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A Visitor's Guide to Halifax, Nova Scotia

Halifax, Nova Scotia, combines urban bustle, maritime hospitality, and military history. Haligonians know how to have a good time. Visitors are welcomed into lively restaurants, bars, and festivals. The Waterfront explodes with activity during the summer months. Keep reading for a guide to discovering the sights and activities that make Halifax a favourite and repeated destination for many, including me.


The top of the town clock: a 3 story octagonal tower painted white with a copper roof.
Halifax Town Clock


 
 

A Brief History of Halifax

The nomadic Mi'kmaq hunters tracked caribou on this land over 13,000 years ago. They lived their traditional lives until the mid-18th century when the British government recognized the strategic benefits of its location. Hoping to balance the French presence in Cape Breton and wanting to capitalize on the abundant cod fisheries, the first settlement emerged in 1746.


Tensions soon simmered between the settlers and the Mi'kmaq, leading to armed conflict when the Mi'kmaq, backed by the French, declared war in 1749—the following years brought more upheaval, including the infamous Acadian Expulsion and the influx of Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution.

A 3 masted schooner with full sails in Halifax Harbour with George's Island in the background

Despite the turmoil, Halifax thrived on its maritime activities, from fishing and forestry to wartime efforts, shipping, and even privateering. When Halifax was officially incorporated in 1841, it was already a bustling and thriving city.

Head and shoulders shot of a man dressed as a pirate

The tragic Halifax Explosion in 1917 sparked innovations like the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, making Halifax a pioneer in accessibility long before it became a buzzword. Rum running during the American Prohibition helped rebuild and re-energize the city. Today, Halifax is the economic hub of Atlantic Canada and is home to approximately 350,000 residents. The median family income is about 11% less than the Canadian average, with most residents working in government, military, education, shipping and hospitality. I recommend joining a walking tour to learn more. I particularly enjoyed the Haunted Ghost Walk Tour, an entertaining couple of hours focussed on ghost stories, legends, folklore, and history. Another fabulous tour is the candlelit Citadel Ghost Tour into the tunnels and prison cells of the Citadel.


Transportation Guide to Getting Around Halifax

Downtown Halifax is compact and easy to navigate on foot, but visitors should be aware that it is hilly! Some of the streets will strain your calf muscles. Those with mobility issues don't need to be concerned, as an excellent public transportation network includes buses, taxis, and ride-sharing (Uber and Lyft). Some visitors may want to consider renting a bicycle (e-bikes and tours are also available) from I Heart Bikes.

The side of a container with bikes parked in front; Painted on the side is "i <3  bikes  -  rentals, tours, dating, shop"

Visitors choosing accommodations across the Harbour in Dartmouth will find the Dartmouth Ferry a bargain at less than $3 per trip. The 15-minute ride is quick and easy. In contrast, the bridge crossing is always slow and crowded and includes a $1.25 toll.


Food, Drink, and Fun

Much of Halifax's social life will involve good food, full glasses, and maybe even a good sing-along. Lobster is fresh and plentiful, but it sometimes overshadows the quality and range of excellent fine dining, pub fare, and street food options. There is an option for every diet, budget, and preference. Street art, festivals, pop-up performances, and live music are typical.

Don't be surprised to see locals sitting on porches and doorsteps sharing music. A favourite moment was when I came out of a restaurant to see these fellows enjoying the evening shade and playing awesome music.

A group of 4 young men playing instruments  on the doorstep of  their building: a fiddler, guitarist,  spoon player, and handmade bucket bas

Argyle Street is a three-block-long, pedestrian-only (summer) experience home to live theatre, cafes, pubs, restaurants, bars, and more. Many include huge patios that spill into the street during summer. Some will consist of live music. Visitors can choose a different establishment every night to enjoy the fun at 'trad music,' dance to a DJ set, or indulge in a quiet fine-dining experience.


a street lined with buildings and patios. The  street is painted with diamonds shapes of black blue and green
image credit: Downtown Halifax Business Commission

Festivals/Events

Summer visitors to Halifax are more than likely to discover a festival no matter when they visit. Some festivals are special events, like the Tall Ships Festival that I enjoyed back in 2012, but others are annual events. Make sure to check what's on by visiting their outstanding Visitor Centres or the Discover Halifax website to get an up-to-date listing.


The Royal Nova Scotia Tattoo Fans of parades, marching bands, military displays, and drum corps will want to plan to visit during the July 1st long weekend to attend the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo. Regular readers know I'm a former band director and will not be surprised that this festival is dear to my heart. My late father proudly performed with his veteran's band at this event

A uniformed military brass band walking in a  parade in front of the town clock

BuskerFest

Buskerfest is a 6-day festival with hundreds of shows spread over several stages along the Waterfront over the August 1st long weekend. Expect planned and spontaneous fun at the mid-way with games and carnival rides, acrobatic and dance displays, story-telling, stilt-walkers, and magicians.



Halifax Jazz Festival 

Another popular festival is the Halifax Jazz Festival, which happens in the second week of July and showcases established and emerging artists from around the world. An important part of its mandate includes educational and performance opportunities for student musicians. The mix of free and paid performances ensures that a visit to the Jazz Festival won't break even the tightest travel budget.

An abstract aart image depicting jazz with suggestions of string instrument and notes
image credit; Garik Barseghyan - pixabay

The Halifax Mural Festival

Another fun festival in July is the Halifax Mural Festival. The festival includes workshops, art talks, a market, and live music. The festival's primary focus is along Quinpool Road, but it has expanded to include other areas in the city, including Halifax's waterfront and hub areas. Even if visitors arrive outside the festival week, the murals remain and can be visited using maps found on their website.

A wall mural with a pastel coloured target and stylized buffalo with antlers

A Guide to Exploring Downtown Halifax

Discovering the city's street art, murals, graffiti, and sculptures is a joy for me. The Quinpool Street murals are not to be missed. The statues and sculptures along the Waterfront will impress and intrigue most visitors. My favourite is an installation of bendy lamp poles along the Waterfront, entitled "Drunken Lightposts."


3 bent lamposts on a wooden pier. One has melted to the ground


The Halifax Citadel

The star-shaped Halifax Citadel sits high on a hill overlooking the harbour. The first Citadel was built in the mid-1700s and has been replaced three times. Today's Citadel was built in the mid-1800s. While it (and its predecessors) never saw action, it has been used for military purposes throughout history.

An overhead view of the citadel showing the star shape
image credit: Parks Canada

Costumed interpreters bring life to the daily routines of the military personnel stationed here. Visitors can tour the site alone or with a guide and enjoy the exciting displays and demonstrations.




Try to time your visit on-site during the daily firing of the noonday gun for a spectacular demonstration of 19th-century rifles and cannons.


5 uniformed soldiers moving a cannon into firing position under the supervision of an officer

Full exhibits are open from May to November. In winter, only the parade grounds are open.


The Halifax Town Clock

On the hill outside the Citadel's walls is a lovely clock tower. Originally built in 1803 by the Duke of Kent, it was intended to combat the chronic tardiness of the military men stationed at the Citadel. The clock chimes can be heard throughout the downtown area every 15 minutes.

A white clapboard building with a 3 story octagonal tower and copper roof. A large clock with a blu face is on the tower

The clock is a 3-storey tower built on top of a clapboard building. It has been used as a guard room and a residence for the clock caretaker. The caretaker position is gone, and Citadel Hill employees maintain the clock. As an iconic Halifax site, the clock is featured in many artworks and was even a character in a favourite children's cartoon about a tugboat named Theodore.

Tugboat painted and decorated to look like the cartoon character Theodore. Theodore's face and red ball cap have been added

Government House (1451 Barrington Street)

Government House is the official residence of Nova Scotia's Lieutenant-Governor. It was built in the early 1800s and is used for special events. The Annual Garden Party in June is a popular free and open event, and guided tours are offered during the summer months.


A kilted soldier standing at attention at a guard box

Old Burying Ground (1541 Barrington Street)

I have always enjoyed cemeteries, although I understand they aren't everyone's cup of tea. For visitors like me, the Old Burying Ground is an excellent example. This cemetery was opened in 1749 but was filled and closed in 1844. Many of the graves were filled by victims of a typhoid fever epidemic during the winter of 1749-1750. It is a designated National Historic Site of Canada and a Nova Scotia Heritage Property.



 Halifax Public Gardens (5665 Spring Garden Road)

The Halifax Public Gardens are an excellent way to spend a couple of hours wandering through 16 acres of public gardens designed the same year Canada became a country (1867).


The garden features shaded pathways, manicured lawns, and stunning plantings. I particularly enjoyed the duck pond, fountains, and the historic bandstand.



As one of Canada's few remaining Victorian walking parks, it was designated a National Historic Site in 1984.


St. Paul's Church (1749 Argyle Street)

St. Paul's Church is the oldest building in Halifax and has served its parishioners since the 1700s. I visited it for its connection to the 1917 Halifax Explosion, where a ship carrying ammunition and explosives was rammed by a drifting boat. The Explosion levelled almost all the buildings within an 800m radius, killed over 1,7oo and injured about 9,000 people—debris from the Explosion was found as far as 10 km away. (learn more from this YouTube video).

nighttime shot of a 2 story  white church with interior lights showing through the windows

St. Paul's is 3 km from the epicentre of the Explosion. Inside its doors, a piece of iron is still embedded in the wall. There was also a large amount of "human debris." One tale is told of one poor gentleman whose head was found on both sides of the church

An iron bar embedded in a wall with a sign below reading "Relic of the Explosion Dec 6, 1917"

It is reported that part of the unfortunate fellow's head went through this window. According to my guide on a Ghost Walk tour, there is no paper, paint, or other material on the glass. The glass has been changed three times, but this profile of a man always returns.

A church window illuminated from the rear, showing the profile of a man

The Halifax Waterfront

The crown jewel of Halifax is the extensive 4 km harbour waterfront, which includes scenic walks, historic buildings, public art, entertainment areas, and cultural hubs arranged in districts.


The Historic Properties District is a collection of warehouses built during the Napoleonic Wars that are also known as 'Privateer's Wharf.' Today, these warehouses are home to restaurants and boutiques with unique local goods and services.

The Queen's Marque District is the newest district that includes luxury hotels, fine restaurants, art installations and high-end shops. My favourite art installation here is called "Tidal Beacon" -- a piece that responds to the tides with lights and movement. Arrange to be close by when the tides are at their highest or lowest for a 12-minute light show. Use the Tide Checker website to plan your visit.


A rectangular shaped tower clad in metal grid

The Maritime Heritage District focuses on marine history. Visitors can visit military ships docked here. An exciting excursion includes visiting the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic with its permanent exhibit telling the story of Halifax's connection to the Titanic. Survivors of the sinking went to New York, but the bodies of those who perished were sent to Halifax.


The bow of a wooden schooner in front of a restaurant called Salty's

The Salt Yard District is the happening place during the summer months. Small businesses, public seating, performance space, and a beer garden invite visitors and locals to linger and enjoy the lively atmosphere. It is also the most accessible place to find a public toilet.


Open plaza a area filled with picnic tables and shade umbrellas.. A sign says "Salt Yard"

The Brewery District features Alexander Keith's Brewery and a popular Saturday morning Farmer's Market.


A mural on a brick wall of a man sitting on a beer barrel playing a violin

Bishop's Landing features high-end shopping, dining, services, and residences. Stop at Rum Runner Cake Factory to sample and purchase their featured rum cakes. The original is a golden rum-soaked cake topped with pecans and coconut. I can't leave Halifax without at least one or two tins of the chocolate rum cake. Check out the Bicycle Thief Pub for those looking for a unique place to enjoy an adult beverage.



The Seaport District is part of a multi-year project to transform former shipping warehouses into a new arts and culture district. It includes a weekend farmer's market and the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.


Day Trips Worth Considering

Georges Island is part of the Halifax Military complex and is located in the harbour. Access to the island is by ferry, or visitors may take a tour or paddle across by rented kayak.

Small lighthouse and keeper's house  on the shore of Georges Island
Gerge's Island Lighthouse


The Africville Museum is about 5 km from downtown, at the site of a Black community established in the mid-19th century. In 1961, the city began forcing residents to move to make way for industrial development. It has been a National Historic Site since 1996. Peggys Cove, with its charming village and famous lighthouse, is a must-see for any visitor to Nova Scotia. Check out my post about a day trip to Peggys Cove here.

A 4 sided 3 storey lighthouse on the rocks with tourists taking photos in front
Peggys Cove Lighthouse

Visitors will also want to explore the South Shore Drive, which is known for its charming towns, fishing villages, and lighthouses. Check out my South Shore Drive post here.


A collection of wooden shingled houses on stilts, built  above the water
Blue Rocks, Nova Scotia

Extending Your Trip

The province of Nova Scotia has much to offer visitors outside of Halifax. I urge visitors to include Cape Breton Island on your Nova Scotia itinerary. Baddeck is the heart of Cape Breton and is the perfect base for exploring the island.

A row of colourful Adirondack-style chairs in front of a rose hedge
Baddeck, Cape Breton

Without travelling the stunning Cabot Trail, no visit to Cape Breton would be complete.

a look back along a curvy road winding along a hilly coast on a wet and misty day
Cabot Trail

While in Cape Breton, a day exploring the National Historic Site of Louisbourg Fortress is a treat.

The Dauphin Gate Entrance. A wooden gate within stone walls. A guard is standing outside the guard house
Louisbourg Fortress

Final Thoughts

Halifax, Nova Scotia, greets visitors with urban bustle, maritime charm, and rich military history. Let Haligonians show off their hospitality as visitors are welcomed with open arms into the lively atmosphere of bustling restaurants, spirited bars, and vibrant festivals.


As summer arrives, the Waterfront explodes with activity, offering a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds sure to delight every visitor. Halifax offers visitors many experiences to explore, from its historic landmarks and lively festivals to its scenic Waterfront and vibrant culinary scene. So, whether you're drawn to its rich history, lively culture, or the promise of a good time, Halifax is the place to discover the sights and activities that will encourage visitors to book their return trip before leaving.

The author at a ship's wheel


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15 Comments


Guest
May 10

I'm not sure why but I didn't envision Halifax as a city lol! Oh boy did I learn a lot haha. I love taking walking tours of a new place and the fact that mixed in ghost stories (which by proxy often include history of the place) is perfect! Lovely place!

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Replying to

lol! Yep, Halifax is a thriving city. It's funny how we get ideas about places that are completely off-the-mark but I've been guilty of the same. I'm a big fan of ghost tours and will take one any chance I get.

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Guest
May 09

It seems like a very pleasant and charismatic city to spend some time in. I particularly like the arts, whether it's urban art or music, especially jazz.

The citadel is reminiscent of any European city, especially those with star fortifications, as is the case with many in Portugal.

An excellent guide for those who want to enjoy a few days in Halifax


Angela | Blonde Around The World Travel -

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So much of our early history was heavily influenced by the European settlers, so I am not surprised that you see the similarities in the citadels.

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Guest
May 07

Halifax looks fun and colourful, I can see myself enjoying this place for sure. It's stunning waterfront and thriving art scene would be of interest to me such as the citadel, which reminds me of the European star-shaped style. I'll read up on it more and see if there is a connection. Halifax is certainly an exciting blend of modern amenities with a touch of old-world charm.


Carolin | <a href="https://solotravelstory.com/">Solo Travel Story</a>

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The Halifax Citadel is one of 7 star-shaped citadels in Canada, with another in Nova Scotia, one in Quebec, one in New Brunswick and the rest in Ontario -- all of which were the earliest settlements.

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Guest
Apr 29

Love the photo of you at the helm!

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Thank you, I'm blushing

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What a fantastic guide to Halifax! There are so many things to see, I fear we haven't scheduled enough time in the city to enjoy them all. Food, drink and fun - the perfect combination. We will keep an eye (and ear) out for live music events, although, sadly, our timing means we may miss most of the festivals. I can see us spending time in the Brewery District and it looks as though a Rum Runner cake would be an essential purchase. Bookmarked for our future trip.

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There's an almost 100% chance that you will stumble upon a festival of some type if you visit during the summer! Any excuse for a good time seems to be Halifax's mantra

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