The busy port of Saint John is Canada’s third largest, bustling with bulk carriers and container ships. It has an energy thoroughly befitting a city whose wealth was founded on shipbuilding.
The city owes its origins to British Loyalists (including the infamous Benedict Arnold), fleeing to Canada after the American Revolutionary War ended in 1783. A massive influx of immigrants from the Irish Famine of 1845 were another major influence.
Those two disparate communities have left their mark, from Loyalist forts and mansions to a rich culture of art and music. That history is a major part of the charm of his handsome city, but there are many other attractions.
Here are some of the very best things to do in Saint John.
See Reversing Falls Rapids
When the famously high tides of the Bay of Fundy meet a narrow gorge in the lower reaches of the Saint John River, the result is spectacular.
The river appears to reverse its flow to form one of the most amazing natural phenomena that Canada is known for.
The churning of the river, over its bed of deep ridges and potholes, creates a series of whirlpools and waves. Boats can only safely navigate this section during the twice-daily 20-minute periods of slack tide.
To see the difference in the rapids between low and high water, many sightseeing tours return later for both. You can also pass the time by riding across the river on a zipline.
A picturesque highway bridge spans the river above the rapids. At its western end, the Reversing Falls Restaurant—with its popular gift shop—has now added a knee-weakening glass-floored Skywalk.
Most visitors take photos or a video and move on, but the smaller details may repay a longer visit. Take in the seals chasing fish disoriented by the rapids, and the pulp mill buildings that are a proud part of local heritage.
Walk Through Historic Saint John
The original wooden buildings of Saint John were devastated by the Great Fire of 1877, with 1,612 buildings destroyed. Rebuilt soon after in brick and stone, the downtown area is now a showcase of preserved Victorian architecture.
There are a number of walking tours that highlight various stories from the city’s history. You can follow the “Loyalist trail” taking in buildings such as the Loyalist House (which survived the fire and is now a museum) and the evocative Loyalist Burial Ground.
The “Victorian Stroll” passes many of the grand mansions built by wealthy merchants and shipbuilders. No expense was spared and the differing architectural styles and detailing are endlessly fascinating.
The “Prince William Walk” concentrates on the city’s commercial heart around Prince William Street, a designated National Historic Site. Don’t miss “The Three Sisters” lamp which has been guiding seafarers into port here since 1848.
In colder or rainy weather, you can explore Saint John on enclosed “pedways” that protect you from the elements. You can walk from the port to the Saint John Museum or the New Brunswick Museum, passing through shopping malls or quiet doorways opening into the back of busy restaurants.
Drive the Fundy Trail Parkway
One of the most scenic drives of North America, the Fundy Trail takes in some broad coastal vistas as well as a number of pretty towns. Its natural beauty also includes waterfalls, the Big Salmon River, and hiking trails.
A parkway, for those not familiar with the term, is a speed-limited scenic road where commercial traffic is restricted. It’s a place to take your time and enjoy the views.
The Interpretive Centre at Big Salmon River is a must-see for an overview of the route. Dozens of look-outs and observation decks make for shorter stops to admire points of interest and take photographs.
The pedestrian suspension bridge over the Big Salmon River is a scenic place to stretch your legs. Then visit the Heritage Sawmill, the last remnant of a logging village that once thrived here.
The 19-mile parkway is particularly lovely in fall when its trees glow in browns, reds and golds. At any time of year, the 30-feet tides are a dramatic sight, best seen from Long Beach where low tide exposes vast areas of seabed.
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Walk on the Ocean Floor at St. Martins
The fishing village (pop. 300) of St. Martins is a great place to see the tides of Fundy Bay. When the tide is out, its fishing boats lie high and, well, muddy on the shoreline, far from the water.
The boats can only put to sea for about two hours on either side of high tide. For visitors, those high tides allow for the thrill of actually walking on the ocean floor.
The settlement was originally named Quaco (“haunt of the hooded seal”) by the indigenous Mi’kmaq people, a name still used today. Loyalist settlers after 1783 renamed it and started a shipbuilding trade that flourished for a century.
You can learn more about the area’s history in the charming Quaco Museum on Main Street. You can also find out more in the Visitor Information Center, a rebuilt lighthouse from 1883 that is a great spot for a panoramic photo.
You will also want your camera for the sea caves at the eastern end of the village. Eroded by the tides into picturesque shapes, they’re accessible from the beach at low tide.
This tiny village is also notable for its two covered bridges over Irish Creek. One has recently had to be rebuilt to take heavy traffic, but it retains its wooden roof.
Tread the Boards of the Imperial Theatre
Opened in 1913, the Imperial Theatre was designed in the style of the great American theaters of that time. Fully restored in 1994, it is a beautiful Italianate building.
Actor Donald Sutherland, born in Saint John, attended the Imperial Theatre with his father. Another local lad, who made his debut on stage as a singer at the age of 13, was Oscar-winning Hollywood legend Walter Pidgeon.
The restoration was financed by public subscription, with the local population raising $1.1 million in individual donations. That display of public affection reflects the place the Imperial has always held in the city’s heart.
The wonderful Victorian auditorium is noted for its acoustics. Chandeliers, rich carpets, ornate moldings and plush seats are a tribute to the original workmanship.
Take a tour to admire the architecture, both inside and out. The theater is a central part of the cultural life of Atlantic Canada.
Admire the Old City Market
Saint John City Market is Canada’s oldest farmer’s market, with roots going back to 1785. The present ornate building, covering an entire city block, dates to 1876.
A year after it opened, a fire swept through the city and the brick-built market was one of the few buildings to survive. Two previous buildings had burned down inside five years, so some hard lessons had obviously been learned.
Now a National Historic Site of Canada, the market’s most notable architectural feature is actually inside. Its beamed ceiling, with hand-carved timbers, looks like an upturned hull—as befits a town famous for its shipbuilding.
Another feature is the two iron gates, which are the 19th-century originals. One stands at the Charlotte Street entrance, the other in Germain Street, a full ten feet lower.
The market’s varied food and drink stalls, with their knowledgeable owners, make for a colorful sight. If you’re not looking for a snack or inspiration for dinner, however, the many great local crafts on sale may be of even more interest.
Go Back in Time to St. Andrews By-The-Sea
Like Saint John, St. Andrews was founded by Loyalists fleeing America, specifically Maine, in 1783. That New England influence can still be seen in much of the town’s well-preserved architecture.
A wonderful mural in gallery-lined Water Street shows the town as it would have looked in those early days. Sailing ships and wooden wharves line a quiet frontage dominated by several church spires.
St. Andrews has the largest number of heritage buildings in Canada, with more than 100 of those landmarks. These still include two beautiful churches: the square-towered All Saints Anglican Church and spike-spired Greenock Presbyterian Church.
Also remarkable are the sturdy Pendlebury Lighthouse and forbidding St. Andrew’s Blockhouse. The blockhouse is the last survivor of the many built to protect the coast from American privateers during the War of 1812.
The town’s luxurious Algonquin Resort was built in the late 1880s as Canada’s railways expanded. Its golf course is one of Canada’s finest.
Tourism dominates—but hasn’t spoiled—St Andrew, with whales now one of the biggest draws. Local boats offer excellent whale and wildlife tours in the Bay of Fundy between June and October.
Go Birding in Irving Nature Park
Covering a small peninsula on the shores of the Bay of Fundy, Irving Nature Park has more than 250 bird species. You can try to spot some on the series of wood-chipped walking trails and boardwalks throughout the park.
Look and listen for birds such as cormorants, loons, herons, and sandpipers. The black-capped Chickadee, New Brunswick’s provincial bird, is also worth watching for.
The park is a welcome stopover for birds migrating between the Arctic and South America. They fatten themselves on mud shrimp from the mudflats before continuing on their way.
The terrain is almost as interesting as the birds, varying from seashore and marsh to volcanic rock and forests. A long, sandy beach changes character dramatically with the tides.
The Seal Observation Deck is a popular spot to watch out for harbor seals—and whales. On land, you might also see red squirrels, porcupines, white-tailed deer, or—if you’re very lucky—a pine marten.
The park is only a few minutes from downtown, so it is very popular for family picnics and drives. Even so, it is so large that it never seems crowded.
Go for a Beer at Moosehead Breweries
Their country has such a reputation for beer it may surprise you that almost 40 percent of Canadians never drink it. That is no doubt a figure Moosehead, “Canada’s Oldest Independent Brewery”, is working on lowering.
Moosehead was founded in 1867—the same year as Canada itself—by the Oland family, who still run it. They even survived Canada’s own Prohibition Era, partly by selling a “two percent beer” that was still legal.
You can hear more of that history on a tour, which also delves into the science and indeed art of brewing. For beer fans, going on to taste some of the famous brands produced here is certainly one of the best things to do in Saint John.
The Small Batch Taproom lets you sample a few innovative craft beers that may or may not reach a mass market. A popular shop also sells T-shirts and other souvenirs of this major Canadian name.
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Inspired to visit Saint John by this list of the best things to do there? Browse our cruises to Saint John to experience the city.