The first thing you should know about New Brunswick’s major port and industrial center is that its name is always written in full as “Saint John” and that it does not end in “s.” This distinguishes it from St. John’s, in Newfoundland.
The city stands on a rocky point where the Saint John River enters the Bay of Fundy, and one of its most interesting features is that twice each day, that process reverses, and the bay seems to empty into the river. The combination of the Bay of Fundy’s unusually high tides and a narrow gorge at the end of the estuary gives the city its famous Reversing Falls, one of New Brunswick’s top tourist attractions.
But there’s a lot more to see and do in Saint John. Its historic streets, museums, and art galleries make it one of Atlantic Canada’s favorite cruise ports, and throughout the cruising season, you’re likely to see ships moored at the foot of its busy uptown.
The city was founded in 1783 by Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, and you’ll still see a few buildings from their time. But more than half the town was destroyed in a catastrophic fire in 1877, so many of the distinctive brick and stone buildings date to the Victorian era.
Discover the best places to visit in the city with our list of the top attractions in Saint John.
1. Reversing Falls, Skywalk, and Stonehammer Geopark
One of the best places to fully appreciate the tremendous force of the Bay of Fundy tides is at the narrow gorge at the head of the harbor, where the incoming tide is forced over a ridge of rock, creating a waterfall that flows upstream. The eight-meter difference between sea levels at high and low tide actually makes the Saint John River flow backwards here, forming a turbulent mass of whirlpools as it forces its way against the natural outward flow. Twelve hours later, the river resumes its natural course, and the falls flow over the stone ridge in the other direction.
You can see this phenomenon best at Reversing Falls Bridge, which crosses above the narrowest point of the gorge, and at the new Skywalk Saint John, at the end of the bridge. Here an observation platform extends out from the cliff by more than eight meters, and glass floor panels show a clear view of the falls and whirlpools 30 meters below. Interactive displays explain the tidal action of the falls and the geology of the cliffs at either side.
You can also watch the intense rush of water at nearby Fallsview Park, where Stonehammer Geopark–the only UNESCO-listed global geopark in North America–features information on the tides and the geology of the cliffs. You can get even closer by taking a boat ride into the gorge or riding a zipline above the rushing waters.
Address: 200 Bridge Road, Saint John, New Brunswick
2. Prince William Street and Historic Saint John
The early settlers of Saint John were families who supported the British Crown during the American Revolution and escaped on two fleets of ships from Massachusetts. Although they shaped the early architecture and atmosphere of the city, its present character was more determined by the disastrous Great Fire of 1877 that destroyed more than 20 entire streets.
The new buildings that replaced these reflected the current styles popular at the time, giving Saint John a legacy of some of Canada’s best Victorian architecture. The streets of brick townhouses also reflect the influence of the Boston architects who came here to help rebuild the city; they are reminiscent of Boston’s Back Bay.
Prince William Street is a designated National Historic Site for its concentration of distinguished buildings designed and decorated in the styles of a single period. You can explore these historic neighborhoods with downloadable maps and apps detailing the Loyalist Trail, the Victorian Stroll, and the Prince William Walk. Be sure to look inside the beautiful St. John’s Anglican Church, built in 1825 and a National Historic Site. It’s one of the few original buildings in this area to have escaped the fire.
At the foot of King Street, near the waterfront, is Market Square, filled with sidewalk cafes and enlivened by the colorful sculptures by John Hooper. The 1867 Barbour’s General Store has displays of early shop goods, as well as a combination barbershop and dental office, typical of that period. At the top of sloping King Street is King’s Square, a large park laid out in the shape of the United Kingdom flag. Amid its trees and flower beds is a two-story iron bandstand; nearby is an old Loyalist Burial Ground. A good way to see the highlights of the historic uptown is on the Shore Excursion Saint John Walking Tour, especially designed for cruise passengers who want to make the most of their one day in Saint John.
3. Irving Nature Park
Established to protect 11 kilometers of Bay of Fundy shoreline, the 600-acre Irving Nature Park sits on a narrow peninsula that represents six different ecosystems. The park features forests, mud flats, salt marsh, volcanic rock, and a long sandy beach, landscapes that change by the hour as the Fundy tides ebb and flow. In its marine clay, formed in pre-glacial times when it was the outlet of the Saint John River, are 13,000-year-old clam shells. Eight walking trails of various lengths access the various features, and the park staff often leads free guided tours.
More than 250 species of migratory and marine birds have been sighted here, and the boardwalk through the marsh is an especially good vantage point for birders. You can watch the harbor seals from the Seal Observation Deck. Along with picnic areas, there is a newly added children’s park with a playground and two cedar hedge mazes.
Address: Sand Cove Road, Saint John, New Brunswick
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4. New Brunswick Museum
Set in a modern facility right on the waterfront, the New Brunswick Museum is filled with engaging exhibits that explore the province’s natural history, culture, art, and history. There is something for all ages–kids love the Great Hall of Whales and the excellent exhibits on the province’s unique geology in Our Changing Earth, as well as the bright interactive area for younger children.
New Brunswick’s 19th-century golden age of shipbuilding and sailing is beautifully represented, with artifacts and informative displays that give a sense of shipboard life and the places New Brunswick ships traveled.
Native Americans and their culture and arts are well covered; antiques and art all have a major presence in this excellent museum, where the emphasis is on interpreting and understanding rather than just looking at collections.
Address: 1 Market Square, Saint John, New Brunswick
Official site: http://www.nbm-mnb.ca/
5. Saint John City Market
The classic old market hall is one of the few buildings to have escaped the Great Fire that swept through the city just a year after the market opened in 1876. It is thought to be the oldest continuing farmer’s market in Canada, built as a year-round home to the several local open-air markets. Today a bell still rings each market day, Monday through Saturday, to signal the opening and closing of trade.
The block-long building is filled with local vendors selling everything from farm-fresh produce and the day’s catch, to bread, fudge, maple syrup, and handcrafts. It’s a good place to pick up souvenirs of your visit to New Brunswick.
Address: 47 Charlotte Street, Saint John, New Brunswick
Official site: http://www.sjcitymarket.ca/main.html