Canadians are a friendly bunch; in fact according to Twitter analysis (so it must be true) Canucks are the nicest people in the world. And Canada’s friendliest city? Halifax, says a recent poll, which placed the Nova Scotian capital among the fifteen friendliest on the planet. Another confirms it’s one of the world’s least snobby.
It’s certainly true that in Halifax, whoever you are, it won’t take long for a stranger to strike up a conversation. So what makes Haligonians feel so good about their hometown, and why is it such a welcoming place to visit? Clue: it’s not the weather – although sultry days can linger right up to October and by and large the Maritimes escape the harshness of the Canadian winter.
Here are five reasons why a trip to Halifax will put a smile on your face.
Green, walkable and easy to cycle around, with a low-rise, small-town feel, Halifax is beginning to lure big-city deserters in their droves, drawn by cheap rents and a growing reputation for its tech start-up scene. Combined with a burgeoning student population – the city has no fewer than six universities (the most prestigious, Dalhousie, is celebrating its two-hundredth anniversary this year) – Nova Scotia’s Celtic roots and the best music scene in the east, and you have a recipe for a lively night out.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the city’s drinking culture, as a night in the buzzing pubs of the newly polished-up Argyle and Grafton district will prove: if you haven’t ended up with a 3am donair on Pizza Corner then you haven’t been to Halifax. And while the city narrowly loses out to St John’s, Newfoundland, for the boozy title of most pubs per capita, it’s the only one in Canada where even the lampposts are drunk: down on the waterfront, a pair of apparently sozzled sculptures, entitled Fountain and Get Drunk, Fall Down, nod to one of the city’s favourite pastimes.
With the deep blue of the Atlantic visible from almost every vantage point, Halifax is not a city for aquaphobics. Two days closer to Europe by ship than any other North American port, the city came to prominence by virtue of having the second deepest natural harbour in the world. And like all the friendliest metropolises, from Sydney to Liverpool, its deep-rooted seafaring history defines its identity.
Waste no time in filling your lungs with the fresh, salty air of the breezy waterfront Boardwalk, a pretty 3km stroll peppered with attractions like the Maritime Museum, where the Titanic exhibition is invariably swollen – apparently without irony – with cruise ship passengers wandering in from the nearby terminal.
Midway along the Boardwalk is the ferry port for leafy Dartmouth, Halifax’s blue-collar sister town: with its superb panoramic views of the city’s waterfront, the zippy commuter crossing is the best-value Can$2.50 you’ll spend in town. Right above the ferry terminal, The Wooden Monkey’s open terrace is the ideal place to survey the scene at sunset – though you might also make time for a quick tour of Dartmouth’s infectiously cheery Happy Face Museum.
For decades in the last century, Halifax’s Pier 21 was Canada’s principal arrival point: between 1928 and 1971, by which time air travel had taken over, almost a million incomers were processed through its immigration facility. Numbers peaked after World War II when millions of refugees fled persecution and devastation across Europe.
The evocative, heart-stirring Museum of Immigration, Canada’s first national museum outside the capital (now joined by Winnipeg’s equally inspirational Museum of Human Rights) recalls the immigrant experience with honesty and candour, not shying away from Canada’s previously racist and discriminatory policies and – in typically Haligonian style – celebrating the contribution newcomers have made across the country. A guided tour is illuminating: almost everyone in Halifax has a story about a relative who came through Pier 21, and chances are one or two of your fellow visitors will also have some interesting tales to share.
Fat, juicy Digby scallops, gargantuan lobsters, hearty chowders brimming with clams and shrimp – Nova Scotia has always been prized for its bountiful seafood, and these days Halifax displays its wares to visitors with pride.
Any foodie exploration should start at the Seaport Farmers’ Market, on the waterfront, where local fruit and veg sellers rub shoulders with artisanal producers and street food stalls offering everything from generous lobster rolls to huge steam buns and spicy East African curries; grab a bite and scurry upstairs to the rooftop deck to take in the ocean views (or gawp into a cabin window if a cruise liner’s in town).
Innovative new restaurant openings are commonplace these days. Head to laidback Edna in the villagey North End for weekend brunch or cocktails, while nautical-themed Five Fishermen is the place to go for serious seafood. Superb local produce lends itself perfectly to tapas and pinxtos at Spanish-influenced Highwayman while creative chefs blend local know-how with international influences at Studio East (Southeast Asian) and deservedly popular, Italian-slanting Bicycle Thief along the waterfront.
You can tell a lot about a city from its most iconic buildings: think the Kremlin fortress or the thrusting Empire State Building. In Halifax, it’s no coincidence that the most eye-popping building of recent times is one designed for the whole community: Halifax Central Library, named as one of the most beautiful on Earth.
Constructed to an exemplary green design, the library features a concert hall, First Nations reading circle and the amazing “Halifax Living Room”, a light-filled cantilevered glass box sitting athwart the roof that opens out to a ray-catching terrace with spectacular harbour views.
For cultural joy of a different kind, head to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, which preserves the simple paintings and tiny one-room house of folk artist Maud Lewis. Overcoming severe disability, poverty and family rejection, Lewis – whose difficult life was recently made into a film starring the incomparable Sally Hawkins – created cheerful, brightly coloured artworks of such life-affirming exuberance they’ll leave you with a lasting warm glow.