Throughout its history, Halifax, Nova Scotia, has been defined by the Atlantic Ocean. Its blue-gray presence is visible from the city's glass high-rises, centuries-old buildings and surrounding hills. Being built around a huge natural harbor that's second size-wise only to the one in Sydney, Australia, Halifax boasts a vibrant port that has catered to both commercial and naval vessels for more than 260 years. The fact that it was recently awarded a Can$25-billion federal shipbuilding contract further underscores how Halifax's ocean access drives the provincial economy.
That same body of water also makes it an ideal tourist destination. The water offers ample recreational opportunities, and most major attractions—from the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 to the Halifax Citadel (which was originally built to defend against sea attacks)—reflect the role it has played in the city's evolution.
Whether you are strolling on the photogenic 0.6 mi/1 km harborfront boardwalk, which extends from Casino Nova Scotia to Marginal Road, or hiking in Point Pleasant Park and Sir Sandford Fleming Park, which face each other across the Northwest Arm, water is virtually everywhere—and foodies will marvel at the fresh seafood it yields. Nevertheless, there is more to Halifax than the ocean.
As the capital of Nova Scotia and the largest Canadian city east of Quebec, Halifax is a center for government, business and health care, which translates into a relatively affluent population. It is a center for higher education, too, with students from six universities injecting a decidedly youthful energy. When you combine those two demographics and factor in locals' famously friendly nature, it is easy to see why Halifax is also an entertainment hotspot, complete with a thriving arts community, an active music scene and nightlife options that few cities of its size can rival.
Nova Scotia is almost an island, with Northumberland Strait and the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the south and east, and the Bay of Fundy (which has the world's highest recorded tides) to the west. The 17-mi-/27-km-wide Isthmus of Chignecto connects the province to the rest of Canada.
Halifax Harbour is on the southeast coast of Nova Scotia, opening into the Atlantic, and the city of Halifax spreads out along its shores. The downtown core sits on a peninsula in the harbor, with the other parts of the city farther inland and along the shores of the Bedford Basin. Directly across the harbor—and accessible via a pair of bridges, a ferry and a highway that rounds the Bedford Basin—is Dartmouth. It was Halifax's sister city until they amalgamated in 1996; however, most residents still refer to the two individually. Together they form the cornerstone of the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM), Canada's 13th-largest metropolitan center.
Halifax's first known European visitor, French explorer Samuel de Champlain, noted the good fishing in its deep harbor in 1605, and for centuries before that the seminomadic Mi'kmaq (Native Americans who camped on the inlet now called the Northwest Arm) used it as a hunting ground. However, Halifax wasn't actually settled until its strategic importance became apparent in the mid-18th century.
By the time British commander Edward Cornwallis established a fortified garrison there in 1749, the French and English were locked in a bitter war over North America, and Halifax offered the British an important foothold on the continent. With a formidable hilltop Citadel in the town center and a battery of guns overlooking the harbor, it became one of the best-defended towns in North America. In 1759, a British expedition sailed from Halifax up the St. Lawrence River and captured Quebec City, thereby ending two centuries of war over the territories.
Halifax retained its military significance. During the American Revolution, the city served as a base for British forces; and afterward local privateers—essentially legalized pirates with the King's permission to capture assets of another country—raided U.S. shipping on the Atlantic seaboard. To this day it is home port for the Canadian Navy's Atlantic Fleet.
By the 1860s Halifax had become an economic engine, too. Its harbor, one of the British Empire's most significant seaports, was a vital point of transfer for raw materials from Canada's interior and manufactured goods arriving from around the world. Within the city, Princess Street became known as the "Wall Street of Canada" during the 1900s; two of the nation's major banks plus a host of provincial banks were born there.
The harbor also made Halifax a major immigration center. More than a million prospective citizens disembarked on Pier 21 between 1928 and 1971. This national historic landmark (Canada's equivalent to Ellis Island) is now an immigration museum filled with interactive exhibits.
There has been a tragic side to Halifax's maritime past, as well. In 1912, 150 victims of the Titanic were brought to the city to be buried in three local graveyards. And in 1917, as munitions ships gathered in the harbor before setting off on the perilous voyage to the war in Europe, a collision between two vessels (the French munitions ship Mont Blanc and the Norwegian Imo, carrying relief supplies for Belgium) resulted in the world's largest man-made explosion prior to the atomic era. More than 2,000 people were killed in the blast, 9,000 were injured and 20,000 were left homeless in the city's leveled North End.
The small-town charm of historic Halifax is best discovered on foot, especially since parking is scarce. Stop at the Citadel—watching the 78th Highlanders drill there and observing the ritual firing of the Noon Gun are both highly recommended. Also take time to stroll along Halifax's waterfront boardwalk. Beginning at Casino Nova Scotia, it winds southward through the Historic Properties (where pirates stored their booty), then past ships, restaurants, waterfront pubs and the fascinating Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. It ends steps from the Seaport Farmers Market, near the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
As befits a capital city, Halifax has a good selection of other museums and galleries. The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia features Maritime folk art, and it often displays work by world-renowned artists on loan from other museums. To learn about local flora and fauna, pay a visit to the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History where fossils, archaeological discoveries and cultural artifacts tell the province's story from the beginning of time. Other worthwhile sites include the Victorian-era Halifax Public Gardens and the cemeteries where victims of the Titanic were buried.
Halifax's tourist season generally runs from the Victoria Day weekend (the third weekend in May) to Canadian Thanksgiving (Columbus Day in the U.S.). The best time for sightseeing is June-September, when the weather is very pleasant. Most festivals happen during July and August. The best whale-watching is from mid-June to mid-September. If you're interested in seeing the autumn foliage, you might consider putting off your trip until the first two weeks in October. If you're a winter sports fan, though, December to mid-March is the time to go.
Sundown doesn't put a crimp in Halifax's liveliness, though most of the action is downtown. With so many clubs, pubs, bars and lounges to choose from, the evenings are long—generally carrying on into the wee hours. The Dome and Reflections Cabaret stay open after most bars close, till about 3:30 am. Afterward, locals head for one of the pizza joints on "Pizza Corner," at Blowers and Grafton streets, for a slice of pizza or a donair
You'll find this compact city offers a smorgasbord of venues within walking distance from historic Halifax's major hotels. You will typically pay a cover charge at clubs on Friday and Saturday night, and at bars or pubs whenever live music is featured: Can$5-$6 is standard, but the cover can be Can$20 or more for special performances. For entertainment listings, visit http://www.thecoast.ca.
Note that the legal drinking age in Nova Scotia is 19.
Seafood has always been king in Nova Scotia: After all, the surrounding sea yields sweet mussels, plump Digby scallops, a wide variety of delicious fish and fresh lobster all year-round. Better yet, it's prepared in myriad ways. That means you can go old-school with boiled lobster dipped in butter, simple planked salmon and deep-fried fish-and-chips, or opt for gourmet crustacean creations that are prepared with international flair. Either way, if you stroll along the waterfront, you're certain to find great spots for an unforgettable meal.
For a memorable dining experience that's a tradition in Atlantic Canada, head out to one of the famous lobster suppers. These happen daily for the entire summer season. Don't expect fine dining and don't wear your best shirt (lobster juice drips everywhere), but do expect tasty home cooking in a convivial atmosphere.
When it's fast food you're craving, you'll find seafood again features prominently on the menu. In summer, even the local McDonald's outlets sell McLobster Rolls. But if you need a break from all things fishy, sample that other local specialty, the donair. A variation of a gyro, it consists of spiced meat, tomatoes, onions and hot peppers doused in a sweet garlic sauce, all wrapped in pita bread. Careful—these are messy.
Locals generally eat lunch noon-1:30 pm and dinner 5:30-7:30 pm.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than Can$15; $$ = Can$15-$25; $$$ = Can$26-$40; $$$$ = more than Can$40.
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