As Canada’s easternmost city, travellers don’t often make the journey to far-flung St. John’s – but new airline routes are suddenly making the city a whole lot more accessible to the rest of the world. Those who do make the journey know that this colourful little city is a perfect time capsule: brightly painted Victorian homes sprawl across downtown, fiddle music pours out of classic Irish pubs, and historical Cabot Tower stands guard over the St. John’s harbour.
It’s also a destination built for adventurers, where world-class hikes along the East Coast Trail are easily reached from just about anywhere in the city. When spring rolls into summer, icebergs start popping up around the coast, and whale watching tours abound.
You can cover a lot of ground in just a few days.
Budget pick: The Rendell Shea Manor
Located in historic downtown’s East End, staying at this bed and breakfast allows you to experience what it’s like to live in one of St. John’s old Victorian beauties. Each room comes with a private bathroom, original fireplaces, and a sitting area. From here, all of downtown’s best places are within walking distance – including gourmet restaurants like Raymond’s and hip cafes like Fixed Coffee and Baking. As a guest, you’re invited to morning and afternoon tea (or coffee) with freshly baked muffins and other goodies!Check availability »
Luxury pick: JAG Hotel
The JAG is one of St. John’s newest additions, situated on the western side of the city’s downtown core overlooking the harbour. It’s the place to be if you’re inclined to enjoy more modern comforts, like a fitness room and a well-equipped hotel room complete with a mini-fridge, Bluetooth-enabled radio, and a Keurig coffee maker. The hotel’s Exile Restaurant is a favourite for locals, so make sure to book a table and enjoy their signature Caesar cocktail along with your meal.Check availability »
Stroll Around Downtown
There’s no better way to get your bearings than to simply spend an afternoon strolling around downtown St. John’s – specifically, Water Street and Duckworth Street. Much of the city’s activity is concentrated in this area, and on warm sunny days, you’ll find local buskers playing traditional Newfoundland music at every corner.
Browse the local shops, like the Downhome Shoppe & Gallery, or peruse some of the art at the Jellybean Row gallery. Pick up some quirky gifts at Posie Row, or a book from a local author at Broken Books. The Newfoundland Chocolate Company is a great place to pick up some sweet artisan souvenirs or to pause for some handmade gelato. When you need a pick-me-up, stop for an East Coast Roast at Jumping Bean Café. (Their pesto breakfast sandwiches are to die for!)
Climb Signal Hill
Signal Hill is the focal point of St. John’s, and can be seen from just about anywhere in the city. Cabot Tower sits at the top – famous for being the site where Marconi received the first Trans-Atlantic wireless signal. While it’s possible to drive to the top, hiking the North Head Trail is the best experience. This rugged route hugs the cliffs along The Narrows, and starts in the scenic Battery village (located downtown). While it isn’t an easy hike (there are hundreds of stairs), the views overlooking the city and the Atlantic Ocean are well worth the trek.
It’s also part of the East Coast Trail network, with over 300 kilometres of trails. Other scenic nearby hikes include the Sugar Loaf Path from Quidi Vidi to Logy Bay, and the Blackhead Path near Cape Spear – the easternmost point in North America. Note: you’ll need a rental car to access most of these trail heads, but the East Coast Trail Association also regularly runs guided hikes.
Take a boat tour
Taking a boat tour is the best way to see icebergs and whales up close. There are plenty of tour operators in downtown St. John’s, including Iceberg Quest. During iceberg season, giant bergs drift down from Greenland and dot the coastline around Eastern Newfoundland. These 15,000-year-old bergs are awe-inspiring, and seeing them safely from a boat is the best way to appreciate their beauty face-to-face.
Once the whales start arriving in early summer to feed, you’ll also have plenty of opportunities to catch these stunning animals frolicking and exploring Newfoundland’s shores. Humpbacks are the most common whales, but there’s a good chance you’ll even see pilot whales or sperm whales, too.
If you’d prefer a more intimate experience on a smaller boat tour, Molly Bawn in Witless Bay (just 40 minutes outside of St. John’s) is the way to go. Witless Bay is also home to a seabird ecological reserve, where more than 260,000 pairs of puffins come to roost each summer. You’re bound to see plenty of them swooping and diving into the water as you make your way out to sea! To get closer to these goofy birds, opt for a Stan Cook kayaking trip instead.
Visit the Rooms
The Rooms Art Gallery and Archives is a haven for historians and art enthusiasts alike. There’s a lot to do here, whether it’s perusing local artwork in the gallery or meandering through the exhibits about Newfoundland’s far-reaching history. Be sure to spend some time in the Beaumont-Hamel and the Trail of the Caribou exhibit, detailing the stories of those who served in WWI. It’s a memorable and haunting experience, enhanced by the fact that the Newfoundland Regiment was almost wiped out during the battle at Beaumont-Hamel. Don’t forget to also check the museum’s website for special events happening during your visit, including one-time film screenings.
Before leaving, be sure to grab a cup of coffee or a bowl of seafood chowder at the café. The view up here is stunning, thanks to the museum’s floor-to-ceiling windows: you’ll see all of downtown St. John’s and the harbour spread out before you, including Signal Hill and The Narrows leading out into the Atlantic.
Drive to Cape Spear
Cape Spear is at the easternmost tip of North America and is located about a 25-minute drive from downtown St. John’s. If you don’t have a car rental, you can hire a local taxi company to drive you out there. It’s worth it.
Cape Spear’s location near the convoy routes of WWII made it a strategic spot in the Battle of the Atlantic, and so a protective garrison and battery were set up. You can still wander the underground passages today – they’re creepy but impressive. The main attraction at Cape Spear is the lighthouse, built in 1836. But the entire site is excellent for spotting whales and seabirds. The coastline here is rugged, and the ocean can be fierce, so take in the dramatic landscape from the safety of the trails.
Explore Quidi Vidi
If you have some time left in your busy weekend, exploring the old fishing village of Quidi Vidi is a must-do – it’s as close to experiencing rural Newfoundland as you’ll get in the capital city! There isn’t a whole lot to do here except enjoy the silence, but the scenic Gut (the narrow channel between the Atlantic Ocean and the village’s tiny harbour) is incredibly photogenic. Take a tour of the Quidi Vidi Brewery while you’re here, and learn about how the brewery harvests iceberg water for their famous Iceberg Beer. Every Friday evening, there’s a Kitchen Party with live Newfoundland music and cheap pints.
Before leaving, stop at the Quidi Vidi Plantation to pick up some local artwork and handicrafts to take home. There are 10 artists working in their studios at all times at the Plantation, so check ahead to see what events or demonstrations are happening during your visit.
Speaking of Quidi Vidi, time your visit with brunch or dinner at the Mallard Cottage. Chef Todd Perrin is passionate about using locally sourced ingredients in all his dishes, and his ingenuity shows (and at incredibly reasonable prices). In 2017, Mallard Cottage opened its new beer garden – the first of its kind in the city!
For fresh seafood, you can’t beat the oysters and mussels at the Adelaide Oyster House. Actually, just about every item on their menu is unbelievably delicious – and they’re all small plates, so you can order as much as you please. While here, try some Port Rexton Brewery beer on tap. This small craft brewery in rural Newfoundland is beloved by locals, and despite only being around for a few years, has forged the path for many other small craft breweries in the province.
When the weather’s in your favour, soak up the sun at the Gypsy Tea Room’s Courtyard. This enclosed outdoor seating area serves spirits and ales, as well as select menu items from the restaurant. The setting is lovely – tucked away from busy Water Street, surrounded by the historic walls of the Murray Premises hotel.
Finally, if you’d prefer something more casual, head to the Duke of Duckworth. Locals know it’s the best spot for fish and chips in the city. This old English pub is cozy and casual, and people flock here after work for an afternoon drink (or three). Follow it up with some live traditional music at O’Reilly’s or Shamrock City, and you’re in for a perfect weekend!
St. John’s has a colourful personality, but it’s the people that really stay with you; you’ll likely find yourself enamoured with the thick accents, the jovial conversations, and the warm hospitality received from the locals. Don’t be surprised if you’re invited into a stranger’s home for a cup of tea and a chat. And the further you move away from the urban centre, the friendlier it gets. If you have time to explore any of rural Newfoundland, hop in a car rental and drive the Irish Loop, or spend a few days on the Bonavista Peninsula. Whether you’re seeking a sense of solitude or looking for experiences off the beaten path, Newfoundland will provide it.