Sydney, Nova Scotia
If you come directly to Cape Breton via plane, ferry, or cruise ship, Sydney is where you’ll land. If you’re seeking anything resembling an urban experience, it’s also where you’ll want to stay: after all, this is the island’s sole city. Admittedly, it is not the booming center it was a century ago when the continent’s largest steel plant was located here (that era is evoked in Fall on Your Knees, an Oprah Book Club pick penned by Cape Bretoner Anne-Marie MacDonald). However, Sydney has a revitalized waterfront and smattering of Loyalist-era buildings that appeal to visitors. Moreover, it offers convenient access to popular attractions in the region—like the Miner’s Museum in nearby Glace Bay (named for the glace, or ice, that filled its harbor in winter), the Fortress at Louisbourg, and beautiful Bras d'Or Lake.
The Cape Breton Centre for Craft and Design
Showcasing the work of traditional and cutting-edge Cape Breton artisans in its airy second-floor gallery, the center, which houses on-site studios for pottery, weaving, and glass- and jewelry-making, also hosts hands-on workshops that are open to craft aficionados. The center is closed on Sunday.
Top island retailers—among them Hattie's Heirlooms, the Cape Breton Curiosity Shop, Man of War Gallery, and Tastes of Cape Breton—are represented at Harbourside Boutiques in the Joan Harriss Cruise Pavilion. They're only open seasonally, though, sometimes daily in high season, sometimes just when cruise ships are in port.
Cape Breton Miners' Museum
Here you can learn about the difficult lives of the local men whose job it was to extract coal from undersea collieries. After perusing the exhibits, you can don a hard hat and descend into the damp, claustrophobic recesses of a shaft beneath the museum with a retired miner who'll recount his own experiences toiling in the bowels of the earth. The 15-acre property also includes a replica village that gives you a sense of workers' home life, and it has a theater where the Men of the Deeps choir, a world-renowned group of working and retired miners, performs in summer.
Marconi National Historic Site
On a spectacular headland, this site commemorates the spot at Table Head where, in 1902, Guglielmo Marconi built four tall wooden towers and beamed the first official wireless messages across the Atlantic Ocean. An interpretive trail leads to the foundations of the original towers and transmitter buildings. The visitor center has large models of the towers as well as artifacts and photographs chronicling the radio pioneer's life and work.
Built in 1787, this unpretentious wooden building was originally home to Reverend Ranna Cossit—Cape Breton's first protestant minister—his wife Thankful, and their 10 children. Now faithfully restored and occupied by costumed interpreters, the North End residence is furnished with period pieces based on Cossit's own inventory.
Sydney Mines Heritage Museum and Cape Breton Fossil Centre
Two affiliated facilities across the harbor from Sydney proper chronicle the area's prehistoric and more recent pasts. The mines museum, which occupies a small converted train station, surveys area history but focuses on Sydney's coal-mining connection. Displays at the fossil center include 300-million-year-old specimens from the Sydney Coal Fields. The fossil center's curator leads two-hour fossil-hunting field trips, by reservation, on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 am; you'll need your own transportation to the trip's starting point.