St. John’s is the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador, situated snugly sheltered inside a large harbor that is almost completely landlocked save for a small gap known as the Narrows, which opens up to the Atlantic Ocean. This city is a network of modern buildings perched on hills that rise from the sea, intermingled with old English and Irish styled wooden houses in charming paints. The city was first settled in 1528 and lays claims to being the oldest in North America. The long years of its history have been colorful, however, and at times violent, too. Its strategic location as the closest point in North America to Europe, its claim to the world’s richest fishing grounds, and its perfectly sheltered harbor combined to attract the covetous eyes of European powers of old. For 250 years, it was repeatedly fought over, mainly between the French and the British. Finally, the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1762 established British supremacy once and for all. But the peace that ensued wasn’t really all that peaceful. St. John’s predictably became a haven for pirates preying on ships headed to and from Europe. By the end of the 18th century, St. John’s was a lively center of action with 80 taverns scattered throughout, importing more than 200,000 gallons of rum every year.
It is much quieter today, but still as colorful as it was in the past. Clapboard houses in bright paints line narrow and windy streets that march up the hills to the harbor where an armada of fishing boats anchor.
Even though St. John’s is the oldest city in North America, not many of its original buildings survived due to fires. The best place to get help or information while you’re in town is the Visitor Information Centre, which is situated on the road halfway up the hill. It has a small museum inside.
The Cabot Tower on Signal Hill is the one thing you can’t miss seeing in St. John’s. But even if you were to try, you couldn’t. It rises prominently at the mouth of the harbor and is visible throughout the city. This late Gothic revival tower is the birthplace of modern telecommunications, as it was the tower used by Marconi to receive the first transatlantic radio message. The first message was in Morse and was the letter “S”.
Signal Hill is the hill that overlooks the city of St. John’s. The hill got its name because the sailing companies used to hoist their flags to signal to the merchants and dockworkers of approaching ships. It has been designated a national historic park by Canada because the last battle of the Seven Years’ War took place there.
At Signal Hill, you can also pay $200 to see the Signal Hill Tattoo, which is a reenactment of military exercises, drills, and gunshots of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment on Foot, performed in period costumes that date back to 1795. The hill also has trails such as the North Head Trail that have spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and the Newfoundland coast.
Outside of the tower is a lookout point called the Queen’s Battery. In addition to ruined fortifications from the War of 1812, you’ll also find a cannon there that dates back to 1796.
On the north side of the hill sits the quaint fishing village of Quidi Vidi. It’s pronounced Kiddy Viddy. This charming community serves as a port, thanks to its location on a small inlet. Many seafood restaurants are found on the little wharves where the boats are docked.
Developed in the early 1500s, Water Street is one of the oldest streets in North America. It runs through the heart of the city, parallel the harbor. At one time, it was a commercial area where trade was conducted among the European powers. Today, it is still a major commercial district of the city.
The Newfoundland Museum is located at the corner of Prescott Street and Duckworth Street. The museum has exhibits on the history of St. John’s, with the focus on the daily life of the city during the 19th century. There are also exhibits that illustrate the different cultures of the early Native Americans of Newfoundland.
The branch museum in downtown off Harbour Drive, meanwhile, looks at the history of seafaring trades from the 1500s to the present. One excellent section deals with the province’s military and naval history.
Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
Built in 1855, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is located on Military Road. This Roman Catholic Basilica has a Gothic façade and two granite, bluestone towers that are noticeable members of the city’s skyline.
St. Thomas’ Church
St. Thomas’ Church is further along Military Road from the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. St. Thomas’ was completed in 1836 and is much more modest than the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. The church is one of the few buildings that escaped destruction in one of the many fires of the 19th century. In Newfoundland, it is the oldest church still standing.
The Commissariat House is next to St. Thomas’ Church. Built in 1821, this clapboard building boasts a pair of tall chimneys. It is also another building that escaped the 19th century fires. The house was used by the military commissariat until 1871 when it was converted for use as a rector for St. Thomas’. The house has since been restored with period furniture and is open everyday during the summer.
Arts and Culture Centre
The Arts and Culture Centre is close to the university and sits at the corner of Prince Philip Drive and Allendale road. The centre has two galleries that showcase Canadian art. There are also three libraries, two theatres, and an upscale restaurant called Act III. Free outdoor concerts are performed in the summer during the Festival of the Arts.
Cape Spear National Historic Park
Cape Spear National Historic Park is a short excursion about 7 miles (or 10 kilometers) southeast of St. John’s. It is the easternmost point in North America where the views of the ocean are stunning, particularly on a clear day. Whale watching is popular at Cape Spear. Visitors get to see whales heaving up and down the coast. The park features a square with a white, clapboard lighthouse that was erected in 1835. It is the oldest lighthouse in the province. The park is open daily and tours of the lighthouse are offered in the summer.
The St. John’s Regatta is the oldest annual sports event in the continent. It started back in 1818. Nowadays, it is held on Quidi Vidi Lake on the first Wednesday of August. Regatta Day is made into a big gala event, complete with peripheral games and merry food and drinks.
The rest of the year, fishing and hunting is the thing to do in St. John’s, whether for work or leisure. There are seasonal restrictions, of course, so check with the Visitor Information Centre. The city offers, by far, the best fishing in the country. Hunting is also first-rate.
Water Street and Duckworth Street are the main shopping thoroughfares. Both are lined with boutique stores selling all kinds of luxury and fashionable goods. Water Street, in particular, boasts the Murray Premises shopping center as well as the War Memorial, which is located at the street’s eastern end. The former sells higher end goods, while the latter sells arts and crafts.
St. John’s has a rowdy nightlife. There was a time when maybe it had the best nightlife in the entire continent, importing more gallons of rum than anywhere else. Today, St. John’s still has the most drinking spots per capita in Canada. Most of the joints are clustered in downtown along George Street where pubs, taverns, clubs, and discos greet party-goers.
St. John’s was founded on June 24, 1497 but was not settled meaningfully until 1528, and then sparsely so. June 24, 1497 was the date John Cabot sailed into the lovely harbor. Landing on the same day as the Saint’s day of St. John the Baptist, Cabot found it fitting to name the place after the saint. Today, St. John’s boasts over 180,000 people in its metropolitan area.
The next 300 years were tumultuous, as the British and French and sometimes even the Dutch vied over control of St. John’s. In the 19th century, the city grew rapidly, but also suffered at least five devastating fires. Each time the city burned down, the townspeople rebuilt it using wood. Since then, St. John’s has escaped the flames. Its oldest building now dates back to the Victorian era.
One of the Victorian buildings is Cabot Tower, which stands on Signal Hill. Built in 1897, the tower is of historical interest. It was constructed to celebrate both the fourth centenary of Cabot’s landing and the diamond jubilee for Queen Victoria. The Cabot Tower was also where Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic radio message on December 12, 1901. The message was sent from his transmitter in Cornwall.
The oldest city in North America still retains much of its original character, even after more than 500 years. True, painted wooden houses along the waterfront are slowly being overshadowed by the high rises and modern concretes built on the higher slopes. But sailors who fought over the city and pirates who used it for refuge would still find today something eerily familiar about St. John’s.
How to Get There
To get to St. John’s by car, just take the Trans-Canada Highway eastbound. St. John’s is actually the eastern terminus of this east-west highway that runs across the country from Victoria, British Columbia.
St. John’s has an international airport that is about 5.6 kilometers northwest of the city. Air Canada runs flights to and from Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, and London, England. WestJet, the Canadian discount airline, also has flights to and from Halifax and Toronto, in addition to Calgary. If you are traveling to or from the United States, Continental Airlines has a route connecting St. John’s with Newark, New Jersey.
Carroll, Donald. Insider’s Guide Canada. Edison: Hunter Publishing, Inc, 1996. ISBN: 1556507100.
Simpkins, Mary Ann. Canada. New York: Prentice Hall Travel, 1994. ISBN: 0671882783.
“St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._John%27s,_Newfoundland_and_Labrador>
 Simpkins, 174
 Carroll, 338
 St. John’s
 Carroll, 339
 Id. at 341
 Id. at 342
 Id. at 338
 St. John’s
 Carroll, 338
 Id. at 338-39
 Id. at 339
 St. John’s