The capital city of the province, St. John’s is also its largest city and happens to be the oldest city in North America! As a result, it has a rich history and played an important role in the development of Canada. St. John’s is a cultural hub, and this, combined with its rich history, has made it one of top ocean-side tourist destinations in the world. Plus, its architecture is very distinct and different from the rest of the country.
The city is home to museums, historic sites and parks, as well as having some stunning landscapes. Basically, regardless of what your interests are you will most definitely find what you are looking for in St. John’s.
Let’s explore the best things to do in St. John’s:
1. Immerse yourself in culture
The Provincial Art Gallery, the Provincial Museum and the Provincial Archives are all located under one roof; The Rooms. The magnificent building sits on a hill overlooking the city and can be seen from almost anywhere.
Head to The Rooms and completely immerse yourself in culture. Wander around the Provincial Art Gallery and look at contemporary Canadian art dated post-1960.
Walk around the Provincial Museum, which focuses on the cultural and natural history of the province. The third level is home to the Provincial Archives, where photographs, fishing documents, British War records and ship log books can be seen, amongst other things.
2. Explore Downtown St. John’s
This is the historic core of the city, as well as being one of the most modern areas of St. John’s. It is an eclectic area that all visitors should explore.
Downtown St. John’s sits just north of the harbour. It is the entertainment, business and tourist centre of the city; home to numerous restaurants, hotels and office buildings.
Walk down George Street at night to enjoy the city’s nightlife or Water Street to enjoy shopping and dining. Water Street is also a National Historic Site of Canada, though there are other historic sites all over this area of the city.
3. Go as far east as you can
Cape Spear is North America’s easterly most point. One of its main draws is the Cape Spear Lighthouse, which is the oldest existing lighthouse in the province!
The lighthouse is a national historic site and boasts a very unique style of architecture for its era (it was built in1836). In 1955 the lighthouse was rebuilt using the original light.
Further changes were made to the area during WWII and remnants of this can still be seen today. The scenery here is also quite spectacular and another great reason to visit.
4. Enjoy a scenic drive
Hire a car and go on a scenic drive along the Killick Coast Trail. The 55 kilometre drive starts in Topsail and goes east along the south shore of Conception Bay to Cape St. Francis, ending just outside St. John’s.
Pass through the town of Paradise until you get to Paradise Cove, where you can then take a ferry over to the historic mining community of Bells Island. The island boasts steep cliffs where you can take in spectacular views of Conception bay.
Return to Paradise Cove and follow Route 21and enjoy the amazing scenery. Route 21 meets Route 20 at Pouch Cove, taking you back to the city on another scenic stretch.
5. Hike along the peninsula
The East Coast Trail consists of different coastal trails on the Avalon Peninsula. There are 26 trails in total, with the entire network of trails being a total of over 300 kilometres.
Trails range in length and difficulty, heading through historic communities and wilderness. Pass over a suspension bridge, through a provincial park, through ecological reserves and over spectacular cliffs.
Before heading off, be sure to go to the East Coast Trail website to plan your hike. Here, you can chose the level of difficulty you wish to hike, and it will then list the trails that suit this level.
6. Take in the views
If you are in Downtown St. John’s it is hard to miss Signal Hill, which overlooks the city. In fact, it is one of the city’s most popular landmarks.
Head to the top of the hill and enjoy the magnificent views of the city and the ocean. Don’t forget to check out the 19th century Cabot Tower, which sits at the peak of the hill.
Another feature of Signal Hill is the Signal Hill Tattoo that even has reenactors dressed in uniforms from 1795. The soldiers even put on a show of drills and battle tactics.
7. Visit Canada’s second largest church
At the time it was built, the Basilica-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was the largest church in the country. Today, it is Canada’s second largest church.
The church construction was completed in 1855 to symbolise Roman Catholicism in Newfoundland. It is a beautiful Lombard Romanesque style basilica that features the Carrara marble ‘The Dead Christ’ sculpture by Irish sculptor John Hogan, the two-ton St. John Bell and a 1955 great pipe organ.
In the Basilica Residence there is a museum that exhibits religious art and artefacts, historic artefacts of the basilica, and furniture and decorations that were once in the residence rooms. There are also photographs of bishops and archbishops of St. John’s.
8. Spend time in a park
There are a few in the city, but Bowring Park is arguably the most scenic. The park is located in the Waterford Valley neighbourhood, which is in the west end of the city.
A key feature of the park is the Peter Pan sculpture that sits at its entrance. The statue is a reproduction of the original statue in London, England’s Kensington Gardens.
There are also plenty of other statues that can be seen as you stroll around the park. It is also home to tennis courts, a playground and a swimming pool.
9. Learn about the history of the Newfoundland Railway
Located in the historic Newfoundland Railway terminal is the Railway Coastal Museum. This transportation museum opened its doors in 2003 and contains exhibits describing the history of the Newfoundland Railway and coastal boat service.
The museum displays models, posters, maps and paintings showing the history of the provinces transportation. It also features a model of a 1940s passenger train.
There is also an area just for the kids at the Railway Coastal Museum. They too can enjoy the museum by actually playing with model trains, going on a scavenger hunt and having fun with Lego.
10. Visit wine vaults
You would never know that behind the front façade of 436 Water Street are two great brick and stone vaulted wine cellars. The Newman Wine Vaults dates back all the way to 1679!
A Portuguese vessel filled with port wine ended up here after trying to escape privateers on route to England. The port was stored in caves for the winter and afterwards had a fantastic smoothness and flavour.
The Newman Wine Vaults then became an aging facility for Portuguese port. Today, you can visit the vaults and sample the delicious port for yourself.
11. Take a boat tour
Head to the pier in Downtown St. John’s and go on a fabulous boat tour. See icebergs, seabirds and whales while touring around the Atlantic.
Sail through ‘The Narrows’ towards Cape Spear, passing by Cabot Tower along the way. The water here is home to the largest concentration of humpback whales in the world!
Sail through 12,000 year old ice burgs and get a glimpse of sea birds, including the Atlantic Puffin. Boat tours last around two hours, departing at 9:30 am, 1:00 pm, 4:00 pm and 7:00 pm.
12. Take the kids to a geological centre
Most of the Johnson Geo Centre is located underground in an excavated glacial formation on Signal Hill. It is a fantastic place to take the kids to learn about geology and space.
There are a number of attractions in the centre, including a magnificent solar system installation, the Titanic Story and a theatre with a rock wall and running lava. There is even a 3D cinema!
Hibernia KidsPlace features hands-on activities specifically designed for kids. Here, the kids can walk through a volcano, examine fossils and travel to the moon.
13. Run a marathon
Over 4,800 runners participate in the Tely 10 Mile Road Race each year. The 10 mile race takes place annually on the fourth Sunday of July.
This is one of the oldest marathons in Canada, with the first race taking place in 1922. It is sponsored by The Telegram, which is a local newspaper that dates back to 1879.
The Tely 10 Mile Road Race starts on McNamara Road in the town of Paradise, finishing at Bannerman Park. Register online ahead of time to run in this renowned marathon.
14. Mingle with locals at a festival
St. John’s residents are extremely friendly and will welcome visitors with open arms to any of their festivals. Mingle with the locals and enjoy one of their fabulous and fun festivals or events.
There are festivals all year in the city, though the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival, Royal St. John’s Regatta and Nickel Independent Film Festival are arguably the most popular of them all.
The St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival is also great, especially if you are interested in independent films made by women. Other festivals include the George Street Festival, the Victoria Park Lantern Festival, the Festival of New Dance and Mardi Gras.
15. Try the local cuisine
Fish has always been part of St. John’s culture and so it of course also a main staple. Battered cod, and fish-and-brewis are popular, as are lobster, crab and mussels.
If you are a meat lover, a visit to the city will not be complete without a Jiggs’ Dinner, which is a one pot meal of salt beef, root vegetables and cabbage. You should also try moose pie, caribou sausage and rabbit stew.
Those with a sweet tooth should be sure to stock up on sweets from the Purity Factories. It is particularly known for its cream crackers, spearmint nobs and peanut butter kisses.