It is one of my personal goals to visit every Canadian provinces, as it is such a wonderful country. So after a belly full of Quebec food, I boarded my berth on VIA Rail’s The Ocean (more on that another day), and relaxed in for an overnight rail journey to Nova Scotia, a peninsula that juts out off Canada’s east coast, dipping down into the Atlantic Ocean. With several friends in the area and having heard nothing but good things, I was looking forward to visiting, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Nova Scotia is very rural – and that’s part of the charm, so many stretches of land nearly untouched. I encourage you to spend some time off the beaten path – which isn’t hard in Nova Scotia, just head towards the coast. However, I’d like to point out a few Nova Scotia sightseeing highlights that you’ll find along your way.
No doubt your Nova Scotia sightseeing will either start or end in Halifax, the largest city on the peninsula and home to both the rail terminus from Montreal as well as an international airport. I love Halifax – it has a wonderful feel to it, though I suspect it’s quite different in the winter! A few Halifax favourites:
- The Waterfront: Halifax has one of the world’s longest wooden boardwalk waterfronts; it takes about 20-30 minutes to walk from one end to the other. That is if you don’t stop for ice creams, beavertails (yum!), pizza, snacks, museums, boat and ferry rides, live music, coffees, and the array of other people and things tempting you. What’s the rush? You’ll want to spend a lot of time down here – it’s awesome. FYI, for Titanic lovers, the Maritime Museum is a must.
- Art Gallery of Nova Scotia: Worth going to just to see the Maude Lewis house. This Nova Scotian painter made a powerful impact with her story and her gorgeous works – so much so that her entire (tiny) house is now inside the gallery. Incredible.
- Citadel Hill and Point Pleasant Park: Two opportunities to get some exercise. Citadel Hill is, well, the huge hill in the middle of town that you can’t miss. Point Pleasant is an enormous forest located on the edge of the harbour, popular for dog walking as well as for just getting some fresh air.
- Harbour Hopper: Pretty much anyone who’s been to Halifax has been on this ride a half on land/half in water tour. It’s informative too. If you have children with you, don’t forget to go for a spin on Theodore Tugboat.
I could write an entire article about the food in Halifax – in fact, I will – but don’t miss out on a donair (originally from Halifax), or try nachos. Anywhere. It seems all the local restaurants are in a heated competition to win the coveted ‘best nachos’ award.
August is a great time to visit, as the city hosts their popular busker festival.
Heading to the west coast, your Nova Scotia sightseeing taste buds will get a kick out of Wolfville – that’s because it’s another mini-cultural centre of Nova Scotia. Time your visit for a Saturday morning, so you can enjoy the farmer’s market, where vendors from all around the nearby villages come in to sell their wares (samples available!). This includes some of the wineries, so it makes for a fantastic experience.
Wolfville is also a great place to watch the tides of the Bay of Fundy. These are the highest tides in the world, and it is simply impossible to describe it (but I’ll try). It looks as if a massive swimming pool is being drained/filled. You really can see the shoreline filling up against the coast. For the best places to see the tides, including the tidal bore (a huge wave that comes in with the tide), the Bay of Fundy tourism website has some excellent FAQs.
Along the main street in Wolfville, you’ll find no less than three coffee houses, several popular restaurants, art galleries, ice cream parlours, and other shops. And don’t miss a drive up to the lookout, for some killer views of the bay. As a university town, there’s no shortage of things to do.
Another wonderful Nova Scotia sightseeing stop along Nova Scotia’s east shore is the small village of Annapolis Royal. When I mean small, I meant it – the town is nothing more than one street that wraps around a corner of the Bay of Fundy. But what the town lacks in size it makes up for in hospitality. Some things to do:
- Visit the rose gardens, some of the nicest and probably the largest rose garden in Nova Scotia.
- Walk around the hills of Fort Anne, the oldest fort in Canada. Indeed, many of the buildings in Annapolis Royal, with their very traditional architecture, are some of the oldest buildings in the country.
- Have a coffee and a cake at Lucy Sweets, a wonderful old building with the best coffee in town. Chat up the owner, Tina, who has some great stories about the people and history of Annapolis Royal.
- If you’re hungry, the Garrison House Inn is not only a wonderful place to stay, but they have some of the best fish in town.
- Walk along the boardwalk. It isn’t obvious there is one, as it sits lower than the street level. You can enter from behind the Kings Theatre or behind the Police Station. Sitting on a bench here is the perfect place to watch the sunset.
If you really want to get “out there,” then take your Nova Scotia sightseeing sights to the extreme and head down Digby Neck. This “peninsula on a peninsula” juts out from the corner of Nova Scotia, and it’s a great place to see wildlife (whale watching is very popular) and enjoy Mother Nature. If you go all the way to the end of the peninsula you can access not one but two islands – Long Island and Briar Island. The lighthouses on the islands are just as iconic as some of the more popular ones closer to Halifax – and there are a few, as historically the area has been plagued by fog and shipwrecks.
Lunenburg & Mahone Bay
After Peggy’s cove, the most popular roadtrips from Halfiax to enjoy some Nova Scotia sightseeing would have to be Lunenburg and Mahone Bay, and for good reason – they’re beautiful bay villages. Lunenburg is an old German town with some incredible architecture – the colours and vividness is stunning – but you’ll also be able to enjoy some great accommodation and hotels as well as food. Top recommendations included the Lunenburg Arms to sleep, and to satisfy your hunger try Sweet Expressions (coffee, cakes), Salt Shaker Deli (pizza, sandwiches), and Large Marge’s (diner food). Mahone Bay is smaller but similar and is known for its iconic churches along the shore. Don’t miss the back harbour trail in Lunenburg – and if you’re feeling overly ambitious, you can actually walk from Lunenburg to Mahone Bay.
A quick mention for a Nova Scotia sightseeing classic, Peggy’s Cove. This is the most photographed lighthouse in the world – perhaps because it’s simple and sits on top of a sheet of rock that juts out quite haphazardly into the sea. In fact, it is slightly dangerous, as the waves can come pounding and take anyone standing on them out to see. The village is very, very touristy and very crowded, but it is worth a walk around to take in some of the older fishing houses.
My tip for the best place in Nova Scotia, sightseeing or for just relaxing, has to be Guysborough, also know as the Authentic Seacoast. This little village has so much hospitality you won’t know what to think – from the people who wave at you as you drive through town, to the friendly faces in all of the local establishments . Some highlights:
- If you like cakes and treats, then you’ll have to stop into the Days Gone By bakery and ask them for what’s fresh.
- The Rare Bird Pub has some tasty pub food – but they also have a great view of the habour, where you can watch all the happenings going on. There is often a live music, sometimes inside and sometimes the children playing traditional fiddles down along the marina.
- I’m not a golfer, but you don’t have to be to appreciate how beautiful Osprey Shores golf course is.
- The best restaurant in Nova Scotia, I must say, is at the Des Barres Manor, a beautiful manor home turned B&B. With an award-winning wine list, incredible hospitality, and one of the most comfortable beds ever, it is worth the drive to Guysborough just to experience this gem. (You can buy the sheets in their craft shop / art gallery on Main Street. I’m ordering!)
The Cabot Trail
No Nova Scotia sightseeing list would be complete without a final stop in Cape Breton Island, the island just north of the Nova Scotia mainland and connected by a causeway. I don’t think there’s a bad view anywhere in Cape Breton – you’ll either have beautiful lakes on one side of you or blue ocean on the other. From the world’s biggest fiddle in Sydney to stepping back in time to the 18th century at the Fortress of Louisbourg, Cape Breton is amazing. By far the biggest and best attraction is the Cabot Trail, which is highly regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful drives, even more dramatic than other popular drives like the Pacific Coast Highway.
Editorial Disclosure: Portions of this trip were sponsored by Nova Scotia Tourism. This sponsorship in no way affects the editorial content of this piece.