Antigonish is easy enough to miss when travelling to Cape Breton Island from Halifax. Do so, however, and you’d be missing out. This small coastal town in Nova Scotia is rich with natural beauty as well as influences from the past.
Though Antigonish’s year round population is only around 5k, it’s a lot less sleepy than you may first imagine it to be.
As a regional centre and university town, the local restaurant and shopping scene is much more reminiscent of a small city.
Downtown Antigonish is host to an excellent collection of local eateries, including one of the best restaurants we’ve been to anywhere, as well a distillery and two craft breweries (there’s another just up the road as well!)
Combine that with colourful architecture, Gaelic culture, beautiful local hiking trails, golden sand beaches and a spectacular scenic driving route and you’ve got the perfect base for a relaxing coastal adventure on Nova Scotia’s Northumberland Shore.
In this post, I’ll share the best things to do in Antigonish in one day as well as the top places to dine and sleep (and why you should consider staying longer!)
Here’s what to expect:
- Introducing Antigonish, Nova Scotia
- One day in Antigonish: the best things to do
- Where and what to eat
- Accommodation options
Antigonish is located on Megumaagee, land of the Mi’kmaq. We visited Antigonish in mid October 2022 in partnership with Tourism Nova Scotia. This post was published on 21st October 2022.
Antigonish, Nova Scotia: Why you need to go
Antigonish is a small town in Nova Scotia, located on St George’s Bay on the Northumberland Strait.
To help you with orientation, the community is about two hours drive northeast of Halifax and 30 minutes from the bridge to Cape Breton Island.
Though JR and I have travelled a lot of Nova Scotia over the last few years, we had never even stopped in Antigonish until this trip. Like most people, we had (somewhat unknowingly) passed the town on the way to Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail.
Antigonish is a destination in its own right, however. The surrounding scenery is glorious; green rolling hills above golden sand beaches and rocky coves, cliffside roads passing historic lighthouses and showcasing endless ocean vistas.
And then there’s the town itself. Historical but also forward thinking, with a strong community spirit and surprisingly lively downtown. For such a relatively small place, Antigonish definitely punches well above its weight.
A brief history
The Mi’kmaq have lived and travelled this region for thousands of years, utilising the coastal location as a seasonal base.
Acadians, expelled from the Grand-Pré area, began to settle in Pomquet (just east of present day Antigonish) in the late 18th century.
Not long after, Scots fleeing the Highland Clearances arrived. Pictou was the primary destination for most (especially Protestants), but some settlers started branching out further east.
3000 free black citizens travelled to Nova Scotia following the American Revolution, with a small proportion eventually settling in Tracadie (east of Pomquet).
The community of Georgetown was established in 1784 by Irish loyalists, later renamed Dorchester and finally Antigonish. The latter is derived from the Mi’kmaq word N’alegihooneech, which translates to “place where branches are torn off.”
The Scottish population continued to grow in Antigonish County and with it, the Roman Catholic faith as well.
St. Francis Xavier College was founded in 1853 and St Ninian’s Cathedral built on the campus soon after. The Antigonish Highland Society was also established around this time.
Though the Scottish links remain strong, modern Antigonish is more multicultural. There’s a large international student population as well as a significant number of settled Syrian refugees.
How to get there
Antigonish is located in eastern Nova Scotia, which is also on the east coast of Canada. Highway 104 passes just south of town.
Halifax to Antigonish: 212km, 2 hours 15 minutes
Caribou (PEI ferry) to Antigonish: 80km, 50 minutes
New Glasgow to Antigonish: 57km, 45 minutes
Cheticamp (Cabot Trail) to Antigonish: 186km, 2 hours 15 minutes
New Brunswick border to Antigonish: 220km, 2 hours 10 minutes
The town’s position just off Highway 104 means that it is ideally situated on the main route to Cape Breton Island.
The most picturesque way to arrive in Antigonish is via the Cape George Scenic Drive, which includes Highways 245 and 337.
This winding route stays close to the coast, offering impressive views of the ocean and the chance to visit two lighthouses.
Without stopping, the 100km drive takes around 80 minutes (double the distance and time of the equivalent journey on Highway 104).
When to go
Warm weather makes the summer months the best time to visit Antigonish. Late spring and early autumn are also ideal. In mid October, the hills light up with golden trees.
A highlight of the summer is the Antigonish Highland Games. First held in 1863, this early July event is the longest continuously running highland games outside of Scotland.
Enjoy traditional dancing, music, competitions (Tug O’ War, caber toss), cultural workshops, parades and storytelling. Be sure to make an accommodation reservation early.
If eating lobster is a priority, try to time your trip to Antigonish for fishing season – 1st May to 30th June. Lobster can still be found outside of these dates, but late spring is the best time.
The best things to do in Antigonish: One day itinerary
I love small towns – there’s so much you can do and see in just one day. Antigonish is no different.
In this section, I’ll share the best things to do in Antigonish, from morning to evening. If you arrive in Antigonish in the afternoon, just start from there and return to the ‘morning’ component later.
To help plan your trip, we’ve put together a Google Map displaying all of the suggestions with their exact location.
If you can, consider staying longer in Antigonish and visit all of the places mentioned. This small town has a lot to offer and you could easily spend 2-3 days exploring the area.
Good morning Antigonish! If you’re an early riser, consider watching the sun rise over the ocean at beautiful Mahoneys Beach. It’s a 15 minute drive from downtown Antigonish.
Start your day right with coffee and a light breakfast at the Tall and Small Café. Hungry? Check out Justamere Café or Main Street Café for traditional cooked options (click to read more about these restaurants).
Work off breakfast with a walk along Antigonish Landing. The 4km return trail along the river is completely flat and takes around an hour on foot. Watch for eagles, osprey and ducks. The parking lot is located at the end of Adam Street, by the railway tracks (no facilities).
After your walk, head up the street to Peace by Chocolate. Look for the little wooden shop on Bay Street. The Hadhad family’s original chocolate factory in Syria was destroyed in a bombing in 2012. Moving to Antigonish as refugees in 2015, they began making chocolate again in this small shop.
The business quickly became a success and the chocolate is now an staple across Nova Scotia. A movie was even made about the family’s story (I’d highly recommend checking it out before you visit!) The Gold Bar is their bestseller and also my favourite.
Visiting on a Saturday? Make some time to check out the Antigonish Farmers Market, which runs year round from 8.30am to 1pm (reduced hours in winter)
There are so many ways to spend an afternoon in Antigonish. Here are three ideas, with scenic drive, heritage and hiking themes. We’ve tried and tested each suggestion!
Scenic drive option
Love a good road trip? Take a drive up Highway 337, also known as the Cape George Scenic Drive.
Stop at Mahoneys Beach (if you already didn’t go for sunrise) to check out the panoramic views of St. George’s Bay and take a walk along the sand. Cribbons Beach, further up the road, is another spectacular beach.
Continue on to Ballantyne’s Cove, stopping at the scenic pullouts along the way. Ballantyne’s Cove is home to a working wharf and the Bluefin Tuna Interpretive Centre. Fun fact – the largest tuna ever caught (1647lb!) was caught in this area in the late 1970s.
In the summer months, you can grab lunch at the Fish and Ships food stand. Unsurprisingly, the fish and chips are the star of the show! If visiting out of season, be sure to bring a picnic or have lunch before leaving Antigonish.
The road gets a little windy after the Cove, as it leads towards Cape George itself. Visit the red and white lighthouse at the top of the cliffs and enjoy the views.
The vistas continue after Cape George, with another beautiful rest stop available at Livingstone’s Cove.
After this point, either return the way you came or take the inland route back to Antigonish via Malignant Cove. Ponder a detour to Half Cocked Brewing on the way back to Antigonish.
Have more time on your hands? Continue on the Cape George Scenic Drive to Highway 245.
The route stays close to the coast, passing Arisaig Lighthouse, Steinhart Distillery and Knoydart Farm Cheese. Big Island Beach is also well worth a stop. Drive back to Antigonish via Highway 104
Heritage focused option
Visiting Antigonish to research your genealogy? Or perhaps you’re just interested in the town’s historical origins?
The Antigonish Heritage Museum should be your first stop. Situated in the old railway station building, this small community museum provides an excellent introduction to the town’s history (free entry, donations welcome).
In addition to the displays, there is a Resource Room with census records, vital statistics, school registers and other historical data. The helpful staff are on hand to answer any questions.
Enjoy lunch in town at the Snow Queen Family Restaurant or Justamere Café and Bakery. Both locations serve rich, creamy versions of seafood chowder (our top picks in town).
After lunch, take a walk around St. Francis Xavier University. One of Canada’s oldest universities, some of the buildings date back to the late 19th century. Look out for the Coady Institute, named in honour of Rev. Dr. Moses Coady, a founder of the Antigonish Movement.
St. Ninian Cathedral is also situated on the campus, an impressive stone structure with paintings by Ozias Leduc. Across from the university is Cairn Park, an area dedicated to the Scottish families (clans) that settled in Antigonish.
Looking for more? Take a drive to nearby Pomquet (15 minutes), a small Acadian village. Keep an eye out for the starred tricolour flag as you travel towards the Chez Deslauriers property.
This heritage home has been converted into a tearoom, with traditional Acadian lunches being served each Friday during the summer months. Even if your timing isn’t right, the scenic views are wonderful and the local beaches worth the drive
If you want to spend your afternoon hiking, there are plenty of possibilities in the Antigonish area.
My top choice would be to follow the scenic drive route as described above until Cape George. After checking out the views around the lighthouse, head back to the Cape George Day Park.
This is an access point for the Cape George Heritage Trail network, which includes more than 35km of hiking trails. Bring your own picnic or eat at Fish and Ships (as per scenic drive route).
An alternative idea would be to explore the inland trails at Keppoch Mountain. This four season recreational area is a short 15 minute drive from Antigonish and features 40km of non-motorized paths.
Operated by a non-profit, the signage, trails and facilities are first class. I’d highly recommend the summit loop hike, which is 5km total with 190m elevation gain. The hiking fee is $5/per person. Bring your own picnic.
Fast hiker? After exploring Cape George, continue along the coastal road to Arisaig Provincial Park (impressive cliffs and fossils) or backtrack to Fairmont Ridge (series of looped paths through forest). From Keppoch Mountain, head to Beaver Mountain Provincial Park (more scenic views).
Please note that all five hiking locations suffered damage from Hurricane Fiona in September 2022 and had limited access (or were completely closed) during our visit three weeks later. Anticipate reopening in spring 2023
After freshening up at your accommodation, head downtown for a pre-dinner drink at Candid Brewing or Spindrift, Oak Manor (both stops on Nova Scotia’s Good Cheer Trail). Alternatively, have an early dinner and then go for nightcap!
Of the two, I preferred the more varied craft beer selection at Candid Brewing. But honestly, it’s a pretty close call. Both breweries offer flights of beer so you can taste four small samples at once.
Candid Brewing often hosts live music, so be sure to check their calendar before you go.
Spindrift has the most spectacular rooftop patio overlooking downtown Antigonish and the university – so if it’s a sunny day, I’d suggest to go there as a priority.
If cocktails are more your thing, check out Coldstream Clear Distillery. The colourful cocktail flights are both tasty and innovative. Free tastings are available as well.
For dinner, our top pick is the Townhouse (read the next section to find out why). Conveniently, it’s less than a block from both Spindrift and Candid.
If the Townhouse is full or the menu isn’t your cup of tea, consider Brownstone Restaurant or Justamere Café (though the latter is a short drive away, be sure to plan ahead).
Where to eat in Antigonish
The range and quality of the dining scene in Antigonish is pretty impressive for a small town. In saying that, a few did stand above the others for us and I’ve shared them below.
While visiting Antigonish, be sure to try some seafood chowder. Several local restaurants are featured on Nova Scotia’s Chowder Trail, which celebrates homemade chowders featuring fresh local seafood.
Also look out for lobster dishes, most commonly seen during the months of May and June (the local fishing season). Two local restaurants are highlighted on Nova Scotia’s Lobster Trail.
Surrounded by farms, you’ll notice that many restaurant menus showcase local produce. Not far from Antigonish, for example, is Knoydart Farm, the Maritimes’ only grass-fed certified organic dairy farm.
Tidal Bay is Nova Scotia’s signature wine and is served in a number of local restaurants. This crisp, aromatic wine pairs beautifully with seafood.
If you only have time to eat at one place in Antigonish, head directly to the Townhouse (reservation recommended). Our dining experience here was one of the best anywhere we’ve tried in Nova Scotia.
This downtown restaurant somehow manages to be both sophisticated and unpretentious, making it a favourite of both locals and visitors.
We visited late on a Sunday night in October and the restaurant was absolutely rocking. In a town of 5k year round residents, that says a lot.
The fairly unassuming exterior gives way to an intimate setting for both dining and drinking, with a large wooden bar and cleverly sectioned seating.
The menu is concise yet surprisingly varied, with elevated versions of classic Canadian dishes rubbing shoulders with newer favourites (bibimbap, Arctic char, pork belly) and local specialties (fishcakes, scallops).
Local beers adorn the drinks list, alongside an extensive selection of wines (again, some local) and a fabulous choice of innovative cocktails.
Justamere Café and Bakery
Situated in a shopping mall alongside Canadian Tire, Sobey’s and Dollarama, we didn’t have high expectations for Justamere Café. But this restaurant is anything but ordinary!
The big box store vibe completely melts away as you enter a bright and airy interior with high ceilings and adjoining sunroom. Friendly space and a buzzy atmosphere makes Justamere Café a very inviting place to spend an hour or two.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner is served in both dining spaces, with the creative menu showcasing many homemade breads, sauces and dressings. A highlight is the creamy seafood chowder, one of the best we found in town (and we tried quite a few versions!)
Justamere is a bakery as well as a café. Pick up some doughnuts, focaccia, jalapeno cheddar buns, bagels or sweet treats for the road. We loved the melt-in-the-mouth White Chocolate & Lime cookies.
Snow Queen Family Restaurant
Operating for more than 50 years, the Snow Queen is an Antigonish institution.
The concept of this casual restaurant is simple – affordable favourites made fresh and served quickly. Think sandwiches, burgers, all day breakfast, seafood and salad. It’s a bit like a diner with counter service.
Our primary reason for visiting the Snow Queen was to try the chowder. Packed with haddock, scallops, shrimp, clams and lobster, it was well worth the trip. Our portion of fish and chips was also excellent, with a crisp, light batter on the good sized piece of haddock.
I believe the current owners are about to retire, so here’s hoping the Snow Queen continues to thrive in Antigonish for years to come!
The Waffle Bus Stop
Looking for a quick take out lunch while exploring Antigonish? The Waffle Bus Stop is a great choice. Choose between a wide range of sweet and savoury waffle options, with the latter formed as a sandwich.
And these just aren’t any kind of waffle; these are Belgian Liège waffles made with yeast. Think rich and chewy with a crisp, sweet coating. I loved my veggie version featuring eggplant, spinach and lots of stretchy mozzarella.
Located just across the street from the university, the Waffle Bus Stop hosts a sunny streetside patio. There’s a small inside eating area as well. The waffles are well suited for takeout, especially since all of the packaging is compostable or recyclable.
The Waffle Bus Stop first appeared at the farmers market, before transitioning into a food truck (or, rather, a waffle bus!) and then the current café. Local ingredients remain a focus.
Other Antigonish eateries worth a stop
- Main Street Café – A solid choice for breakfast, this relaxed spot also serves lunch and dinner. The menu features plenty of seafood – try the fishcakes or better still, the lobster Eggs Benedict
- Brownstone Restaurant – A warm welcome awaits at this cosy yet modern downtown restaurant serving classic comfort food dishes for both lunch and dinner
- The Wheel Pizza & Sub Shop – For all your late night pizza needs, look no further than the Wheel! Try one of the five specialties or build your own. I satisfied my garlic finger craving here – and it was one of the best I’ve ever had!
- Gabrieau’s Bistro – Upscale dining option featuring locally sourced meat, seafood and produce accompanied by an exceptional wine list. The menu is influenced by French and Italian cuisine, but also features some classic Canadian dishes as well as sushi
- BackEast Seafood – Unfortunately already closed for the season on our visit, but locals told us that this food truck is the place to go for lobster rolls. It’s located on the old Highway 104, next to the Irving gas station
- Tall and Small Café – Popular spot for specialty coffees and lunch items, with various sandwich/soup/salad/burger combinations and a large range of sweet treats. Great for anyone with dietary requirements
Where to stay in Antigonish
There’s plenty of choice for accommodation in Antigonish! Here are our top recommendations.
Microtel Inn and Suites
The Microtel Inn and Suites is Antigonish’s newest hotel. Overlooking the highway, it takes less than five minutes to drive downtown from here.
The rooms are large and well organised with stylish furnishings. We stayed in an ‘Efficiency’ room, which featured a kitchenette (microwave, stovetop, fridge). Despite the hotel being full, we found it to be surprisingly quiet.
A complimentary continental breakfast is included with every stay and guests also have access to a swimming pool and gym. There’s an on-site bar as well, with a limited restaurant menu.
Antigonish Victorian Inn
One of the most unique places to stay in Antigonish is the Victorian Inn. Set on nearly 5 landscaped acres, this magnificent renovated mansion is the former home of a wealthy businessman. Many notable figures have stayed here over the last century.
Each room is individually decorated, with a personality of its own. A particularly special room is located in the turret of the building and features a carved four poster bed.
The property borders Columbus Field, where the annual Highland Games are held. This makes the Victorian Inn the ideal place to stay for this well loved event.
The Maritime Inn
The Maritime Inn is situated on the eastern side of town, an easy walk to everywhere downtown. Rooms are spacious and warmly decorated. Some rooms are motel-style with parking right outside.
The Main Street Café is attached to the hotel, with guests receiving complimentary breakfast.
Claymore Inn and Suites
Claymore Inn and Suites is another highly rated option for accommodation in Antigonish. It’s an older property but is well looked after.
The location is convenient for the highway and also breakfast – the excellent Justamere Café is right next door.
From late May to early August, it’s also possible to stay in student accommodation at St. Francis Xavier University. The larger rooms are ideal for families.
Another option in summer is the centrally located Micro Boutique Living. The well thought out suites include a kitchenette, so you can cook some of your own meals. We’ve stayed in the Wolfville property several times and wouldn’t hesitate to vacation here too.
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One half of the Canadian/British couple behind Off Track Travel, Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure. JR and Gemma are currently based in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada