Visiting St. John’s and the Avalon Peninsula

St. John’s, the provincial capital, is a colorful and comfortable city. Situated on the steep inland side of St. John’s Harbour, the city’s rooftops form a tapestry: Some are gracefully drawn with swooping mansard curves, some are pancake-flat or starkly pitched, and others are pyramidal with clay pots placed atop the central chimneys. Against this otherwise picture-perfect tapestry, the tangle of electrical wires strung up and down the hillside is a visual offense.

Colorful homes cluster at the edges of St. John's harbour in Newfoundland.
Homes along the hillside in the harbour at St. John’s. Photo © Craig Chislett/iStock.

Contrasts of color are everywhere. House windows are framed in deep turquoise, red, bright yellow, or pale pink and are covered with starched white lace curtains. Window boxes are stuffed to overflowing with red geraniums and purple and pink petunias. Along the streets, cement walls brace the hillside, and any blank surface serves as an excuse for a pastel-painted mural. The storefronts on Water Street, as individual as their owners, stand out in Wedgwood blue, lime green, purple, and rose. At street-side, public telephone booths are painted the bright red of old-time fire hydrants.

As the Newfoundlanders say, St. John’s offers the best for visitors—another way of saying that Newfoundland is short on cities and long on coastal outports. But without question, St. John’s thrives with places for dining, nightlife, sightseeing, and lodging—more than anywhere else across the island and Labrador. Simply put, the Newfoundlanders have carved a contemporary, livable, and intriguing niche in one of North America’s most ancient ports. Come to St. John’s for some of Atlantic Canada’s most abundant high-quality shopping, unusual dining in lush surroundings, interesting maritime history displayed in fine museums, rousing nightlife and music, and an emerging and eclectic fine-arts scene.

When you’re done with the city, there’s the rest of the Avalon Peninsula to discover. Within day-tripping distance of downtown, you can go whale-watching at Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, watch archaeologists at work at Ferryland, walk in to North America’s most accessible bird sanctuary at Cape St. Mary’s, and drive through delightfully named villages like Heart’s Desire.

Planning Your Time

Whether you arrive by air, by ferry, or overland from the west, St. John’s is a definite destination in itself. It has all the amenities of a major city, including top-notch accommodations, a good range of restaurants, and lively nightlife. Sightseeing will easily fill two days, with at least a few hours spent at The Rooms, a museum and art gallery complex as good as any in Canada. Don’t miss the drive up to Signal Hill National Historic Site, and stop at Johnson Geo Centre along the way. The Fluvarium is a good rainy-day diversion. While the village of Quidi Vidi provides a taste of the rest of the province without leaving city limits, the rest of the Avalon Peninsula is well worth exploring.

The options are relatively straightforward—either use St. John’s as a base for day trips or plan on an overnight excursion. Two highlights—a whale-watching trip to Witless Bay Ecological Reserve and a visit to the historic Colony of Avalon—can easily be combined into a day trip. Bird-rich Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve is also within a couple of hours’ drive of St. John’s, although if you’re arriving by ferry from Nova Scotia, it’s only a short detour from the main route into town. If you’re arriving by air, five days is the minimum amount of time to allow for exploring the city and the Avalon Peninsula. If you’re arriving by ferry with your own vehicle, plan on spending three days on the Avalon Peninsula (including St. John’s) and seven days traveling through the central and western portion of the province to the ferry terminal at Port-aux-Basques. Add two days’ travel from Halifax (including the two ferry trips from and to Sydney) and you can create a 12-day itinerary with no backtracking.

Travel map of Saint John, New Brunswick
Saint John

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