Overall, Halifax Canada is not the most historic or engaging city we have visited. But it does provide an interesting introduction to historic Nova Scotia and is a good, centrally-located base for exploring the province.
Halifax Nova Scotia Canada, founded on 1749, was one of the first English settlements in Canada. As it was initially created as a naval and military base, it is dominated by its Citadel. Its subsequent role as a shipbuilding center created much of the wealth that funded building of many of the city’s grand structures. True, many such buildings were destroyed in 1917 by the accidental explosion of a World War I munitions ship (which destroyed the northern section of the city and killed more than 2,000 people). But, although a relative handful of 19th- and even a few 18th-century buildings remain scattered through the downtown area, the vast majority of buildings and the character of the city is overwhelmingly 20th-century.
Exploring Downtown Halifax Nova Scotia
It is interesting just to walk the compact downtown area, and especially the pedestrian and family-friendly harbor-side boardwalk. The city, however, also has a few particularly interesting sights.
This preserved 19th-century (1856) British fortress has restored rooms and exhibits that explain the fort’s role in defending the city from Revolutionary War and War of 1812 days (from a previous fort at the same hillside location) through World War II and beyond. While the fort and exhibits are interesting, the best part is the role of the extremely knowledgeable “78 Highlander” regimen “soldiers” (actually guides and performers) who were in costume and explained details of everything from the design, construction and history of the fort (which were provided in a 45-minute walking tour), to the roles of the fort in different wars and the intimate details of each piece of the soldiers uniforms (both of which we learned by talking with soldiers who are available to explain exhibits). And as a side benefit, the fortress provides nice panoramic views of the city and the harbor that it was built to protect.
Halifax’s waterfront contains a boardwalk that takes one pass public art, play spaces, and restored warehouses that were repurposed as shops, restaurants, galleries and historic sites.
We happened to be there during a Jazz Festival and caught a small snippet.
The musuem explores the history of the various waves and categories of immigrants, its impact on aboriginal people, traditional discrimination against “undesirables” (such as Chinese, Jews and blacks), the flood of post-World War II war brides and U.S. Vietnam War protestors, the contributions immigrants have made to the country’s economy and culture and the point system currently used to assess applicants. It is well worth a stop.
St. Paul’s Church, built in 1750, is the oldest Protestant church in the country. It contains historic tablets and burying ground.
The farmer’s market has more than 250 vendors selling products. It is interesting to explore as well as a place to pick up some food quickly.
The museum focused on the city’s growth as a shipbuilding center. Various sections addressed a different aspect of the role of ships and the sea in Halifax (and Nova Scotia’s) history. These include:
- An overview of the country’s naval history, beginning with its reliance on Britain’s warships for protection and gradually building its own small navy and the roles it played in both World Wars.
- The history of and devastation resulting from the 1917 collision of a humanitarian relief ship with and the munition-loaded Mont Blanc. The collision of the iron ships created sparks which ignited a fire and an explosion that destroyed almost half the city. More than 2,000 were killed and 6,000 were left homeless.
- The Age of Sail, from the evolution of sailing ships through the reign of huge sailing warships and the roles of particularly important British and Canadian ships and sailors.
- The Age of Steam, which begins with mechanical models that demonstrate different aspects of steam technology, the importance of Halifax in building these ships.
- The Cunard Line, and the role that Halifax born and raised Samuel Cunard played in building and sailing many of the largest, fastest, most exclusive ships including the Mauritania and its ill-fated sister ship, the Lusitania.
- Shipwrecks and Treasures, which examined a number of the shipwrecks that occurred in the storms and rocks of Nova Scotia (especially around Cape Breton), the generous terms the country offered to salvagers before adopting International guidelines and the types of treasure they recovered (which was more likely to be payroll money rather than the gold and silver ingots and coins found by Caribbean salvagers.
- The sinking of the Titanic about 700 miles from Halifax and the role the city played in caring for survivors and identifying and burying the dead. It profiles some of the victims and displays several artifacts that were recovered from the site.
As impressive as the exhibits were the wide range of historical nautical artifacts and especially the model ships. Hundreds of meticulously constructed scale models of ships ranging from tiny ships in bottles to a 17-foot long model of the Mauritania.
The museum also has several small boats that were used on the island. Two ships can be boarded and explored on the docks behind the museum depending on the day of week and time.
- CSS Acadia was the last Edwardian riveted steel hull ship ever built (1913). After surviving two World Wars, it was reconditioned for scientific missions and for measuring and tracking changes in the oceans.
- HMCS Sackville is a World War II corvette. The small, heavily-armed warship was used to escort convoys and to track and sink German U-Boats.
Other than a single room devoted to donated Dutch Genre and Italianate paintings and a special exhibition, the gallery was generally devoted to Canadian, and especially Nova Scotian artists. Among the highlights were:
Maud Lewis’s self-decorated home and folk art paintings of self-taught painter were displayed. She was an uneducated woman crippled by juvenile arthritis who became a countrywide sensation in the 1960s.
Her hooked rugs illustrate both the community and the isolation she felt growing up in Newfoundland.
Other exhibits included:
- A wide range of traditional and contemporary Mi’Kwa’Ki art addressing themes including community, memories, sustainability and treaties.
- ArcticAmazon, a special exhibit of works by these regions’ indigenous artists addressing contemporary issues including climate change, globalization and colonial encroachment.
- Realism’s Reach, examining the meaning of realism with examples from photo-realistic paintings through those that express the artist’s own realities.
The museum has exhibits of cultural significance and environment of Nova Scotia. Not high on our list.
Boardwalk Historical Exhibits
Halifax also had some exhibits along its boardwalk.
- Chebucto Landing is where the first British settlers arrived in Halifax in 1749; and
- Cable Wharf, whose public art and interpretive panels commemorate and explain the development of the first transatlantic telegraph cable, the role of Halifax as the first point in North America reached by the European cable and the Western Union’s building of the wharf to house and launch the cable ships that laid and repaired the cable. Panels explain the design and different layers of the cable, the perseverance of financier Cyrus Field in enduring four failures before achieving his first success in 1858, the challenges of laying and repairing submarine cables and some of the engineers, sailors and ships that played particularly important roles in cable’s long-term success. (The French Cable Museum in Orleans Cape Cod provides a much more detailed explanation of transatlantic cables and the Chatham Cape Code Marconi-RCA Wireless Museum explains the birth of transatlantic radio which eventually eliminated the need for these early cables.)
Eating In Halifax
We began our dinner with New Brunswick Beau Soleil oysters, followed by a Caesar salad. Our lobster entrée came with potatoes, broccolini, cheddar biscuit, and slaw. Although largely shelled, the lobster lacked the taste and buttery sweetness we are used to.
We were very pleased with our dinner here. The Maple Pecan salmon with caramelized onion chutney, rice, and steamed vegetables was very tasty. So too was the bourbon baby back ribs with BBQ glaze and corn muffin. The wine list offered a larger selection than what we had been finding in Halifax. We tried to cover all dishes with a 2021 Lapierre Morgon from Beaujolais. We finished our meal with an excellent variation on our traditional Bailey and Frangelico coffee drinks, when the restaurant suggested adding Kahlua.
We had lunch at a seafood restaurant located on the wharf . We we shared a bowl of Nova Scotia littlenecks and PEI mussels steamed in Thai coconut curry. While the clams were pretty good, the mussels were tough and lacked taste (other than that of the broth).
At this extremely popular breakfast and brunch spot, Joyce had a cheddar cheese omelet and Tom had eggs benedict on a mildly jalapeno potato latke and topped with poached salmon, shrimp, and scallops.
Our dinner began began with a lobster sampler appetizer that included lobster mango sushi, cold lobster summer roll in rice paper, and fried lobster spring roll, each served with soy-wasabi and Vietnamese sweet and sour dipping sauces. We then had two very different entrees. Joyce had butter-poached lobster and Digby scallops with saffron gnocchi, green peas and criminal mushrooms in a lobster reduction. Tom had Cornish hen stuffed with smoked duck mousse with thyme-scented red potatoes and zucchini with balsamic syrup and mushroom pan jus. Although the Cornish hen was a tasty and very interesting combination, the cold lobster summer roll and especially, Joyce’s lobster and scallop dish were the standouts. Our wine was a bottle of New Zealand Spy Valley Pinot Noir.
We found Sunday afternoon music, a singer/guitar player singing 60s/70’s classic rock atop Salt Yard Social’s deck overlooking the harbor, The Old Triangle Irish Alehouse in the mid-evening and Durty Nellies later in the evening. The most popular spot in town, however, featured not music, but IPA (India Pale Ale). The inside tables and large beer garden of the Alexander Keith Brewery was packed the Sunday evening we passed by and the line to get in had more people than were already inside. We passed.
We have stayed twice at the modern, upscale Prince George Hotel and enjoyed its large, comfortable, well-appointed rooms. As we discovered throughout Canada, the staff goes out of its way to help in any way. The location is perfect for exploring the old part of the city and is our go-to spot for Halifax.