Butting up against the wild and woolly Atlantic Ocean, Nova Scotia is one of Canada's oldest European-settled provinces and the stuff of maritime myth and legend. Here's a handy checklist of top things to do in this intriguing region.
For those in the know, the name Nova Scotia conjures up images of jaunty striped lighthouses, majestic sailing ships and groaning plates of lobster — all iconic symbols of Canada’s eastern province.
All three are likely to be memorable highlights of any visit to Nova Scotia — a member of Canada’s ‘Maritimes’ (alongside neighbouring New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island). Add to the mix the windswept coastal beauty and salty sea air, a tumultuous maritime history to explore, mysterious fogs and tales of hidden treasure to capture the imagination, and you have all the makings of a top notch travel experience.
Nova Scotia’s weather is moody in winter and warm and welcoming in summer. Port city and provincial capital Halifax offers excellent air connections and is the spot to base yourself to explore everything the province has to offer.
Here are ten of the best things to do in Nova Scotia.
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Long before craft beer became the next big thing in brewing, Nova Scotia had Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale. Known locally simply as ‘Keith’s’, the much-loved brew has a history that dates back to the early 1800s when Mr Keith, a Scotsman, emigrated to Canada. He opened a brewery on Lower Water Street in Halifax in 1820 and today, at the same site, lively tours take patrons back in time while they learn the legend that is Keith’s. You’ll get to sample the goods, and also experience a mini ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee) — otherwise known as a kitchen party, complete with instruments and folk songs. Bring your singing voice and your thirst, and remember, those who like it, like it a lot!
2. Taste test the ocean’s best
Bluenosers (a Nova Scotian nickname dating back to the 1700s) love to eat. Fronting the Atlantic Ocean, the province is world famous for its seafood — so if you like a good feed of fish and crustaceans, you’re in for a treat. Head to Dave’s Lobster on the almost-four-kilometre Halifax Waterfront for what is claimed to be the best lobster roll (chunky pieces of lobster mixed with mayo and celery, served in a toasted bread roll) in the world. Another popular snack that you’ll find at any good fish and chip shop is deep fried clams.
If fine dining is more your style, spend an evening at Halifax’s historic (and said-to-be-haunted) Five Fishermen. This is renowned as one of the province’s top spots to eat, and does classic lobster dinners and a super seafood chowder.
3. Try Halifax’s signature street food
You can’t visit Halifax without trying a donair (pronounced dough-nair). Haligonians have been devouring donairs at establishments like famous Tony’s since the 1970s. Similar to a kebab, the donair is shaved spiced meat sprinkled with diced tomato and raw onion, drizzled with a sweet white sauce, then wrapped up in warm pita bread. You simply must taste it to really appreciate it, but be warned — it gets messy!
4. Enjoy wine time in the Annapolis Valley
Back in the 1600s, Nova Scotia was one of the first places in Canada to grow grapes. But it’s only fairly recently that the province got serious about making wine. You’ll find vineyards with cellar doors dotted across the Annapolis and Gaspereau Valleys, and the South Shore. A great way to see and taste the best of your choice of wine region (while someone else does the driving) is on a wine tour with Grape Escapes.
5. Explore the legacy of Grand-Pré
Did you know that Nova Scotia is rich in French history? Beginning in the early 1600s, travellers from France settled in Acadie (the former French colony comprising much of the Maritime provinces). They made homes near the shores of the Minas Basin and called it Les Mines. Life was good for the Acadians until they were deported in the mid 1700s for refusing to conform. Today, Les Mines is known as Grand-Pré National Historic Site and is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site. Enjoy the beauty of the landscape and learn about the plight and fate of the Acadian people.
6. Take plenty of pics
There are several iconic vistas associated with Nova Scotia, and Peggy’s Cove should be at the top of your Instagram-inspired to-do list. The famous lighthouse stands 15 metres tall on the smooth rocks close to the angry Atlantic. The picturesque spot is a winding 45-minute drive southwest of Halifax and a good first stop on your way to the South Shore. From Peggy’s Cove, continue along the coastal drive to Mahone Bay to capture shots of the town’s glorious old churches. Spend the rest of your day snapping away in the colourful town of Lunenburg.
When heading from Halifax across the province towards the Annapolis Valley, be sure to make a pit stop at Hall’s Harbour on the Bay of Fundy. The classic fishing boat harbour offers lots of photo opportunities. From May to October, you can eat lunch or dinner at the Lobster Pound.
7. Get on the trail of lost treasure on Oak Island
Secrets and mystery, pirate history and lost treasure, risk and obsession; they’re all yours to explore on fascinating Oak Island. Situated between Chester and Mahone Bay, Oak Island is private property so to gain entry, you must pre-book a tour. As you make your way around the island with a knowledgeable guide, you’ll hear folklore about buried pirate treasure that some people refuse to give up on. Could you be the one to find it?
8. Crunch into a handpicked apple
With its continental climate, Nova Scotia is home to an abundance of fruit tree varieties and berry crops. The Annapolis Valley Blossom Festival kicks off the apple and tourist season each May and is a fun way to immerse yourself in the local culture. Pay a visit to a U-Pick orchard and eat crisp and crunchy fruit straight off the tree.
The town of Oxford in the province’s north is referred to as the wild blueberry capital of Canada. In season, you’ll find purple-staining berries galore — which are eaten as is, or used in pies, muffins and scones.
If you’re keen to pick your own berries in the Annapolis Valley, drop by Blueberry Acres U-Pick near Kentville.
9. Sail back in time on the Bluenose II
The Bluenose II is Nova Scotia’s emblem and shining star. So loved is this mighty sailing ship that its image can be seen on the Canadian dime (10 cent coin). Built in 1963 and recently refurbished, it’s a faithful replica of the original Bluenose racing vessel, which was launched in 1921. But Nova Scotians scarcely separate the two ships in speech or thought. If you’re lucky and your holiday dates line up, you can book a harbour cruise on the Bluenose II from Lunenburg. This just may be worth planning your entire trip around.
10. Learn what makes a Maritimer
To learn more of the province’s stoic and often tragic maritime history, block out a few hours to visit the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. From early naval days to the Halifax Explosion and the sinking of the Titanic, this is where you’ll learn, lament, and walk away with a newfound respect for the region and the people who call themselves Maritimers.
Browse our range of Nova Scotia tours and experiences here.
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do in Nova Scotia? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Jennifer Morton is a freelance writer and photographer. The Canadian expat has lived all over Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. She also spent six months working on a cruise ship in Europe. When Jennifer is not writing about travel, you may find her lounging on the beach, fishing with her son, sipping coffee at a cafe, reading a book, or zooming in on a beautiful scene.