Halifax, Nova Scotia's capital city (population: 390,000) and the gateway to Atlantic Canada, has numerous identities. Home to the second-largest natural harbor in the world, it draws a major share of Canada's container trade and oodles of cruise ship visits in the late summer and early fall. A few streets inland, there are many sights to take in, and while gorgeous coastal scenery begins just outside the city limits, especially during the spectacular autumn foliage displays, the waterfront is also a delight to explore.
Halifax also has a strong connection to the sinking of the Titanic since it played a key role during the aftermath of the tragedy. Three of the city's ships were sent out to recover bodies, and so it is the final resting place for many unclaimed victims. In fact, three cemeteries throughout Halifax feature rows of black granite headstones, each inscribed with the same date: April 15, 1912.
But beyond the scenery and history, Halifax is just plain fun. It's a youthful, energetic town, home to several colleges and universities, that boasts a downtown area chock-full of pubs, clubs and cafes, as well as a restored waterfront that once welcomed traders and privateers. Throughout the year, you can enjoy music festivals, outdoor concerts and even old-fashioned Celtic Ceilidhs (read: lively folk dances, often accompanied by fiddle).
It's this rich culture that has boosted the Canada and New England region's cruise popularity. (The fact that Halifax is easy to include on short four- or five-day Canadian itineraries is also a draw.) Annually, Halifax hosts more than 130 ship visits between early May and late October from lines that include Carnival, Celebrity, Crystal, Cunard, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, Royal Caribbean and Seabourn.
Halifax's picturesque waterfront is easy to explore on foot. Even if you're not in the mood to shop, stroll the boardwalk that zigzags along the harbor, lined with shops, restaurants and attractions. Historic Properties at Privateers Wharf is located directly on the boardwalk and is made up of a collection of boutiques, impulse eateries and pubs housed in 10 wood and stone buildings dating back to the early 1800s.
Don't miss the chance to snack on fried fish sandwiches from the wooden food stand near the Maritime Museum. Rum Runners Rum Cake Factory is another mainstay on the boardwalk at Bishop's Landing.There, you'll also find Sugah!, a candy shop that sells prepackaged treats, as well as the store's own brand of chocolates, candy bars with interesting flavor combinations, and other confections like trail mix and chocolate-covered blueberries.
Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market: This sprawling market, a Halifax staple for more than five decades, welcomes cruise passengers as they disembark, offering food, arts and crafts, local wines and souvenirs galore, all provided by local vendors. You'll want to come hungry; you can find cuisine that ranges from Jamaican and Mediterranean to Asian, surrounded by stalls that sell fresh fruits, vegetables and seafood. It's also a great place to escape inclement weather, find clean bathrooms or simply relax with free Wi-Fi at the end of a hectic day. (1209 Marginal Road; open daily)
Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21: The immigration museum is located just steps from where you'll disembark. In operation from 1928 to 1971, the depot received 1.5 million immigrants, returning soldiers, war brides and displaced children. (In fact, one in five Canadians can trace his or her roots to Pier 21.) You can take in video and audio accounts of why people settled in Canada, how they fared and how young children were sent to Canada to escape the wartime bombings in England. A film version of a stage performance shows the arrival home of a troopship with anxious brides, some with children in tow, waiting to greet their husbands after an absence of several years. Guided tours are available every hour, on the half-hour. It will take you anywhere from 40 minutes to three hours to explore the museum, depending on your pace. (open seven days a week, May 1 to October 31 from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.)
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia: Visitors will find this gallery in the heart of downtown Halifax. The 9,000 works in the collection include historic and contemporary Nova Scotian, Canadian and international art, as well as an acclaimed collection of folk art. (1723 Hollis Street; 902-424-5280; daily tours Wednesday to Sunday at 2:30 p.m. and Thursday at 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.; open Wednesday to Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., with free extended hours from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursdays; Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic: If you're strolling along the waterfront, be sure to visit the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, the marine history division of the Nova Scotia Museum (a family of 12 museums operated by the province). The main attraction is an exhibit dedicated to the sinking of Titanic, where you can view an actual deck chair from the ship -- one of a few in the world still intact. Other Titanic artifacts are housed there, as well, including oak molding from the forward first-class staircase. Other major exhibits are the beautiful passenger ship models and a section dedicated to the Halifax Explosion that devastated the city during World War I when Mont Blanc, a munitions ship, blew up, killing 1,600 people and wounding 900; it's said that the blast rattled windows as far as 60 miles away. (Significant medical assistance came from Boston, and every year, to show its gratitude, Halifax sends a Christmas tree to Boston's Prudential Square and pays to light it.) Outside, you can climb aboard the CSS Acadia, Canada's first hydrographic ship, and the convoy escort corvette HMCS Sackville. (1675 Lower Water Street; 902-424-749; open daily, June to September, from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Tuesday extended to 8 p.m.)
Titanic Gravesites: After the Titanic sank, survivors still needed to get to their destinations, so they were brought to Halifax, the closest major seaport with access to a rail system. Ships also brought the bodies of some victims, many of which were buried in Fairview Lawn Cemetery. More than 120 graves can be seen at Fairview, while 19 are at Mount Olivet Cemetery.
Province House: Nova Scotia boasts some of the nation's earliest civic buildings, and Halifax's Province House, opened in 1819, is by far the oldest. Most notably, Province House is where provincial legislature meets, but the building is also of architectural interest. Writer Charles Dickens called Province House "a gem of Georgian architecture." (1726 Hollis Street; 902-424-4661; open July to August, weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., weekends 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; September to June, weekdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
Halifax Public Gardens: The Halifax Public Gardens, which date back to the mid-19th century, measures an impressive 17 acres and is enclosed by an ornamental, wrought-iron gate. Flora and fauna, statues and fountains, and a gingerbread-house-like bandstand grace this popular tourist attraction. Free public summer concerts take place at the gazebo. (1606 Bell Road, 902-423-9865)
Dartmouth: Take the Halifax-Dartmouth Ferry across the harbor to Dartmouth. The 395-passenger double-ended ferries leave every 15 to 30 minutes, depending on time of day, for the 12-miniute crossing. Dartmouth is a small, residential city, perfect for escaping the touristy crowds. The World Peace Pavilion, located near the ferry terminal, is a great attraction for families, serving as a learning activity for geography, history and social studies; a chunk of the Berlin wall is kept there, as well as a piece of the Great Wall of China. (open during sunlight hours; free admission)
Interesting factoid: The Halifax-Dartmouth Ferry is actually the oldest continuous (255 years) saltwater passenger ferry service in North America.
Halifax Citadel: Get your military history at the Halifax Citadel, a fort built in 1749. It's a steep climb up from the waterfront, but the view of the surrounding city and the vast harbor is well worth the effort. There are marching guards, and a cannon sounds every day at noon, a 200-year-old tradition. On a hill, just in front of the Citadel, you'll find the Halifax Town Clock. It was given to the city by Prince Edward, Duke of Kent. (Our tour guide told us he was often irked by the tendency of Halifax residents to be late everywhere they went, so the giant clock was a bit of a dig.)
St. Paul's Church: On the way up to the citadel via either George or Prince Streets, visit St. Paul's Church, Canada's oldest Protestant church, built in 1749 and shipped from Boston.
Alexander Keith's Brewery: Interested in local spirits... the imbibable kind, that is? Just a few blocks from the waterfront is the historic Alexander Keith's Brewery, which began producing a variety of local beers in 1820. Guides in period costume lead visitors through the brewery and, of course, you can enjoy a few samples along the way. During the summer, one-hour tours begin every 30 minutes. (Monday to Saturday noon to 8 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m.)
Peggy's Cove: Plan a day trip to Peggy's Cove, a rustic fishing village located on an ocean inlet and known for its dramatic lighthouse. Peggy's Cove is about a 30-minute drive southwest of Halifax, so your best bets are to rent a car or book an excursion.
Lunenburg: Check out Lunenburg, a waterfront village that's a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the town was founded in 1753. Lunenburg is about a 57-mile drive southwest of Halifax and features a number of activities for lovers of the great outdoors, including campgrounds, golf courses and sandy beaches. You pass through pretty seaside Mahone Bay on the way.
Bay of Fundy: Rent a car, and drive to one of the quaint fishing villages alongside the Bay of Fundy (such as Hall's Harbour). No catch? No problem: Lobster restaurants abound.
The main waterfront attractions begin at the start of the boardwalk and continue on for the next three quarters of a mile. Taxis line up outside the terminal. Alamo (800-462-5266) and National (800-227-7368) have reservation desks down the street from the Westin Nova Scotian hotel, a large red-brick building, just five minutes from your ship on foot.
Car rentals are not available at the piers. If you want something more active, a short stroll down the boardwalk brings you to a bike rental stand, where, for $9 an hour or $25 for a half-day, you can grab a bike and pedal your way around the city. A Segway tour stand is also nearby.
Lots of lunch options are available in Halifax, from cheap and delicious fish and chips out of a wooden shack to upscale dining. While seafood is the city's specialty, you'll also find a variety of other choices.
Cheelin Express: Located inside the Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market, this stand serves delicious and reasonably priced Asian cuisine. Try the spring rolls and any of the noodle dishes. (1209 Marginal Road; open Tuesday to Sunday)
Wrap So D: Also found at the Halifax Seaport Farmer's Market, Wrap So D offers made-to-order wraps that are out of this world. We highly recommend the breakfast wraps. Owner and operator Chef Darren Poirier was wonderfully accommodating when we requested something special that wasn't on the menu. (1209 Marginal Road; open Tuesday to Sunday)
The Five Fishermen: For a selection of tasty seafood dishes in an upscale atmosphere, try The Five Fishermen. Menu items include grilled salmon, lobster tacos, sirloin burgers and -- our pick -- lobster linguine, among many others. (1740 Argyle Street; open for lunch Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; 902-422-4421)
Great Wall Restaurant: Try this option for Szechuan and Cantonese cuisine. (1649 Bedford Row; open daily from 11:30 a.m.)
Waterfront Warehouse: A seafood-lover's dream, this venue offers a variety of fresh-from-the-sea fare like lobster, fish tacos and clams. (1549 Lower Water Street; open Monday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Cafe Chianti: Try Italian and Eastern European fare in an Old World setting; the restaurant also boasts its own wine cellar with a fine selection of rare vintage wines. (1241 Barrington Street; lunch served from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.)
Steve-O-Reno's: If you're in the mood for something light, refreshing and healthy, head to Steve-O-Reno's in the Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market. You'll find an impressive variety of specialty coffees and smoothies. The banana, mango and pineapple smoothie had our mouths watering. (1209 Marginal Road; open Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
As you should in any port of call, leave unnecessary valuables and cash in your stateroom's safe. Halifax is a friendly place, but it's helpful to stay alert, particularly if you're not familiar with the area. Also, be aware that weather can change frequently -- from chilly one minute to warm the next. It's often breezy, too; dress in layers.
The currency in Halifax is the Canadian dollar, but most shops will accept American dollars. If you don't want to risk it, you'll find an ATM at nearby Pier 21, at the immigration museum and at Java Cafe, across from Pier 20. For the most updated currency conversions, visit www.xe.com or www.oanda.com.
The vast majority of Haligonians speak English, but a smattering of folks also speaks French.
Some of the finest crystal in the world is made in Nova Scotia. Pick up a mouth-blown, hand-cut piece at Nova Scotian Crystal on the boardwalk.
If it's an adult beverage you're craving, not to worry: Halifax has more pubs and bars, per capita, than any other city in Canada. Be sure to try any of Alexander Keith's beers; they're made right in town, and they're delicious.