Top 10 things to see and do in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

by W. Andrew Powell
Fortress of Louisbourg

Start planning your trip to Cape Breton Island, one of the most beautiful places in Canada, and the perfect road trip destination.

From the start of June to around mid-September, Cape Breton offers lots of activities for couples, families, tours, and solo travellers, including beaches, historical sites, vibrant towns, amazing food, and lots of culture.

For the best trip, I recommend at least a week to explore Cape Breton, if you have the time, but you can still see a lot in three or four days.

Read on for my 10 favourite things on the island or watch the video below and on YouTube. For more Nova Scotia trip ideas, read my road trip story, Halifax to Cape Breton Island.

Cape Breton Highlands National Park

Cape Breton Highlands National Park

The entire Cabot Trail is a wonder, but there’s nowhere else in Canada like the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. There’s so much to see and do in and around the park, especially for hikers, that you could spend two or three days exploring.

At the north west tip of Cape Breton, and covering 949 square kilometres, Highlands National Park is majestic, beautiful, and rugged with 26 hiking trails. There are trails for anyone, and one of the most incredible is the Skyline trail looking out over the cliffs, but I also highly recommend Middle Head trail in Ingonish for the coastal views.

If you’re driving into the park, the views coming up the western side, from Chéticamp are absolutely astonishing. It’s one of the most scenic parts of the whole Cabot Trail.

Whale watching & boat tours

Pleasant Bay on the north west shores of the island offers a beautiful beach and it’s a great stop along the Cabot Trail drive through the Highlands National Park, but if you plan ahead, it’s also the perfect place to go whale watching.

Boats go out during the summer, and on your 2-hour trip you may see seals, eagles, and a variety of whale species, including Humpback Whales. You’ll learn a bit about the whales, and some tours offer the chance to hear their “songs” underwater thanks to special microphones.

Weather may impact when tours can operate, especially in high winds or bad weather, so be sure to keep that in mind or call ahead where possible.

Glenora Distillery & Inn

Glenora Distillery & Inn

Sample an excellent dram of whiskey at the Glenora Distillery in Glenville, on the western side of the island south of Inverness. The distillery is settled between beautiful rolling hills, and offers tours, there are rooms where you can stay, or you can just stop for a meal. And of course they also sell their single malt whiskies, with some varieties that are hard to find anywhere else.

Distillery tours are a brisk 20 minutes, and run throughout the day, so you can usually just show up and catch one if you’re in the area. They also offer a VIP single malt tasting experience by appointment, so you can try all of their expressions directly from the barrels.

Dining at the distillery includes casual meals at the Washback Pub, or fine dining at the Warehouse Dining Room.

Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site

The town of Baddeck is completely charming, with the most beautiful views across the Bras d’Or Lake, and I highly recommend a relaxing stay at the Inverary Resort while you’re in town. And while you’re there, you need to visit the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site for a look back into the history of the area, and the great inventor’s life.

The park surrounding the museum is a great spot for a picnic or a stroll, and then inside you’ll find some of Bell’s most surprising discoveries and inventions. There are full-sized recreations of his planes and hydrofoils, instruments and objects from his labs, and a look at what his inventions have meant for the world. Activities, experiments and even “White Glove Tours” are available in the summer.

It’s a fascinating museum that makes the great man’s story come alive.

Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site

Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site

A short drive from Sydney, the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site is one of the most amazing historic places that I have ever seen in Canada.

Built by the French in the 1700s and then burned down by the invading English forces a few years later, the Fortress and small village was actually rebuilt in the 1960s to show off the incredible history and stories from the people that lived and worked here.

The Fortress comes alive thanks to the wonderful interpreters, who are dressed the parts of soldiers, workers, and staff, going about their daily jobs.

You can take a tour, explore the buildings and learn about the stories from history, including fantastic Indigenous experts in the Mi’kmaw Interpretive Centre, and there are restaurants, a gift shop, and a bar. You can easily explore the fortress for an entire day, and I would recommend planning for at least three to four hours.

Beaches

Nova Scotia has some of the best beaches in the east coast, and Cape Breton Island offers a wide range of options, from the relaxing swimming spots, to rugged natural shores.

One of my family’s favourite beaches was Inverness Beach, in the town of Inverness, where you can relax on the sandy shore, take a swim, and look for washed up sea glass and pottery. For a more rugged, natural spot, Black Brook Beach is striking, and raw, with lines of evergreens along the shore, and a waterfall alongside the nearby hiking trail.

North of the town of Chéticamp you’ll also find the Petit Étang beach, or explore the beaches along the south west shores by the Fortress of Louisbourg.

There are lots of options, depending on where you’re visiting in Cape Breton, so plan to bring your swimming trunks and take a walk by the waves.

Workshops at Membertou Heritage Park

Membertou in Syndey offers a lot of history about the area, and the Mi’kmaq people who have lived there for thousands of years.

Membertou Heritage Park offers a fantastic museum, and a gift shop with Indigenous art, but you can also take part in workshops at the centre to create beaded earrings, baskets, and even drums.

The centre also offers a medicine walk, to learn about the roots, mosses, leaves, flowers, and berries that have been used by the Mi’kmaq people, and that includes a traditional tea ceremony experience.

You can take self-directed tours of the museum to learn more about the culture, history, and people of the area for a small fee as well.

Camping at Kluskap Ridge

For campers and RV season, Kluskap Ridge is one of the most unique destinations on the east coast. The RV park and campground also offers glamping options, and it’s owned and operated by members of Membertou First Nation. Accommodations are available year-round, and the campground has gorgeous views looking out over St. Ann’s Bay.

There are lots of activities, hiking, and culture for adults and kids, not to mention pottery and leather working, and there are drum ceremonies and opportunities to learn about Mi’kmaq culture from elders and experts. Rates start at $85.00 per night for a Tipi rental, and cabins start at $100 per night.

Breweries & Pubs

If you’re a craft beer lover, Cape Breton is the place for you, with dozens of bars, breweries, and restaurants to try some new brews. Maybe you’ll find a new favourite to take home, too.

In Inverness, I was blown away by Route 19‘s incredible restaurant, and all of their beer on tap. When I visited they had 12 different varieties available, and you can sample from the tap in the bar, or purchase cans to take home.

A few other favourites include Breton Brewing, Big Spruce, or try Island Folk cider house.

Explore the options for breweries, distilleries, and wineries on the Cape Breton Island website.

Highlands coastal towns and vista

Last but not least, one of my favourite areas to explore on the island were the towns, and coastal areas north of Highlands National Park, from Neils Harbour west to Pleasant Bay.

There are towns like Dingwall, numerous hiking areas like Peak Tenerife Mountain or the area leading the Grave of the Unknown Sailor, a few lighthouses and lookouts, and places like Bay St Lawrence.

The drive along the Cabot Trail going north from Black Brook Cove, to where it meets New Haven Road in Neils Harbour was a particular favourite, as we spotted some wildlife, including bald eagles. And you can get ice cream in the summer near Neil’s Harbour Lighthouse.

And when you need lunch, I highly recommend a stop at the incredible Morrison’s Restaurant in Cape North. They have seafood chowder, fish cakes, clams, and the most incredible desserts. Try the Neil Angus Burger or the Aspy Burger, and for dessert, you can’t beat Strawberry Shortcake or Carrot Cake.

Looking for more Canadian travel ideas? Visit our Canadian Travel Guide for ideas across the country.

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