When Europe discovered the wealth of fresh codfish in the Grand Banks to the southeast of Newfoundland, the Basques, English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese that were fishing there found that they had need of a safe harbour nearby to salt the cod to preserve it for the long journey home. (That didn't save them from having to find a way to make salt cod palatable...but I digress.)
There is a sheltered harbour on the eastern tip of the Avalon peninsula which fit the bill. The entrance to the harbour was a narrow gap between two hills, but once past "The Narrows" the harbour opens up the the west. This is where the city of St. John's stands today.
St. John's has been under the control of the English, French, Basques and even once by the Dutch. Reminants of Fort Townsend and Fort William can be seen today as well as Fort Amherst. It's safe harbour was in heavy use during both world wars, as is seen in the gun emplacements at Cape Spear, and Fort Amherst, as well as at Chain Rock, the attachment point of a net to keep U boats out of the harbour. The Americans established Fort Pepperrell, now known as Pleasantville (I shit thee not) in the city but it was closed in the 60's.
Some of the sights to see in and around St. John's:
- Cabot Tower: Built in 1897 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Newfoundland by John Cabot and Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee on top of Signal Hill. Also the site of the first trans-Atlantic wireless signal, recieved by Guglielmo Marconi in 1901.
- Cape Spear: The oldest surviving lighthouse in Newfoundland on the easternmost point of North America. There are actually two lighthouses there; the modern active one and the historical one. A great place to go whale-watching if it's not foggy.
- The Colonial Building: The House of Assembly for the Newfoundland Legislature from 1850 until 1959. Now houses the provincial archives.
- Water Street: The oldest commercial street in North America, in the heart of downtown St. John's.
- George Street: The self-proclaimed party capital of the world. A street in downtown which contains nothing but bars. Try to survive a pub crawl here! There is a George Street Festival each year where the street is closed off, but one ticket gets you into all the bars, there are live performances on the stage outside. Essentially the street becomes one big bar. Not to be missed.