The rich history of Atlantic Canada may surprise you, with influences from across the globe that includes Vikings, Europeans, and settlers of African descent.
What’s even more rewarding is that some of the curators of this history—in particular, Parks Canada—have rolled out the red carpet for visitors, offering truly memorable interactive experiences throughout the four provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. Whether you’re visiting the birthplace of the Canadian Confederation, following the history of the Black Loyalists’ journey to freedom, or leafing through the private diaries of Alexander Graham Bell, there’s something in every corner of the region to impress your inner history buff.
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L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site, Newfoundland
Who were the first visitors to North America? According to the compelling evidence at L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site, it was the Vikings, who sailed from Greenland to this remote tip of Newfoundland more than 1,000 years ago. At this UNESCO World Heritage site, immerse yourself in the recreation of a Viking encampment and enjoy some of the most stunning, rugged scenery in the region. There’s plenty to do for everyone here, from guided tours and storytelling to a Viking-themed escape room.
Signal Hill, St. John’s, Newfoundland
A trip to Newfoundland’s capital city, St. John’s, is not complete without a visit to Signal Hill, where Guglielmo Marconi received the world’s first transatlantic wireless signal from Poldhu, Cornwall in 1901. The location offers rugged self-guided hikes with unbeatable views of the city and the ocean; depending on the time of year, you might be able to see whales and icebergs. Alternatively, take a guided tour like the 90-minute Ales and Tales experience; it includes craft beer and fish-and-chips.
Fortress Louisbourg, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia
Fortress Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island is more than just a museum. Based on an incredible body of historical documents, it’s an entire settlement recreated to demonstrate life in the 1700s, when the French ruled this part of Canada. Everyone here is in character, from the waitresses at Grandchamp House (where you can enjoy a hearty soup served with a large period spoon and rye bread made from an original recipe) to the soldiers who parade the streets. Plan to spend at least a full day here.
INSIDER TIPIf you’re adventurous enough, spend the night at Louisbourg. After the doors close to visitors, you can brave an 18th-century camping experience, which includes a tent, lantern, fire pit, and sleep mats.
Alexander Graham Bell Museum, Baddeck, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia
If you compare the scenery of Cape Breton Island to the hills of Scotland, you will understand why Scottish-born Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor who first patented the telephone, decided to settle in Baddeck. The Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site offers a unique glance at some of his most interesting innovations and achievements including the HD-4 hydrofoil and the four-celled tetrahedral kite. On the White Glove Tour, gain insight into his personal genius and his commitment to the deaf community (both his mother and his wife, Mabel were deaf) through his personal diaries.
The Citadel, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Step inside the guarded walls of Halifax’s most important fortification, the Halifax Citadel. Built upon a naturally occurring geological feature (a drumlin), the 19th-century fort offers a ton of visitor experiences including the chance to be a Soldier for a Day or the opportunity to hold a genuine Snider-Enfield rifle (for grown-ups only). The fort also has ghost tours three nights a week in high season (until late October). Citadel Hill is also just a great place to chill out. In the summertime, grab a picnic blanket or a beach towel and lie on the grass, soaking in the sounds of the city.
The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Housed at the pier that was the first port of call for many Canadian immigrants, the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 is a tribute to the story of Canadian immigration, past and present, celebrating its positive, challenging, and sometimes uncomfortable aspects over the years. Many of the exhibits are interactive and especially wonderful for children, with the chance to role-play, dress up in period costume, and even record your own story.
INSIDER TIPIf you have an interest in your own genealogy, the Scotiabank Family History Centre, located on the ground floor of Pier 21, has immigration records from 1925 to 1935, and access to ships’ records going back to 1865. The center has information on all ports of entry into Canada and some United States ports, too.
Black Loyalist Heritage Centre, Shelburne, Nova Scotia
At the end of the 1700s, Nova Scotia had the largest free Black population in North America. At the Black Loyalist Heritage Centre in Birchtown, outside of Shelburne, you can explore a digital copy of the Book of Negroes, where the names of 3,000 Black Loyalists were recorded. Follow in the footsteps of these courageous settlers and view the props and costumes from the award-winning television miniseries, The Book of Negroes.
Kings Landing, near Fredericton, New Brunswick
About half-hour outside Fredericton is the 300-acre living museum known as Kings’ Landing. Families will enjoy the horse and wagon rides, delicious homemade food, and hands-on exhibits. The scenery is great, too, with one of Canada’s most photographed buildings: a sawmill. Keep in mind, however, that King’s Landing was never a real settlement; it was created in the 1960s from the buildings that were saved from destruction during the flooding of the Mactaquac Dam.
Minister’s Island, New Brunswick
On Minister’s Island, near the popular summer getaway of St. Andrew’s-by-the-Sea in New Brunswick, you can visit the summer home of Sir William Van Horne, former president of the Canadian National Railway. The island is a utopia, with beautiful buildings, gardens, and a massive barn where Van Horne kept Clydesdale horses. His home also boasts an impressive art collection; Van Horne was an avid collector. Minister’s Island isn’t always an island—at low tide, the historic island can be accessed via a sandbar that is completely covered at high tide; be sure to check the tide times before you head out.
Province House, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island
Smack-dab in the middle of the sunny and easily walkable waterfront city of Charlottetown, Province House is the place where Canada was born. In 1864, it was the location of the Charlottetown Conference, a meeting that led to the Canadian Confederation in 1867. In 2017, major restoration work began on the building. When complete, the grand rooms will reopen to visitors. Until then, there are a number of exciting activities at the Confederation Centre of the Arts, and many pleasant shops, restaurants, and pubs throughout the city.