Like any seaport worth its salt, Saint John is a welcoming place but, more than that, it is fast transforming into a sophisticated urban destination worthy of the increasing number of cruise ships that dock at its revitalized waterfront. Such is the demand that a second cruise terminal opened in 2012, just two years after the first one, and 2013 will see the two-millionth cruise passenger disembark. All the comings and goings over the centuries have exposed Saint Johners to a wide variety of cultures and ideas, creating a characterful Maritime city with a vibrant artistic community. Visitors will discover rich and diverse cultural products in its urban core, including a plethora of art galleries and antiques shops in uptown.
Industry and salt air have combined to give parts of Saint John a weather-beaten quality, but you'll also find lovingly restored 19th-century wooden and redbrick homes as well as modern office buildings, hotels, and shops.
The natives welcomed the French explorers Samuel de Champlain and Sieur de Monts when they landed here on St. John the Baptist Day in 1604. Then, nearly two centuries later, in May 1783, 3,000 British Loyalists fleeing the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War poured off a fleet of ships to make a home amid the rocks and forests. Two years later the city of Saint John became the first in Canada to be incorporated.
Although most of the Loyalists were English, there were some Irish among them. After the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, thousands more Irish workers found their way to Saint John. It was the Irish potato famine of 1845 to 1852, though, that spawned the largest influx of Irish immigrants, and today a 20-foot Celtic cross on Partridge Island at the entrance to St. John Harbour stands as a reminder of the hardships and suffering they endured. Their descendants make Saint John Canada's most Irish city, a fact that's celebrated in grand style each March with a weeklong St. Patrick's celebration.
The St. John River, its Reversing Rapids, and Saint John Harbour divide the city into eastern and western districts. The historic downtown area (locally known as "uptown") is on the east side, where an ambitious urban-renewal program started in the early 1980s has transformed the downtown waterfront. Older properties have been converted into trendy restaurants and shops, while glittering new apartment and condo buildings will take full advantage of the spectacular view across the bay. Harbour Passage, a redbrick walking and cycling path with benches and lots of interpretive information, begins downtown at Market Square and winds along the waterfront all the way to the Reversing Rapids. A shuttle boat between Market Square and the falls means you have to walk only one way. On the lower west side, painted-wood homes with flat roofs—characteristic of Atlantic Canadian seaports—slope to the harbor. Industrial activity is prominent on the west side, which has stately older homes on huge lots.
Regardless of the weather, Saint John is a delightful city to explore, as so many of its key downtown attractions are linked by enclosed overhead pedways known as the "Inside Connection."