Halifax sits on a beautiful harbor protected from the turmoil of the Atlantic Ocean. Its natural harbor is in fact the world’s second largest after Sydney, Australia. Not surprisingly, Halifax is the busiest port on Canada’s Atlantic coast. Halifax was originally founded because of this strategic advantage, and it is still important from a military standpoint, serving as home to the largest naval base in Canada. But Halifax is more important today as the financial and commercial hub of the Maritimes. It is also the capital of Nova Scotia, boasting a metropolitan population of over 400,000, which easily makes it the largest in the Maritime Provinces.
Halifax is the quintessential seaport town, situated on a small peninsula inside a deep inlet of the Atlantic. It has a wealth of attractive old buildings that are steeped in history. Its city center is also history, having stayed in the same area between the harbor and the hilltop Citadel since the beginning. All this history should come as no surprise; Halifax is the oldest British town on the mainland of Canada and home of the first Protestant church in the country. But the city is also a modern financial center of the region, projecting a liveliness and sophistication that is seldom seen in cities of the same size. Perhaps to best capture the gist of Halifax, it boasts both “big-city amenities” and “small-town virtues”.
Halifax is one of the few major cities that has been successful in preserving a “human scale” to it as it has grown. This is all thanks to an ordinance that prohibits buildings from interfering with “view planes” that fly across the city.
The Grand Parade has been the main square and city center of Halifax since its founding. It runs along Barrington Street and is a major shopping thoroughfare. City Hall sits on the north side of the square and is easily recognized by its enormous wooden flagpole. On the south side of the square, you’ll find St. Paul’s Church. This timber-framed place of worship was built in 1750 and is Canada’s oldest Protestant Church.
Old Town Clock
Leaving Grand Parade via George Street leads visitors to The Citadel. But before you get there, you’ll come across the Old Town Clock or Halifax Town Clock, which is the symbol of Halifax. It was erected in 1803 by Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, to ensure the punctuality of the local garrisons of the Royal Navy and British Army.
The Citadel is further up along Georgia Street. This star-shaped fortress dominates the peninsula and towers over the city’s skyline. It was built by Colonel Cornwallis in 1749 during the original founding of Halifax. It has since been rebuilt and expanded, once after the American Revolution, a second time after the War of 1812, and a third time in 1828 when the Duke of Wellington commissioned the construction of a permanent fortress of masonry. Every day at noon, a cannon is fired from The Citadel.
Nova Scotia Museum
The Nova Scotia Museum at 1747 Summer Street is located on the side of the hill opposite from the downtown area. The museum has exhibits devoted to teaching about all aspects of the province’s history – natural, geographical, industrial, social, etc.
The Public Gardens is located south of the museum. It first opened in 1867 and still occupies the same 17 acre classic Victoriana gardens it did more than 140 years ago. The gardens feature formally planted Oriental trees, fountains, statues, duck ponds, and a bandstand.
Point Pleasant Park
Point Pleasant Park sits at the southern tip of Halifax’ peninsula. It is more popular among picnickers and strollers than the Public Gardens. Covering 186 acres of heavily-wooded land, Point Pleasant Park offers walking trails, picnic spots, a beach, and a restaurant. 
The Historic Properties are along the harborfront north of Duke Street. It is a group of old buildings and wharves that date back to the early 19th century. They have since been restored and refurbished, and features a pedestrian walkway lined with restaurants, galleries, shops, and street performers. A few buildings in this area are notable. The Privateer’s Warehouse is the oldest and was used by pirates in the 19th century to store their loot. The Old Red Store building today houses the tourist office.
The Bluenose II is moored at the wharf next to the Privateers’ Warehouse. This replica of Canada’s most famous boat spends two hours, three times a day during the summer, cruising the harbor. The original Bluenose racing schooner was not just the symbol of the province, but an important symbol of pride for Canada. It is featured on the Canadian dime. The racing ship won the International Fisherman’s Schooner Race 18 years in a row and retired undefeated. No American or Canadian schooner was able to wrest away the International Fishermen’s Trophy away from it.
The Haligonian III is a 200-passenger cruise ship that departs from the Privateers’ Wharf. It is facilitated by a cafeteria and bar and sails every summer from May to October. Commentary of the sights around the harbor are provided aboard.
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is located at 1675 Lower Water Street, just a few blocks from the Historic Properties. The museum exhibits items – ship models, weapons, naval instruments, etc. – that illustrate the maritime history of Halifax.
Several public tennis courts are found on Halifax Common. There are five 18-hole golf courses in the city. The most popular courses are the Ashburn and the Brightwood Golf and Country Club in Dartmouth. Both are open to non-members. Swimmers and joggers can satisfy their recreational desires at Point Pleasant Park.
The closest fishing lakes and rivers are along the coast, northeast of town. St. Mary’s River near Sherbrooke is known for its Atlantic salmon.
The Historic Properties has a colorful range of shops all along its walkway. Barrington street has two shopping centers, both at opposite ends and both offering everything a shopper could want. The Scotia Square complex is the larger of these two shopping centers and is close to the Historic Properties. It has more than 100 restaurants and shops occupying two floors. The lower level has an information booth. Meanwhile, the smaller Maritime Mall on 1505 Barrington Street right by the corner of Spring Garden Road has about 30 shops.
Halifax has a lively nightlife. This may come as a surprise for those out west who picture the Maritimes as a dull region of fishermen and fishing boats. The hot digs are all along Argyle Street. On the weekends, in fact, this street becomes the scene of a long, two-day party.
The Privateers’ Warehouse in the Historic Properties also has an event from time to time. The larger hotels cater to the older and milder crowd, putting on live entertainment and music in its lounges.
The Metro Centre on Brunswick Street regularly hosts concert performances of all kinds. The Neptune Theatre, located at 5216 Sackville Street, presents comedies, dramas, and plays.
The area around Halifax was inhabited by Micmac Indians for thousands of years. The town, however, did not spring up until 1749 when Colonel Edward Cornwallis led an armada of 20 ships and 3,000 settlers into the harbor and began immediately building a town. This was in response to the threat posed by France’s newly built fortress at Louisbourg. Halifax was so named to honor the Earl of Halifax, who was the President of England’s Board of Trade and Plantations at the time.
Ironically, Halifax went on to flourish as a result of the wars fought in other lands – ironic because the city was founded to protect the British in the event of a war. But wars really did pave the road to the city’s prosperity. First, the British victory in the Seven Years’ War removed the threat posed by Louisbourg and left Halifax as the favored port in the region. Then during the American Revolutionary War, Halifax became an important naval base for the British, bringing a flood of money to the local economy; after the British defeat, fleeing loyalists from the 13 colonies, many of them well-educated and well-to-do, invigorated the local economy further with their business savvy and cultured ways. Then there was the War of 1812, which brought more money to the town thanks to the return of British warships. Even the American Civil War helped, as it led to military spending and job creation.
The wars of the 20th century also brought good fortune to the town. During World War I, Halifax became the distribution center of supply ships headed for Europe, thanks to the harbor’s 10 square-mile, deep-water anchorage known as Bedford Basin. And during World War II, the town was the port of great convoys, seeing off more than 17,000 ships over the course of the war.
Only once did Halifax suffer from a war wound. In December 1917, a Belgian relief ship collided with a French munitions ship stockpiled with explosives headed for Europe. The harbor blew up and the explosion wiped out the entire north section of town, killing more than 2,000, injuring 9,000, and blinding 200. The catastrophe lingered in the collective memory of its residents, an event that took some time for the town to recover from.
Today, Halifax is one of the few bright spots in Canada’s Maritime region. The city is thriving economically, boasting a low unemployment rate of 5.3% and spurred financially by offshore crude and natural gas projects. Indeed, the city has proven that it can prosper in peacetime just as well as in wartime.
How to Get There
Halifax has one of the busier airports in Canada. Many of the major airlines, including American Airlines, Air Canada, and Air Transat, have flights in and out of Halifax. Air Canada, in particular, and its subsidiary Air Canada Jazz has routes to most of the major cities in Canada. American Airlines flies to Chicago and New York while Air Transat has flights to Frankfurt, London, and Cancun. The airport is located in the northern end of the Halifax municipality.
For drivers coming from New Brunswick and the rest of Canada, the Trans-Canada Highway crosses into Nova Scotia at Amherst. U.S. commuters can also reach the city via the Trans-Canada Highway, as many highways from the U.S. merge with this national thoroughfare shortly after crossing the border into New Brunswick.
Greyhound buses operate services to cities in New Brunswick, which in turn links up with Acadian Lines at Amherst. This regional bus company runs a fleet of buses to New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.
No ferry services depart or arrive in Halifax. There are only three ferry services in the entire province. One ferry links North Sydney with Newfoundland. Another connects Caribou with Wood Islands, Prince Edward Island. And another ferry runs from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia to two towns in Maine – Bar Harbor and Portland.
Carroll, Donald. Insider’s Guide Canada. Edison: Hunter Publishing, Inc, 1996. ISBN: 1556507100.
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