Halifax is the capital city of Nova Scotia and the largest city in the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. The city’s origins and rich maritime history derive from a strategic location and one of the world’s great natural harbors.
In the 19th and early 20th century, Halifax was the entry point for European immigration to Canada. Today, Halifax is a busy Atlantic seaport and the economic and cultural hub of Eastern Canada.
That said, it is, however, a small city by North American standards (less than half a million population). Rather than feeling relegated to ‘second-fiddle’ status, this dichotomy is celebrated by residents who take pride in their slower pace and warm hospitality.
Things To Do In Halifax
The Halifax Citadel
An old fort on a hill overlooking the city and the harbour. The citadel is a national historic site and home to a museum and a small ceremonial garrison. A must-see, especially during Canada Day (1 July) celebrations. The museum is open only May-Oct, but the grounds are open all year around (for free in this case).
The famous ‘Noon-Gun’ fires at noon every day of the year (except Christmas) as it has since the 1830s. Visitors are welcome to watch the firings at any point through the year. Adult $11.70, senior $10, youth $5.80. Fees are about one-third lower in May and mid-Sept to the end of October.
Pier 21 (Canadian Museum of Immigration)
Canada’s equivalent of New York’s Ellis Island, this historic waterfront building processed over a million immigrants. Now converted into a modern museum with extensive exhibits related to Canadian immigration.
Typical visit 90 minutes including 30-minute film and 30-minute free guided tour. $10 adults, $8.75 seniors (60+), $7 students (w/ ID), $5.75 children (6-16), free for children under 5. Family rate $25 (two adults, three children, additional children $3 each).
The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
The collection includes exhibits and artifacts related to the sinking of the RMS Titanic and the devastating 1917 Halifax explosion. The CSS Acadia, a hydrographic survey ship built in 1913, is an ongoing conservation project.
The Acadia is moored a few meters from the museum building; tours are available during the summer. Also, behind the museum is the HMCS Sackville, the last remaining Flower Class escort Corvettes from the convoys of World War II (also open for guided and non guided tours)
Old Burying Ground
The graveyard was in use from 1749 to 1843 and there are moderately informative plaques and signs throughout.
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
St. Paul’s is the oldest building in Halifax and the oldest existing Protestant place of worship in Canada. Founded by proclamation of King George II in 1749, the building was erected in the summer of 1750. On September 2, 1750 the Reverend William Tutty held the first service inside what was, according to Mr. Tutty, “not completely fitted up”.
The architectural plans were based on St. Peter’s Church, Vere Street, London which was designed in 1722 by James Gibbs, a pupil of Sir Christopher Wren. The resemblance between the two churches is remarkable despite the addition of St. Paul’s vestibule and steeple, 1812, the side wings, 1868, and the chancel, 1872. The timbers of St. Paul’s were cut in Saco, Maine and shipped to Halifax.
Most of the materials including the bricks to line the walls were made locally. Over 2½ centuries later, the original wooden structure remains as sound as the day it was built. Charles Inglis, first overseas Bishop of the Church of England, arrived in 1787 making St. Paul’s his cathedral. Until the construction of a garrison chapel in 1844, St. Paul’s was also the first garrison church in Halifax. Free.
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia
The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia is moderate in size but does a fine job of highlighting the works of famous local artists such as Maud Lewis (folk) and Alex Colville (hyperrealist), in addition to Mik’maq (Aboriginal) art. Check the website for travelling exhibitions. $12 adults, $10 seniors 60+, $7 students, $5 youth 6-17, $25 families (2 adults and 3 youth), children 5 and under free. Free for everyone Th after 5PM.
Home to Canada’s oldest provincial legislature and of Britain’s first overseas self-government. A fine example of Georgian architecture, the building was opened in 1842. Visitors can learn about the history of the site and the current Legislative Assembly through guided tours, displays and an audio-visual presentation. Province House is open year-round. Free.
Halifax Central Library
After decades of planning, the new Central Library finally opened in December 2014. The striking architecture, said to resemble a stack of books, garnered international attention. The building is unique in Halifax for its bold modernity, standing in attractive contrast to the stately School of Architecture and Planning building next door.
Visitors can enjoy a bite at the cafes housed within, peruse the local history section, and enjoy views of Citadel Hill and Halifax Harbour from the freely accessible rooftop patio. Free.
Halifax science centre covers several aspects of science in a playful way, thanks to its hands-on exhibitions. There are sections dedicated to space, flight, ocean, energy, and much more. It is mainly conceived as a museum for children, but adults as well will find interesting things to do. Most of the exhibits are hands-on and use some sort of technological support. $12 Adults; $10 Children & Seniors.
Halifax Public Gardens
A beautiful Victorian-era garden occupying a large city block. There are ponds, flowers, ducks, geese, and sometimes music in the gazebo. Free.
Point Pleasant Park
A large peaceful park that serves as a vantage point to see the mouth of the harbour and into the Atlantic ocean. It’s the most southern point of the city’s main peninsula. Open form dawn to dusk. It was once a dense woods has since been left with patches of devastation and clear-cut from Hurricane Juan in 2003.
It remains a popular place to walk dogs and stroll. The park contains some preserved historic military fortifications such the 18th-century Martello tower, and ruins of several other fortifications. Free.
Pedestrians may continue to access the site throughout the remainder of the year when the fortification will be closed to vehicles. Parking is available outside the gate. A sprawling complex of forts from 1790s to 1940s.Plan to spend hours exploring tunnels, caves, cliffs, cannons, bunkers, trails, and views of the harbour. 1-hour bus ride from downtown. Free. Parking and washrooms: June 25-Sep 4 (Labour Day): daily 8 AM-8 PM.
A large public space open to everyone. In the summer, you can find residents and visitors playing sports, picnicking, and exercising. A permanent skating oval has been installed for public use.
A boardwalk with a great variety of historic buildings, shops, restaurants, and other entertainment. Theodore Tugboat, a World War II-era Corvette, and other ships line the harbour. During the summer months, there are many harbour boat tours that launch from here.
Guided tour of Halifax and harbour in an amphibious vehicle. Very informative and highlights major points of interest in the city in fun-filled hour. edit
Murphy’s the Cable Wharf is in the heart of the Halifax waterfront and offers a variety of boat tours including nature and whale watching, tall ship sailing, deep sea fishing, historical harbour tours and dinner cruises. Open seven days a week May-October.
Canoe the Northwest Arm (St. Mary’s Boat Club)
Take a trip up the beautiful Northwest Arm to see the historic Dingle tower in Flemming Park, watch the numerous sailboats out for a weekend cruise or catch a regatta if you’re lucky. Gawk at some of the mansions that line the water or for the ambitious, head all the way up to Point Pleasant Park, where the Northwest Arm meets Halifax Harbour.
While swimming in parts of the harbour was briefly possible due to the installation of sewage treatment plants, they are down for repair and swimming is again not recommended unless a trip to hospital after is desired. Rent a canoe for $8/hour.
Watch Ice Hockey
The Halifax Mooseheads Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team plays from October to April at the Scotiabank Centre. Rough, highly-skilled games are combined with a near-NHL level of presentation. See Ice hockey in North America for context. Tickets are $8-15, and are available at the Metro Centre box office.
Halifax Hurricanes basketball
Halifax’s National Basketball League of Canada team plays from November to March at the Scotiabank Centre. With many of the players coming from NBA teams, or from U Sports (Canadian university) or NCAA Division I (US college/university) teams, the Halifax Hurricanes will be Nova Scotia’s only professional sports team until the 2019 launch of HFX Wanderers (below).
HFX Wanderers FC, Wanderers Grounds
HFX Wanderers will begin play as one of the founding members of the Canadian Premier League. The team will play in a new stadium being built at the Wanderers Grounds near downtown.
Alexander Keith’s Brewery Tour
Immersive tour of Alexander Keith’s original brewery as it supposedly was in 1863, complete with tour guide actors in period garb singing songs, dancing jigs, relaying a bit of the history of the brewery and Keith himself, and promoting the crisp, refreshing taste of Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale.
You do get the chance to sample two mugs of the stuff at the end. Tours on the hour and half-hour but limited opening hours outside summer, check the website for details. If you are an Air Miles collector, you can redeem your miles here for free tickets.
The Halifax-Dartmouth Ferry dates back to 1752. For the same cost as bus fare, one can take the ferry back and forth between Dartmouth and Halifax. Make sure to get a transfer (valid for 90 minutes), so you can return on the same ticket. $2.50. edit
Halifax has lots of the great outdoors. Scenic urban parks, protected areas, and coastline trails are all close to the city. Some are well known, others are off the beaten track, all are beautiful. edit
- Busker Festival. Visit in August for the festival of street performers along the waterfront. It’s a must see, with amazing acts, some grand and awe-inspiring, some quaint, others funny (both intentionally and unintentionally). A very lively time of year along the harbourfront, with music and stalls selling food and the standard run of touristy souvenirs.
- The Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo. Happening every July, the Tattoo is the world’s largest annual indoor show. Its unique combination of music, dance, drama, gymnastics, comedy, military displays, and competitions.
- Tall Ships Festival. Every few years, Halifax hosts up to 30 historic and unique (and usually massive) maritime sailing vessels from around the world. The next festival has not yet been scheduled.
- Culinary Tasting tour. Jun-Oct $30-60
St. Margaret’s Bay
Located only half an hour away, St. Margaret’s Bay is a gorgeous bay. It’s almost as big as the harbour itself, but without the cities. Instead, it is dotted with islands and small towns.
In its northwestern corner there are beautiful beaches, such as Queensland, Cleveland, Black Point and others, just before the town of Hubbards. Maybe the best known destination there is Peggys Cove: stunning bare granite rocks and cliffs with its historic and still-used lighthouse.
While sunsets are gorgeous and peaceful on clear summer evenings; the best times to see Peggy’s Cove are the stormier days, when the waves crashing against the cliffs send salt spray high into the air. Better to get out there early in the day to avoid tour buses.
Lunenburg, Mahone Bay, and Wolfville
If you have a car, there are plenty of historical towns within a couple of hour’s drive of Halifax that are worth visiting, such as Lunenburg, Mahone Bay, and Wolfville. Also the drive along the two-lane coastal Highway 3 is an attraction in itself, twisting and turning through the beautifully scenic landscape it’s especially nice on summer days.
Charter flights leave from Halifax to Sable Island, 300 km off shore in the Atlantic Ocean.
Saint Pierre and Miquelon
You can also fly to Saint Pierre and Miquelon, a group of islands south of Newfoundland and Labrador that still belongs to France.
Best Time to Visit Halifax
Extreme cold or hot temperatures are rare, as Halifax is located next to the ocean. Also the Gulf Stream helps making the winters milder. Typical for an oceanic climate at these latitudes, there will be a lot of rain or snow throughout the year. Summer and early autumn are weather-wise the best seasons to visit the city. In the autumn months hurricanes affecting the North American east coast may occasionally move all the way up to Halifax.
Seafood is generally not much cheaper in the Maritimes than elsewhere and many restaurants in Halifax specialize in seafood dishes. The exception to seafood being the same price in Nova Scotia are mussels. They are generally good quality, cheap, and found on many appetizer menus.
Another seafood worth having is scallops, as they are generally higher quality than the ones you get in many parts of North America (good scallops are the size of a golf ball or larger, and do not taste fishy).
“Sea pie” is often a good deal when available, as are hearty eats like fish and chips or seafood chowder. Lobster in a restaurant will be expensive, so your best cheap bets are to buy one at the store and cook one yourself, or attend any of the numerous lobster dinners that are hosted by churches and community groups throughout the warmer months.
Buying lobster from the various fishermans markets or directly from the fisherman themselves (who will often sell street side out of a car) will get you the best deal.
A plethora of foods that are native to Nova Scotia are easy to find in Halifax: one is the Halifax donair, which is similar to but distinct from the doner kebab. It is prepared using thinly sliced beef meatloaf and a sweet condensed milk garlic sauce and garnished with diced tomatoes and white onions.
Restaurants in Halifax and indeed Atlantic Canada offer a donair pizza featuring all the Halifax donair ingredients served on a pizza crust. In addition, one can normally find donair meat used in such offerings as donair sausage; donair egg rolls (an egg roll casing stuffed with donair meat); donair pogos (donair meat on a stick, battered and deep-fried, similar to a corn dog); donair calzones/panzerottis; and in donair poutine (an Atlantic adaptation of the Quebec snack dish).
It is customary for bar and pub-goers to flock to pizzerias once all the bars, clubs, and pubs close on Friday and Saturday nights for a bite of pizza, or especially donair.
Hodge podge, Blueberry grunt, Deep fried pepperoni
Other specialties include hodge podge (a creamy soup of fresh baby vegetables; rarely found in restaurants); blueberry grunt (blueberry baked with a sweet dumpling topping); and deep fried pepperoni (a bar snack often dipped in honey mustard sauce).
Garlic fingers are an Atlantic Canadian dish similar to a pizza in shape and size and made with the same type of dough. Instead of the traditional tomato sauce and toppings, garlic fingers consist of pizza dough topped with garlic butter, parsley, and cheese, cooked until the cheese is melted. Bacon bits are sometimes added.
They are typically eaten as a side dish with pizza and often dipped in donair or marinara sauce. They are presented in thin strips (or “fingers”) as opposed to triangular slices.
Garlic fingers and the Halifax donair are relatively unknown outside the Maritimes, but can sometimes be found in restaurants in other provinces.
Halifax sprawls somewhat. Public transit is limited and mostly impractical outside the downtown area. The downtown shopping and attractions will engage the average traveller for a day or two at most. Beyond this time frame, a car rental will significantly open up the surrounding area.
There are no photo radar or red light cameras in Nova Scotia. If you are caught, it’ll be by a live officer. At some lights, there is an “advanced green”, or flashing green light, which means that you can proceed left, straight, or right at your leisure. Green arrow lights are rare. Pedestrians are king. People will often cross a road in the middle of the block, and cars stop for them. U-turns are legal (de facto anywhere a left turn is allowed, de jure), barring a no U-turn sign.
It’s very important that you give buses the right of way, give them enough room to turn in intersections, and avoid passing them on one-lane streets like Barrington.
Halifax Transit. Halifax Transit (formerly called Metro Transit) is the public transit provider for the municipality, encompassing Halifax and surrounding areas. The fare gives you access to all buses and ferries, excluding the long-distance commuter buses marked MetroLink and MetroX. Transfer tickets are free, are valid for 90 minutes, and can be used at any bus stop or ferry terminal (i.e. return journeys are possible on one fare). The agency has teamed up with Google to provide an online trip planner through Google Maps, however all transit maps and schedules can be found on their website as well. Cash fares: adult or student $2.50, senior or child $1.75.
There are a number of taxi services in the city, although flagging a taxi down may be difficult in certain areas. Calling and reserving cabs is rarely an issue. If you are bar or club bound for the evening, be aware that catching a cab back from downtown after last call may be difficult. If you need a taxi to get to the airport then your best luck would be search Halifax Airport Taxi on any search engine or social media account. They refer to a Cab as a Taxi in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
WiFi & Internet
McDonalds and Starbucks on Spring Garden road have free Wifi. The Dalhousie University Killam Library also has computers with internet access open to the public.
Scotia Square has Bell and Telus shops, where prepaid SIM cards can be purchased.
Halifax is a generally safe city, but you should be aware when walking around certain areas of the city at night. The North End, including the Gottingen Street area, is relatively safe by international standards but has something of a rough reputation locally. In most cases, common sense should suffice.
Pedestrian crosswalks are highly respected by drivers in Halifax, and crossings can occur just about anywhere. This provides a double danger: for drivers to keep on the ball watching out for pedestrians; and for pedestrians to not be lulled into a false sense of security while crossing.
Rapidly changing weather means that black ice abounds in winter, and it’s particularly nasty when combined with the city’s hilly topography. Choose your steps and drive carefully.
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September 5, 2020 10:27 am
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