On the shores of the blustery North Atlantic, Nova Scotia is one of Canada’s trio of Maritime Provinces. But you don’t (necessarily) need a boat to get around.

Exploring the beautiful province is easiest if you have your own set of wheels. Yet plenty of other transport options can 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.

Start your Nova Scotia trip by flying into Halifax 

Known to the Indigenous Mi’kmaq people as “K’jipuktuk” (Great Harbor), Halifax is the largest Canadian city east of Montréal, with daily flight connections to major cities across Canada and the eastern USA, as well as direct service to Europe (London is roughly 5 hours away). The main air hub, Halifax Stanfield International Airport (YHZ), is a major full-service airport that offers car-rental facilities, restaurants, hotels and a helpful tourist information desk.

It’s easy to get from the airport to downtown Halifax if you don’t have a car. Ask for help at the ground transportation desk located just after the arrivals area. Your choices are a taxi or airport limousine (the same standard flat rate applies for both); a public bus (Metro X Route 320), Driver Dave’s (a reliable door-to-door rideshare service popular with students and budget travelers); and Uber.

A high-angle view of seashore and cliffs against the sky, Kings County, Nova Scotia, Canada
Splurge on an air charter to take in Nova Scotia’s amazing coast from a whole new angle © Haohai Deng / 500px / Getty Images

Admire the dramatic coast from above in a private air charter

It sounds extravagant – and it is. If you have a group of friends and a few loonies to spare, a helicopter ride is an unforgettable way to experience the drama of Nova Scotia’s coastline and islands. Halifax airport–based Vision Air Services offers a “heli-picnic” island-escape package (C$650 per person) in addition to private charters, while Breton Air, based at JA Douglas McCurdy airport in Sydney, provides private charters and transport to Cape Breton Island’s most exclusive lodges, retreats and golf courses.

You can take the train from Montréal to Halifax

There is one way to reach Nova Scotia by train: a VIA Rail Halifax–Montréal service called 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. A walk or bike ride along these trails is one of the best free things to do in Nova Scotia.

Hail a taxi (and maybe a rideshare) in Halifax

Halifax has a good selection of taxi operators who use an old-fashioned meter system and accept credit and debit cards, as well as old-fashioned cash. Although rideshare services are popular in other world cities, heavily regulated Halifax was slow to embrace the trend. Finally, in November 2020, rideshare services got the green light, 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.

A white and blue ferry crosses a large body of water en route to Nova Scotia, Canada. The image is framed by the branches of a tree in the foreground.
The Fundy Rose ferry connects Nova Scotia with New Brunswick © shaunl / Getty Images

Bring your car onto one of Nova Scotia’s many ferry services

One of the nicest ways to arrive in or bid farewell to Nova Scotia is by sea. Large, comfortable car ferries operate between Yarmouth, Nova Scotia and Bar Harbor, Maine (3.5 hours); Digby, Nova Scotia and Saint John, New Brunswick (2 hours, 15 minutes); and Caribou, Nova Scotia to Wood Islands, part of Prince Edward Island (1 hour, 15 minutes). All travel times are approximate and vary with the weather.

If you really like being at sea, you can also take the ferry service between Sydney in Cape Breton and two ports in Newfoundland: Port Aux Basques (7 hours) and Argentia (16 hours.)

Within Nova Scotia, small car ferries often substitute for bridges or causeways. These charming, blue, flat-decked ferries fill up quickly and take only a few minutes to complete their crossing – and the fare is free. You’ll find 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, and costs 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 McNabs Island ferry service using a RHIB (rigid hulled inflatable boat) – a thrilling way to explore Halifax Harbor and the Northwest Arm.

When is the best time to visit Nova Scotia?

A mature woman sitting in the back of her car at the beach, Nova Scotia, Canada
Having your own car can let you have out-of-the-way places in Nova Scotia to yourself © Fertnig / Getty Images

Your own car or motorcycle will let you take in the most of Nova Scotia 

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); these main routes circumnavigate and cross the province. As a sightseer, though, you may prefer to take an “old road” (for example, Hwy 1 or Hwy 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 catchy names for some of the best scenic drives in Nova Scotia, such as the Lighthouse Route or the Glooscap Trail (each one has distinct signage). You can reliably follow these using the Nova Scotia Tourism Regions Map. You can get free paper copies at the airport and at Nova Scotia tourist information centers.

If you’re driving in winter 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.

Hop on a bus for a budget-friendly ride around Nova Scotia

Maritime Bus is a coach service that serves over 50 locations throughout the Maritimes. It’s a favorite of students and budget travelers, and used by locals as a way to convey large packages at a cheaper rate than using the post office. In Halifax, the Maritime Bus station is located next to the VIA rail train station, steps away from the Halifax waterfront.

Within Halifax, Halifax Transit has bus routes that thread through the city. You can pay your fare in cash (exact change required), or using the HFXGO app.

Best places to visit in Nova Scotia 

A long bike ride is a fabulous way to see Nova Scotia’s scenery

Bike trails unfurl throughout Nova Scotia. The rails-to-trails network includes such routes 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 visit Nova Scotia in September, join over 1000 cyclists who participate in the Grand Fondo, Baie Sainte-Marie, an up-to-128k (80-mile) ride through the Municipality of Clare in southwest Nova Scotia...that ends with a lobster dinner for participants.

The observation deck at Peggy’s Cove lighthouse near Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
The new observation deck looking out on charming Peggy’s Cove lighthouse is fully accessible © shaunl / Getty Images

Accessible transportation in Nova Scotia

Alas, Nova Scotia has a long way to go in terms of accessibility – with options for accessible accommodations especially few in rural parts of the province. In Halifax, the waterfront boardwalk is accessible – but the streets that leading up to the famous Halifax Citadel are steep.

Most taxi companies in Halifax have wheelchair-accessible vans (only bookable in advance), while Halifax Transit buses have spaces for wheelchair users. (The driver will lower the bus for each passenger with a disability, then secure their chair using straps.)

One of Nova Scotia’s most recent accessible “wins”: a viewing deck at Peggy’s Cove, which allows wheelchair users to 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 the province, while local YouTube channel Accessible Adventurers provides no-nonsense (and sometimes up close and personal) video accounts that document the challenges of getting around in Nova Scotia as a quadriplegic.

This article was first published May 12, 2022 and updated Apr 28, 2024.

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