A Weekend In Halifax: Make The Most Of Nova Scotia’s Capital

I’m standing on the Halifax waterfront, captivated by three lampposts. These are not your average lampposts.

They’re works of art that have turned this pier at Bishop’s Landing into one of the most famous locations on the East Coast. They’re also my favourite place to begin a weekender in Canada’s largest city east of Quebec. Somehow, these three pale blue posts pull together the history of this centuries-old port where sailors serve and carouse, the depth and strength of Halifax’s artistic community, the famous East Coast sense of humour and the reputation of the waterfront as the place for nightlife.

One of two lamps is slumped onto the wooden deck of the pier while the other leans over it as if in concern for its fallen friend. Together, they’re known as “Got Drunk, Fell Down.” The third called “Fountain” stands at the edge of the pier, a small stream of water spurting from it into the harbour. As I stand before them, the words and melody of Nova Scotia’s most beloved sea shanty troubadour, Stan Rogers, drifts into my head. “Now I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier, the last of Barrett’s Privateers.”

Adults are drawn to this pier, but even kids too young to understand the grown-up references enjoy the lampposts. To children, they are a highlight of a day on the waterfront where public art is a big part of the fun. Walking northwest, following the boardwalks and piers, I pass some of the city’s best restaurants like The Bicycle Thief and shops like Bishop’s Cellar wine store until I find the hammocks. As they often are, the bright orange resting spots made of nets – they remind me of a sailor’s sleeping quarters and have a grand view of George’s Island – are all occupied by kids enjoying this interactive art installation.

Continuing on, I arrive at what has become Halifax’s best-known sculpture, a 3.6 metre-tall grey-blue wave. It always attracts a crowd, often of kids just emerging from the adjacent Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and on their way to explore the HMCS Sackville docked next to it. The Wave stands on one side of the Visitor Information Centre. On the other is another family favourite, the whale fluke and mackerel benches. The silhouette of a full-sized whale is painted in black on the dock. From one end a metal tail emerges as if from beneath the water. Across the silhouette stand ten benches of different sizes and heights, all resembling mackerel. I take a seat, looking across the harbour to Dartmouth and think ahead to my Halifax weekend.

It’s time to end my tour of Halifax’s outdoor waterfront art gallery and check into my accommodations.

Our Budget Hotel Pick: Garden South Park Inn

From the outside, the pink Victorian gingerbread Garden South Park Inn looks like a popup in a children’s storybook. Inside, the 23 guest rooms are modest but comfortable and clean, each with a private bath, cable TV and other amenities typical of a more expensive property. The continental breakfast is extensive, but it’s the little things like tea and snacks in the evening that give the inn a welcoming feel. A short three blocks away is the Halifax Public Gardens and Spring Garden Road, perhaps the busiest pedestrian street on Canada’s east coast.

Garden South Park Inn

8.4 Very good (846 reviews)

Our Luxury Hotel Pick: The Hollis Halifax Hotel

Just stepping into the lobby of the Hollis Halifax Hotel – a DoubleTree Suites by Hilton that recently underwent a major seven-million-dollar renovation – feels like you’re about to experience something special. The clean lines of the check-in area match those of the FAX bar next to it where you can perch on a barstool and order a cocktail. Inside, the new fitness centre, the surprisingly spacious pool, the whirlpool and the well appointed, modern rooms each with a kitchenette and walk-in showers match that feeling of luxurious retreat in the heart of the city’s downtown just steps from the waterfront. Tip: corner rooms are the same size as the suites, but they feel larger because of the expansive views of the waterfront and harbour.

The Hollis Halifax - a DoubleTree Suites by Hilton

8.3 Very good (2177 reviews)

A Brief History of the Maritime City

When it comes to history, Halifax is rich in sites, museums and atmosphere. The next morning, I start my walking tour of Halifax by stepping outside the Hollis Halifax and crossing the street to continue my exploration of the waterfront. Following the boardwalks and piers to the southeast, I pause at the bustling Seaport Farmers Market for an unorthodox breakfast of steamed Chinese dumplings and a smoothie made of farm-fresh ingredients. Options for prepared foods, as well as locally farmed goods of all kinds, are so varied and plentiful, the dumpling-smoothie combination was pure accident. I settle on the stairs to the second level to enjoy my selections and listen to a couple of buskers on fiddle and accordion earn their own breakfast.

At the other end of the massive and beautifully renovated building that stretches along the harbour for a couple of blocks, I come to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, which tells the story of waves of immigrants who arrived by ship through this very building and made their way across the country, often by train. Some exhibits – including first-person recorded accounts accompanied by personal belongings – are moving portraits, often of families escaping conflict, persecution and famine. Others are fun activities for kids and adults, like the period store where kids can use an old cash register to sell food from the exhibit. There a play area with toys like those carried by children arriving by ship. Small stories help visitors understand the immigrant experience. In a video interview, an immigrant from Jamaica recalls arriving as a child in winter and thinking Canada might be cursed because the trees she saw had no leaves. My guide tells me the story of another immigrant child who, after eating a banana, took the skin to an immigration officer and asked her to refill it.

Our Favorite Things To Do In Halifax

Halifax is crowned by the great and storied Citadel Hill and its star-shaped fortress fronted by the city’s iconic clock tower. Now a National Historic Site, the Citadel and the harbour it protects are the reasons the British settled here in 1749. Today, kids will get a kick out of the firing of the cannon at noon and the soldiers guarding the entrance in their red coats, kilts, white boots and towering fur hats. From here, there’s a commanding view of the harbour in one direction and of the city’s many green spaces in the other – tree-lined streets, the canopy of the Victorian-era Public Gardens and the big, grassy field known as the Commons.

A short walk down the north side of the Citadel brings me to the Commons and then to Dee Dee’s Ice Cream on Cornwallis Street for a small cone. The Curry Cashew is enticingly described as weirdly delicious, but I go for a different jolt to the taste buds, their famous Mexican – dark chocolate with cinnamon, nutmeg and spicy cayenne.

Skating on the Emera Oval (built for the Canada Games in 2011 on one side of the Commons) is probably Halifax’s most popular outdoor winter activity. In recent years, Haligonians look forward to winter like never before. The Savour Food and Wine Festival also gets folks out and socializing at six events over a five-week stretch with varied themes like wine and cheese, cocktails, and craft beer. My favourite is Decadence, which pairs both cheese and chocolate bites with local and international wines. In addition to Savour, events like the In the Dead of Winter music festival prove that Halifax never hibernates through the dark months.

In Need of a Coffee Break?

It’s the cheeky atmosphere at The Old Apothecary Bakery and Café on Barrington Street in the downtown core that pulls me in and the decadent hot chocolates, serious coffees, buttery croissants and other treats that keep me coming back. Head upstairs with a drink and baked treasures to their sitting room with funky art all over the exposed brick walls and crazy vintage furniture in neon colours – picture Victorian love seats and a half bathtub made into a settee on old hardwood floors.

The Perfect Place For Boutique Shopping

With energy restored, I feel like walking and browsing some of Halifax’s funky small shops. A couple of neighbourhoods jump to mind. First, I walk a few blocks south to Art1274Hollis Gallery on Hollis Street, an artist co-op with a wide variety of paintings, sculptures, jewelry and more. They host regular events, including a kitchen party and artist meet-and-greets. Across the street, Studio 21 Fine Art features contemporary artists in solo, themed exhibitions or highly original work.

Walking up Spring Garden Road, I come to Queen Street and Vintage Row, a series of old row houses painted in bright jellybean colours that house thrift shops. Oh, the treasures inside – there’s everything from vintage dresses to accessories and wild costume jewelry at Elsie’s Used Clothing where finds range from designer labels hung lovingly on racks to lucky finds in the two-dollar bin. Next door at the Neighbourhood Witch General Store, there’s everything the aspiring sorceress needs – from crystal balls to caldrons – to set up shop. It’s such a fun place to poke around.

No Shortage of Delicious Dining Options

A visitor to Halifax could dine out at a different restaurant every night for a month and not have a mediocre meal. Le Coq Bistro is a great choice for classic French cuisine, McKelvie’s for seafood, Stubborn Goat and The Brooklyn Warehouse for farm-to-table, chef-inspired menus, The Lemon Tree for Turkish and CUT Steakhouse for, yes, steak. The list of excellent dining experiences is long indeed.

This time around, I choose Chives Canadian Bistro right on Barrington Street. The atmosphere is casual fine dining while the décor is a nod to the restaurant’s providers. Over the bar is a long mural of vegetables, wine and cheese interspersed with the names of wineries and farms represented in the menu. In fact, the menu itself begins with a list of farms, not of dishes. Local meats and seasonal fish are on offer. I start with a salad that features house-made pancetta, grilled melon and local Dragon’s Breath Blue Cheese. It’s served with a biscuit with butter and molasses, a recipe from chef Craig Flinn’s grandmother. Crab cakes with Cape Breton crab are the main, served with corn salsa, washed down with a cucumber and basil gimlet. To accompany the dessert of Peach Melba Pavlova made with peaches from the Flinn family farm, I order an Espresso Martini.

If You’re Up For Some Late Night Fun…

There’s nothing finer than following a legendary Chives dinner than meeting up with friends for late night drinks and small plates at the Obladee Wine Bar across the street. Tonight, I have no need for anything but a glass of Tidal Bay. Launched in 2012 to reflect the terroir and cooler climate unique to its character, Tidal Bay is Nova Scotia’s first appellation wine. Each vineyard adheres to strict standards, including the use of 100% Nova Scotia grown grapes. Obladee offers one by Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Vineyards. I settle into a snug corner to enjoy the warm atmosphere of this friendly East Coast bar. Thinking ahead, tomorrow I’ll build a picnic at the farmer’s market and spend a couple of pleasant hours by the ocean in Point Pleasant Park, meandering its wooded trails and exploring the old fortifications that once protected the harbour. But that’s tomorrow. Tonight at Obladee, all I need concern myself with is the enjoyment of this crisp, aromatic white.

Featured photo courtesy of Discover Halifax