As the plane made its final approach for landing in Halifax, I couldn’t believe how green everything was. Not only green, but mostly forested, with not a single road in sight. Ten seconds before we touched down, a street finally appeared!

First impressions

I arrived in Halifax for the first time last Wednesday. Halifax is the capital of Nova Scotia, a small province in Eastern Canada. I didn’t know much about it beforehand, so I had few preconceptions. Of course, being near the Atlantic Ocean, I expected lots of seafood, but not much else. Halifax surprised me.

I always love the first few hours in a new place, when you notice all those little details, things that are new, or different from what you expected.

I had been told that the people here were very friendly, and they didn’t disappoint. Some women whom I asked for directions were very apologetic that they couldn’t help me, and the bus driver from the airport gave me a friendly greeting.

After settling into my AirBnB room in town, I went out to explore the neighbourhood. The city looked very green, with mature trees lining residential streets. With an urban population of only 300,000 I never thought that Halifax would be very multi-cultural. Yet the first food business I saw was an Asian grocery store. This was soon followed by a Chinese restaurant, a sushi place, then Korean and Thai restaurants in quick succession. Was Quinpool Road some sort of “mini-Asia”? The people I saw on that first evening also reflected many cultures. So, although not as multi-ethnic asToronto, Halifax is no white-bread backwater.

I also noticed some unusual street names like Quinpool Road and Chebucto Road (the name of the original native American settlement). The main streets are Barrington and Spring Garden, although you also find the usual British names like Queen, Prince, King, and Duke streets.

The city of Halifax proper is pretty compact. You could probably walk across its length in an hour, and its width in 30 minutes. For this reason, there is no need for a metro, only buses and a ferry service that crosses over to Dartmouth on the other side of the harbour.

Friendly locals

The people of Halifax are called “Haligonians”, a name that wouldn’t be out-of-place in a Star Trek episode. However, the fun-loving locals are much more down to earth. In my first few days here I had several conversations with Haligonians, usually at local pubs while enjoying the sun on a patio. I can’t remember who talked to whom first. They’re so approachable, it didn’t require much of an effort, even for an introvert like me.

On my first day I met two young women while sitting on one of the “swing chairs” on the patio at Gahan House. After they left, an older woman, Elaine, took their place and we also chatted. Incredibly, she ended up buying me a beer and sharing some of her food with me. I was blown away!

Me and my Sugar Maple beer sampler at Garrisson (Halifax)

The following day, I met another couple of young people, Margot and Cody on the terrace at Garrison Brewing Company (a brewery where you can buy $2 beer samples). They were really a lot of fun, just whiling away time on the sunny patio. They gave me a demonstration of “chiac”, a dialect mixing French and English that people speak in parts of New Brunswick. So funny.

Many people here come from New Brunswick, as well as other provinces of Canada, such as Ontario and British Columbia. I’m guessing that the former are looking for a larger more lively city, while the latter seek a less hectic place!

Music is also prominent in the culture here. Students come to study music at Dalhousie University, and many play in local pubs or busk on the street. I saw mostly violinists playing traditional songs, and flutists. Even the traffic lights play a four-note tune, a sound reminiscent of a string instrument.

Let’s eat

Halifax has tons of restaurants. A brochure covering the whole Metropolitan area lists over 500! They seem to have everything here: fish restaurants, Italian, Asian, wine bars, breweries, and unpretentious fine dining establishments. They make chocolate and even produce maple syrup. And to my surprise, Nova Scotia is home to several wineries. (More on this in coming weeks.)

Mussels with garlic butter (Halifax)

On my first night, I found Phil’s Seafood restaurant on Quinpool Road, and had a seafood platter (shrimps, scallops, halibut), fries, spinach salad, and a bottle of Alexander Keith’s beer (local brew), all for less than $22 CAD after tax!

Other things I’ve eaten since I got here are mussels with garlic butter, a lobster roll, a seafood pie, Japanese donburi, and a delicious soup and panini. I had a pulled pork sandwich at Ribfest and some African food at the Multicultural Festival. I’ve tried different beers, a cider, and even Nova Scotian wines. It’s all delicious. I’m getting hungry writing about it. (Read about a food tour I took later that week.)

What to see and do

So, what is there to see and do in pint-size Halifax? A lot as it turns out. Here are some of the things I enjoyed over the last few days, but there is more.

The waterfront boardwalk extends for about three kilometres along the harbour, from the Casino to the Seaport Farmers Market. It is lined with food shacks, elegant restaurants, bar patios, quirky shops, the tourist office, and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. On sunny summer week-ends, hundreds of people are barbecuing and drinking on their boats tied to the docks. It’s quite a sight!

The Seaport Farmers Market is at its most animated on Saturday, and you can sample all sorts of foods, from sausage, to raw pastries, to wine. This is where I got my mini lobster roll ($7). Across the road you’ll find  Garrison Brewing Company, where you can sample different local beers for $2 each. I tried Pucker Up (cranberry and hibiscus) and Sugar Maple among others. That’s right, I like my beers fruity and sweet. 🙂

I found he Maritime Museum of the Atlantic quite interesting, especially the galleries about the Halifax Explosion (1917) and the sinking of the Titanic (1912). One of the Titanic exhibits had an original deck chair from the ill-fated ship. I spent several hours in there on a cold and rainy Sunday.

Further inland the small downtown core, anchored by City Hall and St Paul’s Anglican Church (built in 1750, one year after the founding of Halifax), offers a few more pleasant spots. The Public Gardens are peaceful Victorian gardens with flower beds, trees, a gazebo, a fountain, and statuary, occupying one large city block. It’s a very pleasant place to eat lunch or relax on a warm day.

If the weather turns nasty, one can take refuge in the cubist Public Library nearby and have a coffee in its downstairs coffee shop (or on the rooftop when the weather is nice).

Argyle street is considered the “entertainment district” and consists of two blocks lined with pubs and restaurants. The surrounding streets also offer many dining choices from French, to Japanese, to pubs and fish restaurants.

Here is a summary of 10 free things to do in Halifax.

Since the downtown area is compact, you can walk around and make your own discoveries. I’ve managed to join two walking tours since I arrived: a free walking tour of the centre with music graduate Patrick, and a food tour with Emily of Local Tasting Tours (more details on this one in a future post). Having live guides is always fun as you can ask any questions you have as they occur to you.

Although I’ve only been here for five days, I’ve already attended two festivals: a RibFest, and a Multicultural festival, both happening over the same week-end! And unlike in Toronto, they were busy but not oppressively so.

For a small city, Halifax sure has a lot going on, and I’ll be writing more about it in the weeks to come. Tomorrow I’m going on a day trip to Lunenburg, a colourful fishing village turned tourist town.

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