Halifax has always been a welcoming city — to immigrants, University students, and cruise passengers who flock there in the autumn months to see the leaves. Haligonians, as the residents of Halifax are called, are known for their spirited traditions and maritime hospitality. To be one of them and not a CFA (a local term that stands for “come from away”) is as simple as shouting, “Sociable!” (which means “cheers”) at the pub, or ordering a donair, the maritime-Atlantic version of the doner kebab or gyro that’s an acquired taste. Even if you have only a brief time in port, you can still get a good dose of local culture.
Breakfast: Two if by Sea – When this Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, bakery and café opened a second location in downtown Halifax, it put its mouth-watering pastries within reach of cruisers. The owners make no apologies for the waist-expanding ingredient that’s key to the café’s success: butter. (The word is even stamped on the shop’s takeout bags.) The croissants — such as almond, or prosciutto and cheese — are always a hit, and an appropriate accompaniment to the iced Americanos served in mason jars.
Lunch: Waterfront Harbor – Popular with both visitors and residents alike, this destination is the best place to sample the flavors of Nova Scotia. There are three new additions to the boardwalk: Canadian Bacon Cookhouse, which serves — you guessed it — pork belly sandwiches; the simple but fresh Shack Oyster Bar with a “Crobster” (its own blend of lobster and snow crab) roll; and a branch of Smoke’s Poutinerie, which turns out unique spins on the Quebecois staple of poutine (French fries, gravy, and cheese curds.)
Dinner: Stories – Located in a quaint historic inn, this candlelit restaurant offers an intimate evening out. Chef Scott Vail puts equal emphasis on bounty from land (bison carpaccio) and sea (rice paper-wrapped scallops). Pull up a seat in front of a hearth and sip on a glass of Tidal Bay, a crisp white wine that’s Nova Scotia’s first — and only — appellation.
Dessert: Sugah – At this local candy maker, chocolate is prepared the old-fashioned way: one hand-stirred batch at a time. Confectioners work a copper kettle and marble slabs to craft a delectable array of sweets, including maple-crusted chocolate and white chocolate bars studded with lime zest, chili flakes, and roasted pistachios.
Tip: The quintessential Haligonian dining experience isn’t lobster or seafood chowder — it’s a local specialty called donair, first served circa 1970s. The foil-wrapped sandwich, served on pita with tomatoes and onions, differs from its predecessors in that it consists of spiced ground beef instead of lamb, and a sweet white sauce made of vinegar, evaporated milk, and sugar instead of yogurt, mayonnaise, and lemon.
For Everyone: Halifax is called the “City of Trees.” For the best leaf-peeping opportunities, swing by Point Pleasant Park, a 185-acre forested sanctuary with winding trails, rocky beaches, and ruins scattered throughout. It’s also easily accessible from the port by foot or public transit.
For Couples: Alexander Keith’s Brewery – Brewing beer isn’t just a trend here; it’s a tradition. In the early 1800s, Scottish suds maker — and politician and rumored spy — Alexander Keith (pronounced “Keet”) immigrated to Halifax to ply his trade. Today, tours of his ironstone and granite brewhouse culminate at the taproom, where you can toast “Sociable!” to the now nationally reputed ales. Try the spicy Hallertauer Hop, a hop-forward beer.
For Families: Murphy’s The Cable Wharf – This company operates a kid-friendly alternative to the traditional harbor tour: a sail on Theodore Tugboat, a life-sized replica of the beloved character from a Canadian children’s TV series whose aim was to make his harbor one of the friendliest in the world. Instead of listening to a recording drone facts from a loudspeaker, this 30-minute excursion is animated by cartoon characters from the show and caters to tiny toddler attention spans.
For the Adventurous: Tidal Bore Rafting – In the Bay of Fundy, a natural phenomenon occurs at high tide: Millions of gallons of seawater forge their way upstream against the current of the outgoing river. Tidal bores occur in very few parts of the world, and only in Nova Scotia can you ride the tide. Hop aboard a motorized Zodiac® watercraft for a rush through whirlpools, rapids, and waves up to 11 feet. Just don’t expect to stay dry: There’s no avoiding a bit of sloshing and splashing.
The seafaring history of Halifax was key to the capital city’s development. If you want to learn more, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic has a number of enlightening exhibits, but you’ll want to arrange a group tour with your cruise line or you’ll end up spending the entire afternoon reading exhibition labels.
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This article was updated on 10/24/2013.