It has become a cliché in these parts that every second building in Halifax is a church, and every one in between is a bar.
Thanks to the city's history, deeply rooted in its role as the British Empire's main naval centre for two centuries, Halifax has the rogue's reputation with which most port cities are blessed.
Happily for those who like to partake, the bar-church-bar cliché is not too far from the truth. Also happily, it is not the whole truth.
As one of Canada's most alluring summer-vacation destinations, Halifax offers the best of the dark and dim indoors -- it has the second-most bars per capita of any city in Canada after St. John's -- and the best of the expansive, breathtaking outdoors, with pretty parks and beautiful beaches. No matter where you are in Nova Scotia, you are never far from the ocean.
Halifax in the summer is arguably one of the most idyllic places in Canada: not too hot in the day, cool enough at night to be perfect for strolling and sleeping, rarely humid, but with enough rain to keep nature green and blossoming.
But it's also a destination with unpredictable weather. Even in summertime, visitors to Atlantic Canada's largest city might experience three seasons in one day. Bring a rain slicker and some duck boots for wet days, a sweater for the pleasantly fresh evenings, and your shorts and bathing suit for trips to the sun and sand just outside the city limits.
And when it does rain, well, there are always those pubs to duck into.
Raising a glass
There is perhaps no more perfect pub experience in Halifax than the Lower Deck, nestled in the Historic Properties, down on the waterfront. Celtic bands are regularly on stage here, and the lively Maritime sea shanties and traditional folk tunes are great motivators for hunkering down and ordering a Keith's, Moosehead, Alpine or another of the Maritime brews.
There are plenty of fine local microbrews on tap as well, including Propeller and Garrison.
It can be elbow to elbow in the Lower Deck on weekend evenings and even during the afternoons, but the locals are welcoming and friendly.
There are many other possibilities within stumbling distance of the Lower Deck, all with great character (and great characters). Wander into O'Carroll's, the Old Triangle or the Split Crow at almost any time in the afternoon or evening and you will be treated to live music. It may not all be superb, but is likely to be delivered with foot-stomping enthusiasm. It's definitely worth a night out on the town to hear renditions of Stan Rogers' Barrett's Privateers in all its variations, from punk to reggae to traditional.
Those interested in picking up an instrument to continue the Maritime sound back home might want to visit the Halifax Folklore Centre on Brunswick Street. It's a treasure trove of new and used instruments, vintage guitars and violins, harps, banjos, bodhrans, fiddles and tin whistles. In town for a while? Sign up for a lesson or two and take the music of the Ceilidh -- the traditional Celtic kitchen party -- home with you.
If the Celtic music gets to all sound the same after a few days -- and how many times can you sing along to Farewell To Nova Scotia before you actually do say goodbye -- the city that spawned popular alternative rock band Sloan is still visited by plenty of non-Maritime musical acts.
Although the alt-rock scene is not what it was in the Nirvana-led '90s, the city's premier music club, The Marquee on Gottingen Street, still draws quality club acts and offers homegrown talent as well.
Culture and history
As home to the world-renowned Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax has no shortage of funky galleries and museums that celebrate local history.
Start with a tour of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia on Hollis Street, housing more than 2,000 works. Rotating exhibits are anchored by permanent collections from Atlantic Canadian artists such as Mary Pratt and Alex Colville, as well as regional folk art. Some of the best arts and crafts in Nova Scotia can be found for purchase in the AGNS gift shop.
The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, a prominent part of the city's vital and vibrant waterfront area on Lower Water Street, is a particular treat. Exhibits include Titanic artifacts and a display detailing shipwrecks of Nova Scotia. Outside are impressive and historic vessels that can be toured as part of your admission to the museum.
Even though everyone knows the city's most obvious landmark, Citadel Hill, it would be a shame to pass up a visit to this national historical site.
The top of the hill affords visitors a terrific view of the harbour, and the star-shaped fortress can be explored. In the summer, military demonstrations and bagpiping are offered daily. Don't be alarmed by the daily firing of the noon cannon. It's a tradition, and you will get used to it.
Places to stay
Halifax offers a good choice of both plush inns and affordable hotels. The Waverley Inn on Barrington Street falls into the former category. It has provided lodging to Oscar Wilde and P.T. Barnum, and the Victorian stylings make for comfortable surroundings. Rates are $95 to $125 a night and include breakfast.
The Halliburton House Inn on Morris Street is another heritage property worth checking out. Rooms start at $110.
Both the Waverley and Halliburton are located close to downtown and the waterfront but are far enough away from the bustle of downtown to be quiet and relaxing.
If a proper hotel is more to your liking, The Lord Nelson, built in the 1920s and recently renovated, offers a gorgeous view of the public gardens from one side and the downtown and harbour from the other. It is the choice of royalty and film stars when they visit Halifax. The Westin Nova Scotian, slightly out of the way at the far end of Hollis Street away from the waterfront, has been beautifully renovated. If you want to be in the centre of the action, the Delta Barrington is well located, but it can be a little noisy when the pubs let out.
Supping on seafood
It's no surprise that the cornerstone of the restaurant scene is seafood, seafood and more seafood. The Five Fishermen is housed in a gorgeous historic building erected in 1816. In addition to its 68 delectable dishes (start with the baked oysters), it offers all the free mussels you can eat. The lobster is top-notch, and the seafood chowder a meal in itself. The service is friendly but not smothering, and the price tag won't sink you.
The Press Gang, located in one of the city's oldest buildings on Prince Street, is a jewel. Cozy and dark, it is named in honour of the British practice of "pressing" navel recruits into service after getting them drunk to gain their consent. Halifax has become Hollywood Northeast over the past few years. Movies such as K-19: The Widowmaker, The Shipping News and The Weight of Water have filmed here, and Kevin Spacey, Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson and novelist John Irving have all frequented the Press Gang. A comfortable bar and a piano player make this a perfect spot to either settle in for the night or get the evening started. The menu is good to excellent, and the beer and wine selection superb. The fresh Digby scallops are soft and succulent, and if you're not in the mood for seafood, there's always the Kobe beef, which melts in your mouth.
If you're game for a pretty 15-minute drive out of the city, the Esquire -- an unimpressive looking shack on the Bedford Highway -- serves up some of the tastiest chowder in the area.
About five kilometres up the highway, in the heart of cheerful, pretty little Bedford, is another local legend, the Chickenburger, a family-run establishment that's not fancy but will make you feel like a local. It's a great place to take children.
The Hydrostone Market, named after the concrete blocks used to rebuild the north end of the city after the infamous Halifax Explosion of 1917, is an out-of-the-way gem that most tourists would never stumble upon without direction. The market itself is small -- just a single city block long -- but it has a European feel and offers nice folk art, welcoming patios and the best pizza in the city, at Salvatore's Pizzaiolo Trattoria on Young Street near the Oland Brewery.
Among the more expensive options (but worth it) is Da Maurizio's, located in the Brewery Market on Lower Water Street. With its excellent wine list and an array of appetizers and pastas, Da Maurizio's, owned by chef Maurizio Bertossi, is regarded by locals as one of the best establishments in town.
Also in the pricier category, but well worth the trip, is Bacchus. Don't be put off by the fact that this quiet, graceful restaurant is located in the Casino Nova Scotia, on Upper Water Street. If you can bear the walk through the slots, Bacchus, which is soundproofed from the constant cha-ching, is a tasteful hideaway from the madness.
Maple Bistro & Wine on Granville Street is another good choice. It is not as expensive as it was when if opened about four years ago, but the food, described as Canadian cuisine, remains as consistently good as it ever was. The Italian trattoria Il Mercato, on Spring Garden Road, is owned by the same crew that runs Da Maurizio's, and while the food is still fine the prices are much lower.
Two more downmarket experiences that are loved by Haligonians and should not be missed are the Bud The Spud chip wagon on Spring Garden Road, and a dish of deep fried pepperoni at The Midtown Tavern on Grafton Street.
So much of Halifax is about the rugged, eye-popping landscapes that grace picture postcards. Nova Scotia has 7,600 kilometres of accessible coastline and the highest recorded tides in the world in the Bay of Fundy. And even close to Halifax, there is no shortage of white sand beaches and challenging hiking trails. Considering that you could effortlessly fit four times the entire population of the province -- 941,000 -- into the Greater Toronto Area, there's plenty of room to roam in Nova Scotia's nearly 56,000 square kilometres.
But here, the ocean is the thing.
Lawrencetown Beach is where the surfers hang out, and the swells get more impressive as summer wears into fall. If you decide to visit in the winter, plan to rent a board and a wet suit, as Lawrencetown boasts some of the best winter surfing in the world.
Crystal Crescent Beach, about a half-hour's drive south of Halifax off Highway 349, is widely appreciated as the favourite beach of Haligonians. The sand is fine and soft, and as the beach tends to get crowded in the summertime, the people watching can be quite entertaining. The only drawback is that the water stays quite cold until mid-August. It is not one of the area's warmer spots to dip your toes in the ocean. Crystal Crescent offers many nooks and crannies, including one that has become popular with nude sunbathers over the years. It is not legal, however, to doff your duds, so watch out for the authorities should you choose to defy the law.
For warmer waters, Martinique Beach Provincial Park is the place to go. Located on the Eastern Shore, about five kilometres south of Musquodoboit Harbour, the ocean here warms up sooner and faster than any other place in the province. And though it is never what visitors might consider comfortable, it provides a refreshing dip, and kids don't seem to mind. Or head just a little farther east to Clam Harbour, a gorgeous white-sand beach perfect for sandcastle sculpting.
Right in the city there are plenty of gorgeous outdoor spots. Start with the Public Gardens, a botanical oasis smack in the centre of Halifax. Opened in 1866, its seven hectares provide one of the best examples of a formal Victorian garden. Ducks and swans make their homes here year-round, among the ponds, fountains, roses and magnolias and, in June, thousands upon thousands of tulips. The main entrance is on the corner of Spring Garden Road and South Park Street, and it is open from dawn until dusk. It is one of the most relaxing places in the city to spend an hour or two. In-line skaters and runners are not permitted. Point Pleasant Park is certainly not a secret. As one of the few parks where dog owners are permitted to let their pets run free, its trails tend to be packed on the weekends. But if you go early in the morning, or in midweek, you will find the 75 hectares and 40 kilometres of trails on the tip of the peninsula a tranquil escape from the city. The old gun batteries, dating from the era when the park served as a military post, still stand near the entrance, and many of the trails hug the harbour.
Sit on the rocks, let the ocean spray refresh, and take in the wildlife. If you are lucky you will see seals frolicking. If you are a runner, cruise along the soft dirt trails with the ocean on one side and the forest on the other. The park is surrounded on three sides by ocean. A bit of local lore: The park still belongs to the British government, which has leased it to the city for 999 years for about 10 cents a year. It's the best bargain in the city.
McNab Island, located at the mouth of the Halifax Harbour, is one of the city's best-kept secrets. With seven kilometres of hiking trails, the island is often sparsely populated with tourists. Summer ferry service is available from Cable Wharf in downtown Halifax. It takes about 20 minutes and costs $9.95. Bird-watchers will be in their glory. The island is heavily populated with ospreys. A word of caution: There is no fresh water on the island, so bring your own.
No one comes to Nova Scotia with the idea of spending all of their time in Halifax. As many ways as there are to pass the time in the city, there are several shorts trips that should not be passed up.
Peggys Cove, the most photographed tourist destination in the country and arguably the most picturesque, is a 45-minute drive south along Highway 333, which hugs St. Margarets Bay.
To avoid the crush of tourists -- more than 100,000 visit each year -- head there early in the morning and watch a spectacular sunrise, see the famous lighthouse and send a postcard home. (The lighthouse doubles as a post office in the summer.)
Along the bay in the opposite direction, a half-hour from the city, an old-fashioned traditional Nova Scotia lobster supper beckons at the Shore Club in Hubbards (Exit 6 off Route 103). The supper, which has been offered since 1936, takes place Wednesdays through Sundays, from 4 to 7:30 p.m., and runs through Sept. 28.
However you choose to spend your time in Halifax and the nearby area, you are guaranteed a trip to a destination that, with its excellent restaurants, museums and galleries, has the feel of a cosmopolitan city but whose lush green space and unabashed friendliness give it the pace and feel of a small town.
WHERE TO STAY
Waverley Inn: 1266 Barrington St.; (902) 423-9346; or visit .
Halliburton House Inn: 5184 Morris St.; (902) 420-0658; or visit .
Westin Nova Scotian: 1181 Hollis St.; (902) 421-1000; or visit .
Lord Nelson Hotel: 1515 Park St.; (800) 565-2020. Kings College: 6350 Coburg Rd.; (902) 422-1271; .
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Five Fishermen: 1740 Argyle St.; (902) 422-4421; or visit .
The Press Gang: 5218 Prince St.; (902) 423-8816.
McKelvie's: 1680 Lower Water St.; (902) 421-6161.
Il Mercato: 5475 Spring Garden Rd.; (902) 422-2866.
The Harbourside Market: At the Historic Properties and Upper Water Street.
Curry Village: 5677 Brenton Place; (902) 429-5010.
Bacchus: 1983 Upper Water St.; (902) 423-9463.
Chives Canadian Bistro: 1537 Barrington St.; (902) 420-9626; .
Da Maurizio's: 1496 Lower Water St.; (902) 423-0859.
Maple Bistro & Wine Bar: 1813 Granville St.; (902) 425-9100.
The Granite Brewery: 1222 Barrington St.; (902) 423-5660; or visit .
The Bitter End: 1572 Argyle St.; (902) 425-3039.
WHERE TO HIKE
Black Duck Cove and Chapel Gully: 3.5 km and 4.5 km, respectively; hiking time is one to two hours.
Guysborough Nature Trail: 33 km; hiking time is 10-12 hours.
White Lake Wilderness Trail: 17 km; hiking time is seven to nine hours.
McNabs Island: 7 km; hiking time is two to three hours.
Liscomb River: 9.5 km; hiking time is three to four hours.
Taylor Head Provincial Park: 18 km; hiking time is six to seven hours.
Beachville, Lakeside and Timberlea Trail: 19 km; hiking time is five to six hours.
Salmon River: 12 km; hiking time is four to five hours.
WHERE TO HANG OUT
The Lower Deck: Historic Properties, Lower Water Street; (902) 425-1501.
Split Crow Pub: 1855 Granville St.; (902) 422-4366
The Old Triangle Irish Alehouse: 5136 Prince St.; (902) 492-4900.
The Midtown Tavern and Grill: 1684 Grafton St.; (902) 422-5213.
Your Father's Moustache: 5686 Spring Garden Rd.; (902) 423-6766.
The Economy Shoe Shop: 1663 Argyle St.; (902) 423-7463.
O'Carroll's: 1860 Upper Water St.; (902) 423-4405.
WHERE TO SHOP
The Book Room: 1546 Barrington St.; (902) 423-8271.
Schooner Books: 5378 Inglis St.; (902) 423-8419.
Nova Scotian Crystal: 5080 George St.; (902) 492-0416; or visit .
Bogside Gallery: In the Hydrostone Market, 5527 Young St.; (902) 453-3063.
Clearwater Seafood: 757 Bedford Highway; (902) 443-0333; .
The Halifax Folklore Centre: 1528 Brunswick St.; (902) 422-6350
Tourism Halifax: phone: (902) 490-5946; .
Tourism Nova Scotia: phone: (902) 424-4248; explore.gov.ns.ca.