Charlottetown, small as it is, may be baffling for a new visitor because of the way historic and newer streets converge. The town began with a handful of harbor-front blocks. The centuries have contributed a confusing jumble of other roads that feed into the historic area from all sorts of angles.

Old Charlottetown has been restored with rejuvenated buildings and brick walkways, lighted at night with gas lamps.From either direction, the TransCanada Highway (Route 1) will take you right into the heart of town. From the west, it crosses the North River, turns south at the University of Prince Edward Island campus, and becomes University Avenue. From the east, take the Water Street exit to reach the information center.

Extending from the harbor to Euston Street, the commercial area is pleasantly compact, attractive, and easily covered on foot. Old Charlottetown (or Old Charlotte Town, depending on who’s describing the area) has been restored with rejuvenated buildings and brick walkways, lighted at night with gas lamps.

The most sought-after residential areas, with large stately houses, rim Victoria Park and North River Road. Working-class neighborhoods fan out farther north beyond Grafton Street and are marked with small pastel-painted houses set close to the streets.

A row of cannons perched in the grass in Victoria Park.

Charlottetown’s Victoria Park. Photo © Andrew Hempstead.

Sights in Downtown Charlottetown

Downtown Charlottetown is compact; plan on parking and exploring on foot. The waterfront area is the best place to leave your vehicle. Not only is it central, but you can make the provincial Visitor Information Centre (178 Water St., 902/370-2842) your first stop.

Confederation Players

The Confederation Players are keen local historians who dress in period costume to conduct walking tours ($15 pp) of downtown Charlottetown mid-June-August. The Great George Street walking tour departs Tuesday-Saturday at 10am and 3:30pm from the Visitor Information Centre at 178 Water Street, taking in all the historical highlights along one of Canada’s best known boulevards. The Historic Queen Square tour departs from its namesake in the heart of downtown Tuesday-Saturday at 2:30pm, focusing on Province House and the Confederation Centre of the Arts.

Downtown Waterfront

A rejuvenation project has resulted in much improvement in the downtown waterfront precinct. The adjacent Confederation Landing Park is rimmed by a seaside boardwalk and filled with pleasant gardens and well-trimmed grass. The park is integrated with Peake’s Wharf, where the Fathers of Confederation arrived on the island. This is now a tourist hub of sorts, with restaurants and shops, and tour boats line the docks waiting to take interested visitors on sightseeing trips.

The stately stone Province House in Charlottetown, PEI.

Province House. Photo © Andrew Hempstead.

Province House

The nation of Canada began at Province House (corner of Grafton St. and Great George St., 902/566-7626; June-Sept. daily 9am-5pm, Oct.-May Mon.-Fri. 9am-5pm; free), four blocks up Great George Street from the harbor. Now protected as a national historic site, the buff sandstone neoclassical edifice at the high point of downtown was erected in 1847 to house the island’s colonial legislature.

It quickly became the center of public life on the island. It was the site of lavish balls and state functions, including the historic 1864 conference on federal union. The provincial legislature still convenes here; meetings are in session between mid-February and early May for 5-17 weeks, depending on how much provincial government haggling is underway.

In the late 1970s, Parks Canada undertook restoration of the age-begrimed building, a five-year task completed in 1983. Layers of paint came off the front columns. The double-hung windows throughout were refitted with glass panes from an old greenhouse in New Brunswick. About 10 percent of the original furnishings remained in the building before restoration and were retained. Most of the rest were replaced by period antiques obtained in the other provinces and the northeastern United States. A flowered rug was woven for Confederation Chamber, where the Fathers of Confederation convened. Every nook and corner was refurbished and polished until the interior gleamed. Today, Province House is one of Atlantic Canada’s most significant public buildings.

Confederation Centre of the Arts

Confederation Centre of the Arts (145 Richmond St., 902/628-1864,) is the other half of the imposing complex shared by Province House. The promenades, edged with places to sit, are great places for people-watching, and kids like to skateboard on the walkways.

The center opened in 1964 to mark the centennial of the Charlottetown Conference, as the confederation meeting became known in Canadian history. It’s a great hulk of a place, compatible with its historic neighbor in its design and coloring. The center houses an art gallery, the provincial library, four theaters, and a café. The emphasis at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery (mid-May-Oct. daily 9am-5pm, Nov.-mid-May Wed.-Sat. 11am-5pm, Sun. 1pm-5pm, free) is the work of Canadian artists—expect to see some of island artist Robert Harris’s paintings and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s original manuscripts. A gift shop stocks wares by the cream of PEI’s artisans.

All Souls’ Chapel

A few blocks west of Queen Street, the remarkable All Souls’ Chapel next to St. Peter’s Cathedral (Rochford St., 902/566-2102, daily 8am-6pm, free) was a joint Harris family creation. The architect William Harris styled it in island sandstone with a dark walnut interior. His brother Robert painted the murals and deftly mixed family members and friends among the religious figures.

Beaconsfield Historic House

A bright-yellow, 25-room mansion, Beaconsfield Historic House (2 Kent St., 902/368-6603; tours summer daily 10am-4:30pm, spring and fall Mon.-Fri.; adult $5, senior and child $4) was built in 1877 from a William Critchlow Harris design. The building has survived more than a century of varied use as a family home, a shelter for “friendless women,” a YWCA, and a nurses’ residence. It was rescued in 1973 by the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation, which turned it into foundation headquarters and a heritage museum. A good bookstore is on the first level, and genealogical archives are kept across the hall and upstairs. The wide front porch overlooking the harbor across a long lawn is a great place to have tea and scones.

Victoria Park

Victoria Park, adjacent to Beaconsfield House, reigns as one of Charlottetown’s prettiest settings, with 16 wooded and grassy hectares overlooking the bay at Battery Point. The greenery spreads out across the peninsula tip; to get there, follow Kent Street as it turns into Park Roadway. The park’s rolling terrain is built of moraines, heaps of gravelly deposits left behind by ice-age glaciers.

Joggers like the park’s winding paths, and birders find abundant yellow warblers, purple finches, and downy woodpeckers nesting in the maples, firs, oaks, pines, and birches. The white palatial mansion overlooking the water is Fanningbank (Government House), the lieutenant governor’s private residence—nice to look at, but it’s closed to the public.

Sights Beyond Downtown

Charlottetown Farmers Market

The Charlottetown Farmers Market (100 Belvedere Ave., 902/626-3373, Sat. 9am-2pm and summer Wed. 9am-2pm) is across from the university campus. The indoor market holds about 40 vendors selling everything from flowers and crafts to baked goods, produce, and fish.

Fort Amherst-Port-la-Joye National Historic Site

Just four kilometers across the harbor from downtown but a 35-minute drive via Routes 1 and 19, Fort Amherst-Port-la-Joye National Historic Site protects the island’s first European settlement. It all began in 1720, when three French ships sailed into Port-la-Joye (today’s Charlottetown Harbour) carrying some 300 settlers. Most of them moved to the north shore and established fishing villages, but the rest remained here at the military outpost.

Within just four years, adverse conditions had driven out most of the French. The British burned Port-la-Joye in 1745 and took control of the island. The French later returned to rebuild their capital, but were compelled to surrender Port-la-Joye to a superior British force in 1758. The British renamed the post Fort Amherst. After the British established a new capital at Charlottetown, Fort Amherst fell quickly into disrepair, and now no buildings remain. The grounds, which have picnic tables, are open June-August.

Excerpted from the Eighth Edition of Moon Atlantic Canada.