Halifax: An Essential Guide

Halifax is a little city with a lot of heart. Some 400,000 people call Halifax home, but it maintains a small-town feel due to the legendary friendliness of the locals and the ease of navigating the city. As the biggest city in the Maritimes (and the capital of Nova Scotia), Halifax offers excellent and exciting restaurants, plenty of attractions and great nightlife. The city itself is historic and beautiful. Walking along the harbourfront (right downtown) you’ll see buildings that have been around since the 18th century nestled amongst hip urban coffee shops. Hop the ferry across the harbor to Dartmouth or walk to the North End and you’ll find vibrant neighbourhoods giving you a completely different picture of the city.

Finding your way around Halifax is easy as there’s a lot packed into a fairly small area, and much of it is walkable. Transit is so-so, but there’s plenty of parking and rarely any traffic if you do want to explore by car (worth doing as there are lots of parks, beaches and trails to explore, too).

Whatever your reasons for being in the city, there are lots of interesting things to see and do in Halifax, and this essential guide will give some background on how to cover the very best of it. 


Much of what is considered Halifax proper is located on a peninsula. Downtown is centred around Halifax Harbour. It’s linked to the City of Dartmouth by two bridges and a ferry system. A good place to start exploring the city is by walking along the waterfront, starting at the Historic Properties, where you’ll find high-end stores, those selling touristy stuff, pubs aplenty, and the best coffee and croissants in town at Two If By Sea café. Follow the boardwalk along past the excellent Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, and eventually you’ll end up at the new(ish) Seaport Farmers’ Market. Go a few blocks back from the waterfront and you’ll find plenty of great restaurants, many, many bars, and stores to explore. For green spaces you’ll find many historic graveyards right in the downtown area, plus the glorious Victorian-styled Public Gardens, and Point Pleasant Park to the south with beaches and walking trails.


Public transit
Halifax Transit (www.halifax.ca/transit) runs a network of buses and ferries throughout the city. Buses take you pretty much everywhere, while the ferries run across the harbor between Halifax and Dartmouth (and they are a charming way to view beautiful Halifax from the water).

Fare is $2.50 cash (no change is given) and you get a 90-minute transfer if you ask the driver/operator for one. You can pick up books of 10 tickets for $20 at many convenience stores, or buy a monthly pass for $78.

Your best bet for route planning is to use Google Maps (this is suggested on the Halifax Transit website), but if you get lost at any point just ask a local. Most people will be more than happy to point you in the right direction. Some bus routes don’t run very frequently (this can be a bit of a culture shock if you’ve come from a bigger city), so be aware that if you miss one, it might be quicker to walk to your destination.


Base fare: The initial charge is $3.20, plus $.13 for each 76.7 metres; waiting time is $26.80 per hour.

There are enough cabs in the city that getting one fairly quickly shouldn't be an issue (unless you’re trying at the end of a major sporting event or big concert). There are several big firms in town, including Yellow Cab (yellowcabltd.ca, 902-420-000), and Casino Taxi (casinotaxi.ca, 902-429-6666). Although Uber’s website says that they operate in Halifax, you may have trouble actually locating a car as it doesn’t seem to have really caught on in Halifax yet. 

When arriving in Halifax at Stanfield International Airport, you’ll find taxis waiting, or you could take a Halifax Transit bus into the city for $3.50. In the summer months, Maritime Bus (maritimebus.com) offers an express shuttle to downtown Halifax and Dartmouth hotels for $22 (or $40 round-trip).


Radio: Tune into CBC Radio 1 (FM 90.5) for news and current affairs; CBC Radio 2 (FM 102.7) for a mix of indie, classical, and jazz throughout the day; The Bounce (FM 101.3) or Energy (FM 103.5) for pop; FX101.9 for country; The Q (FM 104.3) for classic rock and Live 105 (FM 105.1) for alternative rock; News 957 (FM 95.7) for news, talk, and sports.

On the hotel TV: CBC News Network is Canada’s principal cable news outlet, but you’ll also find local news on CTV Atlantic.

For local arts, food, and entertainment listings pick up a copy of The Coast (www.thecoast.ca).

For LGBT listings visit gay.hfx.org 


Doing the tourist thing 

• A trip to the Halifax Citadel is a great way to start your visit as from the hilltop fort you’ll get a gorgeous view out over downtown and the harbour and get a feel for how much charm and beauty there is packed into a relatively small area. You’ll also leave with an understanding of Halifax’s long military history (the city is home to thousands of military personnel and you’ll probably see people in uniform as you explore).

• The Alexander Keith’s Brewery offers interactive historic tours that are a little cheesy but pretty fun, especially as the tours end in a period pub and you’re served beer by singing wenches.  

• If your family immigrated to Canada between 1928 and 1971, chances are they arrived through Halifax, and the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 may well have record of their landing. Visit to see interactive exhibits on waves of immigration, war brides, and child evacuees from the Second World War.

• The fairly new Halifax Seaport Farmer’s Market is huge, and if you visit at the weekend especially you’ll find a great selection of locally grown and produced food, crafts and more. Be sure to head to the rooftop patio for glorious views out over the harbour.

• The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic has a huge collection of Titanic memorabilia as well as lots of other cool artifacts and a talking parrot named Merlin, who is always a hit with kids and adults alike.

• The Public Gardens on Spring Garden Road were started in 1836 and still stand as a fine example of a Victorian Public Garden (complete with a bandstand, statues and period iron railings and gates). The gardens are lovely to stroll through, or sit and read for a while.

• The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia is the largest art museum in Atlantic Canada and although it has an impressive collection of traditional and contemporary art (with changing exhibitions), it is small enough that you won’t need to spend long there to see it all.

Beyond downtown

• Super touristy but well worth a short drive out of Halifax is Peggy’s Cove, where they say the famous red and white striped lighthouse is the most photographed spot in Canada. You’ll also find sweet boutiques, galleries, and fishing cottages there to admire. Pay attention to signage warning you to stay off the rocks: Every year tourists disappear into the ocean and the bodies aren’t always recovered.

• The Hydrostone Market in the city’s North End is a quaint strip of boutiques, cafés, galleries and restaurants set around a grassy square. It’s a great place to grab lunch or a coffee and pastry, and pick up a few locally made gifts to take home.

• Head to the southernmost tip of the peninsula to find Point Pleasant Park, a 74-hectare (183-acre) green space complete with beaches, trails, and ruins of military forts and installations. It is beautiful, and a lovely place to go walk off all the great meals you’re bound to eat in Halifax.


Where to head if there’s something you need – and quickly

On Spring Garden Road, Halifax’s main shopping street, you’ll find a Shoppers Drug Mart to pick up whatever toiletries you might have left behind, as well as a variety of stores selling everything from clothing to cell phones to books and more. If you need to do some serious shopping, Halifax Shopping Centre is the city’s major mall and offers some more upscale stores such as the Apple Store, Victoria’s Secret, Sephora and other major brands.

Beer, wine and liquor

The rules on purchasing alcoholic beverages are pretty strict in Nova Scotia, and you’ll generally only find booze for sale in government-owned Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation stores (most commonly known as “the NSLC”), or in a few specialist retailers. You definitely won’t find alcohol in supermarkets or convenience stores. If you’d love to find a nice bottle of wine then Bishop’s Cellar on the Halifax waterfront offers a great selection, and there are plenty of breweries selling craft beer in the city. You’ll also find locally produced wines and spirits on sale at the Halifax Seaport Market.

Nova Scotia’s legal drinking age is 19. Last call is 2 a.m. or 3:30 a.m. depending on the type of establishment.


Published Saturday, August 1st 2015

Header image credit: Getty Images



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