As one of the oldest cities in North America, it’s no wonder St. John’s offers such a vibrant history of tales and lore. Spend the day visiting the Historic Sites in this little city with big stories.
Start your day at the very edge of North America, at the captivating Cape Spear. Enjoy the short drive from downtown St. John’s, admiring the mural capturing moments of days gone by along the way and the scenic drive that opens up to the amazing coastal views.
After parking head out along the paved walkway to take in the rugged coastline while you feel the salty ocean breeze. It’s a short stroll towards the most easterly point landmark. Depending on the time of year, enjoy your free show of icebergs or whales playing in the bay, or even watch the seabirds dive into the water for their all day buffet.
After you’ve been left in awe of the sublime surf, turn right and make your way towards the World War II battery. Wander into the enchanting old bunker for a momentary cool off before you begin your ascent towards the first of two lighthouses.
Halfway up the steps towards the lighthouses is a great opportunity to take a snap of the new lighthouse lingering on the edge of the cliffs. Don’t forget to turn towards the water and watch the sun glittering off the sapphire surface.
At the top of the steps you are greeted by the new lighthouse and Visitors Centre which, from September 5th to October 8th, is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 10:00am to 6:00pm. Next, continue along the trail towards the oldest surviving lighthouse in Newfoundland. During their regular season you can experience how the 19th Century lighthouse keeper and his family would have lived.
Head down the trail towards the carpark to complete your visiting loop. However, if you’re in the mood for a proper hike, the Cape Spear location connects to the East Coast Trail, the Blackhead Path, or the longer Cape Spear Path. You can also stroll along the many boardwalks and walking trails surrounding Cape Spear.
On your drive back into the city, we recommend stopping at the Shea Heights Lookout. Here you have a view of Downtown St. John’s from the other side. You may even be able to spot a few of the other sites to come on your historic tour.
When you head back into downtown St. John’s, turn right on Water Street and soon you will find a little poked away treasure of a tale in a brick and stone building. The building itself is one of the oldest structures in St. John’s and home to the Newman Wine Vaults.
Cool off from your morning hike in the ghostly atmosphere of the vaults where you’ll learn about the legend of the Ruby Port and Newfoundland’s connection to Portugal. We won’t spoil the story for you here, but let’s just say the port is deliciously smooth and worth the visit!
After you’ve toured through the vaults with the friendly and knowledgeable guides, it’s time to move on to the next historic location.
On the other end of downtown, at the corner of Kings Bridge and Military Road, you’ll find the Commissariat House. Admire the beautiful Georgian architecture in this 1820s house, which is the last original intact structure that was part of the extensive British military complex in St. John’s.
Begin your tour in the Carriage House for a multimedia experience. They have a wonderful interactive map which used historical documents to piece together how downtown St. John’s looked many years ago. Be sure to ask the guides all your questions questions as they truly do have all the answers when it comes to the history of St. John’s. This site is also very family friendly as the Commissariat House offers a scavenger hunt throughout the whole site.
After you’ve perused through the enormous map, it’s time to head into the house. From the moment you step through the door you are immediately transported back in time. The details are extraordinary throughout the house. From the freshly made ice cream, ginger beer and bread in the kitchen, the scattered notes in the study, the formal seating arrangements and exquisite dishes in the dining room, to the playing cards and tea in the drawing room and more. You will be amazed at how colourful the decorations and fabrics were back in the 1800s, certainly nothing like the black and white photographs we are left with nowadays. Here, you can even practice your penmanship by writing with a real feather quill!
After you’ve experienced the romantic feeling of life in the 19th century, it’s time to explore our final recommendation for the day, which is just located up a very famous hill.
The last location on your historical itinerary is Signal Hill, which is also one of St. John’s most popular landmarks. Not only is it the perfect place for gorgeous views and hiking, but it is also rich in history. Here you can learn all about the Second World War and the first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901, from which the hill got it’s namesake.
Start your visit at the stone fortress that is Cabot Tower. As of September 6th, 2021, the 2nd and 3rd floors, as well as the café, are closed. However, the Visitors Centre and Gift Shop remain open! For up-to-date hours information, and COVID-19 updates, please visit the Parks Canada website.
After browsing the shop and Cabot Tower, walk down the path to the take in the panoramic views overlooking The Narrows, Fort Amherst, St. John’s Harbour, the city, and the ever extending Atlantic Ocean. Here you will also find a show of ships, whales, icebergs and seabirds depending on the time of year. If you look real close you can even see where you started your day, at Cape Spear! Even on a foggy day, it is still worth the trip. The fog creeps in and feels like it is swallowing you whole, a truly magical experience for visitors and locals alike! Makes sure to make a stop at the cannons and visitors centre to learn more about the history of this site.
Before leaving Signal Hill, finish your visit at Ladies Lookout, the highest point on Signal Hill to get one last view of all of St. John’s and beyond. The sparkling harbour and colourfully painted homes below make the walk worth it.
After a day exploring the historic sites you are sure to have worked up an appetite. End the evening at one of these great restaurants nearby to sit back, relax, and discuss your favourite moments of the day as your stepped back though time in the 500 year old city of St. John’s.
Things to note:
Accessibility – A few of the trails are accessible including the paved walkway to the most easterly point.
Accessibility – there are paved trails around Signal Hill that are accessible and take you around Cabot tower. The North Head Trail and Lady’s Lookout are gravel and stained paths and require good walking shoes or boots to explore.
Published: August 26, 2020