortage of cute homes in NOTL, and I’m already planning my future retirement here!
There you have it – my travel guide to Niagara-on-the-Lake! There truly is something for everyone, even if you’re not that big of a wine lover. So, the next time you’re looking for a little adventure, look no further than your own backyard and plan a road trip to the Niagara region!
This post was done in partnership with Buick Canada. But as always, all opinions are 100% my own.