An enchanting maritime city well-preserved by time, where daily life is tranquil, amicable, and influenced by its proximity to the sea. A place where the locals are called Haligonians. Remarkable geography, rich history, stunning architecture, vibrant culture, and delectable cuisine make Halifax a top contender on anyone’s bucket list.
I arrive in Halifax on a cold, overcast, and wet morning. Thankfully, the rain has already stopped when I got out of my hotel to explore the city. Caped and hooded, I saunter down Sackville Street and take the 10-minute walk to the waterfront harbour, clutching the city map handed by Eli, the hotel’s front desk clerk. “Don’t forget your map,” he calls out.
Lined with red, brown, and grey historic buildings, Sackville Street serves as a time portal transporting me to an old era. The wind whooshes, church bells chime, and somewhere in the distance, horses’ hooves clatter on the street.
The air smells of salt and sea as I inch closer to the water. I continue on until I reach the waterfront boardwalk, a 4-kilometer public footpath constructed of hardwearing timber. Bordered by the Halifax Seaport on its southern end and the Casino Nova Scotia on the northern end, the boardwalk offers a panoramic view of the harbour.
Serene on the outside but masking a tortured past, Halifax is swathed in tragedies. In April 1912, the unsinkable passenger ship RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg about 750 sea miles east of the city. Rescue ships embarked from Halifax since it was one of the major ports near the disaster. More than 1,200 people perished from this catastrophe, and recovered bodies along with the wreckage ended up in the city. Three cemeteries in Halifax house the remains of the 150 passengers of the Titanic: Mount Olivet Catholic Cemetery (19); Baron de Hirsch Jewish (10); and Fairview Lawn Cemetery (121).
In December 1917, Halifax faced yet again another maritime tragedy when the Mont Blanc, a French vessel loaded with 2.9 kilotons of explosives collided with the Belgian relief ship, Imo, in the Halifax Harbour. This explosion devastated the city and claimed the lives of 2,000 people.
My visit to the Maritime Museum provides an intensive insight to these disasters and gives me access to view the artifacts from the Titanic and the Halifax explosion.
The next morning, I wake up to golden lights peeking through my windows promising another day of adventure into the past.
I begin the day by visiting the Halifax Public Gardens on Spring Garden Road. Established in 1867, this Victorian era garden boasts of its vast flower beds, fountains, ponds, and gazebos. Famed for its Victorian formal setting, it renders a perfect backdrop for wedding and prom photography.
After having my fill of a sweeping emerald green landscape, I amble over two blocks and brave the 500-meter climb up the Halifax’s star-shaped Citadel. Built in 1749, this national historic site once protected the city from attacks and served not only as a fort, but also as barracks. At noon, the firing of the ceremonial canon (aka “Noon Gun”) occurs. “Prepare the canon!” is the command. The well-rehearsed spectacle adheres to strict military tradition, each movement precise and without fault. The fuse is set, and the soldier awaits the final command: “Fire!” The sound of the explosion reverberates in the air.
A girl needs sustenance, so for lunch, I go to Tony’s and order a Halifax donair — a thin pita bread stuffed with meat, diced tomatoes, and raw onions. What makes it distinctive is the addition of creamy donair sauce — a Halifax invention made with condensed milk, vinegar, and garlic powder. I also sample garlic fingers, similar to pizza but sliced into thick strips and dipped in donair sauce.
Energized and with a full stomach, I proceed towards Halifax Harbour, the second largest harbour in the world. Due to its enormous size, it can accommodate hundreds of oceangoing liners, passenger boats, and naval ships every year. Halifax Harbour is one of Canada’s busiest ports in the East Coast and is ice-free throughout the year.
Not all of Halifax’s history is painted with a somber shade of misfortune. I meander towards the historical Cable Wharf, once home to cable ships that laid transatlantic cables on the ocean floor. In 1858, Europe and America exchanged the first telegraphic message through transatlantic cabling. The Cable Wharf played a vital role in making this connection a reality. Today, it remains as one of the original structures on the waterfront.
Exploring further, I finally reach the Historic Properties and start taking photographs. An old man with piercing blue eyes sitting on a bench nearby notices me. “These warehouses were built in the 1800s,” he remarks. “Been restored and now, as you see, they’ve become stores and restaurants. Seafarers built this city, you know. The wharves and these warehouses…this is where they went about (pronounced “a boat”) their business.”
“Nova Scotia is Latin for New Scotland, right?” I ask, intrigued.
“When William Alexander of Scotland got this land from King James, he sent many Scots here and named it Nova Scotia, yes. Many here carry the clan names MacLeod and MacDonald, you see,” he explains.
“And the clock?” I inquire.
He turns and says, “That clock towering the city? The Duke of Kent ordered that clock built. That Duke, Edward, he was always on time and hated it when you were late. He wanted to fix the tardiness of the local garrison. That clock has been tellin’ time since 1803…’magine!”
On my way back to the hotel, I pass by the Citadel Hill and there it is, the Old Town Clock, overlooking the city. I climb up the hill to get a closer look. For a long time, I stand in front of it, enthralled. A cold breeze sweeps over me and nudges me back to reality. The sun is already setting. I look at the horizon entranced as I witness the sun descend and kiss the pink-blue-yellow skies goodnight.
I end my day with a “large double-double” (a large coffee with 2 creams, 2 sugars) at Timmy’s. Timmy’s is Tim Hortons, Canada’s national coffee store. Tim Horton was a Canadian hockey player who founded this coffee house.
It is said that every time we visit a new place, we leave a little piece of us behind. Well then, take a little piece of my heart, Nova Scotia. It is yours.
Where to Stay:
Cambridge Suites at the heart of Downtown Halifax across from Citadel Hill Double room starts at $127/night. See cambridgesuiteshalifax.com/.
Air Canada flies daily from San Francisco. See aircanada.com/.
Best Time to Visit:
May – October
Where to Eat:
- The Bicycle Thief – Italian dishes
- McKelvie’s – oysters, lobster & steaks
- The Five Fishermen – seafood, steaks
- The Loose Cannon – Scottish dishes, beer, whiskey, single malt Scotch
- Katch Seafood Shack at the Boardwalk – fish and chips, poutine, lobster rolls
- Peggy’s Cove Day Trip, $44
- Halifax Deep Sea Fishing, $53
- Alexander Keith’s Brewery, $16
- Halifax Harbour Hopper City Tour, $37
- Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, $10
- Theodore Tugboat Tours, $19.99 (Adults), $14.99 (6-15 years old), $8.99 (1-5 years old )