Things to Do in St. John’s Travel Guide Updated: January 15th, 2023
Newfoundland is one of my favourite places in all of Canada. There’s something about the friendly people, the landscapes, the food, the music, and the overall culture that just makes me want to go back each and every year. By far, it’s the most unique province in Canada, with its own very distinct personality. It was our first stop on our 150-day road trip back in 2017, and from day one, locals kept asking us what we were doing (they saw us with cameras) and then proceeded to invite us to their homes for dinner. That’s just the kind of place it is.
If you’re flying into Newfoundland, there’s a good chance that you’ll be flying into St. John’s, the capital city of Newfoundland. St. John’s is an incredibly vibrant town, steeped in history and full of things to do. You could easily spend a week in this area and not run out of activities. From learning about the history of the oldest English-founded city in all of North America to whale watching and lively parties, St. John’s is an incredible place to visit.
Things To Do In St John’s, Newfoundland, Canada
When you visit Newfoundland, you simply cannot miss St John’s Canada. It’s the liveliest city in the province and where most of the population lives. It’s also home to the biggest airport, making it much easier to visit than other parts of the province. If you do make it here, here are the best things you shouldn’t miss.
Walking Tour of Downtown St. John’s
Whether you find an organized walking tour or just do one by yourself, an afternoon stroll around downtown St. John’s is an absolute must-do. From colourful homes to historic churches, the downtown core is small and easily walkable. First, there’s Water Street, which is over 400 years old, making it one of the oldest in North America. In fact, it’s still a meeting place for sailors from all over the world as it’s where the transatlantic cruise ships dock. Then there’s Military Road, with nice views and the incredible Basilica of St. John the Baptist (1842-92). You’ll also want to find Church Street and get into the little neighbourhoods to see the photo-famous colourful row-houses, which were painted that way so that it would be easier for sailors coming home at night to find their homes! Visit a few of the restaurants, bakeries, and souvenir shops to complete your tour. We haven’t experienced this one yet but as of July 2022, St. John’s Walking Tours is now offering two different walking tours around the city.
Visit Signal Hill National Historic Site
Did you know that St. John’s is the oldest English-founded city in all of North America? Well, Signal Hill Newfoundland is the place that protected it from intruders. Here you’ll get to see sweeping views of the coastline and the city, as well as the many canons that stood guard. But here’s another incredible fact; this is where Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901. Take a moment to go inside Cabot Tower and walk the trails that lead to the historic fortifications at Queen’s Battery Barracks. Each season brings different delights. In the spring you might see icebergs, and in the summer, you might see whales!
Party on George Street Newfoundland
If you want to say you’ve partied on the most famous street in all of Newfoundland, George Street is where you’ll want to go. This historic street is full of bars, pubs, nightclubs, and restaurants, all catering to different people and is definitely one of the best St. Johns’s activities. It’s also closed to traffic during the evenings, making it a great place for pedestrians. Whether you’re looking for old-fashioned Newfoundland music complete with fiddles or new-age pop, there’s a place for you. If you’re looking to experience a true taste of Newfoundland, I’d recommend going to O’Reilly’s to see if they have traditional live music on the go. If not, other places likely will. Check around and ask who’s playing. When a good “Newfy” group gets up on stage, it’s an incredibly fun time. If you happen to be here in the summertime, expect mega crowds because this is one of the most fun things to do in St John’s. Bonus: You might even see famous people poking around. When we were in The Duke of Duckworth, we saw Newfoundland’s Allan Doyle walk in.
Get Screeched In
If it’s your first time in Newfoundland, you’re probably going to hear about a tradition called “Getting Screeched In”. This refers to a ceremony to make you an honorary Newfoundlander. It’s a fun thing to do in St. John’s and consists of kissing a codfish, reciting a Newfoundland phrase, and drinking a shot of Screech whiskey. Sometimes there is a little food as well, but those are three basic things that will always be there. There are a variety of ways to get screeched in, with the two most popular options being in a bar on George Street or on one of the many boat tours. Either way is fun. We’ve actually done it more than once. We really liked the atmosphere at a small pub called Christian’s, which is right on George Street. However, we also saw people doing it on the O’Brien’s boat tour and it looked like a lot of fun as well.
Get Out on a Boat
For an island entrenched in marine history, you cannot leave the province without getting on some sort of boat (or joining a guided boat tour) and going out to explore the Atlantic ocean. In the summer, you’ll be able to witness Humpback Whales and Puffins, and in the spring, you’ll be able to see icebergs! It’s also a great way to see the coastline and how rugged the island is. Either way, visiting an island province without spending time on the water participating in one of the most popular Newfound activities would be pure blasphemy.
Get a Traditional Food Experience
On our last trip to St. John’s, we got to do something really unique; a traditional food experience. Thanks to Lori and her company Cod Sounds, you can learn how to forage for food and cook using traditional methods from ages gone by. Due to the weather, we couldn’t experience the full splendour of the foraging tour that Lori created but we did learn about the cooking process of wild foods such as moose, lobster, cod cheeks, mackerel, and homemade bread and jam. She even made us rhubarb tea, which was surprisingly good. I mean, really good! I know for sure that when we’re back in St. John’s, we’re doing the full tour!
Take a Historical Walking Tour
For a city with so much history, it makes sense to go on a walking tour with someone who knows it all. The most famous historical walking tour is hosted by Michael Boyle. His enthusiasm for telling the stories of Newfoundland really brings his tours to life. You’ll visit historical buildings, and landmarks, and get a taste of the literary culture and folklore of Newfoundland.
Visit The Rooms
It might sound like a hotel, but it’s definitely not. The Rooms house the Provincial Museum, the Provincial Archives, and the Art Gallery of Newfoundland and Labrador, making it one of the top St John’s attractions. This is the place to go for a deep introduction to the local culture and history. It also has an observation deck with beautiful views of the entire harbour.
The Johnson GEO Centre
Beautifully designed to incorporate the surrounding terrain, the Johnson GEO Centre takes visitors beneath Signal Hill and into the 550-million-year-old rock bed. Interactive exhibits describe the earth’s geological makeup, cultural history, and Newfoundland life. Young or old, this is a really cool place to visit.
Stroll Through Quidi Vidi
Last but not least, the little seaside fishing community of Quidi Vidi is a worthy stop. Located on the north side of Signal Hill, it’s home to the now-restored Quidi Vidi Battery, which overlooks the inlet, as well as the popular Quidi Vidi Brewery, which makes Iceberg Beer! It’s simply a small scenic place that attracts photographers from all over. It’s also home to quite possibly the oldest house in British Canada, which was built in 1740 and lives inside the fort.
Where to Stay in St John’s
There is a wide variety of accommodations in St. John’s, ranging from bed & breakfasts to hostels and hotels. The best location would be close to the waterfront, but if you have a car or don’t mind taking a taxi, farther out is okay as well. It’s also cheaper. If possible, stay at a bed and breakfast as it can be a good way to meet locals. Some of our favourites include:
Alt Hotel St. John’s: When possible, we always recommend staying in a hotel that actually adds to the experience and the Alt Hotel in St. John’s is one of them. Located right by the harbour, we highly recommend getting a room with a view. There’s nothing quite like pressing a button on the wall next to your bed and having a curtain raised to the ceiling to unveil one of the best views in the city. From here, you can walk almost anywhere you need to go, including all the way up to Cabot Tower or over to Georges Street for a party. The Alt Hotel has everything you need, including comfortable beds, spacious rooms, underground parking, in-room Nespresso machines, flat-screen TVs, modern decor, and a really cool lobby with a pool table, cafe, and one of the top restaurants in the city.
Best Western Plus St. John’s Airport Hotel and Suites: If you need to stay out by the airport, then the best hotel is the Best Western. It opened in late 2018 and is very beautiful. The lobby is one of the nicest we’ve seen, they have a great pool and hot tub, and they have a pretty good restaurant on-site as well. The breakfast is big and free, and the parking is ample.
Where to Eat in St. John’s
There’s no shortage of good restaurants in St. John’s and we highly recommend you try seafood when visiting anywhere in Newfoundland. Another popular thing in Newfoundland is wild game, such as rabbit and moose. We highly recommend talking to locals and getting ideas for where to eat. But to start you off, here are some popular options.
Terre Restaurant & Café: If you have the budget and are looking for the latest place in town, Terre Restaurant is a great place to check out. Located within the Alt Hotel, this restaurant serves up small unique dishes such as Grilled Quail, Raw Diver Scallops, and Beer Can Chicken for the Table. Keep in mind that the servings are quite small, so I would expect to budget close to $100 per person, maybe more if you’re going to sip on one of their signature cocktails such as their Rhubarb Cosmo or Whisky Collins. Reservations are recommended.
Peaceful Loft: This is probably the first vegan restaurant I have ever eaten at but I am so happy we found this place. The owner is from Macau, China and absolutely loves Newfoundland. He might just be the friendliest person I’ve ever met and just a pure joy to be around. He believes in good vibes, which is why he chooses vegan. No harm to any living thing. Even if you love meat like me, his food is excellent and he is a great guy to meet. Try the lotus paste buns. Mmmm. Located at 250 Duckworth Street.
Duke of Duckworth: Tucked into a cool alley of Duckworth, this is one of the most popular pubs in St. John’s. We even saw Allan Doyle here once. For those who don’t know, he was the lead singer of Great Big Sea. Although this is a nice English pub, it’s also known for its good pub food, including a very popular Fish n’ Chips. So, whether you’re looking for a heavy meal or a pint of beer, this is a good spot to go.
Where is St John’s Newfoundland
St. John’s is located on the eastern tip of Newfoundland. It was the last city in Canada before hitting the Atlantic ocean. In fact, many planes going to Ireland, for example, stop here to make sure everything is in order before crossing the Atlantic. If you’re wondering how to get to St John’s Newfoundland, we have you covered. There are basically three ways. You can fly, you can drive, or you can get there by boat. If you drive from outside of Newfoundland, you’ll have to take a 6-hour ferry, which will bring you to the Western point of NFLD. From there, it’s about a 6-8 hour drive to St. John’s, which is on the opposite side of the island.
Getting to St. John’s
If you’re a visitor looking for different ways of getting to Newfoundland’s capital city, here’s some practical advice on how to get there.
Getting to St. John’s by Car
Ferry to Newfoundland: The only way to drive to St. John’s from outside of Newfoundland is to take the ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland. The ferry takes approximately six hours. Once in Port aux Basques, you’ll have another 10-hour drive to St. John’s. St. John’s is the farthest east you can go in terms of cities, so afterwards, you’ll come back.
It’s a long drive but a very scenic one, especially if you take the time to explore the areas you’ll be passing by. The ferry is straightforward, though it can be rough depending on the conditions of the sea. It’s a huge ferry though, so the main thing to worry about would be sea sickness.
Getting to St. John’s by Plane
St. John’s is home to the St. John’s International Airport, which is the biggest and busiest airport for Newfoundland. Compared to other major cities in Canada, it’s a small airport but has everything you need. Please keep in mind, however, that rental car companies do close late at night. If you do arrive after hours, there are hotels that are even within walking distance from the airport, including the Best Western Plus.
For transportation into the city, you’ll need to rent a car, take public transit, take a shuttle, or hop in a taxi. The drive to downtown St. John’s is only 15 minutes or so. The city is quite compact.
Getting Around St. John’s
Once in St. John’s, there are many ways of getting around.
- Driving: If you have your own car, driving around is fairly straightforward. The only word of caution I would give you is to be careful on the hills. St. John’s is like San Fransisco. The city is full of steep hills. In the summer, it’s not so bad, but if you happen to be there during snowfall or heavy rain, it might be dangerous for those with little experience. Other than that, you should be fine.
- Public Transportation: St. John’s is home to a Metrobus that navigates most of the city. The cost is $2.50 and you’ll need the exact change. If you’ll be using it a lot, you might consider buying an M-Card or multiple ride passes. You can purchase these at various locations, including St. John’s City Hall and Avalon Mall. All low-floor Metrobuses offer free WiFi. If you are disabled, you’ll want to ask about the GoBus Accessible Transit.
- Taxi: Like all Canadian cities, you’ll see taxi services all over the place, including at the airport. Taxis are metered and start at $3.75. Some taxi companies even offer tours. You’ll need to speak to the driver and/or company about the cost.
- Walking: If you’re located downtown, you’d be surprised how many things are within walking distance. Due to all the hills, it will be quite the workout, but certainly one of the better ways to experience St. John’s. Areas like downtown, Harbour Drive, Water Street, and Duckworth Street should all be walked, whether or not you have a car. Plus, you can go find the famous colourful row houses around the city and not worry about parking, which can be limited. Some other famous areas as well, such as Quidi Vidi, are only a 5 minutes drive away, which means walking wouldn’t take very long either.
Best Time to Visit Newfoundland
If you travel to St John’s Newfoundland, you’re likely wondering what time of year has the best weather. Without a doubt, summer is the most popular time to go. However, this is also when the peak tourist season is. Spring and Fall can also be good times to visit Newfoundland. It may also depend on what you want to see. While the summer definitely has the best weather, spring is when you’ll see icebergs. Once the icebergs are gone and the warmer weather arrives, you’ll have a better chance of seeing whales. Visiting Newfoundland in September is a great time to see fall colours, but the west coast is a more popular area for this. If you’re looking for things to do in Newfoundland in August, there’s quite a bit because this is the warmest time of year. You can go whale watching, hiking, fishing, camping, or check out some of the popular festivals such as the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival and the Busker’s Festival of St. John’s. A Newfoundland winter is a harsh winter. It can be cold and damp with a lot of snow. While there certainly is beauty to the winter season, this would be the least popular time to visit. You wouldn’t be able to get out on a boat and it would be too cold to walk anywhere. However, there are plenty of places to go ice-fishing and snowmobiling. Most tourism businesses are closed in the winter, so if you decide to come to Newfoundland at this time, you’ll want to make sure your hotels, tours and anything else you need are booked and confirmed.
Our favourite time? We love Newfoundland from July to September. However, June is also a great time as you might catch some icebergs as well.
More Things To Do
St. John’s is easily one of the best places to visit in Newfoundland. However, there are lots of other destinations that are equally as awesome. It depends on what you’re looking for. For city life, St. John’s is the only place. There’s also Corner Brook, but it’s much smaller. There are two national parks on the island, which include Terra Nova National Park and Gros Morne National Park. Gros Morne is one of my favourite national parks in Canada. There are land-locked fjords, mountains, seaside villages, and a plethora of hiking opportunities. You can even walk on the Earth’s mantle! Newfoundland’s west coast has much more spectacular scenery in my opinion, mainly because of the mountains.
What makes Newfoundland unique though are the little towns scattered about the island. This is where you’ll feel the heart of Newfoundland. Some popular places to see in Newfoundland include Trinity, Bonavista, Twillingate, Dildo, and Petty Harbour, just to name a few.
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