St. John's is the oldest city in Canada and one of the oldest cities in North America, but it can seem surprisingly young. Its roots date back almost five centuries, yet it boasts an eclectic blend of architectural styles and a modern, energetic atmosphere.
Built around its harbor—a natural fortress that drew both naval commanders and the fishing industry—St. John's has evolved from a fishing station to a thriving port city with an exciting blend of interests. A glance around St. John's Harbour will show you the city's strengths: trans-Atlantic cruise ships and small tour boats, docked fishing boats and long-liners, and loaded supply ships that work in the offshore oil industry.
From the harbor, you can see the glass and steel of office buildings, which are adjacent to the brick-walled buildings that house trendy shops, bustling cafes and restaurants. You can also see some of the most historic churches in Canada, as well as cultural attractions including The Rooms—a complex that towers over the city's skyline, bringing together the provincial museum, art gallery and archives.
Visitors will find great entertainment districts in the city's streets and such outdoor attractions as amazing wildlife and icebergs that drift by the rugged coastline. Just outside the city, you can explore the rest of the province, including the vast territory of Labrador.
St. John's continually reinvents itself. It has retained something of a small-town feel by capping limits on the height of new buildings, yet it is embracing new economic strengths, particularly in tourism and offshore oil development. As a trading port, it has always welcomed newcomers, while preserving its colorful and unique history.
St. John's has grown from a small harborside village to a thriving metropolis that covers much of the northeast Avalon Peninsula. It is bordered by a series of smaller towns and villages, some of which have retained their historic feel and charm.
The downtown includes St. John's Harbour, which boasts natural features that especially appeal for military and commercial purposes. There is only one access point to the harbor—a thin waterway between two rocky hills (known as The Narrows). Rows of houses, many of them brightly painted, line the streets that creep up the steep hill leading away from St. John's Harbour. The city's suburbs and other neighborhoods are to the north.
The city's two key roads are Water Street and Duckworth Street, both of which date back centuries. Once dubbed the "Lower Path," Water Street is the oldest street in North America and remains a commercial hub of Newfoundland.
St. John's once promoted itself as the site of adventurer John Cabot's 1497 landfall. Cabot—born Giovanni Caboto in Italy—sailed on behalf of England to find a new route to the Far East but instead found North America.
There is no evidence supporting the landfall claim, but the city appears on Portuguese maps by 1519. By 1583, there was already an established community to greet Sir Humphrey Gilbert when he arrived and declared Newfoundland the first colony in the British Empire. By the early 1600s the city's location (the easternmost city in Canada) earned it the most important access to the New World, and it prospered as a prime fishing port.
In 1892, a fire that began in a stable almost completely destroyed the city, displacing more than 12,000 people. Believing that stone would prevent the fire from progressing, well-to-do residents moved their valuables into the stone Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. A fierce wind and droughtlike conditions created a tinderbox, and the church, the entire commercial district and many homes were devoured by an inferno lasting more than 12 hours. Many heritage buildings date from that era and are known as "Southcott Style," for the architect who oversaw much of the reconstruction.
The role of St. John's in representative government began in the 19th century. The Colonial Building, seat of the first government, still stands at Bannerman Park. Government House, home of the British governors who were in command until St. John's joined Canada in 1949, is also located in the city.
St. John's is still the administrative center of Newfoundland, but it also remains a major fishing community. The city's economy is as dependent on what is below the water in oil exploration and fishing as it is on what sails across it for local and transcontinental tourists.
An excellent way to see St. John's is from Signal Hill. Climb it to see why it has been for centuries the place to station military sentinels and signalmen: From the hilltop, you can see almost all of the city, with its low-density neighborhoods, walking trails, university campus and the wilderness reserve to the north. You can walk up, take a tour bus or a travel by taxi for views of the Narrows, St. John's Harbour and the Atlantic Ocean.
Down the hill, the main attraction is St. John's Harbour. From Harbour Drive, you can see The Narrows (the harbor entrance flanked by cliffs on each side). The city's two key roads are Water and Duckworth streets, both of which date back hundreds of years.
Water Street, once called "The Lower Path," remains a commercial hub of Newfoundland—although the fish merchants and department stores have given way to boutiques, trendy shops, coffeehouses and pubs. It's purportedly the oldest street in North America. Because most of its buildings were rebuilt after their destruction in the Great Fire of 1892, much of the architecture of St. John's dates from the late Victorian era.
Take a trip to Portugal Cove and catch the ferry to Bell Island where you can see iron mines and World War II wrecks.
The heart of nightlife in downtown St. John's is based around George Street. Once a street of warehouses and wholesalers, George Street (open to foot traffic only) now bustles with bars, clubs and restaurants.
Most bars charge a cover only when live acts are performing. Most bars and clubs are open until 2 am, with extended hours (but no bar service) until 3 am.
Note: Smoking is prohibited in nightclubs in Newfoundland and Labrador.
In St. John's, as throughout the province, you'll have plenty of opportunities to try a scoff
, a large meal of local cooking, often centered on seafood such as cod, salmon, trout or halibut. Specialties include seafood chowder, cod au gratin, cod tongues and cheeks, and a variety of desserts with local partridgeberries and blueberries.
Brewis (pronounced “brews”) and Atlantic salmon are also popular local dishes. You can wash them down with iceberg vodka (made from water harvested from icebergs) or one of several locally made beers.
If you're looking for some down-to-earth fare, try one of the local fish-and-chips shops (some say St. John's serves the best in the world).
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than Can$15; $$ = Can$15-$25; $$$ = Can$26-$35; and $$$$ = more than Can$35.
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