It's not hard to figure out why PEI's earliest settlers situated the province's political and cultural capital where they did: It's on a point of land between two rivers and within a large protected harbor. For ship captains plying the seas, this quiet harbor with ample anchorage and wharf space was a welcome sight. Of course, travelers rarely arrive by water these days (unless a cruise ship is in port), but Charlottetown's harborside location and compactness still translate into a lovely setting today. This remains one of Atlantic Canada's most graceful and relaxed cities, and one of my very favorites to visit.
Named for Queen Charlotte (wife of the infamous King George III), metro Charlottetown and its suburbs are now home to about 60,000 people -- nearly one out of every two islanders. To Canadians, the city is everlastingly famous for hosting the 1864 conference that 3 years later led to the creation of the independent Dominion of Canada. For that reason, you're never far away from the word confederation, which graces buildings, malls, bridges, everything. (In a historic twist of fate, PEI itself actually declined to join the new confederation it spawned for 9 years, until it relented in 1873. A good decision.)
Today, the downtown has a brisk feel to it, with its mixture of modern and Victorian commercial buildings, government and cultural centers, buttoned-down bureaucrats and punks/folkies/artists hanging out around town. Outside the business core, you'll also find leafy streets and large, elegant homes dating from different eras (the most dramatic were built in the late 19th century). Charlottetown is also blessed with a number of pocket parks, which provide a quiet respite amid the gentle clamor. Its only negative? The suburbs off Route 2, where you'll find strip-mall clutter and traffic just like anywhere else in North America. Hey, nobody said this was paradise. (But if you're hankering for gasoline, fast food, or cheap clothes, this is your last pit stop before entering the historic center of town, so stock up.)
Charlottetown is centrally located and is a good base for exploring the rest of the island; only the western coast is too far for day-tripping. You can be touring Green Gables, relaxing on a north-shore beach, or teeing off at Brudenell Provincial Park -- all within 45 minutes of leaving Charlottetown. The capital has by far the island's best selection of inns and hotels, though, plus a fine assortment of restaurants. You can dine out every night for a week, and still be pleasantly surprised each time -- no fried-fish capital, this.
As for exploring the city itself, well, save that for a rainy day or early-morning and late-afternoon moments. You don't really need much more than a day to take in the highlights anyway. Still, it's a nice place to simply stroll the cobbles and chat amiably with locals midday or after work about the news or weather. In that sense, it's much like the compact city center of a Boston, Portland, Halifax, or Savannah.