St. John’s, Newfoundland may be a capital city but its charming streets lined with jelly bean coloured houses, scenic sites along the Atlantic Coast and the ever welcoming locals make it a Canadian capital unlike any other. Despite the young population and being home to half of the province’s population, St. John’s still holds strong onto its small town feel that is very Newfoundland.
Artists and musicians are abundant with local crafts lining shop windows, local beer is enjoyed any day of the week on the well-known George Street where live music is enjoyed by all and stunning scenery from the colourful houses to the rugged cliffs of the Atlantic Ocean is available around every corner.
St. John’s is where most people start their Newfoundland trip and leaves an excellent first impression that will keep up through the province. Spend 2 days here in St. John’s and you’ll have a full belly from the top eateries, a memory card full of pictures and memories from interacting with locals that will last you a lifetime when you visit Newfoundland.
How to Get to St. John’s, Newfoundland
There are multiple ways to get to St. John’s depending on your mode of transportation. The city can be reached by car from anywhere in the province with a well-maintained main highway, the Trans Canada Highway, that connects major spots in the province. If driving through the Maritimes there is a year-round ferry that departs from Sydney, Nova Scotia and docks in Port aux Basques, which still requires driving to St. John’s.
The most common way to get to St. John’s is by flying with direct flights from many cities in Canada and the UK.
How to Get Around St. John’s, Newfoundland
St. John’s main downtown core is quite small and is very walkable. It will take you a maximum of 30 minutes at a leisurely pace to walk from one end to the other. However, there are a number of spots outside of the downtown core that you may want to visit such as Cape Spear, Quidi Vidi or Signal Hill that are not within an easy walking distance. There is the East Coast Trail which links all of these spots together while Signal Hill is a moderate hike from the downtown area.
If you want to see further out areas on a budget hop on The Link Metrobus which connects downtown St. John’s, Signal Hill and Quidi Vidi for a set day, 2-day or group fee. Metrobus is also available throughout the city if you opt to not walk.
Unfortunately, there is no public transportation to Cape Spear so the only options are taxis or driving (Uber doesn’t exist in Newfoundland either). If you’re planning on travelling around Newfoundland renting a car is absolutely worth it.
What to Pack for St. John’s, Newfoundland
Newfoundland has erratic weather any time of the year. It’s best to expect the unexpected as temperatures can drop or rise significantly within a few hours and rain or even snow (yes it sometimes snows in JUNE here!). While the forecast may say one thing it could be completely different once you step outside in this cute city.
Things to do in St. John’s Newfoundland
There’s no shortage of things to do in St. John’s and these St. John’s activities are sure to keep you busy.
Cape Spear is the most easterly point in Canada and all of North America and one of the top Newfoundland attractions. It’s incredible to see the views out over the ocean and imagine that Ireland is the next closest point in Europe. There are two lighthouses there, one a traditional looking, tall white lighthouse and the second, the original you can go inside. The second is also beautiful, was used until 1955 and it’s the oldest surviving lighthouse in the province.
Give yourself half a day to explore around the lighthouses (it’s so picturesque), there’s history here too (yes, big guns!), hiking trails stretch in both directions and 22 kinds of whale migrate through the water past this point. If you’re up for it you can catch sunrise on Cape Spear and be among the first to see the sun in North America!
Cape Spear is actually just outside of St. John’s so it is recommended that you have a car because taxis are quite pricey. It’s a 20-minute drive to Cape Spear and the views are totally worth going for.
Eat a Touton
It’s not always a matter of what to do in St. John’s but what to eat in St. John’s. A touton is considered a Canadian pancake but I’m Canadian and I had never heard of a touton before visiting Newfoundland. It’s typically made here and is used from leftover bread dough that is fried in a pan with either butter or pork fat. It’s topped with molasses usually but corn syrup or fruit jam are also common.
Quidi Vidi is a neighbourhood in St. John’s that’s just a 5-minute drive from the city centre. This charming area feels like a small town in itself as locals often refer to it as “The Gut.” What brings people over to this area though is not just the stunning views with colourful buildings lining the water, but also the largest microbrewery in the province, Quidi Vidi Brewery. Quidi Vidi Brewery is famous for making iceberg beer (which is delicious by the way) so a stop is in order (even if you don’t like beer, it’s super light). Plus the views from the brewery I give two big thumbs up.
The best views are from the Quidi Vidi Plantation where you can also find local arts.
Keep in mind that there is very little parking here but there is some parking at the brewery and more for Mallard’s Cottage (where you simply must eat). The Link bus also has a stop here.
Signal Hill is easily the most popular attraction in St. John’s. For adventurers or active travellers you can hike right from the city centre to the top of Signal Hill. And for those who wish to take it easy it’s a quick drive right to the top.
Signal Hill offers the best views of St. John’s where you can see just how colourful the city is. But turn your head away and there’s the Atlantic Ocean and where you can spot whales.
At the top of the hill is Cabot Tower, named after John Cabot who discovered North America in the 1400’s. It’s also where the first transatlantic wireless signal was received in 1901. Signal Hill has got views, history and a number of hiking trails, it’s a must-see St. John’s attraction.
Join a Walking Tour
If you’ve read any of my articles on travel in Europe, you know I’m a huge fan of walking tours. Unfortunately, they’re not as popular in North America but St. John’s has two! St. John’s Walking Tours offers a 2-2.5 hour Signature Tour and a 1.5-hour Core Tour, which both offer a ton of entertainment and quirky stories about what makes St. John’s so unique. It’s the stories from the people and of places that make Newfoundland so unforgettable, so don’t miss catching the opportunity to hear more for yourself.
Newman Wine Vaults
Port in St. John’s? Yes, you read that right. St. John’s is actually the only place outside of Portugal that has aged port wine. Barrels of port arrived in St. John’s by mistake (while avoiding pirates) when they were being shipped to English aristocrats.
The port stayed the winter in St. John’s and the drinkers were pleasantly surprised by the new taste. They liked it so much that port was continued to be sent over to be aged and now you can visit where port was aged and taste some of the Newman’s port for yourself while learning about the 300-year-old history.
Try All of the Food
I had no idea that St. John’s was such a foodie city. Three of Canada’s best restaurants are here so even if the seafood doesn’t win you over then the top restaurant’s will.
I’ve detailed below where to eat in St. John’s including spots where Anthony Boudain ate, where you can try the local delicacy of cod tongues and where you can find the most famous place to try a touton.
If you want to try all of the food but are short on time check out a St. John’s walking food tour (so you can burn some calories between tastings!).
One of St. John’s attractions is completely free: Jellybean Row. Jelly Bean row doesn’t refer to one exact spot but instead a number of streets where colourful houses line the streets. St. John’s is considered one of the most colourful cities in the world because of these houses painted in yellows, blues, greens and even purples.
It was part of a revitalization project in the 70’s and locals loved the trend so it took off. To find the best rows just roam up and down the hilly streets, you will find plenty in a short walk off of Duckworth Street.
George Street is the place to spend a night out on the town in St. John’s. It’s two blocks of entertainment filled with pubs, restaurants and bars where you can get your fix of local beer, get screeched in or catch some live music. O’Reilly’s Pub is the top spot to listen to some Newfoundland music.
Get Screeched In
A screech-in is a ceremony that is not obligatory but is performed by many who choose to visit Newfoundland. Newfoundlanders hold the ceremony for “mainlanders” or those who “come from away.”
The ceremony involves a short recitation, a shot of screech (a disgusting rum in my opinion) and kissing a cod (it’s supposed to be alive but usually they’re frozen). You have to wear a hat and you get a certificate in the end declaring you an honorary Newfie. Screech-ins vary with some having you eat traditional Newfie sweets or food, but all involve a shot of screech and kissing a cod!
You can get screeched in on George Street at O’Reilly’s, Trapper John’s or Christian’s Pub. Check times for the ceremonies.
Though you can’t technically see puffins in St. John’s, there are a number of tours that pick you up in St. John’s and take you about 40 minutes away to the largest puffin colony in all of North America. We’re talking half a million puffins here so you won’t be disappointed.
Like the rest of Newfoundland, St. John’s doesn’t disappoint when it comes to exploring the outdoors. Just outside of the city you’ll be able to find an abundance of hiking trails that will lead you past coastal views.
Probably the most popular hike in all of Newfoundland starts right in St. John’s, the East Coast Trail that stretches over 300km long. It’s easy to do parts of the trail and still get unbeatable views. The North Head Trail shows off St. John’s rugged beauty and leads up to the best views in town from Signal Hill.
There’s so many I can’t list them all here!
Float by some Icebergs
You’ve got options when it comes to seeing icebergs in St. John’s and are spoiled to be in a capital city that is along the famous Iceberg Alley. The best way to see icebergs is by a boat tour as they can get you up close to the icebergs, the second best is by kayak and the third way is to watch them from land which you can do anywhere along the coast.
Icebergs are in season from April to June but the season can vary. The Newfoundland tourism website recommends late May or early June for your best chances of viewing. You can even keep track of where icebergs are with the Iceberg Finder.
The Rooms are the cultural centre of St. John’s which showcases Newfoundland through art, records, history and artifacts. You can see The Rooms from the centre of town and from Signal Hill because of their distinct outline in the city’s skyline that are shaped like three large houses.
The Rooms also offer a great view of the city from the top. Admission is free between 6 and 9 on Wednesday evenings.
Taste Test the Local Beers
Newfoundland has no shortage of craft breweries, with the majority of them being in St. John’s. This small capital is popping with craft beers and breweries opening to keep up with the demand that’s hitting across the province. Some of the most popular breweries are:
- Quidi Vidi Brewery
- Yellow Belly Brewery & Public House
- Storm Brewing
These are just the microbreweries, there are even more that aren’t local such as Mill Street. The best way to try as many beers as possible is to do a St. John’s beer tour, complete with your own Newfoundland Beer Diploma.
Take a Haunted Tour
Is there a better place to take a haunted walking tour than in North America’s oldest city? Join a St. John’s Haunted Hike to explore the alleyways and streets of St. John’s where duels, hangings and murders happened. The history of St. John’s may surprise you or even scare you throughout the capital’s core. You can check out more about haunted walks in St. John’s here.
The Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is right in St. John’s city cente and offers a peek back in time as a national historic site and the oldest Anglican church is all of Canada. Stop by here during a haunted walk or enjoy an afternoon tea with desserts and drinks in the Crypt Tea Room.
Where to Eat in St. John’s
I don’t usually write about where to eat in destinations I visit but St. John’s has so much to offer and I ate at so many fabulous places that I’ve decided to share with you and I promise that these St. John’s restaurants will not disappoint.
The Merchant Tavern
The Merchant Tavern was my favourite restaurant in St. John’s. The restaurant’s design and atmosphere had me feeling like I was in Toronto more so than in St. John’s along the East Coast but the people were so casual that it had a completely different, more relaxed vibe that was welcome.
The Merchant Tavern focuses on quality, local and sustainable ingredients with knowledgeable staff, top specials and drool-worthy food. Don’t skip on the vinegar pie (made with apple cider vinegar).
This is also where Anthony Bourdain ate while visiting, though not on the Newfoundland episode of Parts Unknown, and it’s the sister restaurant of one of Canada’s top restaurants, Raymonds.
Reservations are wise but not necessary.
Chafe’s Landing, though not in St. John’s, is an ideal place to stop by before or after visiting Cape Spear as it’s only a 10-minute drive away in Petty’s Harbour.
You won’t regret going out of your way to visit this small restaurant in a charming town. The fish n’ chips are to die for, the seafood chowder is unreal and for a local delicacy give the cod tongues a try. Anthony Bourdain also ate here.
The Bagel Cafe
Though nothing spectacular, The Bagel Cafe is a cute and eclectic restaurant that’s perfect for breakfast because you’re going to want to try a touton (which I mentioned earlier in the post). The breakfasts are big, the menu long with options and fresh fruit is served (which I found difficult to find in most of Newfoundland).
Mallard Cottage is another must-try in the neighbourhood of Quidi Vidi. The menu changes daily to reflect the locally sourced ingredients.
You’ll get to try a tasty meal and delicious cocktails for brunch or dinner in a cozy and rustic cottage that has been restored and is recognized as a National Historic Site as it’s one of North America’s oldest wooden buildings. Don’t miss out on getting a cake plate as you’ll get to choose and pile your plate high with a wide variety of tasty baked goods.
Reservations are wise but not necessary.
Raymonds has consistently been voted one of Canada’s top restaurants. It’s located right in the heart of St. John’s and offers meals with wine pairings that sound out of this world good. Though I didn’t get to dine here due to time restraints, one peek at the menu has me knowing that I’ll be back to try. The menu changes daily with 3, 5 and 7-course options available. It is pricey but is worth it for all the foodies out there.
Reservations are recommended.
Duke of Duckworth
For a taste of classic pub food head here to enjoy the cozy and traditional pub atmosphere. I’ve read in multiple places that the Duke of Duckworth serves the best plate of fish n’ chips in the province and after tasting it for myself I couldn’t argue. There have a ton of local beers on offer and plenty on tap.
Where to Stay in St. John’s
I personally found that accommodation not only in St. John’s was overpriced for what you got but you’ll need a place to stay so here are the top recommendations. My best advice is to book things in advance. Do this across Newfoundland or you’ll find yourself without accommodation!