The water sparkled in the sunshine as we strolled along the waterfront in Halifax, a city where the connection with the sea is inescapable. We were visiting for just a couple of days as part of a week long road trip around Nova Scotia and found plenty of interesting things to do in Halifax, with a downtown area that’s small enough to walk everywhere.
The call of the sea is ever present; the lobster and scallops appear on every menu, the fortress on the hill was built to protect the harbour and ships sailed from here to take men to war and brought immigrants to Canada to start a new life. Although we had just a day, we managed to see a lot (as always!) so here are 10 fun things to do in Halifax that we enjoyed and recommend you visit.
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1. Fresh produce at the Halifax Seaport Farmers Market
As we were staying at the Westin Nova Scotian, our first stop after breakfast was the Halifax Farmers Market, just a short walk from the hotel. There has been a farmer’s market in Halifax since 1750 and the market moved to its current home in a large modern building on the Seaport in 2010, now housing 250 different vendors.
At one end of the hall were stalls with beautifully presented fresh fruit and veg, countless varieties of apples and seasonal specialties like asparagus and rhubarb. Wandering around we found stalls selling everything from pickles and wines to locally produced crafts, creams and jewellery. Mixed in were plenty of food vendors with a multicultural influence reflecting the history of Halifax as a major sea port and the gateway for many immigrants to Canada from all over the world.
If we’d been hungry we could have chosen from African, Indian, Lebanese, Caribbean and Korean cuisine, in fact it was difficult to work out what Canadian food might be, if not this blend of multi-ethnic cuisine and fresh local produce. The Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market is the place to get a feel for the local food specialties of Nova Scotia and to have lunch, with a patio area upstairs and views over the water.
2. A walk along the Halifax Waterfront
At one end of the farmer’s market, we joined the Halifax boardwalk, which stretches the length of the waterfront and is a favourite place for locals and visitors to walk, jog, cycle and enjoy the sea air and views of the harbour. Along the Halifax waterfront are shops and restaurants, places to sit and relax and of course plenty of boats to admire along the way.
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As we walked we spotted a beach volley court and were tempted to hire bikes at I heart bikes but we already had a plan to do the Harbour Hopper tour – see my next highlight for more about our tour. After the Harbour Hopper we continued along the boardwalk to the end, where there’s a historic quarter with the old buildings that formed the heart of the port in the 18th century, protected by the fort on Citadel Hill.
There was a poignant reminder at The Last Steps memorial of all the Canadian soldiers who left Halifax from this point to fight in WWI and never returned, their last view of home being from this spot. At the far end of the waterfront by the Marriott Hotel we relaxed for a while on the colourful wooden chairs that are typical of this part of Canada, with an especially big one that’s just designed for selfies.
Although we didn’t stop to eat on the waterfront, a few Halifax waterfront pubs and restaurants that looked fun were;
The Bicycle Thief – with a relaxed but stylish atmosphere and outside seating on the boardwalk
Murphy’s Restaurant and Patio – for their semi open air patio on Cable Wharf with a view of the water on all sides.
The Lower Deck – for beer and live music on the waterfront
More info about the Halifax Waterfront development including a map | My-waterfront.ca website |
3. On land and water take the Harbour Hopper Halifax Tour
One of the most popular things to do in Halifax is the Harbour Hopper Tour, which has a ticket booth on the boardwalk where you can buy or reserve your ticket. The tour takes place in an amphibious vehicle that is half truck, half boat, giving you a great view as you drive around town and a waterside perspective once you start the harbour tour part of the experience (watch out for the splash!).
During the tour we passed many of the major sites in the downtown area such as the Victorian public park, Citadel Hill and the busy Spring Garden Road where many shops and cafes are situated. The guide gave us a fascinating commentary about all the things that we were seeing, including the story of the Halifax Explosion in 1917, a disaster that flattened much of the town following a collision and fire on board a ship carrying munitions.
I’d highly recommend this tour to do at the beginning of your stay in Halifax, as it’s a great way to get a feel for the main things to do in Halifax so that you can go back and explore in more depth later.
More info | Harbour Hopper Tour website | Price $36.75 Adults |Duration 55 minutes | Running every 15 minutes in high season |
4. Climb up to the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site
After we’d thoroughly explored the harbour area, we walked up to Citadel Hill where you can visit the star shaped fort that overlooks the city of Halifax. The fort was established in 1749 to protect the strategic harbour and naval base, with the star shaped design making it easy to defend; in fact it never came under attack.
You’ll see the soldiers of the 78th highlanders in their scarlet coats and kilts who can tell you stories of their regiment stationed there in the 18th century and listen out for the bagpipes playing on the battlements.
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Inside the fortress, walk around the ramparts to see the heavy canons or visit the military museums inside the buildings that were formerly the barracks and living quarters of the soldiers. There are regular guided tours of the fort or you can wander around the different rooms that show how the soldiers lived and at noon each day the cannon is fired. The fort also explores the life of soldiers in the two world wars with a system of trenches that you can walk through to experience the dugouts and medical stations of WW1.
On the grassy slope in front of the fort stands the Old Town Clock, a gift of the Duke of Kent in 1800, who was commander in chief at the time and made a gift of the clock which has since become a Halifax landmark.
More information | Halifax Citadel National Historic Site | Admission Adults $11.70 | Open daily throughout the year |
5. A stroll around the Halifax Public Gardens
From the fort it was a short walk to the Halifax Public Gardens where we enjoyed the walk around this Victorian park that was laid out in 1867 in the English style of the time. The park includes a boating lake where you may spot a model of the Titanic floating, with statues, floral borders and a Chinese style bandstand that is still used in the summer for public concerts.
You can stop for coffee and cake in the cafe called Uncommon Grounds which is in the pretty wooden former horticultural hall with tables set on the wooden veranda.
More info | Friends of the Public Gardens Website |
6. Impressive architecture at the Halifax Central Library
Just a couple of blocks down Spring Garden Road we found the Halifax Central Library which has become a more recent Halifax landmark, known for its striking design and as a community hub that has reinvented the library for a new generation.
The building is a striking stack of glass boxes, criss-crossed inside by stairways with a light open atrium and galleries around the side. This is clearly a building that is well used for reading, working, listening to music and for community and family activities. As we made our way up to the top floor we could feel the atmosphere of calm but purposeful activity and we decided to stop for lunch in the cafe at the top.
There’s a terraced rooftop area where you can sit with a view over the whole city and also the green rooftop that absorbs solar energy and harvests rainwater to add to the building’s green credentials.
More info | Halifax Central Library |
7. Visit the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 and other museums in Halifax
Most of what I’ve described so far was visited in just one day and we would have loved to have spent more time exploring the museums of Halifax. As we were running out of time by the afternoon, we decided to pick just one Halifax museum to visit; Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 which tells the story of immigration in Halifax and by extension in Canada. The Museum is set in the waterfront at Pier 21, the location where the boats would dock and immigrants to Canada came ashore to begin their journey in becoming Canadian citizens.
We took a fascinating short tour from a volunteer guide who explained how immigrants were processed through the customs and legalities, sometimes being helped with medical and other needs before they boarded a train from the station next door to other parts of Canada. Some were fleeing danger in their homeland, others looking for greater prosperity or coming as a war bride to marry the man of their dreams. We saw the hall where they would have waited apprehensively to be interviewed, the train carriages they would have travelled in and the suitcases that contained all their worldly goods to start a new life.
Canada has historically been one of the most welcoming nations for immigrants, which is reflected in the multi-cultural society of today, so it was fascinating to learn more about this trend of immigration through the human stories of those who arrived in Canada.
There are several other great museums in Halifax and a couple that we’d have liked to visit were;
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic – Set on the harbourfront the museum covers Nova Scotia’s relationship with the sea, through World War convoys, the Titanic and the Halifax explosion. If you are fascinated by the Titanic story, this is the place to visit as Halifax was the closest port to the location where the ship went down in 1912 and is known for its collection of wooden artefacts from the Titanic.
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia – housing a collection of art that is unique to Nova Scotia including the collection of Maud Lewis, the Nova Scotia artist best known for her folk art.
8. Fresh and delicious seafood in Halifax
One of the highlights of our visit to Halifax and Nova Scotia in general was the fantastic seafood that we tried while we were there. We were blown away by the top quality of the lobster, oysters, crab and scallops that are on almost every restaurant menu in Halifax. This city is definitely heaven for foodies who enjoy seafood. There were a couple of restaurants in Halifax that we really enjoyed for their great food and stylish atmosphere;
5 Fishermen Restaurant in Halifax
This is well known upscale restaurant is set a few blocks back from the harbour front. The building itself has a fascinating history. Built as a school in 1818 it subsequently became a funeral home and took in many of the dead from the Titanic disaster and the Halifax explosion. There are tales on the website about staff in the restaurant seeing ghosts, although I thought the atmosphere when we visited was most warm and charming!
The ground floor is a bar offering wine and seafood, while the restaurant is upstairs with a menu that has the spotlight firmly on the seafood. We tried the oysters with a choice of different sauces, although my preference is au naturel with just a squeeze of lemon. Next was the lobster with vegetables and butter sauce – all simple but delicious with a glass of Nova 7 by Benjamin Bridge. Five Fishermen is highly recommended for a special dinner with great food and service that showcases local Nova Scotia produce and seafood.
Five Fishermen Website | We ate 6 Oysters $18 CAD | Classic Lobster Dinner $49 CAD | The Five Fish $45 CAD | Nova 7 sparkling wine $15 CAD|+tax & gratuities
Elements on Hollis at Westin Nova Scotian
Another delightful meal during our short visit to Halifax was at Elements on Hollis, the restaurant of the Westin Nova Scotian where we stayed in Halifax. The concept behind the restaurant is of familiar dishes with a modern and international twist. It was interesting to see different dishes on the menu with a flag beside them to indicate the international cuisine that had inspired them.
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However we were most interested in trying out the local flavours of Nova Scotia, so we ordered a selection of plates to try out the different seafood on offer. We enjoyed the creamy chowder soup, a meal in itself with salmon, haddock, mussels and scallops. We also shared the north shore crab cake with a lime remoulade and slaw of pickled carrots and fennel as well as the Scallop’s BLT with seared scallops, tomato, bacon and crispy croutons, which was delicious and apparently inspired by the Victorian era.
Elements on Hollis website | We ate chowder $13 CAD | crab cake $14 CAD | Scallops BLT $18 | + tax & gratuities
Note: Prices on menus in Canada are generally quoted exclusive of local tax and a minimum 15% gratuity is expected, so you need to allow an additional 30% on menu prices in Nova Scotia.
9. Try the craft beer in Halifax
While we stuck to Nova Scotia wine with our seafood, there is a huge craft beer scene in Nova Scotia and after our visit to Pier 21 we popped into Garrisons, a micro-brewery that makes one of the popular Halifax beers that you’ll see on sale in bars all over town. You can take a brewery tour or just sit in the airy brick brewery, buy bottles from their shop and order some tasters of the different beers on tap.
Another popular stop for beer lovers is the Alexander Keith’s Nova Scotia Brewery where you can take a brewery tour with actors in costume who lead you through the oldest brewery in Nova Scotia, or you can just take a drink in the Stag’s Head Tavern to try the Alexander Keith ales.
Staying on the drink theme, the Halifax Distilling Company is on the Halifax Waterfront, using small-batch copper stills to make fine rum and spirits, which you can try at their tasting bar.
10. Stay at a historic Halifax hotel – the Westin Nova Scotian
While in Halifax we stayed at the Westin Nova Scotian, a historic hotel that was part of the Canadian National Railway group. Opened in the 1930s, this was the place that elegant travellers would stay before or after their cruise across the Atlantic in the days before air travel. Ocean liners would come into port in Halifax and connect their disembarking passengers through the railway station that was next to the hotel.
Now part of the Westin group, this is a still a busy and cosmopolitan hotel that is ideal for travellers who want to spend a few days in Halifax. The hotel is well located close to the waterfront and an easy walk to all the sights of Halifax, although it also has parking if you are touring by car.
Our harbour view room was spacious, comfortable and elegant, with a great view of the harbour towards the Halifax Seaport Farmer’s Market, and we’d certainly recommend this as a great place to stay while you visit Halifax.
More info | Westin Nova Scotian website | Rooms start around $420 CAD incl tax / charges | Breakfast included, facilities include spa, gym, parking, indoor swimming pool |
Plan your holiday in Halifax, Nova Scotia
For other things to see in Canada visit the Canada Tourism website.
Thanks to Nova Scotia Tourism who hosted my stay in Halifax