Beautiful, Musical Cape Breton: A Travel Guide
On the wild Atlantic coast, maritime Nova Scotia is undeniably beautiful. But Cape Breton Island — with thick forests and plunging cliffs overlooking the sapphire sea where migrating whales spout and eagles circle — is a stirring landscape that touches the soul. And the Highlands? Something for the life list. Get to know folks in the friendly Celtic-heritage cliffside villages, hike down panoramic hillsides spilling onto the shimmering water, and join a community lobster boil or foot-stomping fiddling party.
Here's your guide to the top attractions, favorite hikes, best activities, and hottest restaurants and watering holes, along with practical info on the best time to visit North America’s No. 1 island, according to Travel + Leisure. Use this guide to plan your Cape Breton vacation.
Communities here are tight-knit, as on most islands, and a common Celtic heritage connects them. Music is core, and locals are spirited and passionate about sharing, celebrating, and riffing on traditional music, dance, poetry, storytelling, and Gaelic-influenced expression of all forms. Central is the ceilidh. That’s Gaelic for “party” and pronounced “kay-lee.” It’s a high-energy — often spontaneous and sometimes in the kitchen or barn — gathering of music with fiddling, dance, and performance. The island’s official Ceilidh Days are the second weekend in July.
When to go
July and August are the most spectacular for gorgeous weather and outdoor fun. In fact, many attractions and restaurants are only open during the high season, which is from June to October. But that’s also when it’s the busiest. Even better is fall. Consider vacationing in the quieter August and September months, or in early October when the Celtic Colours International Festival is on, an island-wide celebration of “New Scotland’s” music, dance, and culture.
Where to stay
There are dozens of charming seaside villages with inns, B&Bs, and lodges to choose from. If you can, overnight on the Ceilidh Trail along the western coast. One delightful option there is the Glenora Inn & Distillery. Stay in the quaint inn or one of the mountainside log chalets overlooking the glen. Tour the distillery and sample the single malt whisky. Ingonish, five communities on the northeast coast and famed Cabot Trail drive, is particularly appealing for its sandy beaches, great fishing, and pretty headlands. Perched above the water, four-star boutique hotel Castle Rock Inn is a superb choice. You also might want to camp to best enjoy the fresh, salty air.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park
It’s the dazzling views, steep velvety mountains, and churning ocean far below that make Cape Breton Highlands National Park an Atlantic Canadian, and world, gem. The park spans a full 20% of the island, accessible by The Cabot Trail. Start early for the best light and wildlife watching, looking for moose, bald eagles, bear, and pods of Atlantic pilot whales. Allow ample time to savor this special place.
The Cabot Trail
The 186-mile Cabot Trail is a must. This legendary twisting and turning steep coastal highway circles the island, skirting Cape Breton Highlands National Park, passing by cliffs and through mountains to reveal sweeping views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Cycle or motor along this drive, ranked as one of Canada’s most spectacular, allowing three to five days by car. Stop and stay to explore the villages with cute eateries, boutiques, and artisan studios along the route.
Hiking and biking
You’ll want to hike while in the area and the best place to do so is at Cape Breton Highlands National Park. This spot offers 26 scenic trails, from easy hikes to strenuous climbs. The highlight is the Skyline Sunset Hike. The celebrated trail takes you to the headland mountain top, a dizzying and exhilarating five-miles of ocean views and wooden boardwalks winding down to the ocean. If you time your descent with sunset, it’ll be a moment to cherish. There’s also September’s annual Hike the Highlands festival and the Hike 10 Trails in 10 Days challenge. You can also cycle, horseback ride, boat, and kayak. In winter, Nordic ski and snowmobile.
Celtic culture and music
Hear live music and lots of it. Go for Celtic Colours, an October festival convening 250 musicians, storytellers, dancers, and singers. Or just find a pub and take a seat. The Ceilidh Trail makes that easy. Follow the 66-mile drive along the west coast and stop in to catch a performance or enjoy live music over dinner or pints. In Mabou, there’s the famed Red Shoe Pub, an iconic spot for fiddlers, and Baddeck hosts regular ceilidh gatherings. If you want to learn, take a half-hour tour at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in Judique, perhaps take a fiddle lesson or learn a few dance steps.
Lighthouses, whales, and the beach
Spend the day at Louisbourg National Historic Site. Visit Canada’s very first lighthouse dating back to 1734 — the spot is wild and raw, the views superlative. Then check out the harbor’s fortress that features actors in period dress, the Old Town, and the 1.2-mile coastal and forest trail. Bring a picnic to a sandy shore. Stroll Inverness Beach’s long boardwalk and or look for pebbles at La Bloc Beach in the highlands, or go to Ingonish Beach, a favorite for its warm waters. Go whale watching in Pleasant Bay or Cheticamp, especially in summer. Take a boat tour to see puffins or go sailing. Golf is also huge here.
Food and drink
Atlantic lobster and anything caught from the sea — mackerel, scallops, mussels, oysters, and crab — is the thing here. Tuck into fresh-caught shellfish at an oyster bar or sample local renditions of lobster chowder. Top spots are: Flavor Downtown in Sydney (there are three in the area), a bistro with delicious, healthy (read: not fried) seafood; Red Shoe in Mabou for pub fare and music, and Mull Café & Deli for homespun lunch, dinner, and desserts — try the chowder. The Dancing Goat Café and Bakery is your go-to on the Cabot Trail. In Baddeck, reserve a spot at busy a Baddeck Lobster Supper to sample the catch of the day overlooking the lake in a converted legion hall. Rita’s Tea Room in Big Pond is fun and educational for lunch and pastries in a 1939 former one-room schoolhouse.
You’ll want to imbibe at iconic Red Shoe in Mabou, of course, and at Glenora Inn & Distillery, the first maker of single malt whiskey in North America. Glenora includes a pub, restaurant, and gift shop, plus an inn, all situated around a pretty courtyard. Try organic, unpasteurized craft beer with names like Bitter Get’er at Big Spruce Brewing or taste local vintages at the island’s only estate winery, Eileanan Breagha Vineyards on Marble Mountain. Or just follow the Good Cheer Trail and sample a bit of it all.
Plan your getaway at the Tourism Nova Scotia website.