If you’re planning a trip to Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, I’m guessing you already have a few things in mind to do. But get ready to add a few more with this list of the coolest things to do on Cape Breton Island! I pack a TON of information in this post. Plus, a MAP for your Nova Scotia road trip!
Cape Breton Island is enchanting. Its splendid mountain peaks, jaw-dropping coastlines and inland sea … draped in glorious colors in fall. But Cape Breton is more than its scenery. Its people will capture your heart with their witty hospitality, boot-tapping merry-making and tireless loyalty to each other.
Here’s what you’ll find in this post:
- 5 Tips for Exploring Cape Breton Island
- Where we Stayed on Cape Breton Island
- MAP: ALL of the Coolest Things to Do in Nova Scotia
- 12 Coolest Things to Do on Cape Breton Island
- Summary and Resources
5 Tips for Exploring Cape Breton Island
Here are 5 tips for exploring the coolest things to do on Cape Breton Island:
- Rent a car: Unless you have a health condition that prevents you from driving, I strongly recommend renting a car in Nova Scotia rather than joining a tour group. Slow down your pace to take in the many scenic spots, cute villages and fun hangouts along the way.
- Prepare for rural, remote driving: Driving in Cape Breton is generally easy, although the famous Cabot Trail is mountainous. It’s a mostly rural, remote island with lots of distance between communities, so top up your fuel tank before leaving for the day. Also, use a GPS, because cell coverage is iffy outside of the main towns.
- Pick your best time to visit: The best weather in Cape Breton is obviously between June and August, although this is also the busiest. We came in early October because I wanted to see the fall colors; the leaves were just starting to change, so the best time to see them would be mid-October … as long as it doesn’t snow by then. It was already very quiet tourist-wise and some activities were no longer available. So, pick a time that allows you to enjoy the activities most important to you.
- Slow down your pace: Cape Breton is about slooowing down and enjoying the peace and quiet along the way. It’s a “stop and smell the roses” kind of place. This was kinda tough for me, which is why I’m adding this in.
- Meet the locals: There are many hidden gems scattered across Cape Breton Island, virtually untapped by tourists. Meeting the locals is the best way to find them! The best advice you can get is from the host where you’re staying, the pub’s bartender or the local sitting next to you. Just ask!
Where we Stayed on Cape Breton Island
We stayed in two different places in Cape Breton Island, and I highly recommend both. You’ll also find some other really fun options tucked in with the coolest things to do on Cape Breton Island.
Here’s where we stayed:
- Dunlop Inn (552 Chebucto St, B0E 1E0 Baddeck): Baddeck is a great central area for exploring Cape Breton Island, being only 10 minutes from the turnoff onto the Cabot Trail and 1.5 hours from Louisbourg. It’s also right on the lovely Bras d’Or Lake with all the amenities you need. This pretty little inn has a sitting room, deck and beach to gaze longingly at the charming lighthouse across the water. It includes a simple breakfast. I recommend booking the Lighthouse Room, which is the only one with that wonderful view. It’s small, but that view is awesome!
- Glenora Inn (13727 Route 19, Glenville; GPS: N46 09.163 | W61 19.425): Staying at the Glenora Inn is super convenient for exploring the Ceilidh Trail. It’s central between Inverness (i.e. world-class golfing) and Mabou (i.e. ceilidh-central), and near some beautiful hikes like Egypt Falls and Lake Ainslie. But the best part of staying here is being steps away from the restaurant and its evening ceilidhs. Be sure to make reservations! The inn rooms are simple but comfortable.
MAP: ALL of the Coolest Things to Do in Nova Scotia
The map below includes ALL of the coolest things to do in Nova Scotia. Things to do on Cape Breton Island, in and near Halifax, and on the Bay of Fundy. This makes it easier to plot out your own Nova Scotia road trip.
To use the map below: Use the buttons at the top to access map details (i.e. to hide areas you’re not visiting), to share it (i.e. with yourself to modify it for your own trip) or view a larger version.
12 Coolest Things to Do on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia
Cape Breton Island is connected to mainland Nova Scotia by the Canso Causeway bridge. It’s 3,981-sq miles (10,311-sq kms) of rolling farmland and forested mountains and valleys. Plus, Cape Breton has Canada’s largest inland sea. Its coasts are barren headlands with dramatic drops to the ocean, with both rocky and sandy beaches.
Cape Breton Island is shaped like a butterfly, split down the middle by Bras d’Or Lake. Keep this visual in mind as you decide which of these coolest things to do on Cape Breton Island will make it onto YOUR road trip itinerary!
Are you ready?
1. Take an epic road trip – or five – on Cape Breton Island
When you think about driving around Cape Breton Island, I bet you think of the Cabot Trail. Which makes sense, because it’s world-famous for spectacular scenery – especially in the fall when leaves change to glorious yellows, oranges and reds.
But, Cape Breton Island actually has five scenic drives that take you along the coastal regions and the inland sea, Bras d’Or Lake. Then there’s also the informal Artisan Trail, with many cute stops along these five routes.
Use the summaries below to orientate yourself to Cape Breton and to plan how you want to experience the island’s 12 coolest things to do.
Here are Cape Breton Island’s 5 epic road trips:
- Cabot Trail (northwest corner; 185 miles/298 km): Known for its stunning coastal views and ups-and-downs through splendid mountains and valleys, the Cabot Trail is a must-do for visitors to Cape Breton. It runs through the Cape Breton Highlands, which is the largest park in the Maritimes. There’s debate on whether to drive the Cabot Trail clockwise or counter-clockwise; clockwise has more gradual climbs and descents, so it’s easier for large vehicles and cyclists (and therefore busier and slower), while counter-clockwise is more fun for those who want to hug the cliffs and have easy access to pull-outs along the coast. Give yourself 5 hours to complete the loop, plus stops. (More details are in #9 coolest things to do on Cape Breton Island.)
- Ceilidh Trail (southwest corner; 62 miles/100 km): This lovely drive offers views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, but what makes this trail extra special is its rich musical heritage, plenty of places to experience it, and warm hospitality that makes you feel like a local. The final three coolest things to do on Cape Breton Island take you here.
- Bras d’Or Lakes Scenic Drive (central; 168 miles/270 km): This trail generally starts where you exit off of Highway 105 onto Highway 223. You can follow Highway 223 north along the lake to Sydney; or, at Christmas Island turn onto Highway 216 to follow another coastal drive to where it meets up with Highway 4. At Highway 4, you can either head north towards Sydney, Glace Bay and Louisbourg, or head back towards the Canso Causeway and mainland Nova Scotia following Bras d’Or Lake’s south shore. The loop takes about 3.5 hours.
- Marconi Trail (northeast corner; 43 miles/70 km): Follow the lovely coastal drive along Highway 255 between Glace Bay and Louisbourg. In Glace Bay, visit the Marconi National Historic Site (15 Timmerman St, Glace Bay) to learn about Guglielmo Marconi’s first official transatlantic radio message in 1902 that forever changed global communications, and about his first permanent wireless station.
- Fleur-De-Lis Trail (southeast corner; 163 miles/263 km): Highways 247 and 327 run along the southeast corner of Cape Breton, linking Louisbourg with the Canso Causeway. However, many travelers have said that it’s a boring stretch through the woods without coastal views or particularly interesting stops. As of 2019, road maintenance continues to be really bad and there are long stretches without services. Sooo … since it’s not particularly epic, a better option is to take Highway 4 along the south side of Bras d’Or Lake.
Keep in mind that all of these trails are quite remote and have long stretches between towns and services. Before heading out, remember to top up your fuel. I also suggest packing snacks and a picnic lunch.
2. Fly a kite at the Bell museum in central Cape Breton
When we visited Baddeck, we were surprised by how much we enjoyed the Bell Museum.
First, about Baddeck. Baddeck is a pretty little village in central Cape Breton Island, situated right beside the Bras d’Or Lake. We found it perfect for exploring the Island’s north. It’s about 10 minutes to the Cabot Trail turnoff and a 1.5-hour drive to the Fortress of Louisbourg.
Now, the Alexander Graham Bell museum is much larger and much more impressive than what we expected; you can easily spend a few hours here and it’s very family-friendly. The museum’s website describes Alexander Graham Bell as an engineer, inventor, scientist and humanitarian. He’s best known for inventing the telephone, but he also invented the first plane to actually fly and did a lot to help the deaf and mute. The museum does a really good job at presenting its artifacts, photos and full-scale replicas in very interesting ways. You can even fly a kite here!
Also, the coffee shop is really good (I loved the cupcakes), as is the small gift shop – perfect for picking up trinkets especially for kids back home. Find out more on tripadvisor.com.
3. Drink rum like an 18th-Century soldier
You may already be thinking about a drive out to the historic Fortress of Louisbourg (which is the largest reconstruction in North America), but this has got to seal the deal: sampling the same rum punch that the soldiers drank back in the 1700s, in the same taverns (well, reconstructed) where they drank it. Apparently they enjoyed it a lot.
Book this half-hour guided sampling to discover the historic Fortress™ Rum recipe and also learn about sugar cane’s influence on trade, shipping and slavery in North America. This rum is currently maturing in oak barrels right at the Fortress.
The Fortress of Louisbourg sits at the northeast corner of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. Once a fortified town with great strategic importance for conquering Canada, it was the site of two major military sieges between the French and the British. This was where the French made their last stand in Acadia before being defeated by the British. The fall of Louisbourg in 1763 led to the fall of the French in Quebec and the end of French rule in North America.
Now a national historic site, the Fortress of Louisbourg is a world-class reconstruction of what would have stood in 1744. These buildings include part of the fortifications, the citadel buildings, the town quay, and many streets with houses, shops and taverns. Costumed guides help bring it to life and make it worth the trek. Visit year-round (though the winter can be quite inhospitable … apparently the soldiers spent a LOT of their winters in the taverns … drinking rum).
Fortress™ Rum is available at the Fortress’ restaurants and at many liquor retailers throughout Nova Scotia (so you can pick up a few bottles to take home!). Learn more about the Fortress at tripadvisor.com and the rum/tours at fortressrum.com.
4. Go in deep at a Cape Breton mine
On your return to Baddeck, detour up to Glace Bay for another experience of a lifetime. It only adds a half-hour of driving and visitor reviews speak of this coal miner’s museum as a life-changing experience. My brother would LOVE this.
The Cape Breton Miners Museum has many modern exhibits and a miner’s village that will intrigue you. But the highlights are descending into the mine underneath the museum with a retired miner as a guide, and then staying for the famous Men of the Deep choir of working and retired coal miners. Before leaving, enjoy dinner at the well-rated miner’s village restaurant next to a large brick fireplace and kerosene lamps.
To get to Glace Bay from Louisbourg, take the scenic Marconi Trail along Highway 255 (it only adds 10 minutes compared to the fastest route on Morrison Rd). The fastest return to Baddeck is Highway 4 at one hour; to continue along the coast on Highway 28 will add a half hour.
Check it out at tripadvisor.com.
5. Meet some puffins
I’m not really into birding tours, but my kids introduced me to these cuties on the Netflix series, Puffin Rock.
Atlantic puffins are unique to this area of the world, with most of their breeding grounds in Newfoundland and Labrador. The other two species of puffins live in the northern Pacific Ocean, along eastern Siberia and from Alaska down through the west coast all the way to California.
On this nearly 3-hour, ecologically sensitive tour to Bird Islands, you will see these puffin beauties plus bald eagles, seabirds and grey seals. The tour leaves from the northern part of the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere Reserve, which is a half-hour drive from Baddeck. The boat is described as roomy and “very stable,” with removable windows for photography. Guests give this three-generation, family-run tour company very strong reviews. For details, visit tripadvisor.com.
6. Sail Cape Breton’s UNESCO Biosphere Reserve
Bras d’Or Lake is Canada’s largest inland sea and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It’s surrounded by Cape Breton’s rolling hills and low mountains, with natural channels to the north and North America’s oldest operating tidal lock canal to the south (completed in 1869). The Bras d’Or Lake area is 425-sq miles (1100-sq km) and a popular spot for sailing and paddling.
The most popular areas to get out onto Bras d’Or Lake are in the south near St. Peter’s Canal and in Baddeck along the northwest shore. Choose from sailing, kayaking, canoeing, paddle-boarding and jet-skiing. Rent, charter or join a tour.
Trip Advisor has a good list of options to consider, most with very strong reviews. Check out boating options on Cape Breton!
7. Tackle some fish … on the ocean, river or lake
Cape Breton Island is an idyllic place to get your fishing on. This is definitely more up my husband’s alley. Or my sis-in-law’s. But, where there’s fish, there’s usually some pretty fantastic scenery!
Deep-sea fishing on the ocean … fly-fishing along river rapids … casting from a yacht on the lake … you have many adventures to choose from. Take on the giant Bluefin tuna out on the ocean or slow down your pace along Margaree River as you lure in wild Atlantic salmon. Or go for the lobster!
If you bring your own rod, you’ll still need to get a fishing license to fish in Nova Scotia. Visit the licensing and permits page on novascotia.ca.
Or, find a tour guide to take you to the best spots. Check out the fishing charters and tours on tripadvisor.com.
8. Practice your swing on world-class, cliff-side courses
Forbes Magazine called Cape Breton Island “the hottest island in golf.” With breathtaking coastal views and rolling green hills, Cape Breton’s golf courses are inspired by its Scottish heritage and complement its beautiful terrain.
Cape Breton Island has seven 18-hole golf courses open to the public. Among them are world-class Highlands Links and Cabot Cliffs, and Canada’s only authentic links course, Cabot Links. A links style golf course is the oldest style of course, originating in Scotland where coastal dunes and little vegetation made it poor for farming … but great for golf!
Cape Breton’s seven 18-hole public golf courses are:
- Dundee Golf Club (2750 W Bay Hwy, Louisdale): At the south tip of Bras d’Or Lake in West Bay is this 18-hole championship golf course. It takes you up South Mountain, with beautiful, peaceful views of the lake. Designed by Robert Moote and opened in 1977.
- Cabot Links (18 Cabot Lane): Cabot Links is ranked among the Top 100 in the world and is Canada’s first true links golf course. Cabot Links is nestled between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Inverness, with six holes right alongside the ocean and the remaining with ocean views. It’s a walking-only course (exceptions made for those with medical conditions). Designed by Rod Whitman and opened in 2012.
- Cabot Cliffs (18 Cabot Lane): This linksland golf course is ranked 9th in the world by Golf Digest. It’s just north of its sister course, Cabot Links, and is also a walking-only course. Designed by Coore-Crenshaw and opened in 2015.
- Le Portage (15580 Cabot Trail): Le Portage is considered a unique gem of public courses, sitting atop a forested plateau with the ocean to one side and the Cheticamp Mountains to the other. It’s just outside the Acadian village of Cheticamp. Designed by Robert and David Moote and opened in 1987.
- Highlands Links (247 Keltic In Road): Ranked among the Top 10 Best Courses in Canada and Top 100 in the world, this 18-hole course will make you feel like you’re in Scotland with its topography and Gaelic-named holes. It’s inside the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, just outside of Ingonish. Designed by Stanley Thompson and opened in 1941.
- Bell Bay (761 Highway 205): Bell Bay is a championship course overlooking the village of Baddeck and Bras d’Or Lake beyond. Golf Digest awarded it Best New Course in Canada in 1998. Designed by Thomas McBroom and opened in 1997.
- The Lakes (5101 E Bay Hwy 4, Ben Eoin): Located along the southeast shore of Bras d’Or Lake, this 18-hole course has dramatic elevation changes and fantastic lakeviews. It’s only 15 minutes from Sydney. Designed by Graham Cooke and opened in 2010.
9. Take a hike on Canada’s most iconic drives
The world-famous Cabot Trail is a must-do for your visit to Cape Breton Island. THIS was the reason we came in fall … oh, the COLORS!
The Cabot Trail is a windy, up-and-down, picturesque 185 mile driving loop on Cape Breton Island’s northwest coast. We wrapped around counter-clockwise for spur-of-the moment stops along the coast. Clockwise is easier for larger vehicles and cyclists because it’s more gradual, so it’s also the busier direction.
There’s a fee to drive through the national park, so know in advance how many days you want to spend here. Make sure you grab a map at the visitor’s center – you’ll need it!
Skyline Trail: A short but iconic hike on Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail
There are 26 hiking trails along the Cabot Trail. We hiked the popular Skyline Trail; in early October, there were very few of us on it. The Skyline Trail is a fantastic, fairly flat 7.5 km loop that takes you to a stunning headland cliff right above the Gulf of St. Lawrence; it took us amateurs a leisurely 2 hours. It satisfied my inner hiker and didn’t make my husband miserable. Win win!
- GPS coordinates for the trailhead: Lat: 46.737691 Long: -60.880377.
- Note: dogs are not allowed on the trail, because of lots of wildlife sightings. We saw a moose, quite close up; be careful with them!
10. Glamp it up on Cape Breton in a tiny home, dome or yurt
I’m always looking for a fun place to stay on a trip – a place I want to come back to after a great day of sight-seeing. A place that takes the adventure up a notch. These are it!
The tiny home craze is intriguing, hey? Try it out at this Romantic Tiny House near Inverness in the southwest corner of Cape Breton (i.e. ceilidh country). It’s really cute, with a pretty view of Lake Ainslie and nearby hiking. It’s very private without anything in the immediate area, so keep that in mind if too much privacy creeps you out.
Or how about staying in a dome with a skylight for star-gazing? The best options I found are Blue Bayou Resort near the northwest tip of the Island (25 Old Rd Loop, Dingwall) and Archer’s Edge along the southwest shore (1660 Shore Rd, Judique). At both places, the domes have heating, electricity AND a private washroom with a hot shower. Reviews are strong at both places.
And this Mongolian yurt is so pretty, located at the start of the Cabot Trail about 40 minutes north of Baddeck. The property is on a lake with the Atlantic Ocean in the distance; it’s home to moose and eagles. You can hike, kayak or canoe right here. The yurt has heating and electricity, but the washrooms are shared. The onsite restaurant has strong reviews.
Each of these options are among the coolest things to do on Cape Breton Island! You could try all of them, making them your base for exploring different areas of the Island.
11. Enjoy North America’s first single-malt distillery
This was a must-do stop for us, given my Scotch-appreciating husband who turned me into a believer on our whisky tour through Scotland. With Scottish ancestry, you KNOW Cape Bretoners know how to make good whisky. (And yes, I checked the spelling … did you know that “whisky” is Scottish spelling and “whiskey” Irish? Fact of the day!)
Glenora Distillery is the first single-malt distillery in North America. It’s nestled in Cape Breton’s southwest corner between Inverness and Mabou (i.e. golfing and music!), surrounded by lovely glens and mountains. If you’re lucky enough to have visited distilleries in Scotland, you’ll feel right at home here.
At Glenora Distillery, you’ll find the distillery itself, a simple but comfortable inn (conveniently only a few steps away from …), restaurant and pub featuring delicious food and daily ceilidhs, and private chalets and a lodge up the hill (but you’ll need a personal vehicle, so definitely not as convenient as the inn). Be sure to make reservations at both the restaurant and lodgings.
Glenora whisky is produced from authentic Scottish copper pot stills and mash tun using the traditional method of only three ingredients: barley, yeast and water. Every distillery chooses its water source very carefully, and here, Glenora chose MacLellan’s Brook from the Mabou Highlands – “the purest and cleanest source of water in Cape Breton.” Among its offerings are two 25-year whiskies and the Glen Breton Ice line that uses oak barrels from Jost Vineyards’ Ortega Ice Wine.
20-minute tours are available during the day and leave on the hour. Or, opt for a private backstage pass tour with samples directly from the barrel and a tutored tasting from a variety of Glenora’s offerings. Check it out on tripadvisor.com.
12. Take in at least one ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee) on Cape Breton
Wrap up your coolest things to do on Cape Breton Island with this quintessential experience: a ceilidh.
Nova Scotia’s Scottish roots come alive through ceilidhs, and no place is better to experience them in Cape Breton’s Mabou area. Although the Gaelic term “ceilidh” simply means a “social gathering,” it’s most often used to refer to live folk music and singing and can also include traditional dancing and storytelling.
It’s actually pretty hard not to take in at least one ceilidh while in Nova Scotia, but if you’re looking for recommendations, I have two solid good ones. These are both in the southwest area of Cape Breton Island:
- Glenora Distillery Restaurant & Pub (13727 Nova Scotia Trunk 19, Mabou): Now that you’ve been introduced to Glenora whisky in experience #11, I strongly recommend getting acquainted with their pub! The food here is delicious and their ceilidhs feature really good live music, daily at 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. Recommendations are a good idea, especially for dinner.
- Red Shoe Pub (11573 Nova Scotia Trunk 19, Mabou): The food is also very good here, and they have traditional live music most evenings. Check their website, though, as times aren’t always the same and sometimes there’s a cover charge. This pub is owned by the Rankin sisters, who are members of the Canadian musical family, the Rankin Family.
Summary and Resources
So, which of these coolest things to do on Cape Breton Island will you add to your Nova Scotia road trip? Were you surprised by any of these ideas?
I hope you found a few new gems to make your experience on Cape Breton Island truly incredible.
In case you missed them, here are the other two posts in this best-of things to do in Nova Scotia:
Here are my favorite resources for planning a trip to Cape Breton Island:
- Nova Scotia Tourism at novascotia.com
- Cape Breton Island Tourism at cpisland.com
- The Cabot Trail tourism at cabottrail.travel
- Trip Advisor for Cape Breton activities and reviews
- Nova Scotia guidebook from Lonely Planet; I LOVED this guidebook for my trip
Interested in other great trips? How about: