A city of trees, clean air and ocean winds, Halifax reflects and honours 250 years of history. Its outskirts demand exploration; beaches, lakes, lighthouses and fishing villages are within minutes of the bustling, modern city core.
By the numbers
Elevation: 145 meters / 476 feet
Time Zone: GMT -4 (GMT -3 Daylight Saving Time); Atlantic Standard Time (EST)
Average Annual Precipitation: 140 centimetres / 55 inches
Average Annual Snowfall: 155 centimetres / 61 inches
Average January Temperature: -6°C / 21°F
Average July Temperature: 19°C / 66°F
Did you know?
A port city, Halifax has a longtime military history and was a key navel base during World War I and World War II.
In 1917 the majority of the city was destroyed when the “Mont Blanc,” a cargo ship carrying a glut of explosives, collided with the Belgium relief ship “Imo.”
Halifax is located on the eastern tip of Canada in Nova Scotia. The city is approximately 900 kilometres (559 miles) from Quebec City and about 1700 kilometres (1056 miles) from Toronto.
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 harbours 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.
Halifax is a convenient city. Most points of interest, dining and entertainment establishments are within walking distance of major downtown hotels. The fresh breeze 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 city’s locally brewed beers. It’s an easygoing city where visitors can wander in comfort and safety until the wee hours.
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.
Downtown Halifax is where the action is. As an important shipping center, the commercial part of the harbour 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 harbour and are a popular tourist destination.
Off the harbour, Downtown Halifax thrives as Atlantic Canada’s prime financial hub, hosting major banking institutions, including the Bank of Canada, and a host of other major headquarters. While Halifax’s harbourside downtown, which has undergone quite a renaissance in the last few years, may not have an impressive tapestry of heritage-rich landmarks like its other provincial counterparts, it does house a smattering of historic buildings within its urbane sprawl. A monumental government landmark, the Province House, and the star-shaped Citadel Hill, a Victorian Era fortification that still graces the city, can be found in Downtown Halifax.
Apart from operating as the city’s economic epicenter, this neighbourhood enjoys a dynamic nightlife and cultural scene, with an assemblage of entertainment venues, museums, shopping centres and restaurants built along its sparkling harbour. The Halifax Convention Centre, along with the historic Neptune Theatre and the Scotiabank Centre are some of the most prominent tenants of Downtown Halifax.
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.
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 (74 hectares) 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.
South End’s leafy avenues are also home to an impressive array of universities and colleges, from the Dalhousie University and University of King’s College, to Saint Mary’s University.
The West End of Halifax is both a lovely residential area and a shopper’s paradise. Originally occupied by farms and estates, the late 19th Century gave way to a residential boom, as several citizens settled into the tree-lined streets of this largely middle-class neighbourhood. West End’s retail scene draws bargain-hunters from both sides of the harbour. Most shopping is centred around the sprawling complex of the Halifax Shopping Centre, the province’s biggest mall. The Village at Bayers Road is just north of this shopping behemoth, and is easily accessed from Bayers Road, a major artery leaving downtown Halifax. 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 here.
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.
Nevertheless, visitors will still see street signs directing them to Dartmouth, Bedford and Halifax. Dartmouth is a quiet bedroom community across the harbour 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 harbour—home to luxury yachts, recreational boats and gigantic container ships heading for the open sea—is a must, just for the view.
Bedford is north of Halifax’s city centre 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.
Dining and drinking
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.
Spring Garden Road
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.
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.
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.
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.
In downtown’s South End, you will find some of the best spots in the city. While some restaurants instantly derive a lovely ambiance owing to their position on the waterfront, some others shine on the basis of their exceptional offerings. From highly-rated restaurants such as the Bicycle Thief that also feature vegan options, to the Chives Canadian Bistro and the British pub Henry House, the South End hosts a superb set of culinary options. The Old Triangle Irish Ale House is based here, as is Salty’s, located on Upper Water Street. Murphy’s the Cable Wharf, a seafood spot, provides remarkable harbour views.
North End is hardly as developed compared to its counterparts, when it comes to fostering culinary achievements. Even then, it does feature a smattering of small cafes and chain restaurants, including the Humani-T Cafe Young Street, The Coastal Cafe, and Salvatore’s Pizzaiolo Trattoria.
Visitors to a city steeped in a colourful 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.
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 harbour 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 harbour at night, lights blazing and music blaring. In the daytime, they head out into the sunlit harbour with bar and concession services readily available.
Halifax Public Gardens
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.
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 traveler can stop and enjoy the awe-inspiring vistas or find a kitchen party enlivened by amateur fiddlers and singers.
The Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site
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.
Halifax is always hopping, especially on the waterfront during summer. With almost a 100 lakes within its boundaries, beautiful downtown parks, and some of the oldest architectural structures in the country, it’s a great place to enjoy the out-of-doors without going out of town.
Its restaurants serve up cuisine from every imaginable corner of the world. The clubs and taverns never quit, and a colourful arts community ensures there’s always something to do and someplace to go. One of the advantages of having a city center on the waterfront is that most entertainment venues are within walking distance of major hotels.
Music is, simply put, big in Halifax. From mournful Celtic fiddles, to Irish-pub singalongs, to the thumping bass of blues bands and cool stylings of jazz, music is everywhere. The province’s most famous musical name is probably snowbird Anne Murray. Other notables include Ashley McIsaac, Natalie McMaster (both fiddlers and singers), Denny Doherty (of the Mamas and the Papas) and the Joe Murphy Blues Band, which puts on a hectic music and dance afternoon every week at the downtown tavern, Your Father’s Moustache. On Saturday afternoons, it’s the place to be to drink draft beer, listen to zydeco or down-home blues.
The Symphony Nova Scotia orchestra which holds its recitals at the Dalhousie Arts Centre and the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium, enthralls audiences with its soul-soothing symphonies every summer. Jazz enthusiasts eagerly look forward to the Atlantic Jazz Festival every year, an event that draws large audiences from across the nation. In the heart of the city, the Scotiabank Centre hosts the big acts, while fans of gospel music can try to locate a concert by the Nova Scotia Mass Choir, which brings down the house during performances throughout the city.
Events and Festivals
An event that draws participants and audiences from around the world, the Nova Scotia International Tattoo is a spectacular display of military talent that includes marching bands, drill teams and exciting exhibitions of strength and know-how. The Halifax International Busker Festival on the waterfront attracts performers from around the world. Jugglers, musicians and comedy acts showcase their talents from morning to night.
Theatre and Movies
Neptune theatre, one of the oldest professional regional theatre companies in Canada, offers classics in music, comedy and drama. Neptune’s Second Stage productions, along with the Eastern Front Theatre Company, offers more contemporary fare. Shakespeare by the Sea is an annual summer festival of plays from the Bard, with the occasional Tom Stoppard offering or a production of Waiting For Godot thrown in for good measure, all performed outdoors in the city’s lush Point Pleasant Park. The Atlantic Film Festival, which attracts artists from all over the country provides a great opportunity for first-time viewing of some amazing works and a chance to rub elbows with seasoned as well as up and coming film makers.
Famous for its rug-hooking, antiques and local crafts, Halifax is home to several big markets. The Halifax Farmers’ Market, held every weekend, offers classy handcrafts, wheels of locally made cheese and any number of delectable food items. The Saturday-morning market at The Forum, in central Halifax, is a treasure chest of jewelry, crafts, glass, and antique clothing.
Downtown, the hot shopping spots are the boutiques spread across Halifax’s neighbourhoods, which showcase unique clothing, pewter, keepsakes and high-end souvenirs. In the Spring Garden Place Mall, you’ll find elegant fashions and beautifully appointed bookstores. Barrington Place Mall offers a large group of shops, all accessible from the lobby of the Delta Barrington Hotel. Here you can browse glorious handmade fishermen’s sweaters, imported tartans and plaids, and Irish linen. Park Lane has three floors of shops that concentrate on upscale fashion.
Museums and Interpretive Sites
Halifax’s marine history is powerfully expressed in the popular Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, on the waterfront. There you can explore sailing vessels, enjoy the museum’s unparalleled ship model collection and put your hands on an actual lighthouse lens. Moored next to the museum is the HMCS Sackville, the last remaining World War II corvette.
Pier 21 is a new interpretive site often described as Canada’s Ellis Island, where thousands of immigrants landed between 1928 and 1971 to begin life in a new country. The most-visited historic site in Canada is the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site, a star-shaped fortress designed to protect the city from seagoing invaders.
Boasting five yacht clubs, 12 golf clubs, 171 parks and dozens of lakes, Halifax bustles with sporting events and celebrations. With its mild climate, Halifax doesn’t have a single outdoor ice rink, and the snow on Martock ski hill located outside the city, is man-made. Most of the outdoor fun is water-related, and there are dozens of spectacular beaches within a half-hour drive of the city. Nothing’s far away in Halifax. You can go from cosmopolitan to quaint in 20 minutes.
Beaches offer miles of white sand and clear water with waves that range from little lappers to big crashers. Jet-skis can be rented at most of the lakes and many of the beaches, as can canoes and kayaks. For hands-on sailing, check out the many for-hire operations on the waterfront during spring, summer and fall.
Sailboats can be seen tacking up and down the harbour as early as May and as late as November. Fog is a rarity in this seaside city, due to the open harbour and cleansing breezes.
Shaped by the sea
Founded in 1749, Halifax is steeped in British military tradition. A magnificent statue of Winston Churchill on Spring Garden Road, is a lasting testament to the British connection, and the Union Jack flies on buildings throughout the city.
The city’s protected harbor was ideally suited to stave off invaders. Halifax’s active involvement with naval affairs began in 1758, when a large dockyard area was built. The following year, Halifax operated as a base for British forces attacking the French fort at nearby Louisbourg.
War brought prosperity to Halifax. The Seven Years’ War was the first conflict that escalated the city’s development. The Fortress of Louisbourg is a flourishing historical site visited by thousands of tourists annually.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, privateers used Halifax to unload pirated booty. Permitted to keep a portion of the stolen goods, they shipped the rest to Britain. Harbourside Market at Privateers Wharf is now a popular shopping district. Further south on the waterfront is The Brewery, where gigantic barrels of plunder were transferred to ships Britain bound. Today it is home to The Halifax Farmers’ Market and Alexander Keith’s Brewery Tour.
During the War of American Independence, Loyalists—Americans who chose not to side with the revolutionaries—flocked to the city. Between 1785 and 1792, Dartmouth was headquarters of a whaling company established when Quaker families arrived from the Island of Nantucket. Their history can be investigated at the Quaker House in Dartmouth.
Large numbers of black Loyalists also settled in the area, followed by a contingent of immigrants from Jamaica. Together, they helped create what is now the largest indigenous black community in Canada. The Halifax Citadel, sits high above the streets of Halifax. Within its ironstone walls and ramparts are a military museum, garrison cells, soldiers’ barracks and a fully restored powder magazine. At the foot of Citadel Hill, The Old Clock Tower is the city’s most distinctive landmark, built by the punctuality-conscious Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, in 1803.
Halifax has witnessed several marine disasters. After the Titanic struck an iceberg on April 14, 1912, The Mackay-Bennett, a Halifax-based cable ship, recovered 306 bodies, many of which were buried at sea. Of the 209 bodies brought to Halifax, 150 are interred in city cemeteries.
The Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917 levelled most of the Halifax peninsula when a French munitions ship and a Norwegian vessel collided in the harbor. More than 1,700 people died and 4,000 were injured when the French ship exploded. It took years for the city to recover.
The first area of the flattened city to be rebuilt was a neighbourhood called Hydrostone. Distinguished by its unique stone buildings, the upscale neighbourhood now functions as small family homes and the popular Hydrostone Market .
In addition to the Halifax Explosion, the waterfront has had to recover from the wear and tear caused by World War II, when the area teemed with servicemen and women going to war, and the thousands of immigrants fleeing the conflict in Europe. No soldier left Canada to fight without passing through the city’s port.
In 1928, the first of thousands of immigrants streamed through the doors of the waterfront warehouse called Pier 21, recently designated a national heritage site.
Nova Scotia’s native people are the Mi’kmaq (pronounced Mih-mah and sometimes spelled Micmac). The Europeans who landed on the shores of Eastern Canada were British, Irish, Scottish and German, and the linguistic roots of these nationalities linger on. From the elongated vowels of the South Shore of Nova Scotia (where Boston is pronounced “Bahstan”) to the lilt of Irish in which the word tourist is pronounced “tore-ist”, many accents mingle to create colorful interpretations of the English language.
A quick flip through the Halifax phone book will reveal a large section under “M” for Macdonald, McDonald, MacDonald, MacKay, McIsaac, MacLelland, McNeil, MacDougall and even a few Macbeths, among others. A proliferation of French surnames—Boutilier, Gallant, Fougere, Boudreau, Deveau—points to the remains of the Acadian Expulsion, when huge numbers of French were forcibly removed from the province, to settle along the Eastern coast of the U.S. and as far away as Louisiana.
Some of Halifax’s oldest families descend from men and women who fled slavery in the U.S. via the “underground railroad”, arriving during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Surnames like Downey, Brown, and Carvery belong to people who settled in Africville, a once thriving community on the southwest shore of Halifax’s Bedford Basin. This black community, after being denied sewage, garbage and water service by the city, was summarily relocated in 1968 to the outskirts of Dartmouth, in a neighbourhood known as Preston. Africville is now a little-used green area called Seaview Park. The Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia traces the movements of this community.
A small but vital group of Buddhists, mostly from the United States, but with European and Canadian members, followed their Tibetan-born leader, Trungpa Rinpoche, to Halifax in the l980s. This community has made a significant contribution to the city, providing a thriving alternative middle school along with top-flight delis, restaurants and bookstores. At the Shambhala Centre is one of the finest Tibetan-style temples located outside Asia.
When visitors to Halifax hear the phrase “CFA,” they’ll learn it’s short for Come-From-Away. This describes all the people who have chosen to live in a city coming to terms with an expanding reputation as a seaside paradise. Halifax is struggling with its status as a clean, quiet and gorgeous place and its wider perception as a top-dollar tourism and commercial venue.
There’s little doubt the city, and its people, will rise to the challenge.
Getting there and getting around
From the Airport
Zinck’s Bus Company (+1 902 873 2091) and Acadian Lines (+1 902 454 9321 / http://www.smtbus.com) offer shuttle service to destinations throughout Halifax.
Car Rental: Rental Car companies include:
Avis (+1 800 831 2847 / http://www.avis.com )
Enterprise (1+ 800 736 8227 / http://www.enterprise.com/car_rental/home)
Budget (+1 800 527 0700 / http://www.budget.com )
Hertz (+1 800 654 3131 / http://www.hertz.com)
Thrifty (+1 800 367 2277 / http://www.thrifty.com)
Halifax is serviced by VIA Rail Canada (+1 888 842 7245 / http://www.viarail.ca).
Halifax is accessible by Highway 111 and Route 3, 102, 107, 101, and 103.
Metro Transit (+1 902 490 4000 / http://www.halifax.ca/metrotransit) provides public transit to destinations throughout Halifax.