From beautiful beaches and interesting lighthouses to historic churches and community festivals, you don’t have to spend a lot of money in Nova Scotia to have a good time.
There’s a comforting lack of big-city bustle here, but as long as the ocean is within arm’s reach, there’s always something fun going on. Put away your wallet, grab your sunscreen and relax: here are some of the best free things to do in Nova Scotia.
Scope out Nova Scotia's most beautiful beaches
Ask any Nova Scotian, and they’ll tell you about their favorite beaches – some hot spots, some nameless gems, and some so precious their location remains a tightly guarded family secret. But even so, there’s plenty of sand for everyone: the province has so many miles of shoreline you could spend a year beach-hopping and still find new places to explore. And the best thing is that they’re all free.
For the top spots in Nova Scotia, check out Inverness Beach in Cape Breton, Crystal Crescent near Halifax, Bayswater Beach on the Aspotogan peninsula, Stoney Island Beach on Cape Sable Island, Melmerby Beach on the Northumberland Shore, and Martinique Beach on the Eastern Shore.
Explore picturesque Peggy’s Cove and St. Margaret’s Bay
A short drive from Halifax on the south shore of Nova Scotia is St. Margaret's Bay and the tiny village of Peggy’s Cove, home to a lighthouse – with a new accessible viewing deck – that's one of the province's most popular free attractions. Stand on the gigantic granite rocks and feel the salt air in your hair, browse through the gift shop at the Sou’Wester Restaurant (no need to buy anything) and admire the stonework of the sailor’s memorial sculpture outside the William E. deGarthe Gallery. (It's not free, but if you decide to venture inside, admission to the gallery itself only costs a dollar.)
Nearby, there are several interesting hikes as well, including a trail at Polly’s Cove. To get to know Nova Scotia through the work of its local creatives, visit in July for Peggy’s Cove Area Festival of the Arts, which includes a free self-guided tour of more than 70 artists' studios, spread out across 40 locations in the St. Margaret’s Bay area.
Take to the streets for an art tour
The capital city of Halifax sponsors a series of larger-than-life murals, collectively called Gritty to Pretty, and new entries are added on a regular basis. To create a personalized (and free!) self-guided tour, check the Downtown Business Commission's list of murals on view, including The Sea in Her Blood, a surf-inspired mural next to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, and the Freak Lunchbox mural, on the wall of the Barrington Street candy store of the same name.
See the local scenery on two wheels
When the Canadian National Railway removed the tracks from nearly every train route in the country, most were replaced by a network of level, fine-gravel trails wide enough to accommodate two-way traffic in the form of people, bicycles, and all-terrain vehicles, dubbed the Trans Canada Trail. In Nova Scotia, the rails-to-trails network is divided into sections, each one managed and maintained by a local community – and completely free. Some of the best options in the province include the Salt Marsh Trail in Cole Harbour, the Harvest Moon trail in Kentville, the Butter Trail in Tatamagouche and the Celtic Shores Coastal Trail in Cape Breton.
Climb aboard a national icon
You don’t have to spend a cent to appreciate the Bluenose II, the iconic sailing vessel featured on the Canadian dime. The ship is often at sea, and while its cruises are far from free, the schedule is published annually so you can follow its journey around the Maritimes and beyond. But its home is the Unesco World Heritage city of Lunenburg, and when in port, the Bluenose regularly opens her decks to visitors, who are invited to step aboard, chat with the crew and marvel at the size and beauty of the schooner.
Picnic on the ocean floor at Burntcoat Head Park
As home to the world's highest tides, the Noel Shore's Burntcoat Head Park hosts an elite event called Dining on the Ocean Floor. It's practically a full-day affair that includes a foraging excursion, a "shore boil" seafood lunch and a private, guided tour of the park, culminating in a fancy three-course meal paired with Nova Scotia wines, served at a table perched on the red mud of the seabed and capped off with a campfire. Seats go for a cool US$1000 per couple, and remarkably, it sells out every year.
But if you're on a budget and don’t mind packing your own eats, you can still dine on Burntcoat's ocean floor, no reservation – or credit card – required. Munch on your homemade sandwich and watch the seawater trickle into puddles as the Bay of Fundy's tides come in; every 12 hours, they rise and fall a whopping 5 stories, nearly 50ft on average. Be sure to wear rubber boots and check the tide schedule before you go.
Catch up-and-coming talent at the Halifax Busker Festival
Held annually at the height of summer (i.e., late July to early August), the Halifax Busker Festival invites a global array of street performers, acrobats, magicians and musicians to take the stage at the capital waterfront. Though it’s good etiquette to show your appreciation for the performers you’ve enjoyed (there are options for online tipping), the annual festival is open-air and free to all.
Go back to nature with Parks Canada
Across the country, admission to all Parks Canada parks and sites is free for kids ages 17 and under, and Nova Scotia's are no exception (although services like guided hikes and camping might incur extra charges). New Canadian citizens can gain free entry as well via Canoo, a digital app that provides free admission to museums, galleries, parks and historic sites for one full year after gaining citizenship.
Even national parks and sites that charge admission may have free things to do outdoors. Fort Anne National Historic Site, which leads directly into the main street of Annapolis Royal, has rolling grassy ramparts and historical points of interest that are open for exploration; likewise, Halifax's Citadel Hill National Historic Site charges entry for its museum, but anyone can walk up, down or around the hill itself to enjoy the views.
Pay your respects at historic Nova Scotia churches
Some of the best free experiences in Nova Scotia can be found inside its historic churches. In Cape Breton, the magnificent stone Église St Pierre has towered over the Acadian fishing village of Chéticamp since 1893, displaying a stained-glass rose window, ornate plasterwork, and rare neoclassical French-Canadian style. Much older (construction began in 1754) is St. John’s Anglican Church in Lunenburg, an arresting black-and-white Gothic building that's the second-oldest Anglican church in the country. (The oldest is St Paul’s in Halifax, established in 1749; also worth a visit.) On the Acadian Shore, Église Ste-Marie is the tallest wooden church in North America, built in the shape of a cross with a steeple 58 meters (190 feet) high.
Dig into the roots of your family tree
Curious about your past? If you're the descendant of someone who emigrated from Europe to North America between 1865 and 1935, you may be able to access their records at the Scotiabank Family History Centre, located on the Halifax Waterfront next to the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. With the help of a professional researcher, you can also undertake broader family research using obituaries, censuses, newspapers, military records, and birth, marriage and death certificates. This service, including a researcher's assistance, is free; documents can be printed for a nominal fee.
Honk the foghorn at Fort Point Lighthouse
If operating a hand-cranked foghorn is on your travel wish list, head to Fort Point Lighthouse – one of the country's oldest surviving lighthouses – on the outskirts of Liverpool, where you can climb up to the second floor and toot the horn for free.
While you're nearby, explore other free things in the area: the stunning beaches of Queen’s County; Thomas Raddall Provincial Park, which is free for day use; and the beautiful, wacky Concrete Creations, a sculpture garden hidden behind a humble garden center, where admission is free, but donations are accepted.
See Nova Scotia's best lighthouses
With more than 13 thousand kilometers (8,000 miles) of coastline, Nova Scotia has plenty more lighthouses to explore – and most of them are free. Grab a map and pinpoint the ones you’d like to visit: Walton Lighthouse is free to climb during opening hours, and Medway Head Lighthouse offers views of Port Medway, where the scenery is like a mini-Peggy's Cove. Sandy Point Lighthouse in Shelburne has a family-friendly beach that reveals itself only at low tide.
Near Yarmouth, the lightstation at Cape Forchu is a truly unique structure: a mid-century “apple-core” lighthouse, constructed in 1962. There’s a guided tour with a cost attached, but if you’re on a budget, the view and the sunsets are free.
Snap a selfie with the world’s largest fiddle
In Cape Breton, the town of Sydney often gets overlooked in favor of other attractions, such as the Cabot Trail and Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. But it’s a great place to visit, particularly the waterfront, which has beautiful harbor views, art installations such as the Merchant Mariner’s Memorial, and, standing 60ft high, the world’s largest fiddle. Grab a selfie, then head to Governers Pub to hear – what else? – live fiddle music.
Fish for free in Eastern Passage
About a 20-minute drive over the bridge from downtown Halifax, Fisherman’s Cove, in the community of Eastern Passage, is a working fishing port and historic fishing village that has been transformed into a cheerful place to while away an afternoon, even if you're not a professional angler.
The brightly painted shops along the boardwalk are photo-worthy, while Fisherman’s Cove Heritage Centre has local information and a small art gallery. At the end of the boardwalk, you can walk, birdwatch, and fish for mackerel at McCormacks Beach Provincial Park – and the waters are tidal, so you don’t even need a fishing license.
Get some fresh air in Halifax
Some of Nova Scotia's best free outdoor activities can be found in the capital. In the heart of the city, the gated Victorian Halifax Public Gardens offer respite from the (relative) hustle and bustle of downtown; in the South End, Point Pleasant Park is popular with joggers, and in the North End, Africville Park and Historic Site has free outdoor art installations, interpretive panels and beautiful sunset views over the Bedford Basin.
Halifax Harbour draws lots of foot-traffic, but the lesser-known Northwest Arm has treasures as well. York Redoubt Historic Site, Sir Sanford Fleming Park, the Dingle Tower, and the Frog Pond all have the ingredients for a great day out – and all of them are free.
You may also like:
Nova Scotia's 6 essential road trips
9 stunning beaches in Nova Scotia
Lighthouses, whales and fishing villages: 10 best places to visit in Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia is an adventurer's paradise – here are the best things to see and do