Through the centuries of European migration to North America, perhaps no single spot has been any more consequential than the harbor at Halifax. That history makes the city one of continent’s most interesting to visit.
The more we researched the museums and historic sites that dot the Halifax boardwalk along the waterfront, the more we learned how little we knew about this part of American history.
All of the sites are within an easy walk of each other and right in the heart of town, making downtown a great place to stay when visiting Halifax. Plus, there are a ton of lodging choices in the area and Expedia has great hotel options in and around downtown Halifax.
We also highly recommend staying near the waterfront because, in addition to all of the history, there are dozens of dining and entertainment options to choose from.
We began our exploration by climbing above the harbor to Citadel Hill. This perch overlooking the port has been fortified since the town was founded by the Brits in 1749.
Originally it was seen as a stronghold for the struggle to wrestle rule of the New World away from their French rivals in what led to the French and Indian War.
What struck us as odd is that at the time Nova Scotia was a colony, just like the thirteen to the south, so when George Washington led troops against the French he was an ally.
A few years later that fourteenth colony decided to stay loyal to the crown instead of joining the revolution and the sides flipped. Suddenly the French were aiding the emerging United States and Nova Scotia was struggling to remain a part of The British Empire.
The fort remained in service through the end of the First World War, but fell into disrepair afterwards. Finally it became the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site of Canada and was restored after the second war. Today it perfectly depicts how it stood during the Victorian era of the eighteen hundreds, right down to the people portraying the unit of the famed 78th Highlanders that had been stationed here.
Just below the fort, the Public Gardens also harken back to that era. Typical of a Victorian garden, trees, flowers, and various plants from exotic locales around the world are combined to delight and inform visitors. We found everything from desert cactus and yucca, to towering trees, to roses that smelled so sweet it was like walking by a cake.
Accouterments such as gazebos, fountains, archways, and seating are also essential for a proper Victorian garden, and are well represented here. So while the term Victorian may get misused, this park, and in fact a great deal of Halifax, certainly lives up to the designation.
Back down at the water’s edge, we had a couple of must see museums on our agenda. We began at Pier 21, often referred to as Canada’s Ellis Island. Over one million immigrants fleeing wars and oppression or seeking economic opportunity entered the country through this dock and became Canadians.
Nearby, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic brings to life the rich seafaring history of the region through artifacts and photographs. There are also actual vessels on display, such as a variety of gorgeous smaller wooden sailboats and an amazing collection of magnificent model ships from the volunteer Maritime Ship Modelers Guild.
The sea can be incredibly harsh, so there are disasters documented too. None are more poignant than the worst maritime tragedy of all time, the Titanic. Halifax has a deep connection to the catastrophe, since it was the nearest port to the sinking liner.
Several ships were dispatched as soon as word of the collision with the iceberg arrived. Unfortunately they did not make it in time to save any passengers, but the city served as a mortuary for many of the victims.
Three-hundred-twenty-eight bodies were found, and of those two-hundred and nine were brought to Halifax to be claimed by relatives, or buried if none came forward. That was the fate of three quarters of them, so they are buried in three of the city’s cemeteries.
We were struck speechless at the sight of a tiny pair of shoes displayed among the doomed ship’s artifacts. The child they came from was not identified, so was laid to rest at Fairview Lawn Cemetery.
Fairview Lawn became the final resting place for many of the Titanic victims, so we felt that our explorations should be expanded to include a stop there.
While we walked through the gravesites of the one-hundred-twenty-one casualties to pay our respects, the melancholy weather matched our somber spirits. Adding to the gloom, many of the headstones are marked only by numbers, because the identities of the victims remain unknown.
It is nearly impossible to describe the feeling when we came upon the grave of the unknown two year old child thought to be the owner of the shoes. Recently the boy was identified through DNA samples. However, his family chose to keep the gravestone nameless as a remembrance to all of the other unknown victims.
With the exception of Fairview Lawn, we accomplished our entire visit on foot, because everything is so close to the original port.
Trust us, that’s the facts, the Halifax.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
This article is written in partnership with Expedia.ca, as always all opinions are our own.