When Paul MacKinnon has business colleagues visiting him in Halifax, he has a long list of short trips to help explore the city between meetings.
“One of the biggest advantages we have as a downtown is how compact we are,” the executive director of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission says. “You can pretty well walk anywhere you want to go.”
For shopping, he recommends browsing boutique shops on Barrington Street until it meets Spring Garden Road, and then heading up Halifax’s busiest retail district, checking out independent coffee houses and neighbourhood pubs en route.
“We don’t have a ton of chains downtown, which sometimes people don’t like, but I think it’s a real strength. If someone’s here from Toronto, how excited are they going to be about a Banana Republic? But if they see a Freak Lunchbox, that’s going to be very different for them,” Mr. MacKinnon says, referring to the retro candy and toy shop at 1723 Barrington Street.
While Europeans may not get lost in the mists of Halifax’s historical offerings, visitors from the rest of Canada and the U.S. will find plenty to discover. In the centre of Halifax, the Parade Square dates back to the city’s founding in 1749, as does St. Paul’s Anglican Church, making it the oldest Protestant place of worship in Canada. It’s also got a ghostly silhouette in one of its windows, said to be the un-erasable remains of a man killed in the 1917 Halifax Explosion.
Mr. MacKinnon also sends visitors to the Old Burying Ground at the corner of Barrington and Spring Garden. It’s the final resting place of 12,000 citizens of Halifax. Among the bones are the remains of Major General Robert Ross, the man who burned Washington in 1814, forcing Americans to paint the president’s house its famous white.
Halifax was built as a fort and the Citadel still dominates the city. Visitors can drink in the views from the hill or step inside to get a sense of Halifax’s glory days of war.
Patricia Lyall, president of the tourism body Destination Halifax, suggests starting with a long walk on the boardwalk if the sun is still up. At one end is Casino Nova Scotia and about four kilometres later is the interactive Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. The museum, sometimes referred to as Canada’s Ellis Island, shows Halifax’s history of newcomers and helps visitors dig into their own roots.
“I’ve heard where people have almost gotten lost in memories,” she says. “With very limited information, they can find that thread that unravels something they didn’t know before. It’s exciting news to take home.”
The waterfront Maritime Museum of the Atlantic boasts a collection of artifacts from the Titanic, and an in-depth display on the Halifax Explosion.
For high arts, Ms. Lyall recommends Symphony Nova Scotia and Neptune Theatre. To find out what concerts or shows are currently on, ask your hotel’s concierge – or download Destination Halifax’s new Mobile Concierge. The app is free at Destinationhalifax.com.
“Business travellers don’t necessarily know what free time, if any, they’re going to have in advance. It’s more spur-of-the-moment planning when a meeting ends early,” Ms. Lyall says. “They want to know what’s easy to do within an hour or two.”
The always-updated Mobile Concierge will tell you what’s going on and where.
For a less formal evening, the Metro Centre is home to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Halifax Mooseheads and the upstart National Basketball League’s Halifax Rainmen.
“We find that’s an interesting thing for business people who may be travelling alone,” Ms. Lyall says. “Going to a sporting event is very comfortable to do on your own.”
If you’re travelling in a group, the Grafton Street Dinner Theatre or Halifax Feast Dinner Theatre offer a decent meal and a show. And The Black Cultural Centre, which is about a 20-minute drive from downtown Halifax, has an in-depth exploration of the African Nova Scotian experience.
Time spent in Halifax is infused with the moody, broody Atlantic Ocean. The Tall Ship Silva, the Harbour Queen and the Harbour Hopper will all get you out on the water. The Tall Ship Silva (a schooner) makes daily excursions, sailing past the harbour islands and offering outstanding views of the city. The Harbour Hopper is an amphibious machine that once fought in Vietnam, but now drives tourists around the city before splashing into the harbour. The Harbour Queen offers dining cruises on Friday and Saturday evenings. If you want a more local harbour tour, hop on the ferry to Dartmouth for just $2.75. The short crossing is immensely fun and you might spot a seal, or even a leatherback sea turtle. If you’ve got a few hours, you can take a seasonal boat down the shoreline to the celebrated and scenic Peggys Cove lighthouse.
For casual drinks and dinner, Halifax is staggering with Irish-inspired pubs such as Durty Nelly’s, the Old Triangle and the legendary Lower Deck. Durty Nelly’s claims to be the city’s only authentic Irish pub, as the owners had the bar and furniture shipped over from the Emerald Isle.
For a sample of seafood, Salty’s on the waterfront and the classic Five Fishermen Restaurant and Grill are two of Halifax’s top spots. The Hart & Thistle in the Historic Properties is fairly new and not overflowing with ambience, but it does sit on the harbour and the superb view makes it a great spot to dine alone.
Ms. Lyall says a big part of the Halifax experience is wandering the waterfront, window shopping and getting a taste of nature at the seasonal Public Gardens or the year-round Point Pleasant Park.
“Even in the winter, walking through the streets of the city when it’s crisp and everything’s got a little touch of frost on it – it’s absolutely spectacular,” she says.
Another perennial favourite is a brewery tour at Alexander Keith’s or Garrison Brewing. Keith’s, the granddaddy of Nova Scotia breweries, has been sousing Nova Scotians since 1863.
Actors in period costumes take visitors back in time and back through the brewery. As is often the case in Halifax, it ends up in the pub sampling Keith’s finest brews.
Special to The Globe and Mail
After work hours
5 p.m. Right after your last meeting of the day, Explore Pier 21. You won’t have long before it closes on a weekday, but it’s worth it. The interactive museum tells a big part of Canada’s story – and you might just find out more of your own family history.
6 p.m. Browse the shops on Barrington Street and Spring Garden Road before dinner. Halifax’s chain stores congregate in business parks outside of town. In the city centre, it’s quirky, independent shops as far as the eye can see.
6:30 p.m. Dinner at the Five Fishermen. Nova Scotia is Canada’s Ocean Playground and this is one of the best places to sample its seafood.
8:30 p.m. Stroll the boardwalk: One of Canada’s longest boardwalks takes you from Casino Nova Scotia to Pier 21, passing museums, shops, public art, pubs and more.
10 p.m. Drinks at the Old Triangle: Halifax was born a military town and baptized with alcohol. The Old Triangle isn’t actually all that old, but it carries on the spirit of lively watering holes.