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Non-touristy Things to do in Sydney, Nova Scotia: Local & Hidden Gems

Ammara Younas2024-05-08

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The historical capital of Cape Breton is packed with down-home geniality despite being practically the urban mecca of the island. A visit to Sydney promises two things that tourists prize above all else:

1) seeing everything there is to see here despite being on a time-strapped tour, and

2) doing it all on a budget. The city is wonderfully cheap and you can walk all the neighborhoods in just a day. Sydney is also close to the world-famous Cabot Trail, Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site, and the Fortress of Louisbourg. 

Embark on the Best of Cape Breton Island Tour from Sydney!


Because you can tour Sydney in just 24 hours, you might be thinking that it'll run out of sights to see pretty easily. But beyond the tourist’s favorites like The Big Fiddle, Cape Breton Centre for Craft & Design, Cossit House Museum, and Petersfield Provincial Park, lie local and hidden gems which will satiate your love for sightseeing. Let's go on a little treasure hunt to uncover some of the city's best-kept secrets!

Cape Breton Island

Brandon Sehl / Unsplash

Baille Ard Nature Trail

After your touristy dive into the metropolitan wonders of Sydney, why not go explore some nature? About three kilometers from Downtown Sydney is a trail where you can walk under a lush canopy of Acadian wilderness and be engulfed in a day of sun-drenched bliss. 

Hike and bike in summers and snowshoe in winters as you're delighted by the feathery brushes of Birches, Firs, and Maples. Be careful because there will be Hemlock as well. The floor of the Baille Ard Nature Trail is beautifully carpeted with moss, ferns, horsetails, and other small plant life. See nature reflected in the two brooks running through the park, and while you're at it, see your own reflection too. 

Ed's Books & More

Have you ever seen a bookstore run by cats? Don't be ridiculous, you’ll mouth as you read this. But Ed's Books & More is one such quirky little store run by two fluffy felines (and their human associates). Come and find the rarest books and vintage beauties in this used bookstore. The staff (including the humans) has a lot of love to give to the beloved customers. And the best part? The books are really cheap. Don't be surprised when you get as many as 6 books for just $10 here.

Membertou Heritage Park

After wandering through miles and miles of natural trails, and getting lost in books, you'll need a taste of Sydney's culture. What better way to do so than by visiting the city's cultural center? Membertou Heritage Park might have been on your radar while touring around, but it's easy to miss this when you have to check all the city's hotspots off your bucket list. This park is essentially the living history museum of the ancient Mi’kmaq people, offering an honest portrait of their customs and artistry through cultural presentations, and interactive exhibits. 

Stroll through five acres of space with an Elder to learn more about the Indigenous community around Unama'ki. Aside from guided tours, you can self-explore. Make your own hand drum in a drum-making clinic where you'll connect to the music of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada. Buy yourself a souvenir from the Petroglyphs Gift Shop which has so many things to choose from such as books on Mi'kmaq language and history, novels, regalia, earrings, blankets, postcards, and whatnot. You can also explore local crafts from all over Canada in this little shop. 

Flavor on the Water

A day of exploration will definitely leave you starving. Grab a sea-soaked bite at Flavor on the Water nestled in The Big Fiddle Market. Savor local cuisine and explore the freshest seafood of the city while taking in picturesque views of the Sydney Waterfront. Pro tip: when the weather is nice, sit on the patio and order their East Coast Crab Cakes with jerk aioli and pineapple salsa. They also have nicely crisped Fish & Chips which you can feast on while watching the cruise ships coming in. If you're looking for a quick lunch, their seafood chowder & chili bowls and sandwiches are delicious. 

Cape Breton Farmers’ Market

Cape Breton Farmers' Market is a locals' favorite. There's no true Sydney experience without getting lost in a warren of stalls here. This market started out as a seasonal, open-air bazaar thirty years ago. Today, over a thousand visitors from all over Cape Breton Island flock to this (now indoor) market every week. Sample fresh fruits and vegetables and buy homemade jam, marmalade, cheeses, and pure honey to take home. 

Browse through booths of around 50 vendors from farmers and bakers to jewelers and artisans selling authentic Nova Scotian products. Visitors who come here walk away with stuff of every kind from ornamental to practical. Save up some money to splurge here. You can, of course, bargain, but within reason. 

Cape Breton Miners' Museum

Miners have always been there, working tirelessly out of sight to build the backbone of every nation's industries, and thus, economies. And yet, you won't often hear even a mention of them. But the people of Cape Breton Island are grateful and vocal. Cape Breton Miners' Museum is their effort at giving back and honoring all those years of the local miners’ hard work. Come and see it all encapsulated in the exhibits at the museum. If you're into geology, make sure to check out the exhibit on the geological development of Cape Breton’s coalfield. 

The highlight of this museum is touring the reconstructed mine. Let some retired miners walk you through low-ceilinged underground spaces. You'll be uncomfortable, sure, but you'll learn to appreciate the efforts of the local miners better. This tour is not for the claustrophobic, but if confined and closed spaces don't scare you, make sure to add this to your bucket list. There's also a gift shop you can stop by after exploring the museum to browse and buy local arts and crafts.

Mira River Provincial Park

Located about 22 kilometers from Sydney, Nova Scotia, Mira River Provincial Park is one of the best places you can visit near the city in the warm season. Swim and laze about the waters, catch a fish or two, and bask in the copper-red warmth of the sun. Tourists love camping here because of the park's clean showers, great water pressure, and the much-prized privacy. For nights here, there's firewood for sale and quietude for free.

Cape Breton Island

Liz Cummings / Unsplash

St. George’s Anglican Church and Graveyard

Nestled on 119 Charlotte Street, St. George’s Anglican Church is worth visiting if you love historic sites and Gothic Revival architecture. Built in the same style in the 18th century, this site is not just the oldest Anglican Church in Cape Breton, but also the first structure built in Sydney. Fun fact: the church started out as a simple stone structure with three windows adorning the north and south walls. Over time, it evolved to boast a chancel, vestry, and later a stone tower and spire. The majestic building now reflects the preserved heritage and the evolution of architectural styles over time. 

Inside you'll see wall-hung headstones, memorial tablets, stained-glass windows, and a magnificent Casavant organ. Every nook and cranny of this church speaks of its grandeur and enduring beauty. The graveyard is also unique with its design taking inspiration from folk art. Early sandstone and limestone grave markers and unusually large headstones are some of the defining elements of St. George's graveyard.

The Big Fiddle Market

If you want to shop till you drop, Mayflower Mall is the place to go with its colorful and modern medley of stores and eateries. But The Big Fiddle Market is the place where you go mostly for its ambiance. Located right next to The Big Fiddle, this market has lots of artistic creations from hand-crafted wood carvings to beautifully weaved local works of art. 

There's wonderful jewelry, gorgeous pieces of beach glass, fusion glass landscape art, stone carvings, chocolates, and beautiful Christmas ornaments. Tartans are Cape Bretoners' favorite, so make sure to buy some. If you're craving something sweet, there's an outpost for the Cape Breton Fudge Company here. Pro tip: buy some and soak up the balmy breeze as you enjoy the beautiful waterscape stretched out in front of you.

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