The nightlife in St. John's is extraordinarily vibrant, and you are doing yourself a serious injustice if you don't spend at least one evening on a pub crawl enjoying the local music, atmosphere, and drink.
Your first stop will probably be George Street, which runs for several blocks near New Gower and Water streets, close to City Hall. Every St. John's resident confidently asserts this street is home to more bars per square foot than anywhere else on the planet; being unable to track down a global authority that tracks and verifies these statistics, I couldn't confirm this mighty large boast. But it sure looks like it could hold the record.
The street is packed with pubs and lounges -- some fueled by beer, others by testosterone, still others (the best) by lively Celtic fiddling. The best strategy is to do a slow ramble down the strip beginning around 10pm or a little later, peeking inside those that seem to have appealing music wafting from within. Cover charges are universally cheap around St. John's, rarely topping C$5.
For blues and traditional music, try the lively Fat Cat Blues Bar, 5 George St. (tel. 709/739-5554), with acts scheduled almost every single night. It's open until 2am at a minimum, even on weeknights. A more upscale spot with slightly lower decibel levels is Christian's Bar, 23 George St. (tel. 709/753-9100), which also serves specialty coffees. Trapper John's, 2 George St. (tel. 709/579-9630), is known for its outstanding provincial folk music and pub beers; in addition, it tries harder (sometimes too hard) to affect a sort of Olde Newfoundland/modern-day pirate atmosphere.
Finally, The Ship Inn (tel. 709/753-3870) is tucked down an alley at 265 Duckworth St., a few blocks off George St. It's your best bet for true local character. In a public-house atmosphere filled with interesting locals, friendly bartenders dispense beer, wisdom, and local eating tips. It's a St. John's institution, featuring plenty of live local music.
Screecher Feature -- The city's traditional "screeching-in" ceremonies often surprise first-time tourists out for a drink in St. John's. It's a local ritual designed to do three things: Indoctrinate you into local life and graces; distract you from the challenge of downing the province's powerful local "screech" rum; and embarrass the heck out of you. (Locals tend to neglect to mention this part when inviting you into such a ceremony.) Bars up and down the George Street strip do the ceremony daily for blow-ins like you, more for their own amusement than your actual benefit. It basically involves goodly quantities of the cheap Newfoundland rum, plus the wearing of silly clothes, the eating of a local sardinelike fish, the kissing of a codfish, and a few other steps -- all done in a very public fashion. Think of it as a college hazing, plus tapas, minus the paddles. If you're a good sport, step right up. Avoid it if you're very shy in social situations (or allergic to fish).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.