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Trip ideas for a five day stay in St. John’s, Newfoundland
Read time: 6 mins
Newfoundland and Labrador’s capital city of St. John’s, has a storybook kind of feel, with its brightly coloured “Jellybean Row Houses” that lead down to the sparkling expanse of the harbour where, in late spring and early summer, white and blue icebergs that sparkle under the rays of the sun are frequently seen floating in. Between June and early September, you might catch a glimpse of a whale spout or two.
Founded in 1497, St. John’s is the oldest city in North America. It has a rich and colourful history, much of which can be explored in its historic downtown, along the narrow winding streets and alleyways. The streets are lined with art galleries, restaurants, pubs and unique independent shops, with Victorian saltbox homes tucked in between. The vibrant structures were initially built as temporary accommodation following the Great Fire of 1892, but today they still remain and are well-preserved, giving a cheery feel to the city even on the greyest of days.
From outdoor adventures, exciting wildlife and historic attractions to fantastic shopping, a renowned nightlife and a growing foodie scene, the capital may be relatively small in size and population, with only around 150,000 residents, but it truly packs a punch when it comes to things to see and do. Toss in the icebergs, whales and puffins (in season), and you’ve got the ideal recipe for an unforgettable holiday that’s just a five hour journey via Air Canada, direct from London Heathrow.
Food and drink
While it’s long been popular for its drink, with a wide variety of brews and pubs to sample them in, St. John’s is increasingly becoming known for its food scene, with award-winning chefs preparing dishes that include delectable fresh seafood, traditional Newfoundland cuisine, some with a modern twist, and all sorts of international flavours too. You’ll be able to find everything from casual eateries to fine dining as you stroll through this highly walkable city.
With the Atlantic as its backyard, St. John’s offers some of the tastiest fresh fish on the planet, with cod still a mainstay as it has been for centuries. Think everything from salted cod and cod cakes to cod fritters, pan-fried cod, and fish ‘n’ brewis, made of salt cod, hard bread and crispy pork fat, along with variations you’ve probably never imagined. Of course, it’s not just cod, but lobster and surf clams, scallops and sea urchin, as well as wild game, including local moose, game birds like partridge and grouse, and Arctic hare. Foraged wild edibles include items like cloudberries and partridge berries, morels and chanterelle mushrooms, and lichen and moss.
The chefs here have been redefining ‘sea to plate’ and ‘farm-to-table,’ with pretty much everything on your dish foraged, caught or landed from this land and the sea that surrounds it. New Newfoundland cuisine is rooted in the culture and the landscape. Some of the top picks include the Saltwater Restaurant in the heart of the historic downtown, which, of course, specialises in seafood, as well Oliver’s Restaurant, which focuses on ‘gourmet comfort food’ including dishes like Atlantic salmon, pan-fried cod and Grand Bank scallops, as well as a selection of steaks and pasta.
It’s easy to fill your belly with craft brews here too – beer enthusiasts may want to take the St. John’s Beer Tour to explore the craft brew scene. For something a little more adventurous, the Axes and Ales Tour combines axe throwing and beer tasting. There are many ways to explore it on your own too, with practically an endless number of pubs and breweries for sampling a wide variety of beers, like the Yellow Belly Brewery, situated within one of North America’s oldest structures, built in 1725. This gastropub boasts an impressive array of offerings, like the St. John’s Stout, which even some of the most enthusiastic Guinness fans rave about. Just like the famous Irish beer, it has the same foamy head with a slightly sweeter taste. Paired with the mussels, it truly is hard to beat.
Over in the fishing village of Quidi Vidi, just outside the city limits, you can tour and taste at St. John’s largest brewery, the Quidi Vidi Brewery. It boasts an especially scenic setting alongside the cliffs and the sea, and features seven award-winning ales and lagers, including the province’s famed Iceberg beer.
You won’t want to leave St. John’s without having explored George Street after dark, home to more pubs and bars per square foot than any other street on the continent. Just about all of them offer live music on any given night of the week, like O’Reilly’s Irish Bar, which is pretty much guaranteed to provide some of the best when it comes to traditional Newfoundland and Celtic tunes. You never know who might pop in at one of the most iconic pubs in the province, which has even attracted the likes of Academy Award-winning actor Russell Crowe, who once gave an impromptu concert with his friend, singer Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea fame.
If you want to become an ‘official Newfie,’ take part in one of the traditional ‘screeching-in’ ceremonies. Many of the venues around George Street, and pubs throughout the city and province, offer the opportunity. The local ritual involves downing the strong Newfoundland rum, wearing silly attire like a south wester’ hat and fisherman’s garb, eating a local sardine-like fish, kissing a codfish and some other fun but ridiculous steps all meant for public embarrassment, though all in good fun.
While there is a mall in St. John’s, it’s far from the historic downtown, and probably not the place you want to go for some unique shopping. There are a ton of interesting independent shops that line the streets of the capital city. With so many creative locals, like Doug Bird of Scuttlebutt Gallery and Gift, you’re bound to find that perfect souvenir of your travels you just can’t live without, from ugly sticks (a traditional Newfoundland musical instrument made with household and tool shed items) to knitwear, hooked rugs, Labradorite and vibrant paintings.
There are dozens of art galleries for discovering impressive creations at artists’ residences, private homes and hidden shops, like the Rowe House Gallery on Holloway Street, which represents artist Cynthia I. Noel. The reproductions of her watercolour and oil paintings make for an ideal inexpensive way for taking some of St. John’s lively colour home.
Spectacular views, history and more
There are multiple spots for soaking up spectacular views, as well as the city’s rich history, including Signal Hill, one of its most popular landmarks. Here you’ll find sweeping vistas overlooking the Atlantic on one side, with the city and harbour on the other. This is a great place for taking a coastal walk, viewing icebergs from late spring through early summer, as well as the humpback whales and other marine mammals that frequently pass by in July and August. This also happens to be the site of harbour defences from the 17th century through World War II, the place where Guglielmo Marconi received the world’s very first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901.
Just a half-hour’s drive south of the city is Cape Spear, North America’s most easterly point. Home to the Cape Spear Lighthouse, which sits atop a rugged cliff overlooking the sea, there’s nothing but the Atlantic separating the province from the Emerald Isle directly east. The lighthouse is the oldest surviving light in the province, flashing since the mid-19th century as an iconic symbol of mariner history. Take a stroll down the boardwalk to discover the remains of an old gun battery along with a series of tunnels and underground rooms tucked beneath the hillside, revealing the area’s importance during the Second World War. If you can manage to arrive before dawn on a clear day, you’ll be able to catch one of the most glorious sunrises on Earth, and the first to touch the continent.
Wildlife and iceberg viewing
Newfoundland and Labrador is a province famous for its puffins, whales and icebergs, and you’ll find many ways to enjoy close encounters with all three, depending on the season. Along the Irish Loop at the Witless Bay Ecological Preserve, just 30 minutes south of the city, O’Brien’s Boat Tours offers a two-hour excursion, bringing passengers to view North America’s largest Atlantic puffin colony, home to over a quarter-million pairs of the colourful auks. Along the way, you might just spot minke or humpback whales, dolphins and porpoises. During the season, icebergs are common just offshore here too.
Visitors can also hop aboard the M.V. Cetacean Quest, which departs right from St. John’s, for a two-hour narrated cruise through Iceberg Alley to Cape Spear. The ship passes through the tranquil harbour and out to the sea, with the waters renowned for hosting the largest concentration of humpbacks in the world. If you’re lucky, you’ll even get to see them leap high into the air and crash back down, slapping their fins and tails onto the surface – a behaviour known as breaching. Along the way, watch for seabirds, including puffins, as well as the 12,000-year-old icebergs.
In addition to wildlife watching and iceberg viewing, a myriad of other outdoor adventures can be experienced in St. John’s and the surrounding area. As mentioned, Signal Hill is ideal for a coastal hike, and it’s just outside the city. The most popular trek is the challenging one-mile loop. While it’s short, it’s steep, descending nearly 500 feet. It follows a rugged path to North Head at the entrance of the harbour and offers panoramic views of the ocean, harbour and the city. The East Coast Trail is over 186-miles-long and begins in St. John’s. It includes multiple pathways, like Father Troy’s Trail and Biscan Cove Path for wandering alongside coastal cliffs, fjords, and even a geyser called the Spout.
Sea kayaking is a great way to get out onto the water, and you can join The Outfitters to paddle through and around sea caves, soaring rock stacks, hidden coves, waterfalls, magnificent shorelines, and even the marine wildlife at nearby Bay Bulls, including the majestic whales as they migrate south. Puffins and icebergs may also be on the agenda, depending on the time of year.
Beyond St. John’s and the Avalon Peninsula
There is so much more to see beyond St. John’s and the Avalon Peninsula, odds are, you’ll be planning a return trip before you get back home. If you can’t bring yourself to say goodbye after just five days, you may want to head north and explore unique destinations like the incredibly picturesque village of Trinity, Fogo Island and Gros Morne National Park on the west coast, a hiker’s paradise that’s home to thousands of moose and some of the world’s most unique geology. A 12-hour drive from the city will bring you to the northern tip of Newfoundland, and the world-famous Viking Site known as L’Anse aux Meadows, the only authenticated Viking settlement in North America, while Labrador and its many delights can be reached by ferry from St. Barbe on the west side of the Great Northern Peninsula.