14 best things to do in St. John’s with kids

Friendly and relaxed, the colourful capital of Newfoundland and Labrador charms all ages with iceberg and whale boat trips, windswept hikes with dramatic vistas, birding adventures, offbeat museums and plenty of delicious eats.

An iceberg as seen from the edge of a cliff.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Jon Joy, Newfoundland & Labrador Tourism

1. Hunt for icebergs

When you think of Newfoundland, icebergs likely come to mind. This iceberg hotspot has dubbed a stretch along its northern and eastern coasts Iceberg Alley. The alley boasts 10,000-year-old, melting glacial giants from Greenland that arrive every spring, survive for a few months and can be seen from land and by boat. Boat trips from downtown St. John’s offer close but safe viewing of these natural wonders, which are each a unique size and shape and range in colour from dazzling shades of white to aquamarine. Heated cabins on narrated tour boats (and lots of snacks) are recommended for families travelling with kids. They’ll love watching their parents become honorary Newfoundlanders during lively screeching in ceremonies, which involve a shot of rum and kissing a cod (or maybe a puffin stuffy). Depending on the season, tour boats prowl the ocean in search of humpback whales and seabirds. Find out more about Iceberg Quest.

puffin swimming and splashing in the water
Photo: Courtesy of Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism

2. Fall in love with puffins

The Atlantic puffin is Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial bird, which means that puffin paraphernalia abounds in gift shops across the province. Introduce your family to the real thing, usually between May and mid-September, when the quirky birds come in from the ocean where they winter to nest and breed on the rocky shores of the islands. While boat trips out of St. John’s go out in search of puffins, the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve has North America’s largest Atlantic puffin colony and is just 30 minutes away by boat. In Bay Bulls, look for competing boat tour operators, some with big boats and some with adventurous Zodiac options. In August, your tour boat might even host the release of rescued baby puffins (also known as pufflings) by the Puffin & Petrel Patrol. For a land-based birding and nature adventures, connect with Jared Clarke at Bird the Rock. Find out more about O’Brien’s Whale and Bird Tours, Molly Bawn Whale & Puffin Tours, and Gatherall’s Puffin and Whale Watch.

Signal Hill hike looking down
Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

3. Hike Signal Hill

St. John’s most popular landmark boasts panoramic views, hiking trails, military pageantry, history lessons and an iconic tower. Signal Hill National Historic Site showcases the area, which was used for harbour defence from the early 1600s through the Second World War, and the spot where Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal (the letter “S” in Morse code) in 1901. Kids may not fully appreciate city and ocean views, but they’ll like the Noon Day Gun, Signal Hill Tattoo ceremonies, and Cabot Tower tours. North Head Trail is the most popular of the five hiking trails and more than 35,000 people a year take the steep, 1.7-kilometre journey. Consider hiking down instead of up, and doing it at sunrise or sunset to beat the summer heat. Find out more about Signal Hill National Historic Site.

Johnson Geo newf and lab dogs with Charlie
Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

4. Slip in an educational outing

On the short drive up Signal Hill, you’ll spot Johnson Geo Centre, which is built in a natural rock basin. Package the two outings together by having your kids experience this non-profit geological interpretation centre, which tells stories about “our planet, province, people, future and space.” One area of the centre is devoted to the Titanic, which hit an iceberg just 350 kilometres off the coast, and another showcases provincial rocks like Labradorite. A play nook, café and gift shop promise welcome distractions, as do summer talks and tours about fossils, space, constellations and the like. Outside, have the kids mug with bronze statues of Newfoundland and Labrador dogs. In the Geo-Vista Park next door, wander eight walkways to admire more rocks, plants and structures from early settlements. Find out more about the Johnson Geo Centre.

Cape Spear old gun and Charlie
Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

5. Romp on Canada’s eastern edge

“The lighthouse is nice, but the battery has a creepy cool vibe,” a Newfoundlander told us about Cape Spear Lighthouse National Historic Site. Exploring bunkers, tunnels and two old guns is indeed a creepy-cool way to learn about how Canadian and American troops occupied Fort Cape Spear during the Second World War to protect the entrance to St. John’s Harbour. The province’s oldest lighthouse opened in 1836 and is actually closed for 2018 for structural upgrades, so admire this example of British Classicism architecture from the outside. The cape is worth exploring even simply to say you’ve been to the most eastern edge of Canada. It gets insanely windy, so dress warmly, and keep an eye out for icebergs, seabirds and whales. Oh, and remind the kids to obey the “dangerous coastline” signs and stay away from the cliff edges and ocean. Find out more about Cape Spear Lighthouse National Historic Site.

Petty Harbour mini aquarium and writer's kids
Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

6. Get friendly with sea creatures

While you’re out at Cape Spear, make the 15-minute drive south to the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium. The tiny but delightful aquarium has a catch-and-release philosophy, so each spring a diving team collects crabs, sunstars, Atlantic cod and other fish, urchins and jellies, and each September, the aquarium invites the public to an animal release party at the marina. Kids will adore the multiple meet-and-greet touch tanks and the beluga whale skeleton, which is suspended from the ceiling. The shorthorn sculpins—with big heads, wide mouths and wee bodies—are crowd pleasers. Petty Harbour is also home to Chafe’s Landing, a rural seafood restaurant featured on You Gotta Eat Here! and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. Find out more about the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium.

Purity factory in sun
Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

7. Make a pilgrimage to the Purity factory

Even if you’re not from Newfoundland and Labrador (and may have never tasted Jam Jams or Peppermint Nobs) a visit to Purity Factories on Blackmarsh Road shouldn’t be missed. The company was founded by three locals in 1924 and now makes more than 50 different types of crackers, cookies, biscuits, candies, jams and syrups. Jam Jams are jam-filled sponge cookies with a well-earned cult following while Hard Bread is the beloved key to the traditional Fish and Brewis dish. While the building is not well-marked, you can visit the factory’s office and buy Purity t-shirts on weekdays. The kids can admire the massive and playful mural painted on the side of one of the factory buildings by Toronto-based artist Don Short. Find out more about Purity.

Colourful jellybean row near Moo Moos
Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

8. Make a colourful stop for treats

Another especially visually appealing spot for a treat is Moo Moo’s Ice Cream on a sloping street at the edge of downtown. The building is painted white with black spots so it resembles a dairy cow, and the ice cream is homemade, with lots of candies and cookies worked into the flavours. Turtle Cheesecake is the top seller and there’s soft serve ice cream, too. Eat inside or out, or get a cone and stroll a block or two down King’s Road towards the water to one of St. John’s famous “Jellybean Row”—a photogenic stretch of vibrantly coloured row houses. Find out more about Moo Moo’s Ice Cream.

Downtown Freak Lunchbox outside
Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

9. Meander through downtown

Downtown St. John’s revolves around two major streets—Water and Duckworth. This is where your family will come to eat, drink, buy souvenirs and be merry. Maybe you can lure your kids into Broken Books and Fred’s Records and support indie retailers. Favourite spots to eat include Rocket Bakery & Fresh Food, Merchant Tavern (everyone loves fish and chips and a slice of vinegar pie) and the Newfoundland Chocolate Company, where the kids can admire the chocolate mermaid outside beneath a fun mural. Be prepared to stop at Freak Lunchbox, a family-owned candy store with hand-painted signs and bulk candy that you pile into Chinese-style takeout containers. The chain started in Halifax and has five outlets across Atlantic Canada. Find out more about Freak Lunchbox.

Terry Fox statue with Charlie
Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

10. Pay your respects to Terry Fox

Thanks to the annual Terry Fox Run, plenty of Canadian kids still know that the one-legged Terry Fox attempted a cross-Canada run to raise money for cancer. Fox started his Marathon of Hope in 1980 by collecting a bottle of sea water and then coming to a spot on the shore of St. John’s Harbour and dipping his artificial leg in the ocean. The city has erected a lifelike bronze sculpture to commemorate that leg-dipping moment at “Mile 0.” It’s a little hard to find, at 1 Water St. behind the St. John’s Port Authority building, but there are interpretive panels and a slate marker at the site where you can give your kids a quick lesson. Read Fox’s inspiring quote on the cement wall behind the sculpture: “I just wish that people would realize that anything’s possible if you try; dreams are made if people try.” Find out more about the Terry Fox monument.

railway museum exterior
Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

11. Retreat to the great indoors

Rainy day? A favourite indoor haunt is the Railway Coastal Museum, built in a restored 1903 train station. An automated model train replicates the route the provincial train took until shutting down in 1988. There’s a 28-metre long diorama of passenger cars where you can see how different areas were used for luggage, mail, cooking, dining and sleeping. Outside, there’s a small train park. While you’re there, wander a few blocks away to the slightly more esoteric James J. O’Mara Pharmacy Museum, a restored drug store circa 1892 with antique fixtures and hand-pressed tin ceilings. Older kids will enjoy The Rooms, the province’s largest cultural space and a museum, art gallery and provincial archives all in one. Find out more about the Railway Coastal Museum.

ducks kids feeding them
Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

12. Feed the ducks (properly)

Teach your kids that urban ducks should only be fed proper bird food and not sugary bread. In St. John’s, this is easy because most Marie’s Mini Mart locations sell small brown bags of duck food (for $1) that have been packaged by a group that works with people with developmental disabilities. At the park’s popular duck pond, wily pigeons will try (and fail) to get your food before the ducks do. In another part of town, the Suncor Energy Fluvarium also sells bags of duck food if you plan to look for them while exploring Pippy Park and the walking trails, boardwalks and lookout areas along Rennie’s River to Quidi Vidi Lake. The fluvarium (literally “windows on a stream”) is a small, public environmental education centre that focuses on freshwater ecology and lets kids see fish and freshwater creatures through viewing windows. Find out more about the Bowring Park Foundation.

Mallard Cottage cake table
Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

13. Experience the Quidi Vidi neighbourhood

Quidi Vidi (usually pronounced “kiddy viddy”) is a picturesque fishing hamlet in a small harbour near downtown St John’s. Start your explorations with a meal at Mallard Cottage—reservations recommended. Brunch is family-friendly with a menu that changes daily, but the famous cake table is always there for both eat-in and takeout. The charming, provincially-minded restaurant is in a restored 18th century wooden cottage steps from the harbour and the working artisan shops at the Quidi Vidi Village Plantation. If you like craft beer, duck into Quidi Vidi Brewing Co. and buy an Iceberg Beer for back in the hotel room. (Take a tour or join one of their musical parties another time.) Find out more about Mallard Cottage.

Dressed up people walking in Mummers Parade
Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Bain

14. Attend an all ages dress-up party

If you’re planning a late-fall trip to Newfoundland, time it to the annual pre-Christmas mummers parade in St. John’s. Mummering is a traditional provincial practice of making disguised Christmas visits to neighbours, friends and family and singing, dancing and eating until your identity is revealed. The urban spin on the (mostly) rural tradition invites everyone to dress in outlandish gear (think old suits, bras over coats, pillowcases over heads and pillows stuffed under sweaters) and march through the streets to an elementary school for a musical party complete with delicious Purity Jam Jams. The community-based festival runs for almost a month with lectures and workshops leading up to the parade where people make ugly sticks, hobby horses and masks for the parade. Even if it’s not December, there’s plenty of “mummerabilia” to be had in the form of children’s books, figurines, greeting cards and even musical mummer Christmas tree ornaments. Find out more about the Mummers Festival.

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