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St. John’s Best Kept Secrets by Lisa…

My name is Lisa and I lived inSt. John’s, Canada for my whole life (24 years).

St. John’s can best be described in these five words: colourful, lively, cultural, beautiful, friendly.

Women should consider visiting St. John’s because it has something for everyone.

The oldest city in North America, St. John’s is overflowing with culture and vibrancy – from traditional music in pubs downtown to whale watching on the Atlantic ocean.

There is a lively nightlife scene for the party girl – George Street in downtown St. John’s is said to have the most bars per capita in North America…

St. John’s City Guide

How do you get to St. John’s?

St. John’s isn’t the easiest city to get to, since it’s the capital city of the Newfoundland, an island on Canada’s east coast. However, you can catch direct flights from many cities, including Toronto, Halifax, and Newark.

If flying isn’t your thing, you can drive and take the ferry for a little jaunt across the Atlantic. Marine Atlantic is the ferry company, and the boat leaves from North Sydney, NS, Canada.

Just be ready for any delays or cancellations in flights, particularly during the winter. Snow storms, wind and fog like to put kinks in travel plans.

But that’s all part of the adventure, right?

What’s the best way to get around St. John’s?

Our bus system works fine, though it’s definitely not the most time-efficient way to get around. If you have money to splurge, rent a car. Taxis aren’t too expensive, either.

If you’re staying in the downtown area – which is where the majority of hotels are anyway – there’s really no reason you can’t walk anywhere you need to go. St. John’s isn’t a huge city, and the downtown core in particular is very walkable. We also have a beautiful network of trails running through our city that are great for walking.

What’s the best time to visit St. John’s?

July and August are undoubtedly the best times to visit, weather-wise. Our weather is very unpredictable, and a snowstorm in April or May isn’t relatively common place. Generally you can count on a couple of months of decent temperatures and sun in July and August, though I’m not guaranteeing anything.

Regardless of what’s happening in the sky, July and August have lots of fun events going on, including the Newfoundland Folk Festival, the Tely 10 Road Race (for any runners out there), the George Street Festival, and the Wreckhouse Jazz & Blues Festival.

The wonderful East Coast Trail, a set of trails all along the east coast of Newfoundland, are a fantastic way to spend a nice summer’s day. You can hike along the ocean, seeing whales, seals, and just marvel at the beauty of the Atlantic Ocean.

If you want to see icebergs, April or May are your best bet.

What are the areas of St. John’s?

First there’s the downtown area, which is where you’ll find most of the traditional and historical attractions, as well as great shopping and lots of pubs. Downtown sits next to the St. John’s Harbour, and on the eastern edge of the area, there’s Signal Hill. It’s a wonderful place to hike, learn some cool stuff about the history of the place, and just sit to reflect on the beauty around you.

St. John's

View of the ocean from Signal Hill

There is also the East End and the West End of St. John’s, which are mainly residential areas, but you’ll find box stores and malls for shopping, plus some great restaurants. But the best part of St. John’s for visitors is undoubtedly downtown, so I’ll leave it at that.

What advice can you give women about what to pack for their time in St. John’s?

Pack for every season!

The weather in St. John’s is notorious for being unpredictable, and sometimes it feels as though we get all four seasons in the run of one day. Make sure you have clothes warm enough for a chilly day, especially if you plan to be out on the ocean for whale watching, sea kayaking or a boat tour.

A rain jacket is a must, though I wouldn’t bother bringing an umbrella – it’s too windy.

But don’t forget your shorts and tank tops, because I promise that we do have some beautiful weather, perfect for enjoying some ice cream or going for a hike.

What is the most common misconception about St. John’s?

Hmm, I would say the most common misconception is more about the people living in St. John’s than about the actual city. Newfoundlanders have long been the butt of jokes, thought of as unintelligent people with funny accents.

To be fair, there are lots of us who definitely have funny accents, but as a whole I think that we are an incredibly smart and talented bunch of people. The amazing musical acts that come out of our province are just one example of our talent.

To our credit, St. John’s is undoubtedly one of the friendliest cities in Canada, and even the world. Walking around, you’ll always be greeted with a smile at the very least, if not a “good morning.” We are warm and kindhearted, and would give you the shirt off our backs.

If for no other reason, come to St. John’s to experience the people.

Are there any culture shocks women should expect in St. John’s?

It’s not so much of a shock in St. John’s, but the Newfoundland accent can definitely take a bit of getting used to. It’s a bit like an Irish accent, but we have our own distinct dialect and we also can speak pretty fast.

If you can’t understand what someone is saying, no big deal – just smile and nod and you’ll do fine.

What are three things every woman must do in St. John’s?

  1. Listen to music at a bar or pub downtown. We’re overflowing with musical talent in St. John’s, and there is a lively music scene. We have everything you’re looking for, from traditional Newfoundland music to indie to rock.
  2. Enjoy the outdoors. There is lots of choose from, including a huge network of coastal trails, whale & bird watching, sea kayaking, seeing icebergs, and more.
  3. Meet locals. We’re some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet, I promise. And we’re lots of fun. Make friends with a Newfoundlander and they’ll show you a great time.

What’s the most over-rated thing to do in St. John’s?

I can’t think of anything that’s really over-rated, but if I had to choose, I would say getting “screeched in.”

Here’s the story behind our Newfoundland Screech Rum, taken from the official Screech website:

“Long before any Canadian liquor board was created, the Jamaican rum that was eventually to be known as Screech was a mainstay of the traditional Newfoundland diet.This delightful product may have continued indefinitely as a nameless rum except for the influx of American servicemen to Newfoundland during World War II.

As the story goes, the commanding officer of the first detachment was taking advantage of Newfoundland hospitality for the first time and was offered a drop of rum as an after-dinner drink. The unsuspecting American adhered to local custom and downed the drink in one gulp.

The look of shock on the American’s face was overshadowed by his bloodcurdling howl as he managed to regain his breath. A garrulous old American sergeant pounded on the door and demanded, “What the cripes was that ungodly screech?”

The taciturn Newf who had answered the door replied simply, ‘The screech? ‘Tis the rum, me son.’ Thus was born a legend.”

The Screech-In ceremony only really began as a “tradition” in the 1970s, and it is a way for “come-from-away”s to become honorary Newfoundlanders. Here’s a brief overview of what a Screech-In entails:

The general process of a screech-in can vary,but it usually begins with the leader of the ceremony introducing themselves and asking those present if they’d like to become a Newfoundlander. The proper response is a good”Yes b’y!” Each participant is asked to introduce themselves and where they come from.

Each holding their shot of Screech, they are then asked “Are ye a screecher?” and are taught the proper response: “‘Deed I is, me ol’ cock! And long may yer big jib draw!” Translated, it means “Yes I am, my old friend, and may your sails always catch wind.”

A cod fish  is then held up to each participant who then gives it a kiss. Some pubs will also award certificates to those who have become an honorary Newfie once the screech-in is complete.

Some ceremonies have extra requirements, such as eating a piece of “Newfie steak” (a slice of baloney) or standing in a bucket of salt water throughout the ceremony.

My Chilean friend at his Screech-In ceremony. He had a blast.

Maybe it’s because I’m already a Newfoundlander, but I think the whole thing is pretty cheesy and ridiculous. But if it sounds fun to you, by all means, have at it!

What’s a traditional meal in St. John’s?

Newfoundland has lots of interesting traditional foods that are reflective of our heritage and strong ties to the fishery. Seafood is naturally a big thing here. While there are many traditional meals, treats and baked goods to try, if you want something really traditional and unique, try cod tongues or seal flipper pie.

I probably don’t need to tell you what’s in cod tongues, but here’s a bit of interesting information about both seal flipper pie and the history of the seal hunt in Newfoundland and Labrador on the Smithsonian Magazine website:

“The meat is dark, tough, gamey and apparently has a flavor similar to that of hare. Most recipes suggest that the seal meat is coated in flour, pan-fried and then roasted with onions, pork fat and root vegetables like carrots, turnips, potatoes and parsnips. Once the dish has a nice, flaky crust, it is often served with a side of Worcestershire sauce.

While it might be difficult to imagine eating a meal made from something as cute and cuddly as a seal, the dish has a history based in survival. Seals were especially important to Inuit living on the northern shores of Labrador and Newfoundland dating back to the early 18th century when seal meat, which is high in fat protein and vitamin A, was a staple in the early Arctic-dweller’s diet and often prevented explorers from starving or getting scurvy during their hunting travels. Seal hunters used all parts of the seal from their pelts to their fat to light lamps, but they couldn’t profit off of the flippers. To save money and to use as much of the animal as possible, they made flipper pie.”

What’s your favorite restaurant in St. John’s?

The Yellow Belly Brewery is a brewery and pub in downtown St. John’s. It is housed in a building that was originally constructed in 1725 and is one of the oldest structures in North America.

There are four local beers in constant production here at this brewery, and like the food, it is made from scratch onsite. This place is absolutely wonderful for not only the food and drink, but the history of the place.

The gastropub’s menu has something for everyone – including weekend brunch – and the cuisine is absolutely delicious. I have very simple taste in food, so my favourite is the poutine.

Where’s the best photo opportunity in St. John’s?

If you’re thinking strictly city limits, the most class photo opportunity would be Signal Hill. You can get a fantastic shot of the coast and Atlantic Ocean, and just by turning around, you have a great view of the entire city.

A view of the city from Signal Hill.

If you want a beautiful photo of the harbour and downtown St. John’s, I suggest going to The Rooms. This is a large public cultural space that hosts our provincial archives, a museum, an art gallery and a lovely cafe. They have a giant window that overlooks the harbour – great for a photo op.

Where’s the best place to go shopping?

If you want your typical shopping mall, we’ve got that, but for a nice shopping experience with local business, I have two favourites:

  • St. John’s Farmers Market – This market operates June through December at our local Lion’s Club, and it has such a great variety of homemade foods, baked goods, and handmade arts and crafts. And don’t forget locally grown fruits and vegetables! Not going to lie, my favourite thing to buy here is homemade fudge and cupcakes.
  • Downtown St. John’s – There is a wide variety of boutiques downtown, including my favourite candy store ever (Freak Lunchbox), several shops to buy traditional Newfoundland gifts and souvenirs, and a great selection of clothing stores. Not only is the shopping nice, but the buildings are unique and colorful, making even window-shopping a lot of fun.

My favourite gift or souvenir to buy is earrings, and you can buy some beautiful Newfoundland earrings both at the Farmers Market and downtown. I know the store Posie Row definitely has a good selection.

What’s the best outdoor activity in St. John’s?

That’s so hard to choose. You could go sea kayaking in the Atlantic Ocean – or if that makes you nervous, why not go hiking? We have several East Coast Trail routes that are very close to St. John’s, only a few minutes’ drive away. One path that is a great hike, right along the coast, is the Sugarloaf Trail that takes you from Logy Bay to the little fishing village of Quidi Vidi, right next to downtown St. John’s.

We also have a number of large parks that you can relax in. During the winter, you can go cross-country skiing or snowshoeing in Pippy Park, or outdoor ice skating in Bannerman Park.

What’s the best indoor activity in St. John’s?

Why not relax and have a pint in one of our many bars or pubs?

The Duke of Duckworth is a great place to sit down and chat over a beer, and there are many others. Honestly, just walk down the street – particularly downtown – and you’ll run into a great bar. And maybe there’ll be some live music going on for you to listen or dance to.

The Dardanelles playing traditional Newfoundland music at a pub in downtown St. John’s.

If that’s not your scene, check out The Rooms. As I mentioned above, it’s a large cultural facility with all sorts of cool stuff. Kids will really enjoy it as well. After all, who wouldn’t want to see a giant squid?

What do you do to get off the tourist trail?

There’s not much of a tourist trail in St. John’s. I don’t say that because we don’t get tourists, but rather, the things that tourists want to do here are usually similar to the things locals like to do. So do whatever you want! And I would also recommend getting outside the city at some point to enjoy our beautiful island.

What other advice or tips can you give women?

If you’re the party type, I would highly recommend coming during the George Street Festival, which is usually at the very beginning of August. Tons of music, and the full street is open so you don’t have to stay inside the bars to drink. It’s a ton of fun!

Any other thoughts or advice for our women readers?

You’ll have the most fun if you’re ready for anything. And try to meet some friends while you’re in St. John’s, because Newfoundlanders really are an awesome bunch of people. They can show you a great time if you’re willing.

What did you think about this city guide?

Join the discussion and leave your comments, tips, and personal experiences in the comments below.

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About the author: Lisa Harvey was born and raised in St. John’s, Newfoundland. She has lived there all her life, including attending university there. Being involved in many different local activities and festivals, she’s pretty aware of what’s going on around town. You can find her blogging at Lulu’s Big Adventure and on Twitter.

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