Halifax, Nova Scotia Is No Longer Canada’s Best Kept Secret

Thanks to a burgeoning food scene, the city is finally getting its moment in the sun

June 8, 2024 7:52 am
Halifax, Novia Scotia
Halifax, Novia Scotia
Getty Images

Along the Halifax waterfront, you see countless bronze sculptures and memorials to the immigrants who came through Pier 21 (Canada’s Ellis Island, which is now a museum) and the naval forces who left and never came back. History runs deep in Halifax. Its Afro-Nova Scotian history goes back 400 years, and the Mi’kmaq First Nations go back thousands more. The Acadians were displaced from here (and settled in Louisiana, becoming Cajuns), and it’s the resting place of many Titanic victims (Halifax was the closest major seaport to the disaster, and more than 100 nameless victims were laid to rest in city cemeteries).

As you walk past these waterfront memorials (you can also kayak past them), you see just how much history has shaped Halifax. But a new forward-facing mindset is helping shine a spotlight on the city and revealing its many other attributes — from restaurants where the sense of place tumbles through every show-stopping dish, to excellent craft breweries and distilleries (like Compass Distillers), to winter surfing. You could say Halifax, Canada’s best kept secret, is now out.

Much of this is thanks to a new district on the waterfront, Queen’s Marque, which is a contemporary nod to the naval city and an architectural lesson in reaffirming long-standing identity in spaces for tomorrow. The design is a modern U-shaped tripartite that forms around a welcoming central plaza with an exterior of salt-and-pepper provincial granite and Muntz metal details, inspired by the grand ships that set out on the Atlantic. Through its materiality, fleet of programming, bold public art installations and locally-sourced and inspired restaurants, the Queen’s Marque is picking up an old thread and weaving it into something new.

Crystal Crescent Beach, located at the mouth of Halifax Harbour.
Crystal Crescent Beach, located at the mouth of Halifax Harbour
Getty Images

Bootstrapping and Chill

Halifax’s extraordinary beauty — think rugged coastlines and nearby beaches looking out to a shape-shifting sweep of the Atlantic — called out to big city types during the pandemic. Many moved here adopting the Halifax lifestyle, a particular blend of bootstrapping and chill (cheaper real estate was also a draw). Among the newly arrived (or returned) are star chefs who’ve helped make Halifax Canada’s culinary darling. They’ve opened restaurants where they can practically reach out the back window and pluck lobsters from the sea and where young farmers from down the road deliver produce to their front doors. Halifax suburbs, such as Lawrencetown, have become hotspots for cold-water surfing, which has become increasingly popular, thanks to wetsuit technology.

One of Halifax’s most lauded new restaurants, Salt + Ash, is inspired by Nova Scotia surfing culture, with almost everything on the menu cooked over live fire. I checked it out for dinner one night, and as I approached the restaurant, the salty ocean air mingled with smoke from the cooking fires. I was welcomed by hip young hostesses dressed in chunky cardigans and mom jeans, a nod to Halifax’s reputation for warm, homespun hospitality. After being seated, I watched chefs in the open kitchen char local Digby clams (hands down the world’s best) alongside whole chickens. Surfers were at the table next to me, and the conversation was about a day of great swell, set against a backdrop of flame-colored fall foliage. Many also come to surf in winter when the scenery is snow-covered forest. 

A Consistently Underrated Food City Awaits Just Over the Canadian Border
Our correspondent shares what he ate on a recent eye-opening, five-day exploration of Montreal
a colorful salad on a stoneware plate
At Drift, elevated versions of traditional Maritime dishes are the name of the game.
Muir Hotel

Halifax’s Culinary Climb

A clamshell’s throw from Salt + Ash is Drift, where chef Anthony Walsh sends out elevated versions of traditional maritime dishes like hodge podge, which sees haddock, scallops and Nova Scotia mussels served on a beautiful plate made by a local artisan from found rocks, sand and beach glass. Next door to Drift is BKS, a “sub rosa” speakeasy where you can drink a Boom at Noon, a rum-based concoction that pays homage to the Halifax Citadel’s midday cannon.

Both of these spots are within the sophisticated Muir hotel, the centerpiece of Queen’s Marque and Halifax’s first contemporary luxury stay. I checked into a room decorated with modern coastal-inspired touches, and beside my bed were modern interpretations of hurricane lamps. Seawater loop technology powers the hotel. 

This property knows how to show you a good time. One afternoon, I went out on the Muir’s sailboat for a cruise around Halifax Harbour. (JFarwell Sailing tours is another option for a cruise if you aren’t staying at the hotel and want to hoist sails.) At certain times of the year, they also organize excursions to Sable Island, one of the most secluded places on earth, where the only residents are wild horses. It’s technically part of Halifax but located about 200 miles out to sea. 

Beyond Muir, there’s also Lord Nelson downtown, across from one of North America’s loveliest Victorian-era parks, as well as Prince George, one of Canada’s old railway hotels and adjacent to the main train station.

a restaurants with a pink bar and navy blue and red furniture
Acadian caviar from Fawn is requisite dining.

From Parking Lot to Paradise

It’s remarkable that so much activity is happening on the waterfront, when only a few years ago the area was mostly a parking lot. Chalk it up to some of that Nova Scotian bootstrapping and community mindedness. People started pop-ups, then restaurants with patios and, suddenly, the waterfront was a food lover’s destination.

But Halifax’s culinary climb is evident all over town. In the gentrifying north end, it’s hard to get a table at Bar Kismet, a restaurant in one of the neighborhood’s jelly bean-colored houses, where the young husband and wife owners offer inventive, coastal-inspired small plates and top-notch cocktails. There’s Fawn for Acadian caviarEdna for brunch and, just a 10-minute ferry ride away in the Dartmouth neighborhood, Canteen for the definitive bowl of chowder. Luckily, Nova Scotia Tourism offers product-specific “trails” designed to help you eat and drink your way around. Try the Nova Scotia Seafood Trail or the Nova Scotia Good Cheer Trail to sample locally-produced wine, beer and spirits from more than 50 locations across the province.

Beyond surfing, food and drinks, there’s more to fill your days. Golf and Scotland go hand in hand, and this has carried over to New Scotland (aka Nova Scotia), which has some of North America’s best courses. I checked out the fancy Fox Harb’r Resort on the Northumberland Coast, a short drive from Halifax, which offers a Graham Cooke-designed ocean-side course that blends Scottish links and traditional parkland golf.  

I also indulged in a little far niente, or doing nothing, Nova Scotia-style. I took advantage of the nearby beaches to spend time with friends, breathing salt air, drinking beer and watching the world float by. Another day on a perfect afternoon, I strolled the paths of red and orange trees at historic Point Pleasant Park to find a spot among the rocks on the shores of the Northwest Arm and let my worries melt away. 


Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.