Best-kept secret Visitors and locals alike often refer to Halifax, and indeed all of Nova Scotia, as the "best-kept secret" in Canada. With one of the largest natural harbors in the world, Nova Scotia's capital is the biggest and most cosmopolitan city in Atlantic Canada's four provinces. Less than two hours by air from New York and Toronto, it is the halfway point between Europe and the west coast of North America.
Though Haligonians are proud of their well-kept secret, they are quick to make visitors welcome. You won't stand for long with an open map on a city street; someone will invariably stop to help you on your way.
In 1995, the municipalities of Dartmouth, Bedford, Halifax and Halifax County joined together and became officially known as the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM), today the population is near 360,000.
Nevertheless, visitors will still see street signs directing them to Dartmouth, Bedford and Halifax. Dartmouth is a quiet bedroom community across the harbor from Halifax, via the ferry or one of the city's two suspension bridges. But the 10-minute ferry ride from Halifax's waterfront across the picturesque harbor—home to luxury yachts, recreational boats and gigantic container ships heading for the open sea—is a must, just for the view. And despite its one-block long "downtown," Dartmouth is home to one of HRM's best restaurants, MacAskill's , located within walking distance of the ferry terminal.
Bedford is north of Halifax's city cent re on a long stretch of road called The Bedford Highway, a major route to the Halifax International Airport. Bedford is an old, treed, residential area extending west of the highway, but the highway, which follows the train tracks out of Halifax, is a busy commercial area with boutiques, specialty stores, garden nurseries, restaurants and large malls on both sides, all visible and easily accessible from the main road.
Located on the southeastern coast of Nova Scotia, Halifax's city center sits on a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. Farther south than Montreal, it boasts a mild climate that sees little or no snow until after January. “The Peninsula" refers to old Halifax, the area enclosed by the Bedford Basin on the east, the Atlantic Ocean on the south, and the Northwest Arm on the west.
The South End is the ritzy part of the peninsula. Canopied by ancient trees, wide avenues give view to palatial homes constructed in various architectural styles, with grounds that are beautifully groomed and well planned. A drive through these leafy streets will take you to the southernmost part of the community, Point Pleasant Park . The park boasts one hundred and eighty-five acres of old trees, quiet trails a large, grassy area on the ocean that's perfect for picnics, and an underground bunker. There, history buffs can envision hunkered-down soldiers from wars past, waiting for the approach of enemy ships. The park has a small shallow beach for family outings and its large parking lot allows easy access.
Downtown Halifax is where the action is. As an important shipping center, the commercial part of the harbor is busy year-round. Vessels from Russia, South America and Europe float next to stern, gray submarines. During the summer, huge luxury liners dock near the neck of the harbor and are a popular tourist destination.
The shopping is good, the galleries are great, the history is everywhere, and the food is fabulous. With the best people-watching in the city, downtown is where you can hear many languages and accents as visitors from around the globe stroll the busy streets. It's also the site of the large, well-appointed Casino Nova Scotia , where the electronic bells and whistles clang all day and into the night as gamblers try their hand at games of chance.
You're never lost in downtown Halifax. If you're going downhill, you'll end up at the waterfront. If you're walking uphill, you'll arrive at the city's largest and most famous landmark, the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site .
Halifax is a convenient city. Most points of interest, dining and entertainment establishments are within walking distance of major downtown hotels. The fresh breezes off the water make strolling a pleasure, and rooftop restaurants and bars are a good place to stop for a breather or to sample one of the locally brewed beers. It's an easygoing city where visitors can wander in comfort and safety until the wee hours.
The West End of Halifax is both a lovely residential area and a shopper's paradise. Four malls draw bargain-hunters from both sides of the harbour. The sprawling complex known as the West End Mall and the Halifax Shopping Centre are across an avenue from each other and offer most large chain stores and lots of smaller hometown shops. The Village at Bayers Road is just north of the other two and all three are easily accessed from Bayers Road, a major artery leaving downtown Halifax, heading west. Further west is the Bayers Lake Industrial Park, whose name has become somewhat of a misnomer, as it has little industry and lots of shopping—you will find all of the major outlet stores.
The true East End of Halifax is in Dartmouth, in the Burnside Industrial Park, where the main industries are located along with the city's two newspaper plants. A sprawling complex of head offices and warehouses, Burnside will be a challenge for anyone without a map.
But Halifax is just a district within the larger playground that is Nova Scotia. If you want the best smoked-salmon in a 500-mile radius, it can be found 15 minutes out of the city. If you want to stay in a castle-like bed and breakfast, you can book it and be there in 30 minutes.
You want it, you got it
While not a huge city, Halifax has often been described as "having at least one of everything," which makes it a place of many choices. This is especially true of the city's dining and drinking establishments.
From beautifully-designed sushi to fresh lobster, seafood is offered everywhere. Even the most down-to-earth tavern provides crisp fish and chips made from fresh haddock or cod and potatoes that were round and brown only hours earlier. Ask any chef in one of the city's finer dining establishments about the difference between Atlantic and Pacific salmon, and you'll learn that the east coast offers a variety that's far more tender and succulent, even before the addition of lemon or butter.
One way that Haligonians mark the passing seasons is by the presence of chip trucks, which park on the lower end of Spring Garden Road, in front of the city's main library. Spring doesn't really arrive, officially, until someone has parked a chip wagon, offering the best and freshest French fries in town. And the summer hasn't ended until the desolate Sunday afternoon when Haligonians travel downtown and find the chip trucks have gone in out of the cold.
The city's British heritage and the presence of seven universities ensures that pub fare is top-quality. From a Ploughman's Lunch accompanied by an imported beer to an Eggs Benedict plate with complimentary Bloody Mary, all palates are served.
Halifax has a large Lebanese population, which means that fine Middle Eastern fare is readily available. The Mediteraneo Restaurant offers tasty meals and grocery stores like The Mid-East Food Centre and Phoenicia Foods Ltd. can supply all the ingredients to cook your own versions.
The downtown core is divided into two areas. Spring Garden Road is the major artery serving the westernmost area. It begins at Barrington Street and travels uphill to South Park Street. On that avenue are many of the city's finest restaurants and pubs, alongside some of the best shopping.
As you walk up Spring Garden, you'll see a sign for The Thirsty Duck , one of the liveliest pub/restaurants around. The three-room, second floor establishment boasts the building's original wooden beams and walls. The food is hearty and reasonably priced. In the evenings, the Duck buzzes with the after-work crowd, and Thursday through Saturday visiting musical groups play everything from traditional fiddle to light rock.
While the city's strength is seafood, it also offers up sizzling beef the way it should be done. Just before you see the sign for The Thirsty Duck , you'll look up and see the one for Ryan Duffy's Steak & Seafood , which offers beef that is cut and weighed table-side and then broiled over a hardwood fire to your specifications.
Also on Spring Garden Road, you'll find Il Mercato , one of the city's finest restaurants. It is so popular that they don't take reservations. Your best bet is to show up an hour before you want to eat, get on the list and grab a pre-dinner cocktail at the bar.
For a little shopping on Spring Garden Road, visit the Park Lane shopping complex. Inside, you'll find the Birmingham Bar & Grill , which offers fine food and, on weekend nights, live jazz.
Just a few blocks west of Park Lane shopping complex, and one block north, on Doyle Street, is Tom's Little Havana Cafe . Dine on blackened catfish while enjoying some great blues music.
While there is a multitude of restaurants, taverns, coffee shops and boutiques on Spring Garden Road, be sure to check out the waterfront area. Bordered on the north by Barrington Street, the area is chockablock with fine dining. Greek, Lebanese, Japanese, French, Indonesian, Chinese, Indian, Italian, Czechoslovakian and West African cuisine can all be found in this district.
For Greek, go to the city's best-loved Greek restaurant, Opa! . Cheerful Mediterranean blues border a whitewashed exterior. In the summer diners can sit at tiled patio tables surrounded by plants. Inside, salmon-colored hues recall sun-baked walls, and a huge skylight above the main dining area brightens up the atmosphere. The menu is large and varied, and the food leans more toward piquant than pedestrian. When you are down in the waterfront area, go even further south to sample the delights of Cafe Chianti , a charming downstairs bistro with an old-world atmosphere and fine dining.
Northern Italian fare is popular in Halifax. At La Perla , across the Halifax Harbour in Dartmouth, you will feel as though you're sitting in an isolated trattoria where the kitchen and front staff exist only to serve you. This delightful restaurant offers superbly crafted fare. Sip a Campari and soda while smells from the kitchen tantalize your senses.
If you like to be entertained while dining, check out the Halifax Feast Dinner Theatre . Since the mid 1980s, the theatre has staged popular shows that often sends up TV shows and movies. The menu is set, depending on what's available during the season. The venerable building is loaded with entertainment for all the senses.
Haligonians love to party, and you won't be able to go more than a few steps through the downtown area without passing a lively pub or lounge. However, visitors should take note that while bars are open all week, liquor stores are closed on Sunday. In warmer months, from June to October, rooftop patios are filled with patrons enjoying the sea breeze and cold drinks; Spring Garden Road and the waterfront area are packed to overflow. The Sheraton Halifax Hotel has one of the best seaside patios.
As an old city, Halifax doesn't have to create atmosphere. Many of its historic buildings house dining and drinking establishments, lending them a distinct charm. Halifax is a jolly, friendly place, and its bars and restaurants are great places for locals and visitors to socialize.
It all starts on the water
Visitors to a city steeped in a colorful seafaring past won't be surprised to learn that the most popular excursions involve the ocean, the navy, and other things maritime.
Conveniently, most of the city's attractions mingle on the waterfront, within easy walking distance of each other. After arriving in town, head down to the waterfront, where you'll find the headquarters for most tour operations, on sea or land. In the Historic Properties is The Red Store Visitor Information Centre with pamphlets, maps and details about every inch of the province.
Gardeners should sign up for a descriptive walking tour of The Halifax Public Gardens , a large gated park off Spring Garden Road. It's a haven of quiet beauty where long-necked swans navigate the ponds while ducks politely await the shower of breadcrumbs tossed to them by generous visitors. The gardens are beautifully maintained and exquisitely planned, with walkways shaded by trees. In the center of the gardens is an ornate wooden bandstand facing rows of chairs; a weary nature-lover can sit here and enjoy an iced tea while listening to Dixieland jazz.
Boat tours are varied and plentiful. You can sign up for a moonlight cruise aboard the Bluenose II , or take a leisurely afternoon trip up and down the harbor with a narrated history of waterfront landmarks. There are whale-watching tours that guarantee sightings—if not of whales, then of blue herons, sea ducks, dolphins and shiny-headed seals. Just outside the city there are any number of fishing villages that offer seafood restaurants, craft shops, and quiet time by the ocean.
Theme cruises aboard two-deck paddlewheelers provide a buffet dinner accompanied by live jazz, blues, or Boomers' tunes from the 1950s and '60s. These vessels are a lovely sight as they haul anchor and head off into the blue-black waters of the harbor at night, lights blazing and music blaring. In the daytime, they head out into the sunlit harbour with bar and concession services readily available.
Sightseeing tours both in the city and outside it are plentiful. You can take a bus/walking tour of the three Halifax cemeteries that house the remains of Titanic casualties, complete with a spoken historical survey of the tragedy. And while on the subject of cemeteries, Halifax is home to the only known cemetery that contains its own traffic light. The downtown Camp Hill Cemetery, bordered by Robie Street, has a working traffic light in its northwestern corner.
Tours are divided into seven routes, each colour-coded in all information/tourism material. The most popular tour goes to Peggy's Cove, a tiny picturesque community near Halifax that meanders along the South Shore, part of the Lighthouse Route. A tranquil village built on a bold rockscape, Peggy's Cove offers a dramatic view of the Atlantic Ocean. It is also home to one of the province's most famous lighthouses. With daily express runs by motorcoach and boat, it's an easy destination. Once at Peggy's Cove, you can arrange for a half-day excursion to the Pennant Granite Barrens, a tour that describes the evolution of the rocky, moon-like landscape formed by the sea's relentless rhythm.
Another popular tour is the scenic Cabot Trail, part of the Cape Breton Island Route, home to magnificent vistas of massive cliffs and rugged coastline. You can travel to Cape Breton on an escorted bus tour and return by rail on a three-day excursion that includes a comfortable stay at the area's best hotels with stop-offs at sites of interest. You'll see clear, "bottomless" lakes shouldered by huge cliffs. Eagles, osprey and terns surf the breeze as seagulls cry at the setting sun.
"Capers" are a hardy, friendly folk, known for their willingness to work hard and party harder. The Cabot Trail is dotted with bed-and-breakfast establishments and rustic cottages where a weary traveller can stop and enjoy the awe-inspiring vistas or find a kitchen party enlivened by amateur fiddlers and singers.
Another tour option is provided by Classic Journeys and takes you throughout Nova Scotia's Coasts & Villages . This exclusive and fancy six-day walking tour offers all the comfort you'd dream of while taking in the beauty of the area.
The Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site is one of the largest in North America. Settled by the French in 1713, the town of Louisbourg was for many years France's crown jewel in the New World. The town is surrounded by large stone gates, walls and formal gardens. Inside, the citizens, in full period-costume, go about their day-to-day lives as they would have two centuries ago. A blacksmith, ironmonger, full working stable and other businesses operate using only the implements and resources of the time. No fast food here; three period restaurants offer 18th century cuisine, from hearty pea soup to freshly-baked brown bread. Guided walking tours through the town can be arranged onsite, as can excursions outside the Fortress.
The town of Annapolis Royal is a three-hour drive along the Evangeline Trail from Halifax and is a must-see for history buffs. However, most everyone will appreciate its large, gracious houses, unique shops, galleries, studios and fine inns. The town is home to an astonishing 150 designated heritage buildings, many of which are now lovingly restored bed-and-breakfast establishments, restaurants and inns. Annapolis Royal is also the site of the oldest wooden house in Canada, the deGannes-Cosby home, constructed in 1708.
Gardeners of all stripes will appreciate Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens, a 10-acre spread with winding pathways that take visitors through spectacular displays, tranquil settings, theme gardens and unique collection gardens.