What to See & Do in Halifax?
Halifax is endowed with a large natural harbour, and was the launch point for the Atlantic convoys of World Wars One and Two. There is a great maritime culture along the waterfront, with the Historic Properties, the Public Gardens, and the Citadel. And then there’s the shopping, the dining, and the nightlife, and the Celtic music scene.
Halifax is not only the largest city in Nova Scotia, but also the province’s capital. Halifax is a city with 380,000 residents in the metropolitan area (which now includes Dartmouth and Bedford/Sackville). It is a large deep-water harbour that opens into the Atlantic Ocean, which the area’s native Micmac Indians called “Chebucto.” Halifax was founded in 1749 and is filled with history. The metropolitan area is home to unique and important historic sites, including the Halifax Citadel National Historic Park, the Prince of Wales Tower National Historic Park, and the York Redoubt National Historic Site.
It was the major starting point for First and Second World War convoys departing for Europe. In 1917 the French steamship Mont Blanc and the Belgian steamer Imo collided, causing the biggest man-made explosion the world had seen until Hiroshima. The city is home to eight colleges and universities including the University of King’s College, which was founded in 1789. The young demographic of these colleges has attracted a diverse range of restaurants and nightlife to the city (the fact it’s a port city doesn’t hurt either), as well as number of high technology companies.
The city today is a major rail and shipping hub for North America, being the easternmost rail-connected port on the continent. It is also a major staging ground for oil & gas exploration off the Grand Banks and around Sable Island. These developments are helping the Halifax area to become the strongest economic force in the Maritimes.
Whether it’s a visit to a park, an art gallery or the area’s history, Halifax offers its visitors and residents lots to do every day of the week.
Early Halifax History
Nova Scotia was among the early discoveries of the explorer and navigator John Cabot, who claimed Cape Breton for the king of England. France sent Samuel de Champlain to the area in 1604, who first wintered in the area and the next year he founded Port Royal in the Annapolis River valley. The French named the area around the Bay of Fundy “Acadia” the “peaceful land”.
The area changed hands between the French and the English (who named the area “Nova Scotia”, Latin for New Scotland) several times, even after the French built the Fortress of Louisbourg on eastern Cape Breton. In 1758 Louisburg again fell under the leadership of the gallant Wolfe, who then captured Quebec City in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. The Treaty of Paris ceded the entire continent of North America to England.
British Colonial Period
The new British governors expelled 10,000 Acadians from the Atlantic colonies in 1753 and again in 1758, mostly to what is now the State of Louisiana, immortalized by the epic poem “Evangeline”. The British under Colonel Edward Cornwallis brought 2500 settlers who founded Halifax along what is now Barrington Street. The settlement was named for Lord Halifax, then president of Britain’s Board of Trade and plantations. By 1752, Dartmouth was settled and ferry system was begun, The harbour was also fortified with several batteries, and the Halifax Citadel was completed in 1856. The British began settling the territory with pro-crown settlers, mostly from Germany, Switzerland, as well as French Protestants, and then Scots. The area filled up with another 25,000 Loyalists who came north after the American Revolution, several thousand American blacks after the War of 1812, and shiploads of Irish between 1815 & 1850.
In 1758, Nova Scotia had it first elected government. Following the 1837 Rebellion, the colonial legislatures were restructured in 1848, when Queen Victoria gave Nova Scotia “responsible” government, with a legislature of elected colonials advising the colony’s Queen-appointed governor.
Halifax was quickly maturing as a community and quickly grew to 50,000 by the early 1900s. In 1802, Saint Mary’s was Halifax’s first university with the founding of Saint Mary’s, with Dalhousie University following in 1818. Samuel Cunard started a Halifax-based shipping empire in 1839, later adding steam-powered ships so he could guarantee timely trans-oceanic delivery of the Royal Mail. In 1842, the City of Halifax was incorporated, electing its first mayor. One of the wealthiest cities in the colonies, Halifax was the birthplace for two of Canada’s biggest financial institutions: the Royal Bank of Canada and the Bank of Nova Scotia (in 1832).
By 1861, Nova Scotians approved joining a union of the North American Provinces, followed by the 1864 Charlottetown Conference that led to the formation of Canada on July 1st, 1867 under the British North America Act. The new nation included New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Upper Canada, and Lower Canada, with PEI joining in 1873, and Newfoundland much later, in 1949.
In 1876, a new railway connected Nova Scotia to Central Canada, and an 1881 provincial rail line connected major towns. Ocean-going trade and shipbuilding boomed in Yarmouth and Halifax. Coal mining near Springhill and Amherst helped to power the new steam ships. Following the1913 sinking of the Titanic nearby, many bodies were buried in Halifax.
During the First World War (then called “the Great War”), Halifax was the assembly point for shipping convoys, which enabled the navy to protect trans-Atlantic shipping form the fleets of German submarines (U-boats). The Halifax Explosion occurred December 6, 1917 when the French Steamship “Mont Blanc” and the Belgian Steamer “Imo”, carrying 400,000 pounds of TNT, collided in the Halifax Harbour, caught fire, and exploded killing 1900 people instantly, and injuring over 9000 and destroying 1600 buildings. It was the largest man-made explosion in history, prior to the atomic era, and was felt and heard in Sydney, Cape Bretton, 420 km away.
By 1920, the post-war Halifax economy collapsed. Though the age of sail the age of wooden shipbuilding was over, the sail-powered fishing schooner Bluenose was launched in Lunenburg in 1921. Though it fished on the Grand Banks and Scotian Shelf, it was better known for its successive racing victories. After the boat was retired, it sunk off Haiti during World War II. The Bluenose is immortalized on the back of the Canadian dime, and in 1963, the recreated Bluenose II was launched, and is now permanently berthed in Lunenburg as a tourist attraction.
During World War II, Halifax again boomed as a major convoy assembly point. It is now headquarters for the Canadian Armed Forces Maritime Command (navy), and now also has one of the largest container ports in North America. Nova Scotia’s economy has begun to diversify since the end of World War II. The province now has major manufacturing facilities for Michelin Tire, Volvo, Crossley Carrastan Carpet, and Pratt & Whitney. While much of the Atlantic fishery is in decline, Nova Scotia is the country’s largest exporter of lobsters.
In the 1960s and 1970s the harbourfront, now called the Historic Properties, began restoration, and was supplemented by upscale hotels and office development. Architectural gems like Province House and the former Dominion Building, now housing the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, were restored creating a focal point for the shopping and nightlife along the charming and historical old portions of Halifax.
In 1996 Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford and Halifax County amalgamated, forming the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) and further improved efficiencies for all levels of business and government through the Greater Halifax Partnership.
The recent discovery of natural gas of Sable Island, 250 kilometres south-east of the mainland, on the Scotia Shelf, has led to a boom in oil & gas exploration and development on the province’s continental shelf.