One of Canada’s three “Maritime Provinces”, Nova Scotia is easy to navigate if you have your own set of wheels. But there are plenty of transport options to add spice to your journey, including scenic ferry rides, once-in-a-lifetime helicopter charters, and world-class bicycle routes. Here’s our guide to traversing this wonderful, wild region on Canada’s east coast.
Halifax, known to the native Mi’kmaq people as “K’jipuktuk” (Great Harbor), is the largest Canadian city east of Montreal, with daily flight connections to major cities across Canada and the eastern United States, as well as direct services to Europe (London is roughly five hours away.) The main air hub, Halifax Stanfield International Airport (YHZ), is a large, full-service airport with car rental facilities, restaurants, hotels and a well-stocked tourist information desk.
It’s easy to get from the airport to downtown Halifax if you don’t have a car. There is a ground transportation desk located just after the arrivals area, where you can ask for help.
Your choices are a taxi or airport limousine (whether you take a cab or a limo, it’s the same standard flat rate); a public bus (Metro X Route 320), Driver Dave’s (a reliable door-to-door ride-sharing service popular with students and budget travelers), and Uber.
Private air charter
It sounds extravagant (and it is) but if you have a group of friends and a few bucks to spend, a helicopter ride is an unforgettable way to experience Nova Scotia’s oceans and islands. Halifax airport-based Vision Air Services offers a heli-picnic island escape package (C$500 per person) in addition to private charters, while Breton Air, based at J.A. Douglas McCurdy airport in Sydney, provides private charters and transport to Cape Breton Island’s most exclusive lodges, retreats, and golf courses.
Take care not to confuse Sydney, Nova Scotia (YQY) with Sydney Australia (SYD) – a mix-up that occurs with surprising regularity (although it’s generally travelers who are hoping to get to Australia that end up in Cape Breton, not the other way around!)
One of the nicest ways to arrive, or bid farewell to Nova Scotia is by sea. Large, comfortable car ferries operate between Yarmouth, Nova Scotia and Maine (3.5 hours); Digby, Nova Scotia and Saint John, New Brunswick (2 hours, 15 minutes); and Caribou, Nova Scotia to Wood Islands, which form part of Prince Edward Island (1 hour, 15 minutes) – all times approximate, and dependent on weather.
There is also a ferry service between Sydney, Cape Breton and two ports in Newfoundland: Port Aux Basques (7 hours) and Argentia (16 hours.)
Within Nova Scotia, there are small car ferries, established for local use in places where a ferry is more economical than building a bridge or causeway. These charming, blue, flat-decked ferries fill up quickly and take only a few minutes to complete their crossing, and the fare is free. There are seven provincial car ferries throughout Nova Scotia – seek them out to add some extra maritime flavor to your trip.
Elsewhere, the 15-minute ferry ride between Halifax and Dartmouth is the oldest saltwater ferry in North America, costing no more than a bus fare for a return journey. Grab a front seat on the upper deck and take in the views. If you are adventurous, consider returning on foot across the MacDonald Bridge.
For those who love traveling off the beaten track, North West Arm Boat Tours runs an affordable McNab’s Island ferry service using a RHIB (rigid hulled inflatable boat) and is a thrilling way to explore Halifax Harbor and the Northwest Arm.
When is the best time to visit Nova Scotia?
There is only one way to get to or from Nova Scotia by train: a VIA Rail Halifax-Montréal service, named The Ocean which takes approximately 21 hours. Many of the former rail beds in Maritime Canada have been replaced as part of a “rails to trails” project. Walking or cycling along these trails is one of the best free things to do in Nova Scotia.
Car or Motorcycle
An extensive highway system links most towns and cities in Nova Scotia, making cars and motorcycles the most convenient way of getting around the province.
Larger Nova Scotia highways are referred to as “100-series” highways (101, 103, etc.), circumnavigating, and at times crossing, the province. But as a sightseer, you may prefer to take the “old road” (for example, Highway 1, or Highway 3). You never know what you’ll find along the way, from beaches and coves to yard sales to antique shops. You might even see some fruit and vegetable stands that use an “honesty box” system for payment (it’s a good idea to keep some change handy.)
Conveniently, Tourism Nova Scotia has created names for some of the best scenic routes in Nova Scotia, such as the Lighthouse Route, or the Glooscap Trail, each one with distinct signage. These can be reliably followed using the Nova Scotia Tourism Regions Map. You can get free paper copies of this map at the airport, and Nova Scotia tourist information centers.
If you’re winter driving in Nova Scotia, it’s advisable to have winter tires, and if you hear a forecast for freezing rain, stay off the roads altogether. The provincial government publishes a useful real-time highway report that shows construction and roads made impassable by snow or ice.
Six amazing road trips in Nova Scotia
Maritime Bus is a coach service with over 50 locations throughout the Maritimes, favored by students, budget travelers, and used by locals as a way to deliver large packages at a cheaper rate than the post office. In Halifax, the Maritime Bus station is located adjacent to the VIA rail train station, steps away from the Halifax waterfront.
Within Halifax, Halifax Transit has bus routes around the city – fares are paid by cash, and you must have the correct change.
Best places to visit in Nova Scotia
Taxi and Ride Shares
Halifax has a good selection of taxi operators who use an old-fashioned meter system and accept credit, debit, and cash. Although ride-sharing services are popular in other world cities, heavily regulated Halifax was slow to embrace the trend. Finally, in November 2020, ride-sharing services were permitted to operate, despite protests from traditional taxi firms. You may notice that “grabbing an Uber” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue in Halifax as easily as in other cities.
There are many ways to get around Nova Scotia on two wheels: the rails to trails system has created cycle routes such as the Rum Runners Trail (Lunenburg to Halifax), The Harvest Moon Trailway (Annapolis Royal to Grand-Pré), and the Celtic Shores Coastal Trail (Port Hastings to Inverness).
Whether you’re taking a guided tour, or a solo trip, Cycle Nova Scotia can help with trip planning, resources and GPS downloads. In Halifax, you can rent bikes and e-bikes from I Heart Bikes on the Halifax waterfront.
If you are visiting Nova Scotia in September, you can join over a thousand cyclists participating in the Grand Fondo, Baie Sainte Marie, a monumental ride through the Municipality of Clare in southwest Nova Scotia that ends with a lobster dinner for participants.
Accessible transportation in Nova Scotia
Like many cities, Nova Scotia still has a long way to go in terms of accessibility, with few options for accessible accommodations in rural Nova Scotia. In Halifax, the waterfront boardwalk is accessible, but its downtown streets, leading up to the Halifax Citadel, are steep.
Most taxi companies in Halifax have wheelchair-accessible vans, bookable in advance, and Halifax Transit buses have spaces for wheelchair users (the driver will lower the bus for entry/exit and secure the chair using straps.)
One of Nova Scotia’s most recent accessible “wins” was to install a viewing deck at Peggy’s Cove, so that wheelchair users can enjoy a close-up view of the lighthouse and rocks, In Cape Breton, Inverness Beach is aiming to become the most accessible beach in Nova Scotia, with two beach wheelchairs, floating chairs and sand mats that make it easier to walk on the sand.
Parasport Nova Scotia has a good list of accessible parks, beaches and barrier-free fishing sites in Nova Scotia, while local Youtube channel, Accessible Adventurers provides no-nonsense (and sometimes up close and personal) video accounts documenting the challenges of getting around in Nova Scotia as a quadriplegic.
For additional information, download Lonely Planet’s free Accessible Travel guide.