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Sydney (Nova Scotia) (Photo:oksana.perkins/Shutterstock)
Sydney (Nova Scotia) (Photo:oksana.perkins/Shutterstock)
4.5 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

Cruise Critic
Cruise Critic Staff

Port of Sydney (Nova Scotia)

Sydney is a city in transition. For a long time it was known mainly as an industrial center, one of Canada's major coal and steel suppliers. In the past, cruise passengers typically left the town for nearby excursions, like the beautiful Bras d'Or Lakes area and town of Baddeck, where Alexander Graham Bell lived and worked. The Fortress of Louisbourg, the largest historic reconstruction in North America, lures many visitors, and the Cabot Trail is one of Canada's most scenic drives.

Shore Excursions

About Sydney (Nova Scotia)


Pro

In addition to being a jumping off point for many scenic excursions, Sydney is full of culture and history

Con

The city is undergoing a transition from its long history as an industrial hub

Bottom Line

Tourism is a relatively new industry for the formerly industrial Sydney, and it's doing it well


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But today's Sydney is an increasingly interesting place to visit. When the mills and mines closed for good in 2001, the city turned its eyes to the harbor and the 70,000 cruise-ship passengers who arrive each season. By concentrating on tourism, Sydney is making the most of its rich history and its position as the major city on beautiful Cape Breton Island.

British loyalists fleeing the American Revolution founded the town in 1785, and the settlement soon prospered from its rich natural resources. In its industrial heyday, jobs in the steel factories and coal mines attracted settlers from many lands, including many who emigrated from the Scottish Highlands. Their influence is still evident. Cape Breton is one of the rare places in North America where Gaelic is still spoken, and Celtic music is heard everywhere. Visitors can have their photos taken just outside the cruise terminal with the world's largest fiddle, a 50-foot reminder of this musical heritage.

The North End of town will remind a bit of New England, with six buildings built in the late 18th century, including steepled churches and homes dating to the 1780s. Enthusiastic guides help bring the past to life. A growing boardwalk along the ocean winds near the handsome Open Hearth Park. Opened in 2013 after a 10-year restoration, it is visible proof of the city's rejuvenation, replacing eyesore waste dumps from the old industries with green lawns, walking paths, playgrounds and ball fields.

The city's native Canadian Mi'kmaq community known as Membertou has its own Heritage Park with a museum and excellent shop of native crafts. And Sydney is emerging as a culinary center, with talented young chefs bringing an international flavor to town. This is a festival town, as well, with many events timed for the peak cruise season. The late summer Action Week is a nine-day community festival featuring concerts, street performers and parades. Creative chefs have inspired the growing annual Right Some Good food festival in late August, and October brings the music-filled Celtic Colours International Festival.

Where You're Docked

Ships moor in town, a five-minute walk to Charlotte Street and the town center.

Port Facilities

Besides offering information and walking tour maps, The Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion at the dock is a destination in itself. You can spend hours here, browsing a crafts market with some 55 vendors, nine boutiques selling jewelry, clothing and fine crafts, and an art gallery. Upstairs, a mini-museum has attractive exhibits and dioramas introducing Cape Breton Island, its history and attractions. There's also a small cafe and the Ceilidh Fiddle Bar.

Along with the world's largest fiddle outside, the pavilion boasts what might be the largest indoor lighthouse. It houses a theater with changing videos, including one on the making of the big fiddle. The main stage arena hosts live concerts, especially during festivals.

Good to Know

Sydney is a safe city, but as in any port of call, it's best to leave unnecessary valuables and cash in your stateroom's safe.

Getting Around

On Foot: The sights of the town are easily walkable from the pier.

By Car: Taxis wait outside the pavilion for those who want guided tours or want to explore farther destinations. Most major car rental companies including Avis, Budget and Alamo, have offices in Sydney, and will send a car to bring cruise passengers with reservations to the rental office.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

The currency in Sydney is the Canadian dollar, but many shops will accept American dollars. If you don't want to risk it, you'll find an ATM at the cruise pavilion. For the most updated currency-conversion figures, visit www.xe.com or www.oanda.com.

Language

Everyone speaks English, but the many nationalities who came for work in the mines and mills and the large native Mi'kmaq population in Sydney mean that you might hear a smattering of other languages. You might even hear a bit of Gaelic.

Food and Drink

Locally caught seafood is the first choice in Sydney, so look for lobster rolls, chowder and fish dishes on many menus. But creative chefs also have brought an international flavor, and Thai and middle-eastern dishes are well worth sampling.

Governors Pub & Eatery: The historic home of Sydney's first mayor is a family-owned restaurant offering cozy dining rooms, outdoor tables and an upstairs pub with a deck with ocean views. Fans of lobster rolls should not miss this one on a delicious homemade bun. Other specialties include thick seafood chowder, pulled pork sandwiches, coconut-crusted shrimp, Thai chicken wrap sandwiches and entrees like beer-battered fish and chips and coconut peanut Thai chicken stir fry. (233 Esplanade; 902-562-7646; open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday)

Allegro Grill & Deli: The front is not impressive, but this small cafe has excellent food, from light meals like sandwiches and chowder to eclectic entrees. Lunch choices include Montreal smoked meat platters, pad Thai, falafel on pita bread, interesting panini choices and burgers from classic to Moroccan lamb. (222 Charlotte Street; 902-562-1623; open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Saturday, dinner, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, closed Sunday)

Flavor Downtown: This downtown outpost of a local caterer has an intriguing fusion menu with local chowders and standards sharing space with unusual choices like its signature chicken, apricot and almond wrap, a crusted haddock wrap with mango salsa and truffle aioli, and the award-winning Poppin' Patty, filled with grilled chicken, Thai coconut chili mayo, bacon, tomato, spinach and mozzarella. You can build your own Thai coconut curry with a choice of noodles and rice, meats and seafood and different curries. (16 Pitt Street; 902-562-6611; open 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday, closed Sunday)

Shopping

Cape Breton is famous for its many resident artists and artisans. Sydney's Cape Breton Centre for Craft and Design shows off the best work from throughout the island. Affordable items like hand-knit woolens, leather, glass and art make unique souvenirs. Take time to look at the excellent changing exhibits in the upstairs gallery and to look in on the classes downstairs. (322 Charlotte Street; 902-270-7491; open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Saturday)

Best Cocktail

Try a mug of Sydney's favorite beer from Big Spruce Brewing, made locally in nearby Baddeck.