St. John’s, NL – Top Five Things To Do, Plus Places to Eat and Stay

St. John's, NL harbour
St. John’s Harbourfront

I decided on a Monday to go to Newfoundland and Labrador, hopped on a plane on Wednesday night and arrived Thursday morning without having done much more than a stitch in time of research. It all worked out.

When we got off the plane and I walked straight to the Tourism Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) kiosk. The friendly ambassador set me straight in a manner of minutes. How long would we be here? What do we like to do? What were we hoping to see? She had an easy laugh, a kind smile and made a great first impression for her province. Within minutes we were loaded with maps and the well laid out NL tour book that proved invaluable over the eight days of our stay.

Top of our list of things to do in NL was hiking so I’ve posted on some great hikes we did in Terra Nova National Park, and on Fogo Island, Bonavista Peninsula and at Signal Hill in St. John’s. In fact, I think my top tip for travelling in NL would be to bring your hiking boots!

Read on for other fun ideas, and places to stay and eat in St. John’s. Hopefully my sharing will help you launch your own vacation on “the rock.”

Queen's Battery and St. John's, NL harbour - photo by Karen Anderson
St. John’s Harbour from Signal Hill

Mercifully, “town,” as St. John’s is known throughout the province, is not huge. It’s easy to navigate and downtown is only a 15 minute cab ride from the St. John’s International Airport. There are about 100,000 people in St. John’s and only about 500,000 people in the province. Friendliness is their badge of honour. If you’ve got a question, just ask and someone, anyone, will help you. My list of fun things to do in “town” follows.

Top five things to do in St. John’s, NL

  • Go on a food excursion with Cod Sounds or take a cooking lesson with Alder Cottage.*see below
  • Hike around Signal Hill and walk the streets of St. John’s. They are lined with jelly bean coloured homes in bright pinks, purples, reds, greens and blues and every shade in between. They are a photographer’s dream. Many are also marked with plaques recording their historical significance.
  • Visit “The Rooms” – This museum pays homage to the culture and arts of this place. Allow at least two hours to visit. Check the calendar for performances you might be able to attend.
The Rooms, St. John's, NL
  • Take a drive down to Petty Harbour. Only 15 minutes away from St. John’s, Petty Harbour is a working fishing village with a great coffee shop and a couple of restaurants. Your biggest challenge will be to find a parking spot. Pro Tip: There’s a pull out with picnic benches on a lookout as you turn the bend to go down the hill into town. You might do well to park here and walk down the hill to explore it. Buy some take out fish and chips and come back here to enjoy them with the view of the ocean.
  • Explore Cape Spear Lighthouse – I loved our windy, foggy visit to this National Historic Site. There’s a modern day working lighthouse and the original lighthouse complete with all the furnishing to show how life would have been in the family’s quarters. It reminded me of a great Canadian novel set in a small fishing village in Newfoundland, Latitudes of Melt. Have you read it?

Of course, there’s also music to enjoy in most of the downtown pubs nightly, whale watching excursions, arts and crafts galleries to visit and shopping to do. I’ll leave it to you to dig deeper based on your own interests.

*More about that number one thing to do

The only thing I’d have done differently, if I’d had more time to plan our very spontaneous trip to NL, would’ve been to book an excursion with Lori McCarthy of Cod Sounds. Lori introduces people who come from away to Newfoundland’s culture the best way possible – through food. Her food is not just any food though.

Lori will take small groups of eight out foraging and fishing for a day or half day. Her knowledge of wild edibles is not just about eating local food, it’s about preservation of NL culture. Newfoundlanders have lived off the bounty of the sea and the land for centuries. Outings with Lori end with a “boil up” where delicacies from the sea are boiled in a pot or fried in a pan over an open fire on a beach or campsite.

Sadly, Lori was fully booked at my time of travel. We bonded a bit through email though and that is how I ended up going foraging with her chef cousin, Alexandra Blagdon, the owner of Alder Cottage Newfoundland cookery school and a private dinner specialist.

Alex is also the forager for The Merchant Tavern (see below) and we spent a few hours foraging herbs and chanterelle mushrooms with her. I think we got to go with her to her mushrooming spot precisely because we come from away. No mushroom hunter in their right mind would take a local to “their” spot. Tender mercies and small blessings – I count them all. Spending part of a day with Alex was a delight and I hope to get back one day to enjoy one of Lori’s Cod Sounds excursions.

Places to stay in St. John’s, NL

Murray Premises – I like this place. It’s located between Water Street and the Harbourfront with entrances on both sides. The team are warm, welcoming and always up to chat or share helpful travel tips. Our room was huge with a fireplace and two big wingback chairs plus a writing desk. The price included a very ample hot buffet breakfast with attendants keeping everything fresh and tidy, in the breakfast room. Apples, granola bars and coffee and tea are always available in the lounge off the main lobby entrance.

Alt Hotel – Opened in 2017 this chic ultra-modern hotel, owned by the Le Germain group, has location, location, location for harbour views. Large decks face the harbour and our room had a fantastic view as well. Again, the front desk team were friendly and helpful. Bonus situation here – you are only steps from Raymond’s, where chef Jeremy Charles and restaurant manager and sommelier Jeremy Bonia have been serving their award-winning cuisine and wines since 2010.

View from the Alt Hotel, St. John's, NL
View from the Alt Hotel, St. John’s, NL

Places to Eat in St. John’s, NL

The Merchant Tavern – We didn’t have time, inclination or wardrobe to go fancy in St. John’s so we did not make it to Raymond’s on this visit BUT, we did make it to their sister restaurant, The Merchant Tavern and that suited us to a tee.

This place was inspired by all the British merchants who would visit St. John’s for trade and who would then frequent its taverns and pubs to discuss the day of business over local food and drink. It still has that feel. The place was packed and alive. The kitchen hummed and the team choreographed service like a Broadway musical. Have the pan fried cod and don’t leave without a piece of Vinegar Pie.

Vinegar PIe at The Merchant Tavern
Vinegar Pie

Bannerman Brewing – We were in a snack-y frame of mind when we entered the doors to escape a downpour of rain and beer and nachos fit the bill. There’s not a lot of food on the menu but there’s absolutely great beer and coffee. And the places bustles like a beehive.

Chinched – the word means to stuff or pack tightly, to be full and that is definitely how we felt after leaving this cozy spot in downtown on a rainy night. Soft candlelit tables in a packed upper dining room, a bar and deli split the main floor below. Eat the house made breads and charcuterie. There’s lots of seafood for the mains. Shaun Hussey and Michelle LeBlanc, the owners have a good things going here and the recommendation to eat here came from Lori McCarthy herself.

Mallard Cottage – YUM! Wow did we have a great meal here on the last night of our vacation. We squeezed it in with an 8:30pm reservation after touring almost all of the Bonavista Peninsula and stopping by Dildo Brewing on our way back to town. I’m so glad we did.

Many friends encouraged us to go for the brunch for the best value but we thought our multi-course meal for $60 per person was a great value given the quality and quantity of the offerings. Fresh bread and butter, crispy cod cheeks, blue mussels and iceberg salad with shrimp to start, pan-fried cod, tuna tataki for our main and then an abundance of squares had us filled to our gills.

The cottage was built in the 1820s for the Mallard family. It is set in beautiful Quidi Vidi and we loved the quirky hunting lodge decor and emphasis on everything local.

Quidi Vidi Brewing Co. – Fantastic fresh beers, names of beers, setting and ambiance. Handy food truck outside. Buy the Cod Bites and bring them into the pub with you.

Rocket Bakery – Raisin Tea Biscuits, Cinnamon buns, pretty cakes, healthy sandwiches and soups and Phil and Sebastian coffee – nothing but the best and that’s why it’s always busy! Loved this large but vintage cozy charmer.

Note: This is NOT a sponsored post. My travel was independent. All words and photos are my own.

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