Why Halifax Will Actually Surprise and Amaze You
It didn’t take me long to realize I had made a mistake when I booked my daytrips from Halifax to Peggy’s Cove and Lunenburg without stepping foot in Halifax. I had heard great stories about Halifax from friends, but when I asked Google, it only came up with two results: the Public Gardens and the Citadel. I was a bit confused at first. Why were friends telling me I would love it here? Why were three of my friends visiting Halifax this summer? Google was missing something- a few things actually. They were what surprised and amazed me most about Halifax.
Don’t get me wrong- I loved visiting the Public Gardens and the Citadel. But they aren’t the only reasons why I want to go back and explore Halifax more.
Why Halifax Will Surprise And Amaze You
The small Eastern Canadian city reminded me a lot of Portland, Oregon. It has the laid-back, relaxed vibe that’s stereotypical of a sleepy surf town along the West Coast of North America. Yet, it also has the culture and arts scene that you would find in typical East Cost metropolises like New York City or Toronto. I had heard that Halifax was pretty hipster; I was surprised to find out how true that was! (I wouldn’t call myself a hipster, but I do enjoy the small coffee shops and second-hand shops that come along with the title.)
Having been born and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, I’m always in awe of the beautiful architecture found in Central and Eastern Canada. Halifax was no exception. As one of Canada’s oldest cities (founded in 1749), I was in awe of the Palladian-style buildings close to the downtown waterfront. After checking out the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (pictured above), I quickly crossed the street to read the plaque in front of another beautiful building with two massive statues bookending the brick structure. The guard of the gate interrupted my reading:
“This is the Nova Scotia parliament building. Did you know it’s the oldest standing parliament building in Canada?”
This was news to me, so I opted to peek inside. The guard told me that it was free to go inside the Province House (built in 1819) and that there was a free tour every 30 minutes.
The bottom level of the Province House is a museum outlining the House of Assembly’s history and how the Nova Scotia legislature shaped Canada’s democratic institutions through the implementation of parliamentary democracy, freedom of the press and responsible government. In other words, this province’s decisions set a precedent for the rest of the country (which wasn’t even a country until almost 50 years later). There is also a small newsroom on the main floor. The Halifax Gazette ran their presses from the government house as Canada’s first newspaper was entirely funded by the government.
The Red Room
Although I’m a sucker for political and journalistic history, I found the second floor much more impressive than the main floor. I made my way up the Sound of Music-like staircase to be greeted by 8-foot tall, gold-framed paintings of military officials, doctors, princes and knights on the walls. To the right of the staircase was the Red Room. The room featured more impressive paintings, gold and crystal chandeliers, ornate crown mouldings on the ceiling and a large table with multiple chairs for important visitors. At the head of the table are two thrones for the King and Queen of England. The Red Room served as the meeting place for the Legislative Council, or what would now be referred to as the provincial Members of Parliament (MP) until the Council was abolished in 1928. The MPs now meet at the opposite end of the hall in the Legislative Assembly to discuss provincial matters like healthcare, education, welfare, municipalities and infrastructure, to name a few.
The Legislative Library
The middle room is my personal favourite- the legislative library. (Anyone else want this library in your dream house?) The library was first used as the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. It was the battleground for one of Canada’s most democratic rulings- the freedom of the press. In 1835, journalist (and later Premier of Nova Scotia) Joseph Howe was on trial for criminal libel for publishing an anonymous letter accusing Halifax politicians and police of stealing over £30,000 over three decades. Howe was acquitted and the case set precedent to the freedom of the press across (what would later become) Canada. The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia soon grew out of the space. The librarian there told me that the library is now an archive of the city from 1862 onward. She added that before the library became as full as it is today, politicians and prominent men in Halifax would visit the library for its men’s magazines.
Quick sidebar, the Halifax Central Library is also pretty cool to visit. Located on Spring Garden Road, this highly modern building offers some of the best views of the city from the local coffee shop on the top floor of the library.
The Citadel is worth the visit
Admission: $11.70 per adult
The Province House wouldn’t have even existed if it weren’t for the fortifications that make up the Citadel, a military fort atop of Citadel Hill in the heart of Halifax. It is a distinctive star shape common in 19th-century forts, which is why it initially reminded me of the Citadel in Quebec City. The shape allowed soldiers to point muskets from every angle over the wall and line up cannons in the ramparts. Its imposing presence is probably why the officially named Fort George has never been attacked.
Although it is no longer an active military base, it is a highly interactive museum.
When I walked through the tunnel leading into Fort George, a man dressed in an 18th-century Royal Artillery uniform replicate greeted me as cannons boomed in the background. The 78th Highlanders, also dressed in 18th-century uniform replicates, were practicing shooting a cannon over the fort’s wall. The upper level of the fort has a number of cannons and artillery storage, as well as access to the prisons below. On the ground, the fort walls were also rooms like the Church, the classroom and my personal favourite- the enlisting room. An interpreter demonstrated the list of necessities to join the army using a quill pen, and offered for me to join in. He also pointed out his favourite rule of the fort:
“Whenever soldiers are placed under restraint requiring them to remain uncovered, they are… to be deprived of their caps, and any other articles they can make use of as missiles.”
The Old Clock Tower
Sitting between Fort George and the downtown core, is the Old Clock Tower. The clock tower was renovated in 1960, but it still contains original handmade instruments from its construction in 1803. This beautiful Palladian structure was apparently built because Prince Edward, then commander-in-chief of all military forces in British North America, did not like the tardiness of the local garrison. There was even a time when no building- not even churches- were allowed to be higher than the tower, as punctuality was so important.
Halifax Public Gardens
Next to Fort George is the Halifax Public Gardens. The gardens were built on 17 acres of land in 1867, the same year Canada became a country, and is one of the most in tact Victorian gardens in the world. There are plenty of benches to sit and admire the beautiful flowers, trees and ponds throughout the garden. As I was passing through, there was a lovely choir practicing just outside of the gazebo in the centre of the park. It’s a great place to walk around after a long day of exploring Halifax.
Hiding behind Citadel Hill is the Halifax Commons, Canada’s oldest urban park that provides free activities for the Halifax people. The park has a cricket ground, several baseball diamonds, tennis courts, a soccer field, an outdoor swimming pool, a skateboard park, and new playground fixtures. During my walks from my AirBnB to the downtown core (about 5 minutes away from the Halifax Commons), I would see Halifax locals play baseball and do yoga in the park. I almost wished I wore my athletic gear whenever I passed through. Regretfully, I wasn’t able to enjoy the speed skating track in the Commons that provides free inline skates during the warmer months and free skates in the winter, where they freeze ice over the track. The skating track also provides free helmets (safety first!) and free lessons for all ages. The speed skating track is definitely something I’d like to do when I go back to Halifax.
Gluten-free and plant-based foodies rejoice!
I was shocked that after visiting the Citadel with very little in my stomach that the first restaurant that I almost stepped into was, in fact, gluten-free and vegan! I had just walked past the yellow restaurant on Grafton Street when I decided to use Yelp to help find food I could eat. As soon as I saw Wooden Monkey pop up on my screen, I double-backed as fast as I could up the hill and sat down for lunch with some raw vegan tacos and a very refreshing ginger beer. Prices were slightly higher than what I would normally pay in Toronto (including our 13 per cent taxes in Ontario), but I found that with most restaurants and even the grocery stores in Halifax (which are 10 per cent tax in Nova Scotia).
I also really enjoyed my simple gluten-free pasta with tomato basil sauce and gluten-free garlic bread for dinner at The Old Triangle on Prince Street. They had a very comprehensive gluten-free and vegetarian section, which I really appreciated and they were willing to do substitutions as well. I also had a Somersby cider while I was there, as I was catching up with a friend from high school that I hadn’t seen in a literally undetermined amount of time. Part of the reason I chose to meet with her at The Old Triangle was for their Celtic music performances, which I hadn’t been a part of since I had visited Dublin in 2010.
The music scene in Halifax was a welcome surprise.
As I would learn from my trip to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia has Mi’kmaw, Irish, Scottish, English and Acadian influences informing its local music and art scene. Halifax was no exception. Cape Breton is known for its Celtic Colours music festival that takes place in October. Halifax is known for its folk music, with obvious Celtic and Gaelic undertones. Although I chose to go to the Old Triangle to experience their Celtic music nights, many of the pubs in the downtown core also feature live performances most nights. For a full listing of live events, my AirBnB host recommended checking the Coast, a news site similar to New York’s Village Voice.
Larger events are usually held in the Halifax Commons, which has hosted guests like Princess Diana, Elton John, John Lennon and Pope John II.
Halifax is also a young person’s town. With eight universities and colleges in the municipality educating over 50,000 students and the economic decline of rural jobs like in forestry, pulp mills and in fishery, young adults in Nova Scotia tend to move to Halifax to find work or study. This also plays into the music scene. My AirBnB host was attending a going away party of 500 people for a local DJ, who was also an environmental activist. That’s just how Halifax is.
Explore the boardwalk
Halifax was built along a deep sunken glacial valley along the Atlantic Ocean. Its deep port allowed large ships carrying cargo and people to arrive from the United States and from Europe during Halifax’s formative years. Since then, it continues to act as a port, but many of the locals visit the Halifax Harbour for its boardwalk. When I was there, there was a bright blue piano near the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. It may have been slightly out of tune, but I wish I had brought my piano books to tinker around for a little bit.
If you’re there on a Saturday, you might be lucky to catch the Seaport farmer’s market, the oldest continuous farmer’s market in North America! And yes, they have a Canadian classic, Beavertails. (Sorry fellow gluten intolerants & coeliacs… Beavertails aren’t for us 🙁 )
Other interesting stops on the boardwalk include Pier 21, which welcomed many ships bringing over the more than 1 million immigrants into Canada over 400 years, and the Canadian Museum of Immigration. You can check your family records up until 1935 to see if your family came through Halifax’s Pier 21 into Canada at the museum. I wasn’t able to go to the Museum of Immigration, but it would have been interesting to see if that’s how my grandpa’s family came to Canada!
Day trips for days
Although I slightly regret my decision to book day trips out of Halifax prior to arriving in the city, I could not imagine my trip to Nova Scotia without them! My first day trip from Halifax only lasted about four hours on a Viator tour to Peggy’s Cove. It was the perfect amount of time to spend in the small town of 35 permanent residents, but I would love to rent a vehicle and drive there for sunrise next time I visit. My second Viator tour was from Halifax to Lunenburg and Mahone Bay. I felt like there wasn’t enough time to see Lunenburg in the hour-long stop-over, but it was such a beautiful town that I would consider staying the night. My AirBnB hosts in Halifax said they often went to Lunenburg in the middle of winter, as there was virtually no one there and would have snowball fights in the streets. The colourful houses covered in snow sounded dreamy! My final day trip from Halifax was a three-day stay in Cape Breton island. I can’t fully express how beautiful and magical Cape Breton is, so here is just one of the views of the island:
Some other day trips from Halifax include whale watching in Cape Breton, Digby Neck and Brier Island, and seeing the massive ebb and flow of the tides in the Bay of Fundy, the highest tide in the world. I visited the Bay of Fundy on a road trip with my cousin in New Brunswick, where we stopped for a little over an hour on the beach. We had to move our little picnic blanket, even though we sat a few metres back from the water- that’s how fast the tide comes in!
Halifax truly surprised and amazed me with its history, culture, people and the sheer volume of things to do in a Martime city. I can’t wait to go back and explore it some more!
Have you ever been to Halifax? What are some lesser-known activities to do while you’re there?
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