Best Family Things to Do in Sydney, Nova Scotia

At first I thought it was just an interesting, over-sized violin that greeted our cruise ship arrival into Sydney Harbour. However, to a Cape Breton Islander this fiddle means more than just a harbour decoration.

Family Activities in Sydney Nova Scotia
Welcome to Sydney, Nova Scotia!

Nine family things to do in Sydney, Nova Scotia.

Translated from the Gaelic, “Fidheal Mhor A’ Ceilidh,”  it’s actually the world’s largest fiddle. The word “Ceilidh” is Gaelic for a social gathering. That should give you some indication as to the personality of the people of Sydney. They are friendly, outgoing and welcome you with open arms to their corner of Canada.

Sydney Nova Scotia harbor map Sydney, Nova Scotia is located on the Atlantic Ocean side of beautifully rugged and scenic Cape Breton Island. The first inhabitants of this area were French Acadians. However, they were eventually succeeded by mostly British, Scottish, Irish immigrants.

The city of Sydney was founded in 1785 when British Loyalists abandoned their posts during the American Revolution and fled north to Cape Breton island.

Settlers soon realized the great wealth of natural resources. Consequently, it wasn’t long before Sydney became a major coal and industrial city. In search of employment, immigrants from many different cultures settled into the area which gives present-day Sydney its multicultural flavor.

Proud of their Celtic background and Gaelic language, activities in Sydney include many colorful festivals reflecting the music, cuisine, culture and natural beauty of the island. Their pride is displayed throughout the year. For instance, from the Cape Breton International Drum Festival to the Celtic Colours Music Festival, everyone in town celebrates. 

Sydney Nova Scotia harbour Upon arrival into Sydney Harbour, you are immediately greeted by the aforementioned mega-fiddle and the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion. The pavilion is a destination unto itself with shopping for authentic Cape Breton products right there; hand-made arts and crafts, knitwear and a great place to buy your souvenirs.

What to do in Sydney, Nova Scotia 

So what should you do with your eight hours in Sydney? Here are the most popular attractions that are either available as short independent walking tours right from the port or a planned shore excursion with your cruise line.

The artisan market inside the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion Stop in at the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion

Inside the Pavilion, in Pittmann Hall is the Big Fiddle Market. Local artisans have set up their crafts in this huge warehouse-like facility. If convenience is your thing or you don’t want to go very far from the ship, there’s a shore excursion tour offered by most of the cruise lines that takes place right there in the pavilion.

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Visitors are “escorted” through the cruise terminal by a Scottish bag-piper, to a sitting area where guests are treated to the experience of genuine Celtic fiddle music, talented young step-dancers (kind of a mini-River Dance) and can learn more about life in the area from past centuries. Don’t be surprised if this tour is quickly sold-out.

Walk to Downtown From the Port

Downtown Sydney Nova Scotia Go Shopping at Smart Shop Place

Located along the boardwalk where you can shop for authentic Cape Breton jewelry, clothing and even yarns and knitting supplies. Turn right out of the port and head south along the river. Be sure to take home some  Cape Breton Fudge and sample the freshly made lobster rolls and chowder.

A short walk north of the port (turn left upon exiting) leads to the Historic North End Conservation District, where you can re-visit life in Sydney in the 1700s. Many of the original buildings in the area are open to the public:

St. Patrick's Church Museum
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St. Patrick’s Church Museum

The oldest Roman Catholic church in Cape Breton. St. Patrick’s Church was built in 1828 and preserved in its original Gothic design. The walls are an amazing three-feet thick. The museum houses a miniature colonial village and an authentic mid-19th century whipping post.

Jost House Sydney Nova Scotia
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Jost House

Built in about 1787 by a prosperous local merchant is also now a museum and the home to a marine exhibit. The structure itself showcases the typical colonial-era wooden house.

Cossitt House in Sydney Nova Scotia
Photo credit:  Nova Scotia Museum

Cossit House

From 1878, it is the oldest house in Sydney and possibly in Cape Breton Island. Restored period furnishings and depictions of 18th century life are on display inside the house.

The house was named for its original owner, Reverend Ranna Cossit,  who lived there the house with his wife, Thankful and their large family. The Cossitt House is one of the earliest examples of neo-classical Georgian architecture in Nova Scotia, originally built with wood from New England and assembled in Sydney.

If you have the time, take a tour of this interesting house presented by Colonial-dressed guides. Learn how one one family lived when Sydney was founded.

St. George's Church in Sydney Nova Scotia St. George’s Church

This pretty little church is located almost directly across from the cruise terminal. Under the canopy of old trees is where you’ll hear summer concerts. There is the old cemetery behind the church with intriguing tombstones and inscriptions.

Ship Excursions

Fortress of Louisbourg Cape Breton Island Nova Scotia
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Fortress of Louisbourg

Your excursion will take you to the largest reconstructed 18th century French town in North America. The fortress was completed in 1745, took more than twenty-five years to complete, spans over fifty acres and is surrounded by a wall nearly two miles in length.

Costumed guides recreate the daily lives of the original settlers. “French soldiers” go about their daily lives and you are able to interact with the local “residents.”

Cabot Trail
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Cape Breton Highlands National Park and the Cabot Trail

Located within the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, this is one of the most scenic drives throughout Canada. One-third of the famous Cabot Trail runs through the park, hugging the coastline for most of the way. Hop aboard your tour bus and head out for a historic and scenic trip, and a view of sparkling Bras d’Or Lake.

Visitor Centre at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site Nova Scotia Baddeck

Alexander Graham Bell spent his summers at Baddeck, situated on the shores of Bras d’Or. A visit to Baddeck will may include a brief tour of the grounds of the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic site well as some time to spend in the museum.

Historically, cruise ships usually begin their Canada New England itineraries in mid-May and continue until the end of October. The popularity of these itineraries is increasing. As a result, more and more cruise lines keep going north. However, not all cruises include a port call to Sydney, Nova Scotia.

You can choose from most of the mainstream cruise lines which include Carnival, Holland America, Celebrity, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Princess Cruises. Among the more upscale cruise lines to visit Sydney are Oceania, Regent and Silversea.

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  1. Hi Margaret,
    Thank you for reading my article. Very good question about accessibility for shore excursions. I don’t know of any special tour operators that specialize in accessible shore tours. Almost every cruise line, especially Holland America, should offer at least one accessible tour in every port. If you call Holland America reservations (or ask your travel agent) and ask to be with someone in the Guest Accessibility Department. I would think that you’d get more information.

    Also, if you have not already read this, try: There is a lot of information here.

    So many shore excursions require walking but there is always a city tour on a motor coach that is do-able. I am sorry that I can’t recommend a specific tour operator but hopefully someone at Holland America will be able to help you. If you are cruising from Montreal, I’m pretty sure your ship will stop in Quebec. If you’ve never been there, parts of the Old Town are quite steep. This may be one of those places where a motor coach tour would be the best option.

    I hope you can find shore excursions for your friend that is easy and enjoyable. Thank you again for writing and have a wonderful cruise!

  2. We are doing a Holland cruise leaving Montreal June 17. One of our party is challenged and uses a walker. We are having a very hard time even with ship excursions to book one that can accommodate someone with accessibility issues. Do you know of any tour companies that we can contact.


  3. Hi Michelle,
    Thank you so much for your kind note! I would LOVE to visit Sydney again…and hopefully soon. Once this pandemic is in the rear-view mirror and our borders are open again, I’ll be there! Wonderful town, really, and hopefully things go well without the summer cruise tourists. For sure I’ll send a note before I head back to NS. Thank you again for reading my article and taking the time to write.

  4. Hi there,
    I just came across your lovely review of Sydney, and Cape Breton Island! I realize we’re now in the midst of a pandemic, but I would encourage you to plan a visit to come back and take in some of the changes that have taken place since your last visit. We now boast a second berth to accommodate even more cruise ships, and we are seeing the construction of our NSCC in Downtown Sydney, at the other end of the beautiful Sydney Waterfront. There is a different feeling in our downtown and would love to see you back some time. If you ever get the chance make sure to send a note so we can say hello.
    Michelle Wilson
    Executive Director
    Sydney Downtown Development Assoc.

  5. Hi Micky,

    Unfortunately, you are correct. Here’s what the website for Fortress of Louisbourg says:
    “Opportunities to experience the Fortress of Louisbourg’s quiet streets during the low season allow visitors to imagine life in the toughest of conditions almost 300 years ago. While there are no services available, a low season visit may provide the best opportunity for visitors to experience the stillness of the streets, take in the beauty of the exterior architecture of the buildings, or simply enjoy the treasures that life’s quietest moments may bring.

    For a new way to experience the site in the low season, try our Louisbourg guided tour app. Through sound, video, photos, quizzes and text, you will hold stories about Louisbourg in your hands as you walk through both the reconstructed town and the fortress’s ruins. The guided tour is available to download for free at the App Store and through Google Play.”

    And here’s the link to their website:

    Thank you for your question. I hope you will have a wonderful visit to the site, despite the low season distinction.

  6. Hello!
    Do you know if the services and activities at Louisbourg Fortress are the same in low season (23 October) like in high season. I just read somewhere online the everything is closed, no all that nice dressed people and no activities, just to go around and see streets and houses.
    Is it correct?
    Thanks a lot!

  7. Hi Lily,

    The first few places in the article are walking distance from the port. When you rent a car, I’m sure the place will give you a tourist map with driving info. I would think that except for the driving trail, most other places are an hour or less away from Sydney. If you do rent a car, be sure to allow plenty of time for the rental return and then to get back to your ship. They may sail without you if you are late!
    Have a wonderful Canada/New England cruise.

  8. Great article but would like to know about how much is the driving from port to these places? Dont think that after being on a ship i would enjoy being on the bus for a long time. Thanks.

  9. Hi Bernadette,

    Thank you for your kind words. We did meet, but it was at the Quebec City Symposium. I was unable to attend the event in Boston this past summer. Please keep me posted on the 2014 Symposium. I love Sydney! Thanks for taking the time to write.



  10. Thanks, John. I remember the crafts display. Great location, too. I hope to revisit in the near future.


  11. Thank you for the excellent coverage of Sydney. One of your pictures is of St. George’s Church. Right behind the church, in the church hall, is the longest running (25 years) craft show geared to cruise passengers.

    John Shaw

  12. Hi Fritz,
    Thank you for reading my blog. I reached out to the folks up north and was advised to tell you to contact (Cape Breton Island). You should be able to find the info that you’ll need to set up your tour.

    Have a wonderful vacation.


  13. I am looking for a one day guided tour for my wife and me starting and ending in Sydney and including a thorough tour of Fort Louisbourg on Friday, Oct 4, 2013. We plan to visit there for that one day. Can you help me locate someone who would do this? — Fritz,
    Los Altos, California

  14. Hi Roger,

    Thank you for reading the article – Sydney is superb and I love the craft center at the port terminal. Next time I’m there, I’ll try to locate your table to say hi to you and your wife.


    Cruise Maven

  15. Hi Jim,

    Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I don’t know if you are from Sydney, so if not, it’s a wonderful place to visit.


    Cruise Maven

  16. My wife and I are native Cape Bretoners and a crafters at the Fiddle

    I am amazed at how nice this site is and it seems to capture all we have to offer

    Anybody wanting to visit can see at an instant all we have to offer

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