Charming and quaint, Charlottetown is the largest city in Prince Edward Island. It is also the capital city and is known as the “Birthplace of Confederation” as it was home to the famous Charlottetown Conference in 1864, which began the talks that eventually led to the Canadian Confederation.
Named after Queen Charlotte, this seaside city of roughly 40,000 people is a wonderful place to see Victorian-style homes and is full of culture, festivals and events, artisan shops, world-class restaurants, and more. It’s also a convenient base for exploring much of the island as it’s close to many top attractions such as Prince Edward Island National Park, Cavendish and the Anne of Green Gables site, beautiful beaches, and more.
In this guide to the best things to do in Charlottetown, we’ll help you plan your next trip by sharing the best things to do as well as where to eat, where to sleep, and what to do when you explore the rest of PEI.
History of Charlottetown
As briefly mentioned above, Charlottetown is quite famous for being the “birthplace of confederation”. This is because, in 1864, the first gathering of Canadian and Maritime statesmen took place to discuss the proposed Maritime Union. However, this discussion actually led to the union of British North American colonies, which was the beginning of the Canadian confederation. Somewhat ironically, PEI did not join Confederation until 1873.
Despite this important part of Canadian history, PEI’s history dates back further, not only with thousands of years of Indigenous occupation with the Mi’kmaq but also with French settlers who happened to be the first European settlers back in 1720. Then, during King George’s War, the British took over the island. Long story short, a few wars took place, including in 1775 when the city was raided by Massachusetts-based privateers during the American Revolution.
As time went on, the British constructed Fort Edward for defense and later the “Government House” and a building that came to be known as “Province House”, which is now a National Historic Site.
On April 17, 1855, Charlottetown was incorporated as a city.
How to Get to Charlottetown
Sandwiched in-between the other Atlantic provinces of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, Charlottetown can be reached by plane, car, or boat.
By Car: Since 1997, Prince Edward Island could be visited by car thanks to the Confederation Bridge, an engineering marvel for Canada. Carrying the Trans-Canada Highway across the Northumberland Strait, it links PEI to New Brunswick via a 12.9-kilometre bridge, which is not only Canada’s longest bridge but also the world’s longest bridge over ice-covered water. It takes 10-12 minutes. There is no toll going to PEI but there is a toll coming back.
By Plane: The Charlottetown Airport (YYG) is quite close to downtown Charlottetown is serviced quite frequently, especially during the summer, by airlines such as Air Canada, WestJet, and Flair Airlines. Rental cars are available should you need one but keep in mind that the summer months can be very busy.
By Boat: Charlottetown does have a cruise port, which means some cruise ships do stop here. However, there is also a ferry that leaves Caribou, Nova Scotia, and arrived in Wood Islands, PEI, which is about a 1-hour drive from Charlottetown. In addition, if you have your own boat, you can also visit that way.
Best Time to Visit Charlottetown
Like all of Prince Edward Island, the best time to visit Charlottetown is during the summer months. From June until the end of September, the weather is generally warm and favourable. However, many sites, including lighthouses and national historic sites, do begin to close in late September. Charlottetown, like any major city, can be visited year-round, but PEI is not a popular place during the winter due to the lack of accommodation and activities.
What to Do in Charlottetown
Once you’re in Charlottetown, you probably want to be busy exploring as much as you can. Well, we’ve got you covered. Below are some of the top things to do in Charlottetown.
Historical Walking Tour
Whether you decide to do a self-guided tour or join one of the many guided tours, walking around Charlottetown is such a great thing to do. Not only is it quite small but there are so many beautiful historic buildings, as well as seaside views that make walking such a joy. However, we certainly recommend taking a historic walking tour with a guide to learn about the buildings you see and the city you’re visiting.
We did a walking tour with The Confederation Players, which is really great because they dress up in authentic Victorian costumes and play the roles of delegates from the 1864 Charlottetown Conference. However, we’ve been told this is changing to reflect other stories. There’s also The Secrets of Charlottetown tour, another tour that brings the history of Charlottetown to life.
For a self-guided historic tour, pick up a map at the Welcome Center in Founder’s Hall at the waterfront or potentially from your hotel.
The Charlottetown boardwalk
Speaking of beautiful walks, we also recommend taking a walk along the Charlottetown boardwalk, which basically follows the coastline around Victoria Park. It’s popular with both locals and tourists and offers beautiful views of the harbour and parts of the city, while also bordering a big park. You’ll also find cannons that have stood guard since the 1800s and the Prince Edward Battery, which is one of the top attractions in Charlottetown.
Prince Edward Battery and Victoria Park
With its stunning views of the harbour, Prince Edward Battery was built at a strategic position to defend this important Maritime location. The Charlottetown boardwalk, as mentioned above snakes its way right around Victoria Park and the Battery, where visitors can see a row of cannons and small barracks. In 1805, the battery was moved from Great George Street to this fortification point. It was later named Fort Edward, though it never did see action.
Confederation Centre of the Arts
Unlike most small cities, Charlottetown is actually home to a beautiful art centre, which covers an entire city block and opened in 1964 as Canada’s national monument to Confederation. The Confederation Centre of the Arts houses a museum, art gallery, theatres, and a provincial library. During the summer, it is well known for the production of Anne of Green Gables, which runs from June to September and holds the Guinness World Record for the longest-running production. The art gallery, although small, does showcase many beautiful works by Canadian artists as well as travelling exhibits, and even has an entire room dedicated to Charlottetown-raised artist Robert Harris, one of Canada’s most renowned painters from the turn of the century.
Province House National Historic Site
Not far from the Confederation Centre of Arts is Province House, known as the “Birthplace of Canada.” This three-story sandstone building was constructed between 1843 and 1847 as a colonial government building and is now the seat of the Parliament of Prince Edward Island. It has been closed for many years due to renovations so when it does open again, it is most definitely a great place to visit.
The Confederation Chamber is where delegates met in 1864 to begin the talks of what would become the modern state of Canada. However, during its closure, we recommend visiting the Story of Confederation exhibit at the Confederation Centre of the Arts next door. Here, you can see a replica of the Confederation Chamber and watch the film, A Building of Destiny, about the history of Province House and the Charlottetown Conference.
Beaconsfield Historic House
Located right near the waterfront and near the beginning of the Charlottetown Boardwalk is the beautiful Beaconsfield Historic House, an elegant villa that was designed by W. C. Harris and built back in 1877 with lace-like wooden decoration, a mansard roof, and a graceful dome. The mustard-yellow building is a great example of Victorian architecture, and the interior design and furnishings make this a great place to visit.
It also houses the Prince Edward Island Museum and Heritage Foundation as well as a bookshop, which specializes in publications relating to the island. From time to time, exhibitions of local history, lectures, and concerts are held here.
St. Dunstan’s Basilica
While walking around the city, you’re bound to stumble upon St. Dunstan’s Basilica with its red sandstone spires and its French neo-Gothic style. Buil in the 19th century, It’s a memorable piece of the city skyline and a National Historic Site. One of the things it’s most famed for is its Italian-carved altar. On the opposite side of the street is a historical statue of the two John Hamilton Grays who attended the Charlottetown Conference in 1864. They’re a great photo opportunity!
If we had to pick one street as our favourite, it might just be Victoria Row. Free of traffic, it’s a great place for people to shop, eat, or drink at a variety of sidewalk cafés and restaurants. Some people even play chess at the picnic tables along the street or enjoy live music, which is quite frequent during the busy summer months. But aside from the entertainment value, it’s the beauty of Victorian architecture that makes us love it so much, so be sure to admire the brick commercial buildings that line the street.
Peakes Wharf and Confederation Landing
Perhaps one of the top tourist destinations in Charlottetown is Peakes Wharf and Confederation Landing. After all, who comes to a port city and does not take the time to visit the harbour to see all the beautiful boats and seaside scenery. This is also the place to go for souvenir shopping, food, ice cream, boat tours, and more. Adjacent to the wharf is Confederation Landing, which is home to a park with a boardwalk, gazebos, shady benches, and an inline skate park. In June, the roses are in bloom, making it extra special, but in July and August, it’s also home to free daily and evening concerts, so perhaps it’s best to just hang out here the entire summer and take it all in.
Like any popular tourist harbour, you’ll also find a plethora of sea tours, ranging from sailing ships to Zodiacs and beyond. In addition, adjacent to Confederation Landing is Founders’ Hall (aka: Canada’s Birthplace Pavilion), which is now home to a variety of food vendors and shops, as well as the Visitor Centre. It’s like a big farmer’s market type of building and it’s licensed, so you can sit down for a meal and a beer.
This Georgian-style building became the official seat of the Governor of the island after 1835 and is now the official residence for the Lieutenant Governor of PEI, who represents Queen Elizabeth II in the Province. This elegant white house, which is also known as Fanningbank, is a beautiful building to admire and is home to formal gardens on the grounds of Victoria Park. Although it is occasionally visited by Royalty and dignitaries, the Government House is open to the public, free of charge, during July and August.
Charlottetown Farmers Market
Every Saturday morning year-round, as well as Wednesday mornings in the summer, local farmers, craftspeople, and food producers, gather at the Charlottetown Farmers Market, making it a great place to buy some local goods and food. Products are quite varied, ranging from dog raincoats to hand-crocheted slippers, hand-made soaps, and more.
Browsing here is a great way to mingle with locals and shop for locally made souvenirs. You may find whimsical handcrafted birdhouses, dog raincoats, sheepskin rugs, knit scarves, hand-crocheted slippers, leather handbags, pottery, silver jewelry, lavender sachets, or hand-made soaps to take home. Plus, you’ll find a range of food items such as tacos, sugarplums, blueberry pies, and sushi.
Where to Eat in Charlottetown
Although we can’t list out the hundreds of places to grab a bite to eat, we are going to give you some ideas based on our own experience and the experience of others.
Slaymaker and Nichols
One of the latest additions to the culinary scene in Charlottetown is Slaymaker and Nichols, which serves up delicious creative options such as Seared Halibut with Jalapeno Crema and Summer Linguini with Hazelnut Pesto. In addition to the food, they also have perhaps the best cocktail bar in the city with some truly delicious creative concoctions. But on top of the food and drink, it’s the decor that we love so much. It’s like stepping back in time with a sort of old-fashion Equestrian-Style that feels modern. In fact, they have some of the coolest guest rooms you can spend the night in as well (see below in the accommodation section).
We love variety and Founders’ Hall is a great place to find it. This open-concept market features a variety of food and drink vendors as well as boutiques and the Visitor Centre. As a licensed facility, you can buy a beer from one vendor, food from the next, and then find a place to sit and enjoy it all. Whether you’re looking for a sushi burrito, a nice fat burger, or even some vegan deliciousness, Founders’ Hall is a great place to find it.
Rated as one of the top 10 best ice creams in the world by Reader’s Digest, you can’t come to the island without trying some of the ice creams from Cows Creamery. We recommend eating the ice cream off of one of their freshly made waffle cones. For those into souvenirs, they have quite the gift shop as well. As an added bonus, you’ll find Cows Creamery all over the island but Charlottetown is where it all started.
The Gahan House
If you’re after some Canadian pub food, there’s no better place than the Gahan House. From their wide selection of beer to their delicious pub food and excellent service, there’s a reason why they’re often ranked as one of the top restaurants in Charlottetown. They craft their own beer, serve some real tasty Fish & Chips, and are often home to some great local music.
Claddagh Oyster House
When it comes to seafood and fine dining, the top option is Claddagh Oyster House. Established in 1983, the Claddagh Room was named for a fishing village in Galway City in Ireland. This popular restaurant focuses on fresh, local ingredients, featuring world-renowned Island oysters and Certified PEI Beef.
Where to Stay in Charlottetown
Whether you’re looking for a hotel or a bed and breakfast, Charlottetown has it all.
Slaymaker and Nichols
As mentioned above, not only do Slaymaker and Nichols make some of the best food and drink in Charlottetown but they also offer some of the most unique guestrooms. Located above the restaurant, all three guestrooms are exquisitely designed with a sort of old-fashion Equestrian-Style decor that is timeless, traditional, and classic. Everything from the paint to the pillows to the stunning gold-trim bathrooms is a work of art. Each room even has a record player with a selection of records ranging from The Beatles to the Tragically Hip and Hank Williams. We had the opportunity to stay in both the General Scott Guestroom and in the Mlle Caroline Guestroom, both of which are throwbacks to the Slaymaker and Nichols Circus that stole the spotlight away from the Fathers of Confederation when they met in PEI more than a century ago. Included in the rate is a breakfast Charcuterie Board with French-Pressed coffee or tea.
The Great George Inn
If you’re looking for a luxurious stay that actually adds to your experience of the island, the Great George Inn is the perfect place to rest your head in Charlottetown. Not only is it Atlantic Canada’s Premiere Experiential Hotel, but it’s also the hotel where some of the delegates stayed during the birth of Canada’s confederation. Now that’s a story! Plus, each day at 4:00 PM, the staff give a Historical Walking Tour and on weekday evenings, there’s a free beer and wine tasting event. Our hotel “room” was basically an entire loft-style apartment and one of the nicest places we’ve ever stayed. We had a jacuzzi tub, a stand-up rain shower, in-suite laundry, and a full kitchen. Oh, and there are endless amounts of fresh chocolate chip cookies. Need we say more?
Where to Go Next in Prince Edward Island
As beautiful as Charlottetown is, we highly recommend getting out of the little city and exploring more of the island. From charming little seaside towns to historic lighthouses and incredible beaches, Prince Edward Island is a true gem during Canada’s hot summers. However, there are also lots of other Atlantic provinces surrounding the island that also offer incredible experiences. For more information on what to do next, check out these articles below: