Updated: June 16, 2020
From the Atlantic ocean to the wine region of Annapolis, Nova Scotia is an incredible province to explore. For anyone looking for that maritime charm, Nova Scotia has a lot to offer.
Located on the Eastern edge of Canada, but not an island like Newfoundland, Nova Scotia is easily visited from Quebec, New Brunswick, and even the USA. From exploring Canada’s top national historic site in Halifax and walking around the charming streets of Lunenburg to driving one of Canada’s top road trips in Cape Breton or rafting some of the highest tides in the world in the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia is bound to become one of your favourite places in the country.
Whether you’re planning to explore the cities, the coastline, or everything in-between, we’ve got you covered in this comprehensive travel guide to the wonderful province of Nova Scotia.
Getting to Nova Scotia
If you’re a visitor looking for different ways of getting to Nova Scotia, here’s some practical advice on how to get here.
Getting to Nova Scotia by Car
If you’re planning to drive to Nova Scotia, it’s located to the southeast of both New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, and is also connected via ferry to the province of Newfoundland. Although not connected directly to the United States, it is very close to Maine, the state that shares a border with New Brunswick. It’s one of the smallest provinces in Canada and is a great place for a road trip, especially during the summer and the fall.
Getting to Nova Scotia by Plane
Nova Scotia is home to only one international airport, which is the Halifax Stanfield International Airport. This is the Atlantic Canadian hub for all domestic, regional, and international services. It’s often a connecting point as well for those travelling to St. John’s, Newfoundland. From Halifax, you can easily explore the province by car, travelling west to Lunenburg or east to Cape Breton.
Getting Around Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia is one of the smallest provinces in Canada but is home to some of the most scenic drives in the country. Like most of Canada, it’s best travelled by private vehicle. However, there are tours, especially to popular areas such as Lunenburg, Peggy’s Cove, and beyond. If your goal is to explore various parts of the province, the best way is to rent a car.
Fun Facts about Nova Scotia
- No point in Nova Scotia is more than 60 km from the sea.
- Nova Scotia was one of the founding four provinces to join the Confederation with Canada in 1867.
- The name Nova Scotia is Latin for New Scotland.
- The Halifax Citadel is the most visited national historic site in Canada
Best Time to Visit Nova Scotia
Although Nova Scotia can be visited year-round, the best times to visit would be in the summer and in the fall, with the spring being 3rd best time. Due to its location on the Atlantic Ocean, the winter can bring extreme weather conditions, not to mention a lot of ice as well. Most of the popular activities, such as boating, hiking, and fishing would not be available.
Like most of Canada, the peak travel time is mid-June to mid-September. This is when the weather is at its warmest temperatures, all the trees and flowers are looking their best, and all the famous activities and attractions are open for business. However, this is also the time when hotels can be at full capacity, roads are busiest, and everything is more expensive.
The spring months, from April to mid-June can also be a nice time to visit but be prepared for rain. The weather is very hit-or-miss and we’ve seen spring days reach up to +25 degrees. Tourism is lower during this time, and some of the activities would not yet be open for business.
Last but not least is the fall. This is a great time to visit as well, especially in the earlier months of late September and October. Generally, the weather is still quite warm and the changing fall colours are beautiful to see. Tourists are lesser in numbers than in the peak summer months but most things are still open. We prefer the fall over the spring. The only exception here would be if you want to go white water rafting. In that case, spring or early summer is generally the better time to do so.
Road to 150 – Nova Scotia Road Trip
From May 27th to June 6th, 2017, we toured Nova Scotia as part of the Road to 150 travel series. It was our second province during our 150-day road trip and what an incredible time we had. We arrived in North Sydney via the ferry from Newfoundland. From there, we toured one of Canada’s most impressive road trips on Cabot Trail in Cape Breton Highlands and then drove over to the capital city of Halifax. Here we visited the impressive Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, the Halifax Citadel, Alexander Keith’s brewery, and charming waterfront. We then made our way to Peggy’s Cove, which is home to Canada’s most iconic lighthouse, and then over to Lunenburg, which is ranked as one of the most beautiful small towns in all of Canada. Here, we stepped aboard the iconic Blue Nose 2, took a historic walking tour, and feasted on some delicious seafood. Last but not least, we went Tidal Bore Rafting, rafting some of the highest tides in the world, an activity unique to Nova Scotia. We did all of this and yet, only scratched the surface of this lively eclectic province. To see it all in action, check out our best of Nova Scotia video on YouTube.
Things To Do in Cape Breton
Home to the tallest mountains in Nova Scotia, as well as the stunning coastline, Cape Breton is a gem of this maritime province. Located at the eastern end of Nova Scotia, you’ll find all sorts of things to do, including Cape Breton Highlands National Park, Cabot Trail, whale watching, Acadian towns, and much more.
Cape Breton Highlands National Park
No trip to Nova Scotia is complete without a visit to the incredibly scenic Cape Breton Highlands National Park! This incredible piece of nature is managed by Parks Canada and is home to the Cabot Trail, which is known as one of the most scenic drives in the world, which we’ll talk about below. You’ll also find plenty of hiking trails, mind-blowing views, beaches, and waterfalls. Wildlife watching is also wonderful in the national park, with moose, beaver, eagles, and deer.
The park is also home to jaw-dropping Skyline Trail, a scenic route laid made up of a wooden boardwalk path. Overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence, visitors can spot whales below while enjoying panoramic views of the rugged coastline. It’s one of my top memories from our time in Nova Scotia.
Another popular hike in the area is White Point Trail. This beautiful coastal trail is about 2.5 kilometres long and leads out to a lookout point with an incredible panoramic view over the cliffs, mountains and the ocean.
Drive the Cabot Trail
As mentioned above, Cabot Trail is one of the top reasons to visit the Cape Breton Highlands, not to discount all the other incredible features of the park. This is one of the best Canada road trips, consisting of a 300-km drive along the coastline, where the highest mountains in Nova Scotia hug the Gulf of St. Lawrence. You’ll find cliffs, viewpoints, beaches, and an incredibly twisting road that will please anyone. Along the way, you can stop to enjoy the many hikes of Cape Breton Highlands National Park and visit the small communities and artisanal shops. You can also visit the town of Baddeck, which was home to Alexander Graham Bell, the father of the telephone! Bonus: Come in the fall for some of the most impressive fall colours in the country!
Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site
Nova Scotia is full of history and one of the best places to learn about its history is at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site, a living history museum that recreates fort life from the mid-18th century through historic buildings, costumed guides, and working establishments. Once home to a 1713 French fort, you’ll find humungous defensive walls around the town, some as thick as 35 feet!
Visitors can watch servants cook while pleasing their tastebuds with authentic hot chocolate and fresh-baked bread, as well as witness the soldiers fire the cannon and their muskets. In fact, for an even more immersive experience, you can spend the night in a reproduction tent or period home.
While driving around the coastal route of Cape Breton Highlands National Park or hiking out to scenic viewpoints, you might start to feel thirsty. If your tastebuds are craving a delicious sip of Whisky, you’ll want to visit the Glenora Distillery, which just so happens to be the first single malt whisky distillery in North America. There are tours and tastings on site for a very reasonable $7 per person but there’s also the opportunity to splurge on the VIP Single Malt Tasting Experience for $125. Had too much whisky? That’s okay. You can also stay on-site at the Glenora Inn.
Perhaps the most charming town you can visit near Cape Breton Highlands National Park is the traditional Acadian fishing village of Chéticamp. Nestled between the majestic highlands of Cape Breton Island and the waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, this beautiful town is home to charming accommodation, delicious seafood, and centuries-old dialects, dances, songs, and traditions. One of the crafts that Cheticamp is known for is rug hooking. The soft pastel colours, which are still hand-dyed in the Cheticamp tradition, account for their popularity today. There are a variety of places to see them being made or of course, buy some to take home.
Whale Watching Cape Breton
This mountainous coastal region surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean is a wonderful place to go whale watching. From Zodiacs or catamarans or even from the shore, you can catch sight of whales during the peak season of July and August. The best places to go whale watching in this region are from Pleasant Bay/Ingonish. Possible sightings include minke, pilot, and humpback.
Where to Stay in Cape Breton
Maison Fiset House: The small Acadian town of Chéticamp lies just outside park boundaries and here you’ll find the charming Maison Fiset House bed & breakfast. The home is beautiful, historic, incredibly spacious, and comes with a big tasty breakfast. It’s steps from the harbour and nearby the popular Harbour Restaurant. What more could you ask for?
Where to Eat in Cape Breton
Harbour Restaurant: Located near Maison Fiset House on the main road in Chéticamp, this place is home to the best seafood in the area. In fact, my lobster and snow crab was caught right in Chéticamp. How cool is that? Talk about fresh! It was a cool experience to eat lobster and crab (note: it does get messy) and the cheesecake for dessert was absolutely delicious. Soak in the views of the harbour while enjoying fresh seafood! This is the place to eat if you’re in Chéticamp!
Things to Do in Halifax
The biggest city in Nova Scotia is a vibrant treasure trove of history and fun. We loved walking along the waterfront and the historic streets as well as exploring the many historical sites such as Alexander Keiths, the Canadian Museum of Immigration, the Halifax Citadel, and so much more. There’s also a lot of live music and festivals throughout the year, making this one of Canada’s top cities. For more, see our Things To Do in Halifax article.
Walk the Halifax Harbour
One of the best things to do in Halifax is to spend a good portion of a warm summer day strolling along the scenic Halifax Harbour. Not only is it simply beautiful, but it’s also home to many of the top attractions in Halifax, including Pier 21 Museum, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, the Halifax Seaport Farmers Market, and many restaurants and pubs.
If you want to get out on the water and see the harbour from a boat, you could also hop on the cheap ferry to Dartmouth, doing a round-trip just for the views. Then again, you could also take one of the many sightseeing cruises or even go do some whale-watching. The Halifax Harbour is a very lively part of town and definitely the #1 thing to do.
Tour the Halifax Public Gardens
Another beautiful slice of Halifax is the Halifax Public Gardens, which happen to be the oldest Victorian gardens in all of North America, created back in 1867 and now designated a National Historic Site. It’s free to visit and visitors can also enjoy an hour-long guided tour of the gardens, which reveals its historic and horticultural significance.
Spring is a popular time to visit, as the gardens become bright with tulips, daffodils, and irises, as well as the fully bloomed magnolia and cherry trees. Late spring brings azaleas and rhododendrons, and later in the summer, dahlias, peonies, and roses line the artfully laid-out paths.
Alexander Keith’s Brewery
This is the best brewery tour we’ve ever had. While the aspect of making beer is virtually the same at all breweries, Alexander Keith’s takes the tour experience to an all-new level. Instead of just explaining the process, the tour is more of a historical act with some of the tour guides dresses in period clothing explaining the unique history of the brewery itself. After all, Alexander Keith himself was a very important and interesting man. You’ll even get to experience a small Ceili (kitchen party) and sample some very tasty beer.
Iconic Peggy’s Cove
Located just 43 kilometres southwest of Halifax, the little fishing village of Peggy’s Cove is an absolute must-visit. Home to Peggy’s Point Lighthouse, which is one of the most photographed and iconic Canadian lighthouses, sits on the rocky Atlantic Coast as the waves come crashing into the granite bluffs. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a blue sky, but you may also find it covered in fog and mist, which simply adds to the ambience of the place. Fishing wharves, boathouse, and colourful heritage homes line the shore of this active fishing community, making it a great place for some east coast photos. Keep in mind that Peggy’s Cove is one of the most popular trips for those visiting Halifax and Nova Scotia, so it does get busy. For the best photos, get there very, very, very early.
Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21
Canada is known for its healthy immigration and what better way to learn about it than to visit the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. Not only is it incredibly informative and interactive but it’s actually housed in Pier 21, which used to be one of the main gateways into the country. It was so heartwarming to learn about the first day of an immigrant’s journey into Canada and how they felt about arriving here. There is so much history here and it should definitely be on your list of things to do in Halifax. At one time, Pier 21 was the Canadian equivalent to Ellis Island, welcoming 20% of the nation’s immigrants from 1928 through 1971.
Many of the exhibits are interactive, including the chance to dress up in period costumes, go inside a replica ship, and explore the contents of trunks and crates to learn more about the lives of the immigrants who could only pack their most treasured items.
Halifax Citadel National Historic Site
This is another historical site that can’t be missed when visiting Halifax and is one of the top Nova Scotia tourist attractions. Not only is it a Parks Canada National Historic Site but it’s also really interactive and overlooks downtown Halifax. Staff are dressed in period clothing and the tours are very well done. There’s a lot of little tunnels and passageways and a daily firing of the cannon at noon. It was my first time sitting next to a live cannon and it was very loud. We then signed up for the “Ready, Aim, Fire” program, which allows you to fire a rifle from 1871!
The road leading up Citadel Hill is popular for its city and harbour views, and it passes the Old Town Clock, which Prince Edward commissioned in 1803.
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic
There’s a reason Nova Scotia is part of the Maritimes. If you want to see incredibly detailed boat models, learn about the Halifax explosion, see actual artifacts from the Titanic, or learn how to type your name in Morris code, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic is the place to be!
The exhibits and displays at this museum bring the maritime history of the province and the North Atlantic to life, giving visitors a glimpse into the role the sea has played in all facets of local life. From old photographs to personal tales and artifacts, this museum brings maritime culture to life.
You’ll also find some actual ships in Halifax Harbour, including Queen Victoria’s Royal Barge, a gift to the museum by Queen Elizabeth II, as well as the HMCS Sackville, a historically significant ship that saw duty during the Battle of the Atlantic in the convoys that kept Britain alive. You can also tour the CSS Acadia, which is now retired but did service the Arctic and North Atlantic for many years.
Where to Stay in Halifax
Waverley Inn: Want to spend the night in a heritage home? This place is not only beautiful but also has one of the best locations in Halifax. It’s also historic. In fact, Oscar Wilde actually stayed in our room back in the 1800s. This felt like the house from the board game Clue. Not only is it like sleeping in a museum but it’s walking distance to the harbour, all the best restaurants and nightlife, and even a 24/7 Superstore.
Best Western Chocolate Lake: Located right next to Chocolate Lake, this is a huge hotel where you can eat breakfast overlooking the lake, rest in the hot tub, swim in the pool, or even play games in the arcade room. In fact, if you’re there during the warmer months, you can even do what locals do and swim across the lake! We saw plenty of locals doing this despite the cooler weather in early June. The breakfast is great and the rooms are spacious.
Things To Do In Lunenburg
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the pretties small coastal towns in the whole country, no visit to Nova Scotia would be complete without spending a day in Lunenburg. Located just 100 kilometres southwest of Halifax, you’ll find brightly coloured heritage buildings dotting the hilly landscapes, most of which are original structures from the 18th and 19th centuries. Whether you come for a few hours or a few days, Lunenburg will charm your socks off.
The famous Canadian icon, which is printed on the Canadian dime and inside the Canadian passport is a big part of Lunenburg’s legacy as a shipbuilding centre. The Bluenose schooner, built here in 1921, won many international races before sinking off the coast of Haiti. The replica, Bluenose II, is often in port and is a must-see if it’s there when you’re there. Not only is it one of the most beautiful sailboats you’ll ever see, but it’s also a very important piece of Canadian history. There are also certain times throughout the year when you can actually go sailing for a couple of hours.
Lunenburg Walking Tour
There’s almost nothing better than a walking tour when you first arrive in a new place. It really helps to liven the place you’re visiting and that’s just what happened when we took a walking tour with Ashlee from Lunenburg Walking Tours. Not only is she very lively herself but she explains so much about the history of Lunenburg that we really feel that we know the place now, which makes us love it even more. Thanks, Ashlee.
Trot In Time Horse Buggy Rides
We hadn’t planned on taking a horse buggy tour around Lunenburg but when we walked by the horses, the tour guides talked us into it. Not only are they super friendly but this is also a great way to learn about the history of Lunenburg with the added touch of riding in a horse buggy! If walking is hard for you (or if you just want to be in a horse buggy), this is the tour for you.
If you’re looking to wet your pallet while wandering around the charming streets of Lunenburg, you may want to make your way into the international award-dinning micro-distillery of Ironworks. Located in an old marine blacksmith shop at the corner of Kempt and Montague Streets, Ironworks Distillery creates small batches of artisan spirits sourced from local Maritime ingredients and throws the doors open for anyone to walk into the shop. Samples are free and they use local ingredients, such as apples from the nearby Annapolis Valley. Tours of the distillery are available during spring, summer and fall for a small fee and must be booked in advance.
Paddle Blue Rocks
If you’re looking for a great place to do some paddling, you might want to head over to the little community of Blue Rocks. Whether you’re looking to bring your own kayak or join a tour with Pleasant Paddling, this is one of the most popular places to go in the province. Thanks to all the little islands, kayakers are protected from the wind and waves, creating calm waters that are perfect to paddle. You may even spot seal colonies, birds, sea creatures and mammals swimming between the rocks.
Whale Watching in Lunenburg
While strolling the streets of Lunenburg, you might get the urge to see some whales. Well, lucky for you, this is a great place to go whale watching, especially from May to October, with possible sightings including minke, fin, and humpback. You may also see dolphins, puffins, and leatherback turtles!
Things to Do in the Annapolis Region
Located on the western edge of Nova Scotia, along the Bay of Fundy, the Annapolis region is perhaps best known for its wine and Acadian culture. However, it’s also known for its incredible beauty, highest recorded tides in the world, Mi’kmaq legends and earliest settlements, historical sites, and abundance of farm-fresh produce and freshly-caught seafood.
The Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens
The Annapolis region might be known for its wine, but it’s also home to one of the finest show gardens in North America, with 10 acres of beautifully planned historical and horticultural beds. The Rose Garden has two thousand bushes set among manicured paths with green lawns, and the Governor’s Garden is planted in the style and with the plants of the 1740s. At the back-side of the garden, you’ll also find paths that look out over the banks of the river.
Fort Anne National Historic Site
Another top historic attraction, which is right across the street from the gardens, is the Fort Anne National Historic Site. Originally built by the French in 1643 and taken over by the British in the 1750s, visitors will find 18th-century buildings, gunpowder magazines and officers barracks, and the impressive walls and ramparts of this historical fort.
Port-Royal National Historic Site
Another great place to visit in the Annapolis Valley is the Port-Royal National Historic Site, which is where Sieur des Monts founded one of the first permanent settlements in North America. Dating back to 1605, this settlement and fur-trading center, which was destroyed by the British, was rebuilt using authentic 17th-century building techniques. Visitors will find the Governor’s Residence, a fur trading post, and priest’s quarters, just to name a few. During your visit, you’ll learn through interpretive guides about the settlers’ struggle to survive, and how the native Mi’kmaq helped the Europeans through their first hard winters.
Take the Stairs to Balancing Rock
Located just outside the small town of Digby, you’ll find the impressive Balancing Rock (also known as Nature’s Time Post). It’s a scenic area to witness and consists of a 2.5 km nature trail and 235 sets of stairs. The column weighs more than 20 tonnes, created out of basalt volcanic rock that balances on a tiny ledge facing St. Mary’s Bay.
Cycle the Harvest Moon Trail
Thanks to the removal of old CN Rail tracks, this area has become popular for recreational use, offering some of the most scenic paths in Nova Scotia. One of the most popular sections is the Harvest Moon Trail, which runs 110-kilometres (68 miles) from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Grand Pré to the historic seaside town of Annapolis Royal. You’ll pass through Nova Scotia’s wine region and the historic dykes, which were created between 1680 and 1755, thanks in part to the Acadians and their healthy relationship with the local Mi’kmaq community. This trail is also popular for walking as well.
Whale Watching in the Bay of Fundy
The Bay of Fundy is a great place to go whale watching with as many as 300 whales in the Bay at one time. The best places to go whale watching around the Bay of Fundy is near Brier Island and Digby from June to October. Common sightings include humpback whales, minke whales, and finback whales, but it’s possible to also see a pilot whale, blue whale, or killer whale as well.
Other Things to Do in Nova Scotia
As you can see, there’s no shortage of things to do in Nova Scotia. However, we’re far from done. Below are some other incredible things to do outside of the areas mentioned above, ranging from gorgeous provincial and national parks to some of the most unique rafting opportunities in the world.
Tidal Bore Rafting
Talk about unique! This is the only place in the WORLD where you can go tidal bore rafting. What an exhilarating experience! We got doused with wave after wave in the muddy Shubenacadie river before having the opportunity to jump into the water for a swim into the rapids. This is easily one of the most exciting Nova Scotia attractions for those looking for a thrill!
This activity is made possible by the rise and fall of the Bay of Fundy, which happens twice a day. The reversing of water in and out of the Bay causes rapids in the river. Instead of paddling down a river like most whitewater rafting experienced, this one is done by the motor as it takes you up the current and back against the tides flow!
Shubenacadie Provincial Wildlife Park
For those looking to get into nature, a great place to do is Shubenacadie Provincial Park, which is just 40 kilometres from Halifax. The park is more than 40 hectares in size and is home to a wide variety of native animal species, including moose, foxes, beavers, wolves, black bears, and cougars. Even for those into horses, this park is the only wildlife park in the world with Sable Island horses.
Kejimkujik National Park
Another beautiful place to get into nature is at Kejimkujik National Park, which is mostly inland but does have a seaside section along with a stunning white-sand beach. This national park is very popular for its lakes and rivers, with excellent paddling opportunities, historic canoe routes, portages, and hiking trails.
Grand Pre National Historic Site
Nova Scotia is known for the Acadian peoples who settled in Grand Pre in the early 18th century, utilizing the Bay of Fundy salt marshes for agricultural land through a series of dykes. But as Nova Scotia changed hands between the French and British, it brought unrest to the region. When the French-speaking Acadians refused to swear allegiance to England in 1755, the British deported about 10,000 people and destroyed their farms. Well, Grand Pre National Historic Site is a memorial to this injustice. You’ll find beautiful gardens, a small chapel, and a statue of Henry Longfellow’s fictional heroine Evangéline.
Ross Farm Museum
What to Do in Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia is one of our favourite places to visit in Canada. We’ve been there many times and have still only scratched the surface. From its unique culture to its rugged coastline and scenic little towns, Nova Scotia is a treasure trove for Canadian tourism. We hope this article helps you plan your trip and if you’d like even more inspiration, make sure to subscribe to Must Do Canada and follow us on YouTube where we post a new video every two weeks!
For more things to do in Canada, check out these articles below:
What did we miss that you’d recommend we do or see next time?
LIKE THE ARTICLE? PIN IT!