Tucked away on the northeast shore of Cape Breton Island, the small seaside town of Sydney is one of the hidden gems of Canada's Atlantic Coast. Rich in history and wild landscapes, this charming town offers a variety of activities for history buffs, outdoor enthusiasts and culture seekers. From Scottish heritage events to world-class museums and windswept cliffside hikes, Sydney offers a wealth of activities.
Thanks to its strategic access to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean, Sydney has played a pivotal role in world history. The waterfront is the heart of the action — from here, ships sailed to battle during the American Revolution, transported raw material from the area's booming steel industry in the early 1900s and fought off German U-boats in World War II. Today, you can imagine these historic moments during a walk down the scenic, 0.75-mile Sydney Waterfront Boardwalk.
Pick up a one-of-a-kind souvenir at the Cape Breton Centre for Craft and Design. Located a few blocks from the Sydney port, this sprawling gallery and studio space hosts artists from around Cape Breton. Whether you prefer handcrafted jewelry, colorful Celtic art or blown glass, there's something for every taste. Want to meet the artists? Check out the center's schedule of interactive craft experiences, which range from fabric dyeing to glassblowing.
The Cabot Trail is a 185-mile scenic route around the northern end of Cape Breton Island. Rent a car in Sydney, and explore at your own pace — there are plenty of attractions within two hours of town, so it's accessible for a one-day shore activites. Hike to a stunning waterfall on the Indian Brook Trail or marvel at the serene coastal scenes near St. Ann's Bay. If you're dreaming of breathtaking views, head straight to Cape Breton Highlands National Park to see mountains, seaside cliffs, and wild waterfalls.
Find out what life was like for 18th century colonists and First Nations people at the Fortress of Louisbourg, the largest reconstructed historic site in all of North America. This is a living museum; as you wander through the French colonial town, actors in period dress recreate the vibe of the 1700s. After you pop into the beautiful homes and explore the military fort, learn about the local Mi'kmaq heritage and culture. Feeling hungry? Try freshly prepared soldier's bread at the bakery and taste the rum that's aged on site.
If you have time for just one hike during your time in Sydney, make it the Skyline Trail. Located in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, this 5-mile path boasts some of the most dramatic scenery on the island. From your vantage point high on the headland cliffs, an awe-inspiring view of the Gulf of St. Lawrence stretches as far as the eye can see. Keep watch for bears and moose; from spring through fall, you might even spot whales swimming offshore.
Northern Cape Breton is one of the best places in Nova Scotia to see blue whales, minke whales and humpbacks. As you explore around the shore, hop right onto a whale-watching tour boat to see these majestic creatures in their natural habitat. Many local captains use small Zodiac boats, so you can get surprisingly close to the whales as they glide through the water. Depending on the season, you might see dolphins and seals.
Discover the rich Scottish heritage culture of Cape Breton Island at The Gaelic College. Start your visit at the Great Hall of the Clans museum — here, you'll learn the stories of Scottish immigrants and discover how their ancestors are keeping tradition alive today. If the museum happens to be hosting a cultural demonstration, you can witness Scottish storytelling, see how a great kilt is made or get a quick Gaelic lesson. On Wednesdays, join local musicians in a traditional céilidh performance.
In the mood for a challenge? Rent a bike and cycle through the rugged coastal landscapes. The Cabot Trail is a popular scenic route for cyclists, but if you would like to explore another scenic route, try biking along the Sydney River south of town. To the north, you'll find seaside routes along the open ocean. For a more relaxed ride, pedal along the waterfront. There's a bike-rental agency right outside the port, making pickup and drop-off a breeze.
A short drive from Sydney, the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site provides a glimpse into the early life of the famous inventor. This peaceful park commemorates the life and achievements of the Scottish-born Bell, who emigrated to Canada in 1870 and spent his summers on the other side of Baddeck Bay. Plan to spend a few hours exploring Bell's legendary inventions, which include the telephone, graphophone and the tetrahedral kite.
If you have a full night in Sydney, a camping trip is the perfect way to immerse yourself in the wilderness of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. The Ingonish Beach and Broad Cove campgrounds are the closest to the port; you can also hike into the backcountry and sleep under the stars. Don't have camping gear? Book one of the park's oTENTik A-frame tents, and all you need to bring is food and bedding.
Stroll down Charlotte Street in Sydney, and you'll find a selection of exceptional restaurants serving locally caught seafood. From relaxed gastropubs to elegant eateries, there's something for every taste. Lobster poutine is a popular local specialty; it puts a Cape Breton twist on a classic Canadian dish. Alternatively, try fish and chips, mussels or seafood chowder.
Celtic music is an important part of life in Sydney — so much so, in fact, that there's a 60-foot fiddle outside. Experience Cape Breton Island's Scottish traditions at one of the local Celtic music festivals. The biggest is the Celtic Colours International Festival, which features more than 49 concerts at venues around the island. The rest of the year, keep an eye out for smaller local festivals and Celtic concerts.
The Mi'kmaq people made their home on Cape Breton Island for thousands of years before European settlers arrived in the Atlantic provinces. Explore this ancient culture at the Membertou Heritage Park. For the full experience, take a guided tour with a local elder or participate in hands-on workshops in beading, basket-making or drumming.
The Cape Breton Miners Museum traces the origins of the island's coal-mining industry. Head indoors to learn about the geology of the local coal field and read the stories of the brave miners. Then, bundle up and descend into the earth on a tour of the Ocean Deeps Colliery — the retired-miner guides bring the history of the mine to life with heartbreaking stories and personal insights.
When the Scots emigrated to Cape Breton Island, they brought with them the whisky-making methods of their homeland. Book a guided tour at Glenora Distillery to see this single-malt tradition in action. On some tours, you can even draw a sample right from a barrel. End your visit with a whisky tasting and live music in the on-site pub.