I get about five emails per week asking me for St. John’s recommendations. I figure after nearly 10 years of living here, I’m at least a little qualified to write about my city.
This guide is by no means finished, however, and all you locals out there can offer up your own suggestions. But I DO have impeccable taste, so you’ll at least love the shit out of one of these items.
Getting around and doing stuff
I moved downtown years ago to be closer to work. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. The heart of St. John’s is most definitely downtown, where it’s possible to get everywhere on foot. Water Street and Duckworth Street are the busiest areas, so situate yourself close to here. The city’s best music venues are within vicinity, as well as a whole lotta restaurants, bars, and pubs. There’s no better place to people watch than Water Street on a hot summer’s day when suits clash with hippie soapstone carvers and fiddling peddlers paired with bear-like Newfoundland dogs.
I’ll be frank: the public bus system doesn’t get you very far — although it’s a cheap an fair system ($2.50 per ride, even from Paradise into town). If you want to get out to Cape Spear (the easternmost point in North America) or around the Irish Loop, you’ll have to rent a car or hire a cab (or do a day trip).
Sightseeing and stuff
I never get sick of walking around St. John’s. The hills are a nightmare but you’ll have buns of steel by the time you’re done exploring.
Have you seen the images of the so-called Jellybean Row, with its rainbow Victorian homes and bright doors? Wind your way through the downtown area and you’ll get your colour fix. There’s even a “watermelon house” of black and bright pink.
The city climbs its way upwards and into the sky, so strolling Water Street and the harbour front will lend you some brilliant views. In the harbour you’ll find everything from cruise ships to rusty fishing boats, although you’ll wonder how they fit through The Narrows. The slate-coloured steeple of the Basilica is an odd contrast next to the ultra-modern The Rooms Art Gallery and Museum, but it’s a damned good contrast and one of my favourite things about the city.
Speaking of The Rooms, it’s a fab place to visit and one of the few art galleries that never fails to hold my attention for longer than 10 minutes. Local and international artists are featured here, and there’s an entire section dedicated to old Newfoundland, as well as a floor devoted to wildlife and nature. The café, though? One of the best views in the city. The last time I was there, two couples started dancing the tango. I don’t know what sparked such spontaneity. C’est St. John’s.
Then there’s Cabot Tower, that imposing castle-like structure atop Signal Hill overlooking The Narrows and dominating all the land. Signal Hill is the site of the first Trans-Atlantic wireless signal, thanks to Marconi, and no Newfoundlander will let you forget it. You can drive to the top of this hill for a stellar view overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and depending on the time of year, you may see icebergs and humpback whales. My favourite way to see Signal Hill, however, is hiking straight up from The Battery. But more on that later.
I mentioned Cape Spear before, but I didn’t mention its old war bunkers and functioning lighthouse. I love it out there, but Fort Amherst is similarly beautiful and is located on the other side of The Narrows, across from Cabot Tower. You’ll get unique angles of the homes cluttered cliff-side in The Battery, looking like they’ll fall into the ocean with a single gust of wind.
Hiking and getting your fitness on
If you’re unfamiliar with the East Coast Trail system, it’s over 500-kilometres of coastal hiking on Newfoundland’s eastern edge.
The trails are broken up into various sections, so you can pick and choose hikes according to fitness level and time available.
Like I said before, one of my favourite routes to Signal Hill is through The Battery and up the North Head Trail. You’ll wind around the hill and ascend over 900 steps in the process, until you reach the summit. It’s not an easy hike (at least not for me – I have crazy friends who regularly run it), but the route through The Battery is just one of my favourite things about St. John’s. You’ll literally have to cross someone’s front deck to reach the trail head, and you’ll wind up and down tiny cottage-like homes and extravagant gardens with markers like moose skeletons dressed in plaid shirts and flowery leis. Seriously.
On your way to Cape Spear, you can also hike the Black Head Trail, an easier hike that’s extremely coastal and a prime place to pick blueberries. Wash them first, though. Really.
One of my favourite hikes is the Sugarloaf Trail from Quidi Vidi to Logy Bay. It’ll take about 3-4 hours but the variation in landscape along the way is pretty awesome. You’ll climb up a hill until Quidi Vidi village disappears from sight, and then the world drops off on the other side of a cliff and suddenly civilization might as well be a million miles away.
The more avid hiker can take the overnight trail to The Spout, a natural geyser near Witless Bay. The route to Doctor’s Cove is also lovely. There are seriously unlimited more trails to explore, but I haven’t seen them all. The East Coast Trail site will give you more info.
Wildlife and big nature
Hiking technically belongs in this category, but shag it. Did you know that Newfoundland is home to the largest puffin breeding ground in North America? The bird islands in Witless Bay are insane. Imagine thousands of screaming birds over your head, and you’ll know what I mean. It’s actually a really cool experience, if you’re not afraid of birds. Puffins hardly look like real animals; their fat little bodies skimming the water with wings flapping maniacally is laughable. But they’re cute as HECK. Kittiwakes and gulls also make this place their home. It’s a cacophony of caws.
Then, of course, there’s whale-watching season, typically occurring between June to late August. Humpbacks come here to feed, but in recent years it hasn’t been unusual to see orcas, minke whales, and even belugas. Fortunately for you, this often coincides with iceberg season. Icebergs aren’t always guaranteed; there were plentiful bergs when I first moved downtown, but the season has been slow in recent years. Until 2014, that is. This year’s iceberg season has me wondering how Greenland has any glaciers left. These giants are over 10,000 years old.
My favourite way to see icebergs and whales is with Iceberg Quest. They leave from the St. John’s harbour and the staff is delightful. To see the bird islands (and potentially more whales), I recommend Gatherall’s out of Bay Bulls. They have a small boat so you’ll have a more personalized experience as compared to some of the bigger players in that area.
For a city of less than 200,000 people, the food scene in St. John’s is pretty incredible. The restaurant world is thriving here, and all the chefs work together to keep things interesting. There’s an unbelievable amount of talent.
A lot of the newer restaurants in town work with traditional Newfoundland dishes, but with creative twists. Have you ever had a gourmet-style Jigg’s Dinner (boiled veggies and salt meat)? Bacalao does it well, among other things.
To treat yourself, opt for a full-course meal at Raymond’s. The Merchant Tavern and Adelaide are two other of my favourite restaurants (Adelaide in particular, because it’s not overly expensive – the music is always too loud though).
For more casual dining, Chinched Bistro is a great spot. The Sprout has vegetarian and vegan food. For some international flavour, Mohamed Ali’s has a Middle Eastern restaurant on Duckworth Street (and another location on Water Street), and his falafels are to die for.
Coffee lovers: I’m a massive Jumping Bean fan. They have a spot on Duckworth Street and a few other areas around town. Rocket Bakery’s coffee is also delicious, as is their food, and they have a really laid-back social scene. The kind of place with a window-seat and cushions. At Mochanopoly, you can play board games while drink your cappuccino (just over $2 an hour!).
Fixed Coffee is another fave. Ultra hipster.
But you haven’t truly lived until a Newfoundlander refers to you as “my love” while ordering a medium double-double at Tim Horton’s.
Some traditional Newfoundland foods to keep an eye out for: cod au gratin, fish and brewis, toutons, cod cheeks and tongues, moose meat, bakeapples (or cloudberries), Jigg’s Dinner, fries with gravy and dressing, peas pudding, and more.
Entertainment and nightlife
I’m always in awe of the St. John’s social scene, especially music. You’ll find everything here from Newfoundland trad to indie to folk, and the musicians are damned talented.
The Rockhouse is a great spot for live music, and it doesn’t feature just rock. The Ship is a cozier atmosphere (albeit an ultra-artsy one), as well as CBTGs. Keep an eye out for bands like Repartee, Sherman Downey, etc.
For traditional tunes, Erin’s Pub, Shamrock City, and O’Reilly’s are my favourite spots.
Shamrock City gets ultra lively, while Erin’s Pub is the oldest Irish pub in Newfoundland and often caters to a more laid-back scene. The Navigators, various members of the Irish Descendants and The Punters, and Fergus O’Byrne are some folks to look out for.
To get your partay on, perhaps you’ve heard of George Street. It has more pubs and clubs per square foot than anywhere else in North America, and it’s a glorious mess. The entire street is filled only with pubs and clubs, although sometimes I feel the biggest party takes place outdoors as everyone mingles on their way to the bars. My favourite spot is Christian’s, where the famous Screech-In occurs, but to be honest I’ve outgrown the street over the past few years. Dance a jig at O’Reilly’s, grab a White Russian at Lottie’s, or slip into the quieter scene elsewhere. You’ll be more likely to find me at The Republic, just above the street, or the Duke of Duckworth.
I will say, however, that George Street Fest is completely worth experiencing at least once. At this festival (and other events), the entire area shuts down. You pay one cover charge to enter the street, and you’re free to drink beers between bars and while watching an outdoor concert. It typically occurs at the end of July and is one of my favourite things about summer.
One of my ALL-TIME favourite places to visit is the Inn of Olde in Quidi Vidi. It’s basically inside someone’s house, and it smells like Newfoundland past. You know the smell, when you walk into an old house and there’s a slight musty odour but also a lingering ghost scent of baked banana bread and fresh raisin buns? That smell. There are shiny Christmas decorations on the ceiling, and the walls are covered in photographs and knick-knacks. Quidi Vidi itself is a small fishing village worth exploring, and the Quidi Vidi Brewery is at the water’s edge. Opt for a beer tour. They pour generous servings.
For non-booze and non-musical fun, check out what’s on at the LSPU Hall. Here’s where all the theatrical productions are, and many of them have a Newfoundland theme. For awesomeness, opt for a Haunted Hike.
EDIT: And the St. John’s Farmer’s Market. My gawd, I should go to jail for not mentioning that one.
There are two types of Newfoundlanders: townies, and baymen. Townies are people from St. John’s; baymen refers to anyone living outside the city, or “out past the overpass.” I like to argue this, though. I grew up in isolation six hours from St. John’s, and we didn’t have many facilities. If you have a McDonald’s, you’re probably more of a townie than a bayman.
Anyway. I tell you this because the lifestyle in St. John’s is a completely different world from the rest of the island. You’ll have to experience both sides of it.
You may find yourself struggling to understand what some folks are saying. Newfoundlanders have thick accents, and with more dialects than anywhere else in the world, the amount of language difference can be overwhelming. Words and expressions take on new meaning here, and we even have our own dictionary. It’s a beautiful thing.
A lot of our cultural identity can be attributed to the Irish Catholics, which made up a massive part of our population by the time the English started backing out of the province. In my opinion, Newfoundland isn’t Canada. There is nothing Canadian about Newfoundland (but we’re all proud Canadians). The people on this Rock are a hardy crew, and they live here because they love it. They love the saltwater in their veins and the bitter snap of fresh air and the sun sinking behind the pine-clad hills. There are few moments I appreciate more than being in Bay d’Espoir enjoying a cold beer with my father around a fire in the backyard, with the night sky lit up by the Milky Way. Similarly, the love for St. John’s runs deeper than The Narrows, and I adore the fiddle music I hear drifting up from my open bedroom window in the evenings.
Where to stay
I can hardly answer this. I live in St. John’s, so it’s not like I’ve experienced the hotels. There aren’t a great deal of budget options other than the HI Hostel (and some great Airbnb listings — sign up through me to get $30+ off your first stay) . Like I said, pick a place close to downtown. My futon is also free, if you don’t mind three cats sleeping on your head.
Visiting Newfoundland? Sign up to be the first to know when Not Your Grandmother’s Guide to Newfoundland is published! Coming 2019.