As one of New Brunswick’s biggest cities and a major port and industrial centre, Saint John has a lot to offer and is also a great base for exploring other parts of the province, such as Fundy Trail Parkway.
Not to be confused with St. John’s, Newfoundland (which is actually known as the oldest English-founded city in North America), Saint John was founded in 1783 by Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution and is the oldest incorporated city in Canada. This deep history has resulted in a really beautiful and historic downtown centre that has many beautiful brick buildings that were built after the catastrophic fire of 1877.
The city basically sits where the Saint John River enters the Bay of Fundy, which has also led to the creation of one of its most popular natural attractions. This natural phenomenon is called Reversing Falls, which is caused by the collision of the Bay of Fundy and the Saint John River, creating a series of rapids and whirlpools.
However, there’s much more to the city than historic brick buildings and the Reversing Falls, so in this travel guide to the best things to do in Saint John, we’ll fill you in on what not to miss during your next visit to this historic Atlantic Canadian city.
1. Reversing Falls
If there’s one thing you’ll constantly hear about while travelling around New Brunswick, it’s the Bay of Fundy, which s home to the highest tides in the world. The best places to really witness them are along the Fundy Trail Parkway, Fundy National Park, or popular attractions such as Hopewell Rocks.
However, another great place to see the power of the Bay of Fundy is right in Saint John at Reversing Falls. This narrow gorge at the head of the harbour, where the incoming tide is forced over a ridge of rock, creates a waterfall that flows upstream. The 8-metre difference between sea levels at high and low tide actually makes the Saint John River flow backwards, forming a turbulent mass of whirlpools and rapids as it forces its way against the natural outward flow. Twelve hours later, the river resumes its natural course, and the falls flow over the stone ridge in the other direction.
This natural phenomenon can easily be seen from Reversing Falls Bridge, which features a lookout deck and some signs explaining what is happening. There’s also a new attraction called the Skywalk Saint John, which features an observation platform with glass floor panels that extends out from the cliff by more than 8-metres to show a clear view of the whirlpool and rapids 30 metres below. We haven’t tried the Skywalk yet as it wasn’t open when we were there, but in all honesty, I can’t quite see how it can be better than the free observation deck across the river. Perhaps if the interpretive centre has some videos and detailed information, it might add to the experience.
Another great place to see the intense rush of water caused by the intense tide flow is Fallsview Park, which is also part of the Stonehammer Geopark-the only UNESCO-listed geopark in North America. Another popular way to experience the falls is by taking a boat ride into the gorge.
2. Walking Tour of Historic Saint John
With so much history spread out amongst a beautiful city centre, the best way to really see it all is by taking your own self-guided walking tour. There are a variety of walking tour maps you can either pick up from the visitor centre or by viewing them online, allowing you to walk around at your own pace while actually learning about the stunning buildings you see all around you. We did the Loyalist Trail during our visit, which took about 2-3 hours at a slow pace and really gave us some interesting insight into the history of Canada’s oldest incorporated city.
If you’re wondering why there’s a walking trail called the Loyalist Trail, it’s because the early settlers of Saint John were families who supported the British Crown during the American Revolution and escaped on two fleets of ships from Massachusetts. Although they certainly shaped the early architecture of the city, the Great Fire of 1877 wiped out most of the wooden buildings. After that fire, the building was rebuilt with brick, which is what gives it the unique look it has today.
These brick buildings that remain to this day include some of the best Georgian and Victorian architecture styles that can be found in Canada. The streets of brick townhouses also reflect the influence of the Boston architects who came here to help rebuild the city
Some of the places these walking tours might take you to include Prince William Street, which is a designated National Historic Site for its concentration of distinguished buildings designed and decorated in the styles of a single period, the beautiful St. John’s Anglican Church, which was built in 1825 and is a National Historic Site, and the Chipman Hill Suites, which are not only a National Historic Site but also a 3-star hotel that you can stay in.
There are many other places you’ll visit as well, such as King’s Square, the very old Loyalist Burial Ground, Market Square, St.Johns Stone Church, and the Loyalist House, which is the oldest surviving wooden house in the city and a museum you can visit.
Saint John City Market
This classic old market hall is one of the few buildings that escaped the Great Fire of 1876 and is thought to be the oldest common-law market in Canada, in continuous use since 1876. It’s not very big but it is home to a variety of local handmade goods, food, and drink. We especially loved the architecture of the roof, which resembles a ship’s hull.
If you end up taking a walking tour around Saint John, you’ll almost certainly visit the Saint John City Market as it is one of the top attractions. Today a bell still rings each market day, Monday through Saturday, to signal the opening and closing of the trade.
Address: 47 Charlotte St, Saint John, New Brunswick.
This house was built in the Georgian style by Loyalist David Merritt between 1810 and 1817, this is the oldest wooden building in Saint John and one of very few to survive the Great Fire. David Merrit fled New York with his family and after remaining in the Merrit family for six generations without being structurally altered, It was acquired by the New Brunswick Historical Society in 1959 and restored as a museum with period furnishings.
The relatively plain facade of the white wooden house conceals a spacious and elegant Georgian interior, with unusual curved doors, elegant architectural features, and beautiful furnishings that are fine examples of several styles popular in the early 19th century.
The Loyalist House has been recognized by the American Association for State and Local History for excellence in restoration.
Address: 120 Union St, Saint John, New Brunswick.
New Brunswick Museum
Although the New Brunswick Museum is closed while they find a new home, it is definitely well worth visiting if it’s open when you arrive. Filled with engaging exhibits that explore the province’s natural history, culture, art, and history, there is something here for people of all ages.
If you’ve seen the New Brunswick Flag and the beautiful ship that adorns it, you’ll be happy to know that New Brunswick’s 19th-century golden age of shipbuilding and sailing is beautifully represented, with artifacts and informative displays that give a sense of what life was like on these ships and the places they travelled.
There’s also the Great Hall of Whales, Our Changing Earth, and plenty of places where kids can get interactive. Indigenous Peoples of Canada and their culture and arts are also well covered here with an emphasis on interpreting and understanding rather than just looking at collections.
Address: Currently closed while they find a new location.
Another historic building that most walking tours will feature is the Imperial Theatre, a century-old theatre that was built in 1913 as a vaudeville house, and is now one of the grandest buildings in the city.
It all started in 1911 when Albert E. Westover, a leading architect from Philadelphia, was hired to design a performing centre for Saint John. It opened in 1913 as a 1500-seat theatre that has featured such greats as John Philip Sousa, Ethel Barrymore and Gracie Fields. The theatre was renamed the Capitol in 1929 and began showing movies in addition to the live performances it already offered. It was then sold to the Full Gospel Assembly in 1957 until a public campaign in 1982 raised $1 million to purchase the building.
The theatre was then renovated and re-opened in May of 1994. Tours are available for a fee between September and April (you need to call ahead to book) but perhaps the best way to experience the Imperial Theatre would be to attend one of the many concerts and stage plays that take place throughout the year.
Address: 12 King Square S, Saint John, New Brunswick
Explore Irving Nature Park
Established to protect 11 kilometres (7 miles) of Bay of Fundy shoreline and only a 15-minute drive from downtown Saint John, the 600-acre Irving Nature Park sits on a narrow peninsula that represents six different ecosystems and nurtures one of the province’s richest marine ecosystems.
It offers beautiful views of the Fundy coastline and is a popular destination among locals and visitors to enjoy the outdoors, with groomed trails and a gravel road for walking, hiking, and biking. Visitors will find forests, mud flats, a salt marsh, volcanic rock, a long sandy beach, and landscapes that change by the hour due to the ever-changing Bay of Fundy tides.
There are also accessible washrooms, lookouts, free picnic sites and gas barbecues, free interactive educational programs and activities, and even a children’s forest with a playground and life-size mazes. To get a glimpse into the size of the park, stop by the Lookout Tower, which is the park’s highest point with a 360-degree view of land and sea.
Birders will also fall in love with Irving Nature Park as it’s a traditional staging site for migratory and marine birds that travel between the Arctic and South America, and a breeding ground for many waterfowl of the Atlantic coastline. More than 250 species of migratory and marine birds have been sighted here, and the boardwalk through the marsh is an especially good vantage point for birders.
You can also watch the harbor seals from the Seal Observation Deck and you may also run into some deer or squirrels along the way. Special events like meteor showers, geological history, moonlight snowshoeing and story sessions are all free.
We loved Irving Nature Park!
Address: 1790 Sand Cove Rd, Saint John, New Brunswick
There’s certainly no shortage of places in Saint John to find nature and Rockwood Park is another excellent choice. Popular with locals and visitors, Rockwood Park is a popular year-round park that is also part of the UNESCO Stonehammer Geopark system thanks to its billion years of history. With more than 2,200 acres of natural bliss, this park is home to more than 55 paths and trails, 10 lakes, a large playground, and so much more.
There’s also the Inside Out Nature Center, which offers a variety of outdoor equipment rentals, including kayaks, paddleboards, hydro-bikes, pedal boats, and bicycles. The center also offers rock climbing on the natural terrain, geocaching, and guided nature hikes. Visitors can even camp right at the park in tents or RVs. There’s even an 18-hole public golf course!
Even in the winter, Rockwood Park is popular for pond hockey, skating, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.
Although we didn’t get to enjoy the park to its fullest during our visit, we did have dinner at the Lily Lake Pavilion, which sits on the shores of Lily Lake. Learn more towards the end of this article.
Address: 10 Fisher Lakes Dr, Saint John, New Brunswick
Area 506 Container Village
Saint John’s latest attraction is the colourful and hip Area 506 Container Village that’s located right on the waterfront for both locals and tourists to enjoy. It features a diverse collection of retail shops, a performance space, a waterfront container bar, food trucks, public art and pop-up activities, all within and around more than 60 colourful shipping containers.
For a port city like Saint John, this is such a great way to celebrate the identity of the city and it’s right next to the Marco Polo Cruise Terminal, making it a great place for cruise visitors to explore as well. Another added bonus besides the great products, food, drink, entertainment, and art, is that Mint Rentals has a container there as well, allowing visitors to rent scooters and explore the city in a fun and fast way.
Address: 85 Water St, Saint John, New Brunswick
Carleton Martello Tower
Another interesting National Historic Site in Saint John is the Carleton Martello Tower, which was built in 1813 to protect the port against a possible attack from the United States. It is typical of the round defensive forts built throughout the British Empire in the first half of the 19th century and is one of only nine of the original 14 Canadian towers to survive.
Although it never did get used for “firepower”, the tower was put to use as area headquarters for the anti-aircraft defence and fire-fighting services during World War II. Today, it serves as a museum of military life dating back to the 18th century, as well as a great place to get views over Saint John.
Address: 454 Whipple St, Saint John, New Brunswick
Fort Howe National Historic Site
Another National Historic Site? Yes, that’s right. Since Saint John is the oldest incorporated city in Canada, it makes sense that it’s full of historic sites, many of which you can enjoy.
The British constructed Fort Howe in 1777 as a response to several requests from the residents around the mouth of the Saint John River that their small settlement needed to be protected from further attacks by American privateers. With its location on a towering rock offering unmatched views of the harbour and up the river, Fort Howe and its garrison provided protection to the surrounding settlements through the end of the War of 1812. It also operated as military headquarters and the first civil jail in the town before falling into disrepair after 1819.
Today, it has been preserved, along with a replica of the wooden blockhouse, and aside from offering a look into Canada’s history, also provides a magnificent panoramic view of the shipyards, harbour, river, and town.
Address: Magazine Street, Saint John, New Brunswick
Explore the Art Galleries
Art beautifies life and for those of you into art and fine craftsmanship, Saint John has many art galleries, studios, and crafts marketplaces to browse and enjoy. Most of them are scattered throughout the historic uptown area and range from the studios of individual artists to larger galleries showing both fine and decorative arts. There’s also street art all over the city and a variety of art pieces at the New Brunswick Museum.
Some of the popular art galleries include Handworks Gallery, which showcases beautifully handcrafted wooden furniture, pottery, glass, sculpture, and fine art by local artists and craftsmen, as well as the Spicer Merrifield Gallery, which represents Canadian artists and fine craftsmen, selling jewellery, fine art, and fine craft. Some other galleries include Cobalt Art Gallery, Tim Issac Gallery, Jones Gallery, and Trinity Galleries, which represent artists from the Canadian Maritimes and across the country.
To get creative yourself, consider a visit to the Saint John Arts Centre where, depending on the time, might be able to take a course on building clay objects, pottery on the wheel, and more.
Rent a Scooter
If you haven’t been on a scooter yet, they’re such a fun way to travel around a city. If you have been on one, you know what we’re talking about. Mint Rentals, which is located in Fredericton and at the Area 506 Container Village rents scooters by the hour, allowing you to travel around the city at a much faster pace than walking. We rented them from the container village and travelled over to Reversing Falls, which only took around 15 minutes or less.
Eat Your Heart Out
For all the foodies out there, or really anyone just looking for a tasty meal, Saint John is actually home to a variety of delicious restaurant options. Whether you’re looking for something in the historic downtown core or something a little further out, there’s something for everyone. Below are some of the restaurants we tried during our visit.
Vegolution: One of the highest-rated restaurants in the city is a vegan restaurant called Vegolution. It’s right downtown in the hustle and bustle and has an array of tasty meatless dishes such as Sticky Korean Soy Bits, Smoked Tomato Penne, and a Veggie Donair with house-made donair, onion, tomato, lettuce, cashew sauce, and house-cut fries. They also have some wonderful Kombucha to enjoy on the side.
Lily’s Lakeside Casual Dining: Not far from downtown, Lily’s Lakeside is located next to beautiful Lily Lake, making it a great place to enjoy a relaxing meal, especially on the patio during a warm day. Operated by a Registered Charity with 100% of the Profits Going Back to the Community, this restaurant
focused on fresh local ingredients and casual fare. During our visit, we enjoyed the East Coast Seafood Linguine and Blackened Fish Tacos with Mango Salsa, both of which were really good.
Splash Thai Cuisine: Although this restaurant is located a little further out of downtown, it’s one of the highest-rated restaurants in Saint John, especially for those looking for Thai food. As usual, we ordered their Pad Thai, which is one of our favourite Thai dishes, as well as their Massaman Curry, which is a tangy curry with chicken, sweet potatoes and peanuts in coconut milk. The curry won!
Want More Things to Do?
While Saint John is an excellent city to explore for a couple of days, there’s so much more to both New Brunswick and the rest of Atlantic Canada. For more ideas on what to do, check out our Canadian travel guides below:
B hawco says
Excellent coverage. Just another fact to add to the reversing notes is that you can actually witness b hawthe geographic fact that it sits on the divide of Africa and North America.
Matthew G. Bailey says
witness what sorry? I missed that one
I really need to get to the east coast! Looks like a really good place to visit and explore.