The local saying goes that people don't come here for the weather - they stay in spite of it.
It's true, and if you're looking for a destination where you can sink your bare toes into warm sand, you'd best look elsewhere. Even in July, the island never really warms to so-called 'summer' temperatures: the highest ever recorded was 36.7 degrees Centigrade and the coldest a bone-chilling -41. Those who come here, however, come looking for something other than good weather. Simply put, St. John's, Newfoundland, is one of those places where, if you look very closely, you can see through Time itself.
St. John's is the oldest English-founded settlement in North America, and in its early years was vigorously fought over by the English and the French, with controlling ownership of the city passing back and forth several times. Today's city, however, is prosperous and vibrant, brimming with self-confidence and flush with material wealth, thanks in great part to the island's rich mineral reserves and the offshore oil industry. The city's downtown core (where settlement began, in large part because it was close to the ocean and thus the fishing grounds) is a walkable history lesson whose colourfully-named streets date to the early days of British North America. Originally known as the "Lower Path" this narrow, curving street is best appreciated on foot; since parking is at a premium, your best bet is to leave your car at the hotel or lodgings and catch a bus downtown. The city-owned Metrobus services just about every corner of the city and its environs and you can ride for $2.25, exact change only.
Start at the easternmost end of Water Street, where Temperance Street (you'll recognize it by the four, nearly-identical brick houses attached to one another and known in local parlance as the "Four Sisters") slopes abruptly down towards the waterfront and walk west. On your right you'll pass the oddly-named "Hill O' Chips" as you head into the main mercantile and business district. Many of the smaller shops are aimed at tourists but there are some worthwhile offerings: keep an eye peeled for bargains on handmade knitted goods such as sweaters, socks and the ubiquitous "boiled mitts." It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see past the modern asphalt streets into the cobbled past, when electric trolley cars ran down the center of the streets, powered by their own dedicated power plant located in a nearby town, and while St. John's may not trumpet its heritage with the same alacrity as the larger towns, remember that this place is older than New York City, and was the premier fishing station in the New World long before towns like St. Louis or Chicago came of age.
On your left you will see the harbour - once notable chiefly for the foul stench, which has now been thankfully eliminated - crowded with large vessels headed to service the offshore oil rigs and smaller fishing vessels painted in bright colours - over which tower the craggy and imposing South Side Hills. At the entrance to the harbour (locally known as The Narrows) you will see Signal Hill, topped with Cabot Tower, a faux castle that was built to celebrate Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee in 1897 and from which inventor Guglielmo Marconi sent the first wireless radio transmission in 1901. If you decide to go up, remember that this is one of the few places Metrobus doesn't go, and it's usually very, very windy.
St. John's has been burned to the ground three times; in 1696 French admiral Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville captured the city (then a town) and destroyed it. This fear of fire remains even today and with good reason: most of our houses are made of wood. If you walk uphill from Water Street you will find yourself in the old residential district, where all the really gorgeous Victorian houses live, all of them constructed out of wood. A great many of these old "painted ladies" have much to fear from a wayward spark, but there's no reason for you to miss them. Walk up Cochrane Street to Gower Street and look left and right. The choice of direction is yours, but bring your camera, for you have never seen houses like these stately Victorians painted in a wild palette. Also not to be missed is The Battery, one of the earliest-settled neighbourhoods, perched - literally - on the cliffs overlooking the harbour, and with the kind of narrow, twisting streets reminiscent of a Mediterranean hill town.
Don't be afraid to ask for directions. We love meeting people "from away" and are glad enough to help you and if we know where something is, we may even take you there ourselves. A friendly "Whatta ya at?" from one of us simply means "How are you?" If the accent strikes you as kind of Irish, that's because it is: a large proportion of St. John's residents are of Irish extraction, and we enjoy that Celtic lust for life. If you come to St. John's you mustn't miss world-famous George Street, which is reputed to have the most pubs per capita of any street in the world! The atmosphere is a lot like Bourbon Street in New Orleans, with people wandering in and out of the bars and taverns, drinks in hand. On weekends the street is closed to all but pedestrian traffic and you can have your pick of music, as all genres are well-represented here. The really great thing about George Street is that it's relatively safe, as is most of St. John's. The homicide rate here hovers around 1-2 per year; we are a small, safe city whose friendly inhabitants are eager to meet you and show you the best of what we have to offer.
St. John's is arguably the oldest city on this continent, settled when other, more populous cities were still in their infancy. This is a place of deeply-layered history, where every street holds innumerable stories. Bring your walking shoes, your warmest sweater and your camera and prepare to see through time.
Written and contributed by JoAnne Soper-Cook