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By Debbie Olsen
One of Canada’s oldest and most historic cities is also one of its most vibrant. Exploring Halifax is effortless fun—and that’s not just because it has more pubs and clubs per capita than almost any other Canadian city. Halifax is brimming with deep-seated culture, but stays modern and vibrant as the home of six universities.
“Halifax was the birthplace of Canadian democracy and in some ways it’s where Canada began,” says Pamela Wamback, with Tourism Nova Scotia. “Today it’s an incredible, historic city with a hip vibe, great amenities, fantastic seafood, and delicious beer.”
Experiencing the many facets of Halifax is easy. Here are six ways to get under the surface and really appreciate this laid-back, fun-loving city by the sea.
1. Walk the waterfront
Halifax is home to one of the world’s longest downtown boardwalks that skirts the second largest natural harbor in the world. A great way to get to know this historic port city is to take a stroll along the waterfront. You’ll pass eclectic shops, galleries, restaurants, and attractions while taking in amazing views of the harbor. Here are some key spots to check out:
2. Eat a donair
Even though the culinary scene in Halifax is eclectic, the best taste of the city comes from a humble (but highly delicious) sandwich: the donair. This popular hangover cure was declared the official food of Halifax by city council in 2015. The sloppy sandwich consists of a pita filled with spit-roasted shaved beef, tomatoes, onions, and a signature sweet garlic sauce that was invented here.
“The thing that makes the donair unique to Halifax is the sauce,” says Susan Downey Lim, tour director and owner of Grape Escapes and Taste Halifax Tours. “We include the donair on our food tours because it speaks to the multicultural influences of the food scene in our city.”
Lim’s two favorite donair spots are Johnny K’s on “pizza corner” and Tony’s on Robie Street.
3. Cure what “ales” you
Beer has a long history in Halifax—and so does pub culture, for that matter. Alexander Keith’s, the oldest brewery in the city, was established in 1820 and is still going strong. The real Alexander Keith was so admired for his contribution to Haligonian society that he was elected mayor three times and served as a member of the Nova Scotia Legislature.
“In the last four years, there has been an explosion of craft breweries, distilleries, and cideries in Halifax,” Lim says. “The great thing about it is each brewery is doing something a little different. You’ll find funky wild ferments, barrel-aged brews, and fantastic lagers, all depending on where you go.”
If you like groovy, unique brews, Lim recommends 2 Crows Brewing Co. If IPAs and double IPAs are more your style, you can’t beat Unfiltered Brewing on the north end of the city.
“The IPAs at Unfiltered Brewing will blow your mind,” Lim says. “I’m an IPA drinker and I’ve never tasted something so amazing.”
4. Pedal the city
The best way to experience the beauty and local culture of Halifax is to explore it like a local—from the seat of a bike. A two-hour guided bicycle tour with I Heart Bikes presents the possibility of cruising through this commuter-friendly capital city to build up an appetite for more delicious food. Tours take you to key historical sites, past beautiful mansions on Young Street, up to the Dalhousie University campus through several city parks, and up to the top of Citadel Hill for an amazing view of the city.
5. Set sail on a Tall Ship
To fully appreciate the second largest natural harbor in the world, you must get out on the water. A cruise aboard historic Tall Ship Silva provides great views of the harbor and Georges Island National Historic Site. When you’re aboard the Silva, it’s easy to imagine how the harbor might have looked hundreds of years ago when it was filled with tall ships.
“There’s no better place to be on a beautiful day than aboard the Tall Ship Silva,” says Mitch Owen, who has captained the ship for the past five years. “It’s a wonderful way to see the harbor.”
The 130-foot schooner was built in 1939 and used as a freighter ship in the WWII Battle of the Atlantic. The sailing vessel was particularly useful, because it doesn’t require fuel to operate—something that was in short supply during the war. Today, the cargo hold has been converted into a dining room, complete with an Irish pub on board. Craft beer cruises, wine and cheese cruises, cocktail cruises, and other specialty cruises are available throughout the summer.
“One of my favorite cruises is Wines on the Water,” Owen says. “For this cruise, our executive chef prepares a tasting menu with five wine pairings and there is a fiddler on board as well. It is definitely a signature experience.”
6. Enjoy fresh fish at Five Fishermen
No visit to Nova Scotia would be complete without a seafood dinner—something this region is famous for. There’s no shortage of restaurants in Halifax that specialize in fresh seafood, but if you like your coastal feast with a side of history and—wait for it—ghosts (yes, ghosts), then there’s only one place you should go.
“The Five Fishermen has had many lives over the years,” says Andrew Murphy, president of the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia. “Built in 1817, the building started as a schoolhouse, became an art school, a college, and later a mortuary. The bodies of many victims of the Titanic in 1912 and the Halifax Explosion in 1917 were taken to that mortuary.”
Though the building hosts happier gatherings now, there is no shortage of ghost stories from restaurant staff, including people hearing voices and seeing apparitions in the restaurant. Staff say it is commonplace for taps to turn on by themselves or cutlery to shift on a table and fall to the floor—all (seemingly) harmless antics.
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Treat yourself to big flavors in Nova Scotia
There's a bounty of reasons to stay hungry while criss-crossing Canada's Maritime province.