The capital of Nova Scotia, Canada.
Ground zero for the second largest man-made explosion in history.
Rescue place of Titanic survivors.
And the one place (besides Maine) that is extremely obsessed with lobster. But that’s ok since it’s ridiculously cheap anyway.
After 2 weeks of touring New Brunswick and Nova Scotia by car we rolled into our final destination - Halifax. The Maritime city we had seen so many times on the Snapchat account of our good friend Cailin from Travel Yourself - our anticipation had been building for a very long time.
From any given point in Nova Scotia you’ll be no further than 67km (42 miles) from the ocean. The province’s history, economy and identity is intrinsically tied to the sea. You could say salt water flows through the veins of every Nova Scotian.
While Nova Scotia is the second smallest province in Canada, it exports 80% of the world’s supply of lobster. And since 40% of Nova Scotians live in Halifax, you’ll find no shortage of seafood delicacies of every kind imaginable in this food-lover’s paradise.
Although locals consider Halifax busy compared to the province’s rustic rural areas, it still maintains the relaxed charm of a large seaside town. Combine the ocean views, cultural landmarks, and unique attractions and you’ve got the ideal destination for an entertaining family vacation.
Plus, it has lobster.
And if you haven’t eaten Nova Scotian lobster in Nova Scotia, then you haven’t really eaten lobster.
Let’s get back to what makes Halifax awesome and why you are going to be booking your ticket to Nova Scotia by the time you finish this article.
1. A great place to stay (even for royalty)
A memorable vacation always starts with the right hotel and we were fortunate to be invited to stay at the Westin Nova Scotian overlooking Halifax Harbour (map). The location was perfect for a stroll along Harbourwalk, across the road from the farmers’ market, easy access to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (13-minute walk), and just a 15-minute walk to the heart of the city. We left our car in the parking garage and walked everywhere from this central spot.
Coming in by train? The Westin is directly connected to the Halifax railway station. You could travel as far as Montreal by direct rail. This beautiful station dates back over 80 years. The original railway and hotel was built by Canadian National Railways in 1930 and in the mid 1990’s years Westin took over this historic hotel. Through ongoing renovations and improvements, it’s been transformed it into one of the city’s most respected properties.
Guest rooms were your typical 2 double bed configuration, but the plush pillow-top mattresses induced a deep, revitalising sleep. Heav-en-ly! The kids received a cute Westin Kids Club gift bag with jellybeans and juice - they were over the moon. Room amenities were exactly what you’d expect from a modern luxury hotel, and each interaction with hotel staff was friendly and sincere.
I was particularly fond of the design of the beautiful indoor saltwater pool – it’s timeless styling reminded me of an opulent by-gone era.
The famous Commonwealth Ballroom has hosted dignitaries from all over the world including Queen Elizabeth (twice), and is now a popular venue for social events, and conventions.
The on-location cocktail lounge (called Roy’s) and restaurant (called Elements on Hollis) were modern and elegant. A strong emphasis is made on sourcing ingredients from local farmers. And I found the internationally inspired menus had something for everyone. We enjoyed several delicious meals here, which saved tired tiny legs in the evenings and still-waking-up sleepy mornings.
Freshly made omelettes were delicious, waffles with homemade raspberry compote were divine, and the breakfast buffet was top notch. One breakfast was even served by a Thor look-a-like, much to the excitement of my gushing 7-year-old daughter.
I was particularly impressed with their health-conscious kids’ menu which thankfully didn’t include chicken nuggets. Hooray!
We only experienced one oddity - one night after ordering tikka masala and butter chicken we were served 2 dishes exactly the same. Our waiter explained that their menus were in the process of being updated that very day but claimed they were same thing anyway. I assured him it was not. The meal was undoubtedly delicious, but definitely more tikka than butter chicken. Perhaps it’s a Canadian thing but tell me in the comments below if you think those 2 dishes are the same.
2. Giant green frog boats
You read that right. While we were in Halifax we enthusiastically hopped (literally) onto the back of a “frog” and explored the city. The Harbour Hopper was an easy walk from the Westin and is located within Murphy’s Wharf (map). It runs daily from 10:15am every 75 minutes. It’s similar to the “duck” tour we first tried in Seattle, but just a slightly different type of vehicle.
We arrived about 15 minutes early and made sure we had our life jackets since we would be travelling on the water for part of the tour.
The tour headed through the city showing off its most iconic locations like Citadel Hill National Historic Site, the Victorian Public Gardens, St. Paul’s Church and Spring Garden Road. After the land-based portion of the tour our amphibious frog croaked into the Halifax Harbour cruising past George’s Island Lighthouse, the Halifax Harbourwalk, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and loads more.
Our guide was animated and full of knowledge. We learnt so much about Halifax from this one tour and, of course, the splash down is always a highly anticipated event for the kids.
3. Stuff your face with seafood
You may have guessed from our many culinary-centric articles how much we love food. But seafood has never been a favourite. In fact, it was an enemy. While I wish I could say Halifax cured us of this, it certainly did improve my appreciation of seafood. Josh’s willing-to-try-anything approach to food kept things interesting and we were impressed with the range and quality of dining options dished up by Halifax.
3 of our favourites:
Possibly our favourite place to eat in Halifax. And particularly because they not only serve fresh local seafood, but incredible juicy Alberta Angus beef. This restaurant is located in one of downtown’s most historical buildings dating back to 1817 and has connections to the Titanic and the Halifax Explosion. Across the street you can spot the oldest building in Halifax, the St Paul’s Anglican Church built in 1750.
Great quality food and genuine service.
A photo speaks louder than words, so feel free to eyeball this yumminess.
After a ride on the Harbour Hopper we found ourselves next door to Murphy’s. We spotted it from the “frog” since it sits on the edge of the longest extending wharf on the Halifax waterfront with unobstructed views of the harbor.
There was a large tourist group in there when we arrived, which meant service was a little slower than usual. But it served good, hearty food with generous portions sizes.
The unique frontage got me excited to eat here. This historic building overlooks the waterfront, but once we sat in the main dining area, it was more like a renovated fire station or warehouse and the harbour views were largely obstructed. But the food was still good. I hear the oysters are delicious.
Our kids favourite experience was touching the live lobsters and bestowing upon them cute names. The winner: Pinchy Pete.
4. Stuff your face with things other than seafood
So I’m not a big seafood fan, but I can tell you there are still plenty of delicious things to eat in Halifax.
3 of our favourites:
Poutine: Hot chips (fries) served with gravy and cheese curd. I like it with meat!
5. Take a walk on the wild (and windy) side
Halifax Harbour, the world’s 2nd largest year-round ice-free natural harbour, is home to the famous Halifax Harbourwalk (map). This 3 kilometre boardwalk cleaves to the edge of the coast, offering incredible views, numerous restaurants and shops.
Next to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is a large ocean-themed playground that the kids loved. Or take a photo under the “perfect wave”.
6. Shop till you drop
Throughout our time in Nova Scotia we found the retail shopping options quite limited. Josh was searching for a replacement mobile phone, a quest that was near impossible. Halifax is different. Downtown Halifax is not like a typical finance-centric city centre, it’s much more liveable. It holds many retail shops, restaurants and is a major shopping destination in its own right.
7. Meet amazing locals
Canadians are so friendly and Halifax is no exception. We met Glenn, the Director of Sales and Catering at Westin and he was one of the nicest guys ever. Follow that up with a very polite and pleasant “Thor” at breakfast (mentioned above). Every restaurant, shop or attraction yielded friendly, helpful folks – not what you’d expect in most typical North American large cities.
If you reach Halifax, seek out Cailin from Travel Yourself. She knows all the ins and outs, best restaurants, and local insider tips. Plus, she’s really cool.
8. Immigration history was never this interesting
Down on Pier 21 is the Canadian Museum of Immigration (map). This building was a prominent immigration point until the 1940’s and 50s and is now a national museum. The staff are all immigrants and you can ask important questions about your own migration thoughts or just enjoy the rich history and culture on display. There were some fun interactive exhibits that the kids loved. While family members with shorter attention spans might be happy with a 60-minute visit, if you really want to soak up all the cultural heritage, you could spend all day here.
9. Tragedies of epic proportions
I had no idea that Halifax was so intertwined with the history of the Titanic until I visited the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (map). This large maritime museum contains extensive galleries of many boats, but of most interest to me was the Titanic.
One of the other pivotal events in Halifax’s history was the Halifax Explosion. This was second largest man-made explosion only second to the Hiroshima atomic bomb. It took place on a fateful foggy morning in December 1917 when the French ship SS Mont-Blanc, laden with high explosives collided with the Norwegian vessel SS Imo in the Narrows.
Nearly all structures with an 800-metre radius were obliterated. Approximately 2,000 people were killed and 9,000 injured. The shock wave snapped trees, bent iron rails, demolished buildings, and scattered fragments of the Mont-Blanc for kilometres. Hardly a window in the city survived the blast. A very sobering story explained in detail in the museum.
Perhaps not the best story for bedtime reading for the kids, but there were also plenty of hands-on activities and exhibits as well as a dedicated kids section.
10. Hear an earth-shaking boom every day of the year
Proudly sitting high above the city is the National Historic Site Citadel Hill (map). And every day (except Christmas) at noon gunners dressed in the 3rd Brigade Royal Artillery uniform of 1869 fire a cannon (a reproduction 12-pounder, smooth-bore muzzle loading gun used during the reign of King George III).
Apparently hot dogs go flying, babies cry, people leap into the air – except me. In the 3 days we were there I never flinched. Nerves of steel, baby.
The fort was chosen for its strategic position at the top of a prominent hill, with a commanding view of the harbor. And if you are looking for a great place to take a photo then head up there. It’s also the best spot for kids to roll down a grassy knoll
11. Learn… without realising it!
Halifax has all manners of kid-friendly entertainment. We took the kids to see a movie, we played in playgrounds and one day we visited the award-winning Discovery Centre (map). This hands-on science centre is piles of fun for youngsters. It’s located in downtown Halifax and the best part is the kids barely realise each experience is educational.
Spread over 3 floors, we made our way through fun interactive exhibits, live science shows. It’s more fun than a few hours can contain.
I also spotted a father building a block tower for hours without his kid in sight, so I’m not sure who has more fun… the young or young at heart.
The Bottom Line
We were really looking forward to exploring Halifax and our anticipation didn’t go unrewarded. In fact, we discovered a lot of unexpected, cool things about this city. These 11 reasons for visiting Halifax are just the starting point for your next family vacation - I’m confident you’ll find many more.
Now it’s your turn. Have you been to Halifax? Share your favourite experiences and attractions in the comments below.
See all our stops on our 2 week Nova Scotia road trip!