I breathe in fresh, briny Atlantic air as I walk up the steep hillside upon which downtown Halifax is built. Fog clings to my coat and hair. I’ve just come from a stroll along the city’s newly developed waterfront and I’m making my way up the hill to check out some of the bars, pubs, and lounges that seem in endless supply in the downtown. Halifax is the largest city in Canada’s four Atlantic Provinces and Nova Scotia’s capital. It’s always been a navy town and for a very long time, it’s also been a university town.
From the docks to the campuses, Halifax provides residents with an eclectic collection of watering holes and eateries. I choose one of the new locales, Stillwell, and settle at a bar stool to choose a craft beer from the many on tap. Stillwell is on Barrington Street, the heart of the downtown on what is known as the Peninsula. While peninsular Halifax is the urban core, the true boundaries of the city are those of the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) which stretches well into surrounding rural areas. So, visitors to Halifax have lots of choices. They can stay within walking distance of the waterfront and downtown nightlife on Barrington or snuggle into a cozy B&B in a rural setting at the edges of the city.
Urban Downtown Halifax Hotel Classics
Westin Nova Scotian
Harkening back to the age of luxury rail travel, the Westin Nova Scotian is literally at the end of the line. Halifax’s railway station adjoins the hotel and is the terminus for the train from Montreal, a route that once spanned the country. The spacious lobbies of polished stone and columns in the station and the hotel recall an otherwise bygone era.
In the hotel and within a five-minute walk is all that’s needed for a rewarding Halifax stay. To thoroughly enjoy the on-site Yuk Yuk’s Halifax Comedy Club, there’s what the hotel calls the Eat, Laugh and Stay Package. Within a block is a very different kind of entertainment at the Board Room Game Cafe. Everyone is welcome to play any of more than 500 games with the help of a “game boss” while sipping tea or craft beer. Older visitors are sure to be heartened by the sight of so many younger patrons engaged in a pastime they might assume has gone extinct.
Three early 19th century townhouses stand shoulder to shoulder as “The Halliburton.” More a boutique hotel than a B&B, The Halliburton is nonetheless known as much for its fine dining at Stories Restaurant. I tucked into my first bite of bison here many years ago with a seared peppercorn filet mignon served rare. Stories has since further upped the sophistication level by serving Carpaccio Bison Tenderloin with pickled vegetables and a Pecorino grilled cheese.
The Halliburton shares a back parking lot with another favourite Halifax landmark, Bearly’s House of Blues. This bare-bones, working-class tavern is home to the East Coast’s long and proud blues scene. The best musicians like Garret Mason – son of the great Dutch Mason nicknamed Prime Minister of the blues – perform here regularly. Taking the back garden shortcut from the relatively luxurious Halliburton to the packed dance floor at Bearly’s is like time travel from the 19th century to the 1970s.
For a touch of classic romance, across the street from Bearly’s House of Blues is the Waverly Inn, a Victorian-style mansion with rooms named for famous visitors like P.T. Barnum and Oscar Wilde. The ornate façade seems tame upon entering a room to see one of the Waverly’s four-poster beds, hand-carved headboards and other Victorian furniture. A set of steps is required to climb up into the Chinese wedding bed, a centuries-old platform-style with what looks like a wooden caravan with carved panels enclosing the upper half of the bed.
Please your sweetheart with a walk around the block to Rousseau Chocolatier, one of Canada’s finest chocolate makers. For their exceptional truffles, artisan chocolate bars, slates, spreads and French macarons, they’ve been featured in newspapers and magazines across the country. Pick your own box of chocolates with flavours like Basil n’ Lime, Wild Rose, Fall Spice, Espresso Ganache and Smokey Chili, then head down to the waterfront to find a bench at the end of a pier to share them.
The Lord Nelson
The Lord Nelson is as much a landmark as the expansive Halifax Public Gardens across the street. Built in the mid-1800s, the Public Gardens is a Victorian-style retreat from the noise and bustle of city life just outside its wrought iron gates. Throughout the summer, live music wafts from the refurbished bandstand, making a stroll around the serpentine flower beds, through the dahlia display and beneath tnehe towering trees even more a delight. Buy a bag of proper bird food onsite and walk the kids to the duck pond for some old-fashioned outdoor family fun.
Kids might or might not look forward to a visit to a library, but once they get a look at the new Halifax Public Library just down Spring Garden Road from the Lord Nelson, they might not want to leave. Outside, the library is reminiscent of a stack of multi-coloured books. Inside, a glass atrium towers five stories high, the floors linked by staircases at angles so odd, they’ll remind some of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. For an inexpensive, gorgeously presented meal with flavours that punch, take everyone to the little Lemon Tree half a block from the library. This tiny Turkish restaurant might be furnished from a second-hand store, but it’s decorated by someone with a child’s sense of fun. It’s run by a warm and friendly family that really knows how to present a plate of delicious Mediterranean delicacies.
Halifax Marriott Harbourfront
The modern Halifax Marriott Harbourfront is part of what has become the iconic waterfront profile of Halifax. Together with the twin white and black Purdy’s Wharf towers built on pilings over the water on one side of the hotel and the restored 19th-century Historic Properties on the other, this is the skyline most associated with contemporary, exciting downtown Halifax.
This is also where the pedestrian-friendly waterfront begins, bookended at the far end one-and-a-half kilometres away by the bright, new Halifax Seaport Farmers Market and the Canadian Immigration Museum at Pier 21. In between, you’ll find some of the city’s best restaurants, bars, and attractions. Just down wide steps from the hotel is the classic Halifax tavern, the Lower Deck, where Maritime music spills onto the docks on warm summer nights. The ferry to Dartmouth is just steps away, as is the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic with popular ocean-related exhibits about topics like the Franklin Expedition and the Titanic. One of the city’s best restaurants, the Bicycle Thief, at Bishop’s Landing offers an Italian-inspired menu including seafood dishes like Cioppino (Italian seafood stew) and has outdoor, dockside seating.
Rural Halifax: Cozy Seaside B&B Stays
At the edges of HRM’s borders, homey B&Bs in sleepy seaside villages invite those who prefer staying at a short drive’s distance from urban Halifax. The Star of the Sea B&B in Ferguson’s Cove is one of the newest of these.
Star of the Sea
After years of languishing in disrepair, the Stella Maris Chapel built in 1846, has undergone extensive renovations. Now a quality B&B, the Star of the Sea features a bright, open kitchen of gleaming white. The upstairs deck looks over the entrance to Halifax Harbour, as do the wall of four tall church windows below.
The property is adjacent to York Redoubt in Ferguson’s Cove, just off the urban core on peninsular Halifax where there are trails to walk to the stone tower from 1793 that guards the harbour entrance. Explore tunnels and guns with the help of interpretive panels. Now a National Historic Site of Canada, York Redoubt is a quiet retreat to match the Star of the Sea’s own tranquillity.
Worthington Place Ocean Side
At the edge of the city along the coast known as the Eastern Shore, there’s a luxurious, brand new B&B in a spectacular setting. Tucked at the end of a long, narrow inlet at Musquodoboit Harbour on a quiet, gorgeously landscaped lot, the two-bedroom house is an open concept gem with a wall of windows overlooking the inlet and dock. Worthington Place is a great option for families or couples. It’s equipped with kayaks and canoes, an outdoor spa tub and, in the house, a central stone fireplace and arcade game room.
Worthington Place is in a great location for a family vacation on the Eastern Shore. Martinique Beach Provincial Park – Nova Scotia’s longest sandy beach – is at the other end of the inlet from the B&B. In nearby Lake Charlotte, the kids will enjoy Memory Lane Heritage Village where they can feed the chickens, pet the lambs and check out the gold panning equipment. For lunch, the whole family can chow down on homemade baked beans and brown bread just like hard working lumberjacks did in the 1940s cookhouse. There’s homemade lemonade served in old-fashioned glass milk jugs and for dessert, gingerbread with rhubarb sauce.
Three on St. Margaret’s Bay: Surfside, Pleasant View and the Dauphinee Inn
On the opposite side of HRM at its extreme southwestern edge, the Surfside Inn overlooks St. Margaret’s Bay from a rise beside Queensland Beach. It’s a country inn restored to its former Victorian grace. Just a few kilometres away, Pleasant View B&B is perched on a hill with grand views of the same St. Margaret’s Bay and within walking distance of a couple of small beaches. Pleasant View is a large, modern and airy B&B with weathered cedar shingles in a wooded setting. In nearby Hubbards, the bright blue Dauphinee Inn claims to have the finest waterside patio in Nova Scotia. It puts on weekly music at the dock where the Inn rents ten berths for those travelling by or with a boat.
Surfside, Pleasant View and the Dauphinee Inn make great jumping off points for exploring the western fringes of HRM. From these comfortable stays, it’s a leisurely and scenic coastal drive along St. Margaret’s Bay to Nova Scotia’s most famous village, Peggy’s Cove. Walk the narrow streets to the wharves where small fishing boats bob and on to the lighthouse – it once doubled as a post office – that stands tall on a shoreline of solid rock worn smooth by eons of waves. On the road in and out of the village, look for the stone carving on a 30-metre long exposed granite rock face memorializing hardworking Nova Scotia fishermen. Some 32 fishermen and their families are depicted in a line, many at work with fishing gear.
Further along the coast, other lesser known villages like Dover, Prospect and Terence Bay are also worth exploring. From the city side of this peninsula, it’s worth a drive out to Sambro as well. No coastal road links Peggy’s Cove and Sambro. On both sides of the peninsula, there are walking trails, tiny harbours, islands, and lighthouses to discover.Check availability near St. Margaret's Bay »
Cocktails and dinner back at the Tuna Blue Bar and Grill inside the Dauphinee Inn make a great ending to a day of exploring, no matter which of the three accommodations you choose for your stay. Fresh local fish dominates the menu, of course, including seafood chowder, lobster rolls, and fried local haddock. Some of the dishes are prepared with a Portuguese touch like the fishcakes but are fused with traditional Maritime foods, in this case with a side of homemade baked beans. Tuck in at Tuna Blue, then retire to one of these quiet and comfortable B&Bs for some down east hospitality in its largest city.