Go and be gobsmacked. The world-famous watery wonder is high on drama, spectacle... and kitsch.

Biggest and best?

Niagara Falls are breathtaking. Nothing quite prepares you for the drama of the spectacle, complete with spray, roar and sheer force of water. And, as an added wow-factor, on a fine day rainbows created by the sun shining through the falls' mist are astonishing, perfect arcs of sequential colours curving over the Niagara River. The falls also form part of the US-Canadian border.

In terms of size, Niagara Falls are by no means superlative. With the longest drop measuring 57m, the falls are only about the 50th-highest in the world (first and second place going respectively to Angel Falls in Venezuela and Tugela Falls in South Africa). However, many of the tallest waterfalls have relatively little water flowing over them. What makes Niagara remarkable is the combination of volume, height and width. During the summer, 154 million litres of water cascade here every minute.

Water from four of North America's Great Lakes – Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie – is funnelled through this space en route to Lake Ontario and from there to the Atlantic Ocean via the St Lawrence River. The total rim of the Niagara waterfalls measures almost 1km. This is divided into three separate cataracts, two of them lying in the USA and one thundering down across the border in Canada.

In the US, American Falls and the narrow Bridal Veil Falls are divided by little Luna Island. These pale somewhat in comparison with the stunning Canadian Horseshoe Falls that are separated from the US falls by Goat Island and form a great curving wall of water some 670m across.

So which should I choose?

Niagara Falls, New York, receives about seven million visitors each year, while its Canadian counterpart welcomes twice as many. No prizes, then, for guessing which side offers the best views. The Canadians are proud of one of their greatest assets, and earlier this month voted Niagara Falls one of the Seven Wonders of Canada in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation contest. Most visitors look at the falls from both sides. The sister cities of Niagara Falls, New York, and Niagara Falls, Ontario, lie opposite each other across the Niagara River and are linked by the Rainbow Bridge that spans the 290m gap across the gorge. Alongside the bridge's four traffic lanes is a pedestrian walkway that overlooks the falls, and you should stroll across to get an additional perspective. Whether you arrive by vehicle or on foot you'll have to go through immigration at either end. The toll for cars is $3 (£1.50), and for pedestrians $0.50 (25p).

In the US, you can gaze out at American Falls from an observation tower – run by Niagara Falls State Park – that extends out over the river (admission $1/50p, www.niagara fallsstatepark.com). Over in Canada, a walk along River Road offers stunning panoramas of all three falls – and there are more activities and attractions on this side of the water, too.

All in the best possible taste?

In Canada and the US the area is billed as the world's honeymoon capital, and indeed there are plenty of motels and hotels on either side of the border offering heart-shaped whirlpool tubs and mirrored ceilings. On the Canadian side, particularly, the kitsch and somewhat tawdry element is part of the fun of a visit. Make for Clifton Hill to see the Movieland Wax Museum (open daily 10am-8pm; C$9.99/£4.70) as well as the Ghost Blasters Dark Ride (open daily 10am-8pm; C$4.99/£2.35).

More recently, the tacky element has been superseded by big-time casino ventures. Five years ago, on the US side, the large Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel opened (at 310 Fourth Street; www.senecaniagaracasino.com); as is customary in the US, it is a Native American venture operated by Seneca Indians (a branch of the Iroquois). In Niagara Falls, Ontario, the Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort (6380 Fallsview Boulevard; www.fallsviewcasinoresort.com) was completed in 2004, with 3,000 slot machines, 368 hotel rooms and the Avalon Ballroom that this summer will host Donna Summer, KC and the Sunshine Band, and Donny Osmond. Yet for all the kitsch element and new development, nothing really detracts from the falls.

How close can I get?

Aboard the Maid of the Mist boats you sail almost to the foot of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. Even on the most crowded vessel you have a great outlook to begin with, passing near the American Falls and proceeding to the Horseshoe Basin. Here you get engulfed in spray – plastic ponchos are included in the price of your ticket – and feel the full force of the water. Being right in its thunder is an exhilarating experience. The 20-minute trips run from both sides of the river (5920 River Road in Canada; 151 Buffalo Avenue in the US) and cost C$14 (£6.60) or $12.50 (£6.30). Boats leave every 15 minutes daily: in Canada between 9am and 7.45pm; and 15 minutes later in the US.

On the Canadian side of the river you can get right behind the Horseshoe Falls. A ticket for The Journey Behind the Falls (daily 9am-8.30pm or 9.30pm weekends; C$12.72/£6) gives you access to a lift that takes you 46m down to an observation deck hugging the bank near the base of the falls. From there you walk along tunnels to two openings immediately behind the cascading water. Not to be outdone, the US side offers a similar, if slightly less thrilling, experience: the Cave of the Winds guided tour (daily 9am-10pm; US$15/£7.50) begins with a 53m lift descent to wooden walkways which lead you to close to the base of the Bridal Veil Falls.

Can I go with the flow?

Anyone who tries to enter the water is likely to be spotted and stopped, particularly above the falls, where the local authorities are especially vigilant about young men attempting daredevil stunts. But about three kilometres further down the river on the Canadian side you can walk beside the dramatic Niagara River rapids, where the water reaches a speed of 50km/h. To get there, you pass through old Niagara Falls town, an uncommercialised neighbourhood. Just beyond this area you reach Whirlpool Bridge and a large Buddhist monastery. Opposite it is the White Water Walk visitor attraction (daily 9am-8pm), which offers an arrangement of boardwalks and observation decks at the u o edge of the raging river. The ticket price covering the 70m lift descent to the bottom of the gorge costs C$9.01 (£4.25).

Has Man interfered with the falls?

Yes. The flow is not nearly as powerful as it was before the end of the 19th century, when the falls started to be used as a source of energy. Today, more than half the Niagara River flow is diverted for electric power. One of the area's largest hydroelectric stations lies on the Canadian side about five kilometres from the Horseshoe Falls, and is open to the public for guided tours. Entry to the Sir Adam Beck 2 Generating Station (on the Niagara Parkway near the Queenston-Lewiston bridge; open weekdays 11am-4pm and weekends 10am-5pm) costs C$9.86 (£4.65); if you are wondering about these odd Canadian prices, they arise because of the practice of stating amounts without the 16 per cent tax; as always in The Independent Traveller, all prices quoted here include tax.

I'd like an even better view

There are plenty of panoramic options. On the US side, the Great American Balloon Company offers "Flight of the Angels" rides in a tethered hot-air balloon that hangs above the American Falls (9am until midnight daily; 15-minute trips cost US$20/£10).

Over the river in Canada, the skyline near the Horseshoe Falls is pierced by the 160m Skylon Tower (at 5200 Robinson Street). Stomach-churningly, you ride up to the observation deck here in external glass-fronted lifts (operating 8am to midnight; C$12.54/£5.90). If you opt to eat at the Skylon revolving restaurant, the lift is free but the menu prices are as high as the view.

For excellent views of the rapids further north, take a ride on the Canadian Whirlpool Aero Car (3850 Niagara Parkway; opening/closing times depend on the time of the year – see www.niagaraparks.com for details; the 10-minute trips cost C$11.66/£5.50). This old-fashioned cable car is suspended over an extraordinary U-bend of the river where the torrent of water abruptly changes direction. For the ultimate outlook, head to Niagara Helicopters at 3731 Victoria Avenue on the Canadian side. The 15-minute rides in a seven-seater craft take you over the three falls, the bridges, the power stations and more. At C$110 (£51.80), the trips are expensive, but this is the stuff of sensation.

Where should I stay?

Niagara Falls are 27km from Buffalo in the US and 120km from Toronto in Canada, so a day trip from either city is feasible. But spend a night here and you'll see the waterfalls looking magical under pink, green and purple illuminations (every night from dusk to midnight). If you come on a summer Friday or Sunday evening, you'll also be treated to a firework display, taking place at 10pm.

For a room with a view on the Canadian side, make for the Hilton Niagara Falls, 6361 Fallsview Boulevard (001 905 354 7887; www.hiltonniagarafalls.com), which overlooks all three falls. Fallsview family rooms cost from C$230 (£108), with breakfast an extra C$21 (£10) per person at the spectacular 33rd-floor Watermark Restaurant. For those with children, the Great Wolf Lodge (001 800 905 9653; www.greatwolflodge.com) at 3950 Victoria Avenue in Canada is an appealing if viewless option. Wolf howls resound as you walk through the main door; in the lobby a life-size moose and bear talk to the younger crew. Family suites cost from C$221 (£104) per night excluding breakfast.

There is also a good choice of B&B accommodation in Canada's old Niagara Falls town: Cairngorm at 5395 River Road (001 905 354 4237; www.cairngorm-niagara.com), offers double rooms for C$174 (£82) per night, with a minimum two-night stay. On the US side, the Red Coach Inn at 2 Buffalo Avenue (001 716 282 1459; www.redcoach.com) is a mock-Tudor house that has been welcoming honeymooners and other visitors since 1923. Doubles cost from US$109 (£57), excluding breakfast.

Further downstream?

Head north along the Niagara River to Lake Ontario and there's a treat in store. Canada's historic little town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is postcard-pretty and feels a world away from the bustle around the falls. The old British military post of Fort George just beyond the centre (daily 10am-5pm; C$10.90/£5.13) is worth visiting to get a perspective on the tangled past of this border area.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is a place for ambling – along the lake shore and around the marina – and for visiting art galleries and antique shops. During the summer the town hosts the Shaw Festival, featuring the plays of George Bernard Shaw. The area around the town is Ontario's prime wine-producing country. Most of the vineyards welcome visitors. Of particular note are Pillitteri Estates at 1696 Niagara Stone Road (open 10am-8pm daily); Inniskillin at 1499 Line 3 (open 10am-6pm); and Peller Estates at 290 John Street East (open 10am-6pm).

Where can I find out more?

The downtown information centre of the US Niagara Tourism Corporation is at 10 Rainbow Boulevard South (001 716 282 8992; www.niagara-usa.com). On the Canadian side, Niagara Falls Tourism (001 905 356 6061; www.niagarafallstourism.ca) has information booths at Table Rock and at the bottom of Murray Street while the main office is at 5515 Stanley Avenue.

The Visitor Bureau at Niagara on the Lake is at the Chamber of Commerce at 26 Queen Street (001 905 468 1950; www.niagaraonthelake.com).

Madcap moments

As the Niagara Falls developed as a tourist attraction, so it became a magnet for the audacious and dashing. The first known stunt took place in 1827 when William Forsyth of the Pavilion Hotel sent a schooner containing a buffalo, two bears, two raccoons and other animals over the Horseshoe Falls. The bears broke loose and swam ashore and the other animals were presumed killed after the boat broke into pieces in front of an enthralled crowd of an estimated 10,000.

Perhaps the most notable, and profitable, of the daredevils was France's Jean Francois Gravelet, also known as Blondin. In 1859 he set up a tightrope over the Niagara Gorge, which he first crossed on 30 June that year. Blondin subsequently performed an astounding variety of eccentric acts on the rope, including cooking on omelette on a stove as he crossed and piggybacking his manager. He even offered to carry the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) when the British Royal visited in 1860. Not surprisingly, the prince politely declined.

The first person to survive a barrel ride over the Horseshoe Falls was a schoolmistress from Michigan, who performed the stunt in 1901. Annie Edson Taylor was 63 (although she claimed to be 20 years younger) and took on the challenge in the hope of subsequently earning a fortune in publicity money. Somewhat unbelievably she is said to have taken a kitten with her, who also survived the experience and appears with her in photographs. Taylor died, impoverished, in 1921.

Such antics and more are celebrated at the IMAX cinema at 6170 Buchanan Avenue on the Canadian side of river. The 45-minute film Legends and Daredevils is shown on a six-storey-high screen (9am-10pm weekdays, 10am-9pm weekends; C$13.92/£6.60). The IMAX building also houses a free exhibition of various barrels and kayaks that have survived some of the madder stunts.