Located on the north shore of Pictou Harbour, the town is approximately 10km north of the larger town of New Glasgow.
Once an active shipping port and the shire town of the county, today Pictou is primarily a local service centre for surrounding rural communities as well as being the primary tourist destination in this region of Nova Scotia.
Its port was the receiving point for many Scottish immigrants moving to a new home in northern Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island following the Highland Clearances of the late 1700s and early 1800s. Consequently, the town's slogan is "The Birthplace of New Scotland"; the first wave of immigrants is acknowledged to have arrived on September 15, 1773, on the Hector. Norman McLeod who arrived some years after the Hector from Scotland landed in Pictou but eventually settled in the area of Saint Anne's in Cape Breton of Nova Scotia. He later encouraged his parish to follow him to Waipu, New Zealand where today there still resides many descendants.
During the latter part of the 1800s, Pictou's industrial sector gained strength. The Intercolonial Railway was built to the town on a spur from the Stellarton-Oxford Junction "Short Line". Shipbuilding increased through the 1800s, particularly with the increase in coal being shipped from Pictou Landing, Abercrombie and the East River of Pictou. A shipyard has been continuously established in the town since this period. The port's activity increased after the nearby Scott Maritimes pulp mill opened in Abercrombie in 1965. CN Rail abandoned its service to the town in the late 1980s but other transportation - including Highway 106 (the Trans-Canada Highway) - opened in the 1970s to provide alternatives.
Between 1816 and the present, Pictou Academy has been in four separate buildings. The school was moved from its original building to a new site, while the second and third buildings both burned down. There were Academy graduates from every year since it was incorporated, excluding the years between several of its different buildings.
At the start of the school year of 2003–2004, all high schools in Pictou County were closed, and their students began to go the two new "superschools", Northumberland Regional High School, and North Nova Education Centre, for their education. The only exception to this is Pictou Academy, which continues to operate.
The Hector Festival, celebrating the arrival of settlers to Nova Scotia on the Hector takes place in August. In July, the Lobster Carnival takes place, and an amusement park is set up. The Lobster Carnival is a yearly event celebrating the end of the fishing season and has been a town festival since 1934.
The waterfront redevelopment also features a marina and small boardwalk that connects to the Trans-Canada Trail. The historic Intercolonial Railway station on the waterfront has been restored, and a new fisheries museum is under construction nearby.
Water taxis and boat tours of the harbour are available, which also connect to the town of New Glasgow.
Pictou is 5 kilometres south of the port of Caribou where Northumberland Ferries Limited operates a seasonal vehicle-pedestrian ferry service to Prince Edward Island; there is also a pedestrian-only ferry that operates seaonally to Pictou Island. Several beaches are located near the town of Pictou, most notably Caribou Provincial Park and Waterside Beach Provincial Park.