Halifax (pop. 390,000), the 250-year-old provincial capital, presents Nova Scotia’s strikingly modern face wrapped around a historic heart. It’s one of the most vibrant cities in Canada, with an exuberant cultural life and cosmopolitan population. The tourist’s Halifax is tidily compact, concentrated on the manageable, boot-shaped peninsula the city inhabits. Its prettiest parts are clustered between the bustling waterfront and the short, steep hillside that the early British developed two centuries ago. In these areas you’ll find handsomely historic old districts meshed with stylishly chic new glass-sheathed buildings.

In these areas you’ll find handsomely historic old districts meshed with stylishly chic new glass-sheathed buildings.Halifax is more than a city, more than a seaport, and more than a provincial capital. Halifax is a harbor with a city attached, as the Haligonians say. Events in the harbor have shaped Nova Scotia’s history. The savvy British military immediately grasped its potential when they first sailed in centuries ago. In fact, Halifax’s founding as a settlement in 1749 was incidental to the harbor’s development.

From the first, the British used the 26-kilometer-long harbor as a watery warehouse of almost unlimited ship-holding capacity. The ships that defeated the French at Louisbourg in 1758—and ultimately conquered this part of Atlantic Canada—were launched from Halifax Harbour. A few years later, the Royal Navy sped from the harbor to harass the rebellious colonies on the Eastern seaboard during the American Revolution. Ships from Halifax ran the blockades on the South’s side during the American Civil War. And during World Wars I and II, the harbor bulged with troop convoys destined for Europe.

Architecture in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Architecture in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia. Photo © robertsonpix/123rf.

Planning Your Time in Halifax

Everyone has their own idea of how best to spend time in Halifax. History buffs will want to spend an entire week exploring the city’s oldest corners, while outdoorsy types will want to hit the highlights before moving through to the rest of the province. Halifax has three attractions no one will want to miss, even if you have just one day. The first of these is the Historic Properties, a group of waterfront warehouses converted to restaurants and boutiques, while the nearby Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is the place to learn about the city’s seafaring traditions. The third is Halifax Citadel National Historic Site. These three attractions, along with time exploring the waterfront, could fill one day, but you’d be missing one of Halifax’s best known attractions—its pubs and breweries, including Alexander Keith’s Brewery, North America’s oldest, which is open daily for tours.

Since it’s both a gateway for air travelers and the hub of three highways, chances are you’ll be passing through Halifax more than once on your travels through Nova Scotia. This allows you to break up your sightseeing and to plan your schedule around the weather. If, for example, the sun is shining when you first arrive, plan to visit Point Pleasant Park, the Public Gardens, and Fairview Cemetery. These spots and historic downtown attractions should fill two full days.

Across the harbor from downtown is the city of Dartmouth, where a seafood lunch at the fishing village of Fisherman’s Cove makes a perfect getaway from the city.

Halifax Citadel National Historic Site

Halifax Citadel National Historic Site. Photo © John Malone/123rf.

Getting Around Halifax

The layout of Halifax is easy to grasp. Downtown lines the western side of Halifax Harbour. Lower and Upper Water Streets and Barrington Street run through downtown parallel to the water. This is the core of the city, chock-full of historic attractions, the city’s finest accommodations, and a wonderful choice of restaurants. The waterfront itself bustles day and night. From Historic Properties’ wharves at the waterfront, sightseeing boats explore the harbor. The splendid Maritime Museum and Art Gallery of Nova Scotia are close by.

A series of short streets rise like ramps from the waterfront, past the grassy Grand Parade and up Citadel Hill. Around the hill, a great swath of green space provides a welcome break from residential and commercial sprawl. Laid out by the city’s original surveyor, Central Common, on the west side of the hill, marks a meeting of roads. Major thoroughfares merge here (Robie Street running north to south, Bell Road running southeast, and Cogswell Street running east to west). Locals refer to everything south of the commons as the South End, everything to the north the North End, and to the west the West End.

In the South End is the city’s academic area, site of Dalhousie University, University of King’s College, St. Mary’s University, and the Atlantic School of Theology. At the southern tip of the downtown peninsula is Point Pleasant Park, an oasis of green surrounded by the grays of sprawling loading docks to the north and the surrounding sparkling blue waters of Halifax Harbour.

The Northwest Arm of Halifax Harbour nearly cuts the downtown area off from the rest of the city. At the head of this waterway is the Armdale Rotary, from where Herring Cove Road spurs south to Purcells Cove Road, which passes yacht-filled marinas, Sir Sandford Fleming Park, and York Redoubt National Historic Site.

Across Halifax Harbour from downtown is the city of Dartmouth. Linked to downtown by ferry and bridge, this commercial and residential area has a smattering of sights and is also worth visiting for the views back across to Halifax. Beyond the two bridges spanning Halifax Harbour is Bedford Basin, a large body of water surrounded by development. At the head of the basin is the residential area of Bedford and suburbs, including Lower Sackville and Waverly. Traveling down Highway 102 from Truro and Halifax International Airport (38 kilometers north of downtown), you’ll pass exits for these and other towns.

Travel map of Halifax, Nova Scotia


Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Nova Scotia.