Halifax attractions? Halifax is an attraction! It’s impossible to label Halifax with one or two adjectives that adequately define it. For a relatively small city (population roughly 500,000), it has a diversity of attractions, a plethora of world-class dining and history in spades, all in a hilly, picturesque seaside location.
This ocean port is an oxymoron in that its daily world of commerce is vibrant, but its lifestyle is fairly laid back. The centre of business for the Atlantic provinces of Canada, Halifax combines seamlessly the old with the new. Its most venerable buildings are situated next to gleaming, nautically themed condo and office towers; all vernaculars of architecture are symbiotic here. What was left of Halifax after the 1917 explosion in Halifax harbour has retained its elegant beauty; extensive rebuilding was done in the aftermath, and since then, generations of new design and construction, carefully orchestrated by local governments to be in keeping with the ocean nuances.
Set on a deep harbour, Halifax, and its next-door neighbour, Bedford, together with Dartmouth, just across the harbour (accessible by two bridges and a ferry service), are enjoying revitalization and expansion. Many of Halifax’s residents are new to Nova Scotia, having first visited by train, cruise ship, airplane, car, or whatever means, for business or vacations, then returning to take up residence. The historical grandeur and walkability of the city make it imminently liveable, with fine shops, excellent hospitals, culture in abundance, and endless entertainment.
Because Halifax boasts so many attractions, categorizing them is the easiest way to introduce Halifax attractions.
Halifax Parks and Outdoor Features
The Commons, a fairly centrally located large tract of land close to downtown and the harbour, is a gathering place for sports games, the Skating Oval in the winter, outdoor concerts and just walking about or having a picnic.
At the juncture of Spring Garden Road and South Park Street, Halifax Public Gardens is one of North America’s best formal Victoria gardens, spanning 17 acres, right in downtown. Created for public enjoyment in Canada in 1867, Canada’s founding year, it has enchanted visitors for more than 150 years. Dogs on leash are welcome, but their waste must be bagged and removed.
Along the waterfront, the boardwalk spans the entire shoreline of Halifax, skirting hotels, restaurants, music venues (don’t miss the Busker Festival and the Halifax Jazz Festival, staged here), galleries, historical buildings and museums. The waterfront is a superb place to walk, people-watch, chat with local pirates (seriously!), see ships (including cruise ships), yachts, tankers, ferries and private speed boats come and go, and let the kids play on a range of fun stuff just for them.
The Old Burying Ground rests at the corner of Spring Garden Road and Barrington Street, and is one of Canada’s oldest cemeteries, a thrill for taphophiles and history buffs. The inscriptions on tombs and grave markers are, in some cases, obscured by the years and specifically acid rain, but the grand trees and dappled sunlight create and ethereal effect.
Point Pleasant Park
Formerly a military base, Point Pleasant Park is situated in the affluent south end of Halifax, a place for strolls and peace. While it lost a substantial number of its old trees during Hurricane Juan in 2003, massive local efforts, which included city residents, cleaned up the park and ensured its future as a quiet, beautiful haven. From here, visitors can see the harbour and the Northwest Arm of Halifax.
For fans of the movie “Titanic”, as well as history buffs, many of the victims are buried in Halifax’s Fairview Lawn Cemetery. Many of the graves bear numbers rather than names, as identification was not the exact science in 1912 that it is today. It’s both a sobering experience and one that helps us appreciate life.
Museums and Galleries
Pier 21 is one of the city’s most popular museums. Given that Canada is a nation of immigrants, many of those passed through Halifax’s Pier 21 on their way to other parts of Canada, or to settle in Halifax, mostly in the days before regular commercial airlines were in service. The museum has a registry of names and dates of arrivals. It’s a great place to check into your past.
The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is located right on the waterfront on Lower Water Street. It includes examples of all sorts of watercraft, a section on the Titanic, and a special display relating to the Halifax Explosion of 1917, where 2,000 people were killed and 9,000 injured (and most of the city levelled) when a munitions ship and another vessel collided in the harbour.
One of the newer Halifax attractions, The Discovery Centre, is an interactive science centre, boasting an innovation lab, and a dome theatre. A fun spot for kids, it guarantees to amuse and challenge adults as well. Located near the southern end of Lower Water Street, it’s easily accessible and a perfect day of fascination. An ideal rainy day venue.
Soon to inhabit a bigger and better space, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (which also has an adjunct branch in Yarmouth) sits within two adjoined buildings, right downtown, and features old masters together with contemporary Nova Scotia artists, some of those students or graduates of the nearby Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. Permanent and touring exhibits mean there is always something new to discover. Among the regular collections is a huge cache of art by Nova Scotia folk-artist, Maud Lewis, and includes her tiny, painted house, featured in the film “Maudie”.
Historically in Keeping
Dominant on Halifax’s cityscape, whether from the west side or the waterfront, is The Halifax Citadel. Perched high on a hill, and dating back to 1828 (although forts have been on this site since the mid-1700s), this star-shaped military fort has reigned over Halifax for nearly two centuries. Its clock tower not only tells time, but also serves as the visual symbol for the city. The parkland is open year round, but in season tourists can witness history “live” in the chambers and battlements of The Citadel. Don’t miss the kite festivals that take place high on Citadel hill!
Halifax is and has ever been a shipping port, and nowhere emphasizes this part of its past and present like the Historic Properties. Close to the north end of Lower Water Street, the Historic Properties are restored marine warehouses that have been turned into a series of unique small shops, individual art galleries, and eateries.
Ultimately, Halifax is a city with a stunning waterfront and there is no excuse for not taking a harbour cruise, the perfect way to get a panoramic view of the city’s harbour. Dozens of different sea-going vessels offer this service, even tall ships. You may just luck in and get a ride on Nova Scotia’s most famous schooner, The Bluenose II.
These are only a few Halifax attractions! Travellers to Nova Scotia too frequently make the mistake of thinking Halifax is just another big city. Anything but! It’s not just a launch pad for visiting other parts of Nova Scotia (like the Cabot Trail and Peggy’s Cove), it’s a mecca of attractions within itself. Don’t book a weekend in Halifax, book a week and take it all in.