While the rest of the world is heading to the usual beach and mountain locales for the summer, why not try something … Canadian? Nova Scotia is one of the Atlantic Coast’s most exciting regions thanks to its startling natural beauty, spirited history, blended French and native customs, and Celtic heritage. Oh, and (spoiler alert), it has great swimming. For inspiring and fun, food, and fiddling, take your next summer vacation in Nova Scotia; there’s something for everyone in this hidden gem.
Getting there and around
Fly into Nova Scotia’s Halifax Stanfield International Airport, serviced by Delta, United, and Air Canada, among other major airlines. We recommend renting a car while here as attractions can be relatively far afield and public transportation is limited. Most major rental companies offer service at the airport.
Where to stay
Halifax is Nova Scotia’s main city and a good option for your vacation HQ. In addition to the attractions in Halifax itself, the city is relatively centrally located, making other points of interest in the region reachable within an hour or so by car.
The city has a wealth of accommodation options, including chain hotels such as Four Points by Sheraton Halifax, Courtyard Halifax, and Halifax Marriott Harbourfront Hotel, ranging in price from $80-100 per night. We rather fancy The Haliburton ($110 per night), however, an elegant boutique hotel comprised of three historic townhouses with chic contemporary furnishings, modern amenities, and a solid dining experience onsite courtesy of Stories Fine Dining (see below). If you prefer a vacation home rental, Airbnb has several options available within the city that are suitable for couples and families for comparable, if not less expensive, rates.
All of our recommendations here are within walking distance of Halifax’s historic downtown and happening waterfront, two key areas of interest.
Where to eat
For fine dining with a cozy feel and great service, head to Stories Casual Fine Dining. Start off in the lush private courtyard for a pre-dinner cocktail, then head to the dining room for a Sea Scallop starter (wrapped in rice paper with organic greens and a sesame ginger vinaigrette) and Faroe Islands Salmon with lobster hash, caper, and tomato-tarragon butter.
Want something less formal? For lunch, we love The Bicycle Thief with its Italian-infused menu featuring all your favorites and a wickedly good wine bar. Try the fresh Local Oysters, Iced on the Half Shell or Spaghettini alla Carbonara with smoked pancetta, egg, cracked black pepper, and Parmigiano. Wash it all down with an ice-cold glass of Domaine Millet Chablis.
For a quick bite, your morning Americano, or a full breakfast, head to the Coastal Café. We like the McCoastal (two fried eggs, maple sausage or bacon, and Havarti on a toasted English muffin) – find out why it’s legendary with the locals.
A little background
In the 18th century, Halifax was contested by colonial powerhouses France and Britain. Though the French Acadians had been in the region for close to 100 years, Britain usurped control of the area in 1746 and promptly set up shop. Twenty-five hundred British Protestants were moved in, partly to move the French out, and to take control of area fisheries and other economic resources. A governor’s residence, Anglican Church, wharves, and defense facilities were built within a year. The rest, as we say, is history.
These days, Halifax is a spirited urban center and major regional center for the Canadian economy. It includes one of the world’s largest harbors, a concentration of government offices, private companies, and a handful of universities. Its architecture reflects both its historic past and modern present with majestic Victorian properties, public gardens, 18th-century fortifications, modern high-rises, and portside boardwalks. Art galleries, theaters, museums, and a host of bars and eateries provide for a rich cultural scene and active nightlife.
Places to visit in Halifax
The best way to see the city is by foot. The South Suburb, Schmidtville, and Barrington Street neighborhoods are your best bet for a look at the city’s historic architecture. While you’re at it, catch a performance of Nova Scotia’s traditional folk and fiddle music along the way. We recommend the Carleton Music Bar & Grill, a must-see Halifax musical landmark. A few more of our favorite Halifax stops are listed below.
For a taste of Halifax’s maritime history and foodie scene, check out the Seaport Farmers’ Market, located on the city waterfront. Founded in 1750, the farmers’ market has been operating continuously ever since and is the oldest of its kind in North America. Meander through rows of vendors hawking goods from fresh produce, fresh fish, baked goods, meats, and cheeses to sundries, wine and spirits, and local arts and crafts. Peckish? Check out The Cake Lady for a warm cinnamon roll or Norbert’s Good Food featuring farm-to-table fare for a juicy BLT.
Since the arrival of the British in 1746, four fortifications have been built in succession atop what’s known as Citadel Hill overlooking Halifax. As the city grew, so too did its defensive needs. The present structure was completed in 1856 and is known as Fort George, after Britain’s King George II. Its distinctive star shape provided the garrison shots from nearly every angle, and large canons were positioned across the ramparts. Luckily for us, the site has been lovingly restored and expanded to include several exhibits that appeal to the military history buff and neophyte alike. The Citadel is open most days and admission costs about $9.
If you’re angling for a little time on the beach – and who isn’t in the heat of the summer? – Head over to Crystal Crescent Beach about 15 miles south of Halifax in Sambro Creek. Prepare to be surprised: This isn’t your typical northern Atlantic “beach” with frigid waters and rocks under foot. Crystal Crescent has fine white sand and crystal blue waters, and is just as Insta-worthy as any Hampton shoreline. The beach is well maintained, clean, and regularly sports water temperatures in the mid to high-70s during July and August. Take a day to doze in the sun, frolic in the water, or build a sand replica of Fort George. Restrooms and ample parking are also on hand.
What to do beyond Halifax
Of course, Nova Scotia offers a host of activities outside of those in Halifax. While we can’t mention most of them, we’ve included a few of our favorites that showcase the history and natural beauty of the province. Try these out when you’re ready to go farther afield:
There’s picnicking and then there’s heli-picnicking. For a change of pace, take in the glistening Nova Scotia coastline from the air as you helicopter out from Halifax Harbour to nearby historic Sambro Island. Your personal sommelier will greet you upon landing for a little bubbly, followed by a Canada-themed wine tasting and meal featuring locally-sourced smoked salmon, cured meats, cheeses, and chocolate on the beach.
Sambro Island is essentially a slab of granite in the sea but houses the oldest surviving lighthouse (built in 1758) in the Americas, as well as a host of seabirds, seals, and other wildlife. While sipping on your Canadian vintage, you’ll have time to explore the island, meet the lighthouse steward, and hear about the island’s stories and legends. Heli-picnics last about two hours (including flights to and from Halifax) and are available from July through October for about $374 per person.
Explore historic Lunenburg and its rum-running past
If it were up to us, every vacation in Nova Scotia would include a stop in historic Lunenburg. About 60 miles down the coast from Halifax, the pretty port town was first settled by the French in the early 17th century and later ceded to the British in 1713 as part of the ongoing military conflicts between the two nations.
Long a site for coastal trade and fishing, the town has a colorful history, including sustaining raids from colonial privateers during the American Revolution and serving as a rum-running base for the United States during Prohibition (1920-1933). Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, the Lunenburg Old Town retains much of its 18th century layout and appearance and is considered the best example of a planned British colonial settlement in North America.
While you can just show up, park, and enjoy a jaunt around the brightly-hued vernacular architecture, we recommend the Lunenburg Distilled: A Culinary Adventure tour, which includes a guided walk led by an eighth-generation Lunenburger, a boat tour of the Lunenburg seafront — including a stop at a floating rum warehouse — a visit to the Ironworks Distillery, rum and local cuisine tastings, and a fresh seafood dinner aboard the historic schooner, the Teresa E. Connor. The tour goes from 4-9pm on Wednesdays and costs about $295 per person. For more on Lunenburg, go here.
Experience the tides at the Bay of Fundy
On Nova Scotia’s north coast, 160 billion tons of sea water flows in and out of the Bay of Fundy twice a day. (That’s a tidal change every six hours.) At about 50 feet, the tidal range (from high to low tide) is the greatest in the world, and a natural wonder you can’t witness anywhere else. When the tide recedes, you are able to walk as far as half a mile out on the tidal flats that hours before were under water.
There are several spots to experience the tides, but we recommend Burntcoat Head Park in Noel, about 60 miles north of Halifax. There, you can explore the area and tidal flats on your own or take a guided tour ($14); enjoy a picnic lunch (stop off at Frieze and Roy General Store to grab a few sandwiches); or drop by the lighthouse for a chat with the staff about local wildlife.
Pro tip: The ocean floor is really muddy, so bring appropriate footwear. Also, plan to stay in the area for at least six hours to see the full tidal change. Tide tables can be found here.
Of course, we are only just scratching the surface here – there is much to see and do in this neck of the woods. For more on how to plan your vacation to Nova Scotia, visit Nova Scotia’s tourism site.