Best-kept secret Visitors and locals alike often refer to Halifax, and indeed all of Nova Scotia, as the "best-kept secret" in Canada. With one of the largest natural harbors in the world, Nova Scotia's capital is the biggest and most cosmopolitan city in Atlantic Canada's four provinces. Less than two hours by air from New York and Toronto, it is the halfway point between Europe and the west coast of North America.
Though Haligonians are proud of their well-kept secret, they are quick to make visitors welcome. You won't stand for long with an open map on a city street; someone will invariably stop to help you on your way.
In 1995, the municipalities of Dartmouth, Bedford, Halifax and Halifax County joined together and became officially known as the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM), today the population is near 360,000.
Nevertheless, visitors will still see street signs directing them to Dartmouth, Bedford and Halifax. Dartmouth is a quiet bedroom community across the harbor from Halifax, via the ferry or one of the city's two suspension bridges. But the 10-minute ferry ride from Halifax's waterfront across the picturesque harbor—home to luxury yachts, recreational boats and gigantic container ships heading for the open sea—is a must, just for the view. And despite its one-block long "downtown," Dartmouth is home to one of HRM's best restaurants,
Bedford is north of Halifax's city cent re on a long stretch of road called The Bedford Highway, a major route to the Halifax International Airport. Bedford is an old, treed, residential area extending west of the highway, but the highway, which follows the train tracks out of Halifax, is a busy commercial area with boutiques, specialty stores, garden nurseries, restaurants and large malls on both sides, all visible and easily accessible from the main road.
Located on the southeastern coast of Nova Scotia, Halifax's city center sits on a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. Farther south than Montreal, it boasts a mild climate that sees little or no snow until after January. “The Peninsula" refers to old Halifax, the area enclosed by the Bedford Basin on the east, the Atlantic Ocean on the south, and the Northwest Arm on the west.
The South End is the ritzy part of the peninsula. Canopied by ancient trees, wide avenues give view to palatial homes constructed in various architectural styles, with grounds that are beautifully groomed and well planned. A drive through these leafy streets will take you to the southernmost part of the community,
Downtown Halifax is where the action is. As an important shipping center, the commercial part of the harbor is busy year-round. Vessels from Russia, South America and Europe float next to stern, gray submarines. During the summer, huge luxury liners dock near the neck of the harbor and are a popular tourist destination.
The shopping is good, the galleries are great, the history is everywhere, and the food is fabulous. With the best people-watching in the city, downtown is where you can hear many languages and accents as visitors from around the globe stroll the busy streets. It's also the site of the large, well-appointed
You're never lost in downtown Halifax. If you're going downhill, you'll end up at the waterfront. If you're walking uphill, you'll arrive at the city's largest and most famous landmark, the
Halifax is a convenient city. Most points of interest, dining and entertainment establishments are within walking distance of major downtown hotels. The fresh breezes off the water make strolling a pleasure, and rooftop restaurants and bars are a good place to stop for a breather or to sample one of the locally brewed beers. It's an easygoing city where visitors can wander in comfort and safety until the wee hours.
The West End of Halifax is both a lovely residential area and a shopper's paradise. Four malls draw bargain-hunters from both sides of the harbour. The sprawling complex known as the West End Mall and the
The true East End of Halifax is in Dartmouth, in the Burnside Industrial Park, where the main industries are located along with the city's two newspaper plants. A sprawling complex of head offices and warehouses, Burnside will be a challenge for anyone without a map.
But Halifax is just a district within the larger playground that is Nova Scotia. If you want the best smoked-salmon in a 500-mile radius, it can be found 15 minutes out of the city. If you want to stay in a castle-like bed and breakfast, you can book it and be there in 30 minutes.
Shaped by the sea
Founded in 1749, Halifax is steeped in British military tradition. A magnificent statue of Winston Churchill in front of the Spring Garden Road Memorial Public Library is a lasting testament to the British connection, and the Union Jack flies on buildings throughout the city.
The city's protected harbor was ideally suited to stave off invaders. Halifax's active involvement with naval affairs began in 1758, when a large dockyard area was built. The following year, Halifax operated as a base for British forces attacking the French fort at nearby Louisbourg.
War brought prosperity to Halifax. The Seven Years' War was the first conflict that escalated the city's development. The Fortress of Louisbourg is a flourishing historical site visited by thousands of tourists annually.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, privateers used Halifax to unload pirated booty. Permitted to keep a portion of the stolen goods, they shipped the rest to Britain. Harbourside Market at Privateers Wharf is now a popular shopping district. Further south on the waterfront is The Brewery, where gigantic barrels of plunder were transferred to ships Britain bound. Today it is home to The Halifax Farmers' Market and Alexander Keith's Brewery Tour.
During the War of American Independence, Loyalists—Americans who chose not to side with the revolutionaries—flocked to the city. Between 1785 and 1792, Dartmouth was headquarters of a whaling company established when Quaker families arrived from the Island of Nantucket. Their history can be investigated at the Quaker House in Dartmouth.
Large numbers of black Loyalists also settled in the area, followed by a contingent of immigrants from Jamaica. Together, they helped create what is now the largest indigenous black community in Canada. The Halifax Citadel, sits high above the streets of Halifax. Within its ironstone walls and ramparts are a military museum, garrison cells, soldiers' barracks and a fully restored powder magazine. At the foot of Citadel Hill, The Old Clock Tower is the city's most distinctive landmark, built by the punctuality-conscious Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, in 1803.
Halifax has witnessed several marine disasters. After the Titanic struck an iceberg on April 14, 1912, The Mackay-Bennett, a Halifax-based cable ship, recovered 306 bodies, many of which were buried at sea. Of the 209 bodies brought to Halifax, 150 are interred in city cemeteries.
The Halifax Explosion of December 6, 1917 leveled most of the Halifax peninsula when a French munitions ship and a Norwegian vessel collided in the harbor. More than 1,700 people died and 4,000 were injured when the French ship exploded. It took years for the city to recover.
The first area of the flattened city to be rebuilt was a neighborhood called Hydrostone. Distinguished by its unique stone buildings, the upscale neighbourhood now functions as small family homes and the popular Hydrostone Market .
In addition to the Halifax Explosion, the waterfront has had to recover from the wear and tear caused by World War II, when the area teemed with servicemen and women going to war, and the thousands of immigrants fleeing the conflict in Europe. No soldier left Canada to fight without passing through the city's port.
In 1928, the first of thousands of immigrants streamed through the doors of the waterfront warehouse called Pier 21, recently designated a national heritage site.
Nova Scotia's native people are the Mi'kmaq (pronounced Mih-mah and sometimes spelled Micmac). The Europeans who landed on the shores of Eastern Canada were British, Irish, Scottish and German, and the linguistic roots of these nationalities linger on. From the elongated vowels of the South Shore of Nova Scotia (where Boston is pronounced "Bahstan") to the lilt of Irish in which the word tourist is pronounced "tore-ist", many accents mingle to create colorful interpretations of the English language.
A quick flip through the Halifax phone book will reveal a large section under "M" for Macdonald, McDonald, MacDonald, MacKay, McIsaac, MacLelland, McNeil, MacDougall and even a few Macbeths, among others. A proliferation of French surnames—Boutilier, Gallant, Fougere, Boudreau, Deveau—points to the remains of the Acadian Expulsion, when huge numbers of French were forcibly removed from the province, to settle along the Eastern coast of the U.S. and as far away as Louisiana.
Some of Halifax's oldest families descend from men and women who fled slavery in the U.S. via the "underground railroad", arriving during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Surnames like Downey, Brown, and Carvery belong to people who settled in Africville, a once thriving community on the southwest shore of Halifax's Bedford Basin. This black community, after being denied sewage, garbage and water service by the city, was summarily relocated in 1968 to the outskirts of Dartmouth, in a neighbourhood known as Preston. Africville is now a little-used green area called Seaview Park. The Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia traces the movements of this community.
A small but vital group of Buddhists, mostly from the United States, but with European and Canadian members, followed their Tibetan-born leader, Trungpa Rinpoche, to Halifax in the l980s. This community has made a significant contribution to the city, providing a thriving alternative middle school along with top-flight delis, restaurants and bookstores. At the Shambhala Centre is one of the finest Tibetan-style temples located outside Asia.
When visitors to Halifax hear the phrase "CFA," they'll learn it's short for Come-From-Away. This describes all the people who have chosen to live in a city coming to terms with an expanding reputation as a seaside paradise. Halifax is struggling with its status as a clean, quiet and gorgeous place and its wider perception as a top-dollar tourism and commercial venue.
There's little doubt the city, and its people, will rise to the challenge.
Connected by convenience
For most business travelers, the choice of accommodation in any major center is limited to chain hotels, which they select for their proximity to a city's commercial core. While most of the big-chain hotels are found in Halifax's downtown, the city is also home to some very quaint hotels. Many are housed in historic buildings that have been modernized to suit the most discerning traveler. Bed and breakfast establishments abound in the city, both near the center and in its outlying areas. For travelers with some free time and a rental car, B&B's and charming country inns outside the city are the way to go.
The oldest hotel in the city is The Lord Nelson, built in 1928. The rich and richer met at the hotel to consolidate their business interests in Halifax's early days. A stone building that has maintained its original architecture, the hotel was renovated and expanded in 1965 and has since upgraded to include luxury accommodations.
Just a few blocks east, on Upper Water Street, the Sheraton Halifax Hotel is the largest and most luxurious hotel in the area and has the added attraction of being adjacent to the popular, 24-hour Casino Nova Scotia as well as to a number of fine dining and drinking establishments.
Halifax is convenient for both leisure and business travelers. It is small, which means almost everything is within walking distance, or accessible via a short cab ride. The Halifax Metro Centre and the World Trade and Convention Centre are across the street from each other, and both are just minutes, on foot, from the Delta Barrington, Delta Halifax, Citadel Halifax Hotel, Radisson Suite Hotel Halifax and other major chains. Holiday Inn Select Halifax Centre shares the load with Holiday Inn Express in Bedford.
The The Westin Nova Scotian is the city's railway hotel, an old establishment built to accommodate Canadian Pacific rail travelers. Fully renovated, it's a huge edifice that houses the train station and is home to top-of-the-line meeting and banquet facilities.
The King Edward Inn, is a beautifully appointed historic building designed for people who prefer antiques to the more sterile atmosphere of most hotel rooms. It offers fully equipped meeting rooms and caters to business travelers. The same can be said of The Inn On The Lake, which is halfway between Halifax and the airport. For visitors anticipating a longer stay, the downtown Cambridge Suites Hotel allows its clientele to spread out and make the place home, with fully equipped kitchenettes.
Those in search of unique accomodations may want to check in to the Waverley Inn or Halliburton House Inn. Each of these historic buildings offers the convenience of a central location, combined with an atmosphere of the elegant past.
For the extremely budget conscious, who don't mind sharing facilities, rooms may be had at the YWCA of Halifax of Halifax (women only) as well as the Halifax Heritage House Hostel, both on the south end of Barrington Street only a few minutes away from all the action.
For something a little different in the center of the city, there's Bobs' Guest House. Bobs' is within a 25 minute walk to downtown on one side, and the Halifax Shopping Center on another. Ten minutes on foot will bring you to Quinpool Road where wanderers can access a nice variety of interesting restaurants, large and small, serving Indian, Greek, Japanese and Chinese cuisine. Many of the most popular fast food chains can be found in this area as well as specialty shops, an art gallery, grocery and hardware stores.
For those doing business across the harbour, the Dartmouth Holiday Inn is a popular venue and is 15 minutes from the airport. The nearby Burnside Industrial Park is home to many commercial head offices for the Atlantic region, and business travelers will find dozens of chain hotels within minutes of the sprawling park.
The Halifax International Airport is larger than might be expected for a city of Halifax's size. This is because of the city's east coast location and status as the major metropolis in Canada's four eastern provinces, and as a major entry point from Europe. While the airport is a 30-minute drive from downtown, the city is growing so quickly that the airport will soon be on the outskirts. The 151-room Airport Hotel Halifax is the only on-site accommodation, but major hotels provide frequent and reasonable limousine and bus service to and fro.
Access to the airport from both Dartmouth and Halifax is smooth; you won't sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic. There is a well-maintained, divided highway with a 100-kilometer-per-hour speed limit that moves traffic along swiftly. However if you're leaving the city during rush hour, be prepared for slow travel to the outskirts, though it's nothing compared to most major cities.
You want it, you got it
While not a huge city, Halifax has often been described as "having at least one of everything," which makes it a place of many choices. This is especially true of the city's dining and drinking establishments.
From beautifully-designed sushi to fresh lobster, seafood is offered everywhere. Even the most down-to-earth tavern provides crisp fish and chips made from fresh haddock or cod and potatoes that were round and brown only hours earlier. Ask any chef in one of the city's finer dining establishments about the difference between Atlantic and Pacific salmon, and you'll learn that the east coast offers a variety that's far more tender and succulent, even before the addition of lemon or butter.
One way that Haligonians mark the passing seasons is by the presence of chip trucks, which park on the lower end of Spring Garden Road, in front of the city's main library. Spring doesn't really arrive, officially, until someone has parked a chip wagon, offering the best and freshest French fries in town. And the summer hasn't ended until the desolate Sunday afternoon when Haligonians travel downtown and find the chip trucks have gone in out of the cold.
The city's British heritage and the presence of seven universities ensures that pub fare is top-quality. From a Ploughman's Lunch accompanied by an imported beer to an Eggs Benedict plate with complimentary Bloody Mary, all palates are served.
Halifax has a large Lebanese population, which means that fine Middle Eastern fare is readily available. The Mediteraneo Restaurant offers tasty meals and grocery stores like The Mid-East Food Centre and Phoenicia Foods Ltd. can supply all the ingredients to cook your own versions.
The downtown core is divided into two areas. Spring Garden Road is the major artery serving the westernmost area. It begins at Barrington Street and travels uphill to South Park Street. On that avenue are many of the city's finest restaurants and pubs, alongside some of the best shopping.
As you walk up Spring Garden, you'll see a sign for The Thirsty Duck, one of the liveliest pub/restaurants around. The three-room, second floor establishment boasts the building's original wooden beams and walls. The food is hearty and reasonably priced. In the evenings, the Duck buzzes with the after-work crowd, and Thursday through Saturday visiting musical groups play everything from traditional fiddle to light rock.
While the city's strength is seafood, it also offers up sizzling beef the way it should be done. Just before you see the sign for The Thirsty Duck, you'll look up and see the one for Ryan Duffy's Steak & Seafood, which offers beef that is cut and weighed table-side and then broiled over a hardwood fire to your specifications.
Also on Spring Garden Road, you'll find Il Mercato, one of the city's finest restaurants. It is so popular that they don't take reservations. Your best bet is to show up an hour before you want to eat, get on the list and grab a pre-dinner cocktail at the bar.
For a little shopping on Spring Garden Road, visit the Park Lane shopping complex. Inside, you'll find the Birmingham Bar & Grill, which offers fine food and, on weekend nights, live jazz.
Just a few blocks west of Park Lane shopping complex, and one block north, on Doyle Street, is Tom's Little Havana Cafe. Dine on blackened catfish while enjoying some great blues music.
While there is a multitude of restaurants, taverns, coffee shops and boutiques on Spring Garden Road, be sure to check out the waterfront area. Bordered on the north by Barrington Street, the area is chockablock with fine dining. Greek, Lebanese, Japanese, French, Indonesian, Chinese, Indian, Italian, Czechoslovakian and West African cuisine can all be found in this district.
For Greek, go to the city's best-loved Greek restaurant, Opa!. Cheerful Mediterranean blues border a whitewashed exterior. In the summer diners can sit at tiled patio tables surrounded by plants. Inside, salmon-colored hues recall sun-baked walls, and a huge skylight above the main dining area brightens up the atmosphere. The menu is large and varied, and the food leans more toward piquant than pedestrian. When you are down in the waterfront area, go even further south to sample the delights of Cafe Chianti, a charming downstairs bistro with an old-world atmosphere and fine dining.
Northern Italian fare is popular in Halifax. At La Perla, across the Halifax Harbour in Dartmouth, you will feel as though you're sitting in an isolated trattoria where the kitchen and front staff exist only to serve you. This delightful restaurant offers superbly crafted fare. Sip a Campari and soda while smells from the kitchen tantalize your senses.
If you like to be entertained while dining, check out the Halifax Feast Dinner Theatre. Since the mid 1980s, the theatre has staged popular shows that often sends up TV shows and movies. The menu is set, depending on what's available during the season. The venerable building is loaded with entertainment for all the senses.
Haligonians love to party, and you won't be able to go more than a few steps through the downtown area without passing a lively pub or lounge. However, visitors should take note that while bars are open all week, liquor stores are closed on Sunday. In warmer months, from June to October, rooftop patios are filled with patrons enjoying the sea breeze and cold drinks; Spring Garden Road and the waterfront area are packed to overflow. The Sheraton Halifax Hotel has one of the best seaside patios.
As an old city, Halifax doesn't have to create atmosphere. Many of its historic buildings house dining and drinking establishments, lending them a distinct charm. Halifax is a jolly, friendly place, and its bars and restaurants are great places for locals and visitors to socialize.