With live music in every bar, fresh lobster on the menu and whales just offshore, the capital of Nova Scotia is a breath of fresh air for summer city-breakers. And it’s only a six-hour flight away
Sea-salty air, a tinge of brewer’s yeast, a dash of pine and the mouthwatering sweetness of a fresh-baked waffle cone – that’s the scent of Halifax. And from May onwards, when temperatures rise and waterfront seafood-shacks reopen their shutters, is the best time to breathe it all in.
The capital of Nova Scotia province, Halifax is a city of the sea. Clustered around one of the world’s deepest natural harbours – with the downtown area occupying a peninsula on its west side, the amalgamated city of Dartmouth on the east – it has long been an important port. The indigenous Mi’kmaq people called the area Jipugtug, ‘the biggest harbour’; in 1749 the British liked it so much they founded a settlement here, quickly constructing a hilltop fortress to counter the French stronghold at Louisbourg.
Since then, the maritime city has been a privateering den, a Canadian naval dock and a refuge for trans-Atlantic convoys avoiding German U-boats. It even played a role in the RMS Titanic story: three ships from Halifax responded to distress calls from the ‘unsinkable’ liner; many of the victims were buried in local cemeteries – including one ‘J. Dawson’, although director James Cameron insists his naming of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in the blockbuster movie was pure coincidence.
The city’s strategic location on the eastern seaboard has also made it a gateway for many foreigners entering North America. First came the French and British; one particularly notable Scottish emigre, Alexander Keith, is responsible for those yeasty smells – the brewery he founded here in 1820 is still going strong.
However, in later years the mix became more cosmopolitan. From 1928 to 1971, over one million immigrants arrived in Halifax, some travelling onwards by rail to populate the rest of Canada, many staying right here. The subsequent cultural mix, coupled with a big student population, gives the city an energetic, youthful vibe. It also ensures an exciting food scene – from fancy fish restaurants to ‘donair’ kebab joints – and a lively nightlife. Perhaps due to the region’s Celtic heritage, or maybe the fact that at one time only venues hosting live entertainment were permitted to serve hard liquor, live music is abundant in Halifax. On any night, there’s usually a live band playing somewhere.
So this is a place that likes to enjoy itself, which might help explain why in 2012, MoneySense magazine named Halifax the fourth most liveable spot in Canada out of a poll of 190 towns and cities. Events such as the free Busker Festival (31 Jul-5 Aug 2013; www.buskers.ca) bring an even bigger buzz.
In short, Halifax is more than the sum of its parts. It’s also located at the centre of Nova Scotia’s south coast, making the surrounding shoreline – rich in pretty coves and heritage fishing villages – easy to access. It’s ideal for a blast of seaside-n-city rejuvenation, or as a launchpad for a longer Canadian adventure.
Pick up a copy of free newspaper The Coast (produced every Thurs) for event and gig listings, and restaurant reviews. Also check out the website: www.thecoast.ca.
How to spend a long weekend in Nova Scotia’s cool capital
When to go: Winters (Nov-Mar) are chilly; best wait until spring (Apr-Jun), when temperatures rise to 10-20°C. Summer sees highs over 25°C, plus lots of festivals. Catch fine fall colours September-October. July-Sept is best for whalewatching.
Getting there: Air Canada flies Heathrow-Halifax direct – daily in summer, four times weekly in winter. Returns cost from around £670; flight time is from six hours. Iceland Air flies London-Halifax via Reykjavík from around £650.
Getting around: Central Halifax is small and walkable. Ferries and buses cost from C$2.25 per journey.
Where to stay: The Pebble B&B is located in the leafy South End area; its fresh, charming rooms cost from C$125 (£81). The Verandah B&B is a homely option, with good breakfasts; doubles from C$95 (£62).
Where to eat: For excellent Italo-North American dishes in classy surrounds, try the Bicycle Thief. For French flavour, try new Bistro le Coq. For snacks, hit the waterfront: The Battered Fish for takeaway lobster rolls and Digby scallops; Cows for Canada’s best ice cream.
Halifax is a city of the sea, so start by it. At the south end of the 3km Waterfront Boardwalk is Pier 21 (C$8.60), Canada’s Ellis Island. Over one million immigrants passed through here, and fascinating exhibits tell some of their stories. Just north, Seaport Farmers’ Market houses 250 different vendors but for something stronger, detour to Alexander Keith’s (C$16.95; 1496 Lower Water St) to take a tour of this historic brewery.
Further north, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (1675 Lower Water St; C$8.75) provides insight into local seafaring history, including the tale of the 1917 Halifax Explosion – pre-A-bomb, the largest man-made blast ever recorded.Food shacks, shops and tall ships line the boardwalk down to the Historic Properties. Take a ferry from here to Dartmouth, looking for seals as you sail. In Dartmouth, don’t miss the incredible croissants at Two If By Sea (66 Ochterloney St); note, they often sell out by lunchtime.
In the evening, head down to lively Argyle Street, where good live music venues include the Economy Shoe Shop, The Carleton and The Foggy Goggle.
Landlubbers could explore Halifax’s outskirts. In the south, Point Pleasant Park has 39km of nature trails, numerous fortifications, and views over the Harbour and Northwest Arm inlet. This is also where Shakespeare by the Sea puts on summer alfresco performances. The park is at the end of Bus Route 9, or walk there via Tower Road, which is lined with pastel-hued late-Victorian Italianate houses.
West of the centre lies Fairview Lawn Cemetery (7076 Mumford Rd), where 121 victims of the Titanic sinking are buried. Head back east towards the harbour via the ornate Public Gardens – opened in 1867, they’ve retained a Victorian feel.
Also visit Citadel Hill National Historic Site (from C$7.80) to tour the barracks, cells and explosive storage areas at this 19th-century star-shaped fortress. Then take a whalewatching boat trip: May-October, Murphy’s runs 2.5-hour cruises with naturalists, for chances to spot minke and fin whales, dolphins, seals, sunfish and seabirds.
Alternatively, use Day 2 to explore McNabs Island. This 5km by 1.5km provincial park in Halifax Harbour offers miles of trails, the crumbling remains of Fort McNab, fine-sand beaches, salt marshes, indigenous Mi’kmaq history and great birding (McNabs Pond is the best spot). To get to the island, take the ferry to Dartmouth, and Bus 60 to Eastern Passage; from here, Captain ‘Red Beard’ offers crossings for C$20pp.
Leave the city to see a little more of Nova Scotia. The fishing village at Peggy’s Cove, a gorgeous granite inlet 45km south-west, is the most popular day-trip. There’s no public transport: you’ll need to hire a car or take a tour to get there.
One option is Blue Nose Sidecar Tours, which offers four-hour trips in guide-driven motorbikes with sidecars for C$119pp.
Less touristy, and closer to Halifax, is the equally pretty waterside community of Lower Prospect. From here, join East Coast Outfitters (ECO) for a sea-kayak adventure. Guided half- and full-day trips (C$75/115) explore the surrounding bays and islets, and often encounter wildlife – from seals to fish eagles and breaching tuna. Contact ECO for help with transfers from Halifax.
You could also combine kayaking and a spot of hiking with Great Earth Expeditions. Its eight-hour ’Once Upon a Tide’ trip (C$140pp plus tax) leaves from Halifax and includes paddling around St Margaret’s Bay, lunch and an afternoon’s trekking around the coastal barrens of Peggy’s Cove Preservation Area.
Back in Halifax, spend the night sampling the city’s food scene on a culinary walking tour (C$30 tbc; localtastingtours.com) or raising a beer and rocking out with the locals at Lower Deck (Historic Properties, 1869 Upper Water St).
The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (1723 Hollis St) houses the biggest collection in maritime Canada. Entrance, which is usually C$12, is free on Thursday evenings, 5pm-9pm.