St. John’s: Canada’s Oldest City Shows Some New Attitude

It’s the oldest city in Canada, famous for its magnificent harbor and long history. In its bad old days, St. John’s, Newfoundland was a riotous port, with two main streets lined with 80 taverns — and brothels to match. Water Street and George Street still have many bars, but these days they offer gentler pleasures, like folk music and fishcakes.

Restaurants, shops and galleries lodge in rainbow-colored saltbox houses, and in season, you may spot a whale or an iceberg floating by.

Whether you’re here for the weekend or for a longer, more leisurely visit, start at The Rooms, where Newfoundland’s Museum, Art Gallery and Archives are gathered into one building. It stands dramatically on a hill, built in the geometric style of the traditional ‘rooms’ where fishermen would  process their catch. Large windows offer views of the harbor, almost more enthralling than the treasures inside. There’s a stunning glass atrium and a swank little café for lunch — try the Figgy Duff pudding.

Signal Hill rises above the entrance to the harbour. Originally known as “The Lookout,” it’s been used for just that — ‘by flag, radio or cannon ball’ — since 1704.  Marconi received  the first transatlantic signal here in 1901.  Cabot Tower, which looks medieval, was really built in 1897 to honor Cabot’s ‘discovery’ of Newfoundland 400 years before.  There had been others before him, of course: Vikings, Basques and the original Beothuks.

Historic exhibits to explore abound, and strenuous hikes lie all around the mighty cliffs.

Crouched at the bottom is The Battery, originally used to defend the harbor against assorted attackers, with tiny  brightly-colored houses clinging to the cliff, higgledy-piggledy. The “outport in the city,” this area was once a humble fishing village. Artists and musicians discovered its inexpensive charms and moved in. Now the little houses are astronomically priced, but the harbor view is still free.

Photos by John Downie

Five minutes out of town is another old fishing village, Quidi Vidi (Locals say kiddy-viddy.) After admiring the fish stages and venerable Mallard Cottage, now an antique store, you can tour the QuidiVidi Brewery and sample the product. I don’t even like beer, but will happily slurp down Eric’s Red, 1892, Light Brown and Cranberry Cloud any time. Recently they’ve started making Iceberg, surely the purest of beers, using glacial water “from ice aged for 12,000 years.” Quidi Vidi beers are only available in Newfoundland. Another reason to come back again and again.

Newfoundland has much to offer in the way of flora, too — the wild roses and lupins are spectacular — but it has such a short growing season, that everything seems to bloom at once.  Memorial University’s 110-acre Botanical Garden offers five hiking trails through fields and forests with native trees and plants. There’s  a Medicinal Garden — mint and lavender are good for nervous exhaustion — a Limestone Rock Garden, and a lush Cottage Garden, complete with teasels.

Elsewhere, check out the spot where part of Nagel’s Hill Brook was diverted around the nearby Fluvarium. Here, you can watch brown trout swim lazily by nine large observation windows. An underwater world.

St. John’s was also an army  town. Tucked away off Military Road, is Commissariat House (1818-1820.) Once the grandest mansion in the colony it was supplanted in 1831 by sandstone Government House, with its 10-foot dry moat and generous grounds.  (They’re each worth a wander.)  The assistant commissary general lived and worked in style in this handsome Georgian establishment  now restored to the 1830s, and doled out supplies and salaries to the garrison. Keen young university student guides experiment with making bread and lumpy tallow candles and  tell colorful tales about 14-course Victorian dinners.

Visit the Newfoundland and Labrador Craft Centre in Devon House to see exhibits by the best local artists and to snap up crafts of all sorts: distinctive pottery, Inuit art from Labrador, paintings, toys,  jars of Dark Tickle partridgeberry and blueberry jams and jellies and bakeapple syrup. Then head to the lower lobby of the Sheraton Hotel for a tropical surprise. With its lush palm trees, lilies, ferns, rattan chairs and a waterfall, the Court Garden is a haven for frostbitten Newfoundlanders in winter and tired tourists in summer.

  • Here is some great scenic footage of st. John’s and surrounding areas. Shot by Cabot Creative Images Group.

  • Jim Garten

    Ah yes – The Rooms – for all the world looking like the box the cathedral came in.

    Jim Garten
    Stevenage UK (wanting to be back on Nfld though…)

  • Andrea

    George Street had no bars until the 1980’s. It used to be warehouses for the docks. It’s a willfully created fiction for the tourists, same as the foolishness of “screeching in”. Totally made up to separate fools from their money. Does it very well too.

  • Thanks for showcasing our city! Great article!

  • Canadian1234

    Saint John NB is the oldest city in Canada