Big City Tales

The Pride of Pittsburgh

January 11, 2018
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Even with one of its nicknames being “Steel City,” Pittsburgh is a city that has long intrigued me. True, some historical references conjure up images of thick black plumes of smoke hovering over dreary factory buildings in a landscape devoid of green spaces. But that was then and this is now. The industrial town of old has definitely made way for a new cosmopolitan vibe that is attracting curious visitors like me in droves. Indeed, in recent years the city has received notable accolades for its livability, culture, foodie scene and economic prosperity.

Yes, “The ‘Burgh” or “City of Bridges” as the city is also referred to today is chock-full of amazing architecture, museums, parks, educational institutions, restaurants, and sports & entertainment options on par with New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and other major US cities. Whichever nickname you prefer, each truly represents the best of Pittsburgh’s past and present.

Here is a sampling of the Pride of Pittsburgh:

A “Top 10” City View

As the locals have long been aware, Pittsburgh has a lot of attractions to be proud of. The view of downtown from the Mt. Washington district at the top of the Duquesne Incline (pictured below) is one of the city’s shining gems. Indeed, this vantage point ranks in Fodor’s Travel “10 Most Incredible Views of America’s Cities” and shows off many of the city’s bridges, skyscrapers and the fountain at Point State Park, a national historic landmark.
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When dusk makes way to mid-evening and late night, the city lights begin to twinkle and reflect off of the river waters making for a glorious sight that photographers of all levels clamor to capture. Even my humble 35mm point and shoot digital camera produced a decent shot. Having enjoyed a lovely panoramic nighttime view of downtown, I was looking forward to getting a closer look in the daylight of Pittsburgh’s iconic buildings.

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Architecture

It may not be the tallest building in Pittsburgh, but PPG Place still towers above most of the city’s skyline and its series of buildings stretch over three city blocks. The complex certainly caught my eye and is noteworthy for its matching glass design consisting of six buildings, 231 spires, and 19,750 pieces of glass. At ground level, a large plaza paved in a mosaic of red, grey and black granite provides a gathering place for various seasonal activities such as an outdoor skating rink during the winter months and a fountain feature from spring until fall. For those who prefer an indoor refuge, the Wintergarden is a glass-enclosed garden oasis located in the main tower that is open year-round.

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PPG Place is also located next to the Market Square district where restaurants, cafes and retailers cater to tourists, as well as the regular Monday to Friday downtown business crowd. One of the popular casual dining haunts in Market Square is Primanti Brothers, known for their colossal “Almost Famous” sandwiches of grilled meat, an Italian dressing-based coleslaw, tomato slices, and french fries piled high between two pieces of thick Italian bread. Believe me, you won’t need to eat for the rest of the day, and you’ll probably want to head to one of the city’s nearby world-class museums to walk off some calories!

Museums

From history to art, to soldiers and sailors, or the celebration of the bicycle, Pittsburgh’s wide variety of museum options offers something for everyone’s taste and interests. 

Heinz History Center

Located in the Strip District, which is a one-half square mile shopping area northeast of downtown, the Heinz History Center is Pennsylvania’s largest history museum and is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. The center showcases Pittsburgh’s past and highlights its tradition of innovation, notably that Pittsburgh is known as a city of “firsts” such as the first Big Mac, the first retractable roof, the first drive-in gas station, the first ferris wheel, etc. As depicted in its many permanent and rotating exhibitions, the city is the headquarters of the Heinz food empire, is where famed explorers Lewis & Clark launched their epic trek from Pittsburgh to the Pacific from, and is where the beloved children’s show, “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” was filmed at the local public broadcasting station. A unique feature of touring the museum is that you can start in the stairwell and view highlights of the city’s 250-year history on the walls and steps as you wind your way to the top floor and then work your way down. I highly recommend this approach before taking in the full exhibits; the incline is not too steep and the museum is only six floors so you don’t have to be in tip-top shape.

Andy Warhol Museum

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Before he took New York City and the entire world by storm with his abstract art (most notably Campbell’s soup cans and images of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), Andy Warhol was a fresh-faced kid from Pittsburgh. Located in the city’s North Shore district, the Andy Warhol Museum holds the largest collection of Warhol’s artworks and archival materials, and is the largest single artist museum in North America.

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I found it interesting to see Warhol’s development as an artist before and after his fixation with Campbell’s soup cans, and late in his career when he started using computer generated design and color techniques. It also surprised me to learn that he was a pack rat and amassed quite a collection of knickknacks.

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Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History Museum 

Founded in 1895 by renowned businessman Andrew Carnegie, the Carnegie Museum of Art is considered to be the first museum of modern art in the United States. With paintings ranging from Monet to Whistler, the museum’s impressive collection also features one of the largest collection of plaster casts of architectural masterpieces in the world that are housed in the massive Hall of Architecture wing. The statues and building facades may be plaster, but they certainly looked authentic which speaks to the high quality of the replication process. The Porch of the Maidens installation captured my attention along with an elaborate burial shrine.

The Natural History Museum is noted for having one of the finest collections of dinosaur skeletons in the world, but has many other exhibits covering subject matter such as minerals and gems, Ancient Egypt, life in the Arctic, and geology. The museum’s high vaulted ceilings are the perfect construction to show off the towering heights of long extinct species.

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Educational Institutions

Situated in the heart of the University of Pittsburgh campus, the Cathedral of Learning stands 535 feet tall and contains 42 floors.

Aside from its magnificent Late Gothic Revival exterior, the interior features the infamous Nationality Rooms that are located on the first and third floors. The rooms are representative of various cultural and ethnic groups that have settled in the Pittsburgh area. When not in use, the public is free to explore the rooms; there are also great city views from the windows on the 35th and 36th floors.

Sports & Entertainment

Pittsburgh has a stellar record of winning sports franchises and an impressive array of venues to show off their talents in. PPG Paints Arena is the home of the 5-time Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League; Heinz Field is where the 6-time Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers of the National Football League play; and PNC Park is where the 5-time World Series Champion Pittsburgh Pirates of Major League Baseball hear the cry “Batter Up!” Even if ‘black and gold’ aren’t your colours, there’s plenty to cheer about and admire in this amazing “City of Champions!”

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Prague – The Beauty of Bohemia

December 21, 2017
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Prior to travelling to Prague in the fall of 2014, I had seen plenty of pictures and read many reviews about the city’s growing reputation as a must-see destination of choice over other European gems such as London, Paris and Rome. Having visited the ‘Big 3’ on my first trip across the pond, I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical that Prague could somehow surpass them in esteem, especially Paris, the glorious City of Light, but my opinion changed. In no time at all, I was succumed by the Beauty of Bohemia!

Municipal House

I found it very fitting that Municipal House is located in Namesti Republiky (Republic Square) in the center of Prague. Not only was it once used as the primary residence of the King of Bohemia in the 14th and 15th centuries; its main balcony was where Czechoslovakia declared its independence as a country in 1918. In addition to its status as the city’s historical heart and one of its most architecturally stunning Art Nouveau structures, the building has evolved into a cultural landmark. The elaborately decorated Smetana Hall is the largest area inside of Municipal House and is used for concerts, festivals and ballroom galas. By day or by night, this Prague gem captured my attention, earned my admiration and drew me back more than once.

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Powder Tower

Located next to Municipal House is Powder Tower (also known as Powder Gate), one of the city’s original gateways that was constructed in the late 1400s. The Gothic-style tower is the dividing point between the Old Town and New Town districts. Originally called New Tower, the name was changed in the 17th century when the tower was used to store gunpowder. The tower has also been used over the centuries as a marker to measure the height of flood waters. Similar to many of Prague’s historic structures, it struck me that the tower is equally impressive at any hour of the day and there are many interesting angles to observe it from.

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Old Town

While Municipal House was where the modern country of Czechoslovkia was born, its medieval roots are found in the Old Town district. Old Town Square is a UNESCO World Heritage site and features a number of historical buildings and monuments, as well as a large open space for food vendors, entertainers, and craftspeople to utilize. As I happily discovered, it is the ideal place to sample traditional Czech dishes such as palicinky (pancakes), trdelnik (rolled dough), gulas (meat goulash), or knedliky (dumplings) and then enjoy your beverage of choice at an outdoor cafe with an amazing backdrop of Renaissance and Baroque building facades to ooh and ahh over. Along with satisfying my sweet and savory cravings, Old Town Square served up other visual delights to feast my eyes on:

  • Astronomical Clock – As the third oldest of its kind in the world, the clock draws throngs of tourists to the southern wall of the Old Town Hall building where they eagerly await the top of the hour to strike and watch the figures come to life. I particularly enjoyed the “Walk of the Apostles” and other moving sculptures. According to legend, if the clock were ever to stop or come to disrepair, the city of Prague would suffer dire consequences so there is a concerted effort to keep it fully operational for citizens and visitors to forever enjoy.
  • Jan Hus Monument – Located in the middle of Old Town Square, the Jan Hus monument honours the religious reformer who, long before Martin Luther penned his 95 Theses, was speaking out against egregious church practices. Even after being ex-communicated by the Pope, Hus continued sharing his message and amassed a loyal following which the Catholic establishment frowned upon. When Hus refused to renounce his beliefs, he was branded as a heretic and subsequently burned at the stake.
  • Kinsky Palace – Once the residence of the Kinsky royal family, the Rococo-style palace is now an art museum and showcases some of the country’s finest landscape paintings dating back to the 17th century. The building’s exterior is a work of art in and of itself with its distinctive stucco finish and highly eye-catching pink and white colour. Before it was converted into a museum, the palace was used as a German grammar school and counts Franz Kafka as one of its famous students. Sadly, the palace was also the site where Communist leader Klement Gottwald announced his party’s takeover of government in 1948.
  • Church of Our Lady before Tyn – Looking very much like a castle straight out of a fairy tale, the church’s two Gothic-designed towers stand 80 metres tall and are each topped with four spires. The church is also home to Prague’s oldest pipe organ.

Wenceslas Square

Located in Prague’s New Town district, Wenceslas Square is primarily a hub for commercial and cultural activities. The long boulevard that extends from the National Museum to the border between New Town and Old Town reminded me of the Champs Elysees in Paris with shops, cafes and throngs of tourists intermingling with the city’s business crowd. One of the major landmarks is the Wenceslas Monument that stands in front of the National Museum and includes a statue of Saint Wenceslas (patron saint of Bohemia), as well as four other Czech saints. The area is also a frequent gathering place for social demonstrations and civic celebrations.

While I was familiar with the classic Christmas carol called “Good King Wenceslas,” I did not realize that during his lifetime, Wenceslas only held the rank of duke. It wasn’t until after his brutal death at the hands of his jealous brother that he was posthumously granted the title of king and recognized for his pious nature and good deeds.

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National Museum

The main building of the National Museum was unfortunately closed to the public due to a major reconstruction project that was underway when I was there in 2014, but the grounds were open to walk around. At the base of the stairs leading up to the museum’s entrance I came across the Jan Palach Memorial. Palach was one of two university students who self-immolated in a suicide pact to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to quash liberal reforms being proposed at the time by Alexander Dubcek, leader of the Prague Spring movement. The bronze cross marks the spot where Palach and his friend, Jan Zajic, chose to commit their radical acts. To this day, people come to the site and lay flowers in a sign of remembrance and respect for the ultimate sacrifice made by Palach, Zajic and others who desired political freedom.

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Prague Castle 

Situated in Hradcany (Castle District), the Prague Castle overlooks the Vltava River and also holds the distinction of being listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the largest ‘coherent castle complex’ with a total land area sprawling over 70,000 square metres. As I was forewarned, appropriate footwear is a must and ample time is required to wander around this massive wonder.

The Gothic-designed St. Vitus Cathedral, home of the Archbishop of Prague, is one of the most identifiable landmarks within the castle complex and is easy to spot from a distance with its nearly 100 metre high main tower dominating the skyline. The church is the largest and oldest in the Czech Republic and is the final resting place for many Bohemian kings and Holy Roman Emperors.

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In addition to St. Vitus Cathedral and other churches, the castle complex is also a myriad wonder of palaces, grand halls, towers, sculptures, gardens and museums. The President of the Czech Republic lives in the complex and presides over the country’s affairs. The Prague Castle Guard protect the main entry way of the courtyard leading into the Matthias Gate that was erected by its namesake, Matthias, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1614. Similar to other major European castles, tourists are treated to frequent changing of the guards ceremonies.

One of my favourite parts of the Prague Castle day tour I took was walking through the St. Wenceslas Vineyard that cascades down the hill towards the Vltava River.  The cobblestone pathway was littered with freshly fallen leaves just starting to change colour with the advent of fall’s crisp, cool air.

I also took a ‘Prague By Night’ tour that included a stop at Prague Castle where the St. Vitus Cathedral glowed in tones of rich gold and spotlights cast spectacular shadows of presidential monuments. The view of the castle complex from afar was also awe-inspiring with light reflecting off of the river water below.

Charles Bridge

Up until 1841, the only way to cross the Vltava River from Old Town to Prague Castle was via Karluv Most, the Charles Bridge, named after King Charles IV. The bridge is constructed of stone and is over 600 metres in length. Its many features include three guard towers, 16 arches and 30 statues. Whether I was experiencing the market-like bustle of the bridge as a pedestrian or admiring its architectural style from a riverboat (along with a bevy of swans), I could not deny the utter charm and timeless appeal of this historic bridge.

Vltava River

Commonly referred to as the “Czech national river,” the Vltava is 430 kilometres in length and flows through the center of Prague. There are a total of 18 bridge crossings within Prague, the aforementioned Charles Bridge being the most famous, and there are numerous boat tour operators offering morning, afternoon and evening launches. I chose to enjoy an afternoon tea and dessert tour and it hit the spot!

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One of the highlights of the river cruise I took was viewing the Metronome (high on the hill in Letna Park) and the Svatopluk Čech bridge with its gorgeous Art Nouveau styled arches and soaring column-topped angels.

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The Beauty of Bohemia

After a week touring around the heart of Bohemia, I went from skeptic to firm believer that Prague is the new Paris! It’s just as pretty; it’s just as bright; it’s lights will take away your breath at night. Yes, the Beauty of Bohemia is quite a sight and the locals sure know how to show it off all right!


A Summer’s Tale of Two Desert Cities

November 2, 2017
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As anyone who lives in a desert climate can attest, summer typically isn’t the best time to visit. Oppressive heat, turbulent winds and crowded pools top the list of reasons to stay away, but there are just as many compelling reasons to go. In 2014, I threw caution to said heat, winds and crowds and headed to Palm Springs, California in July and Phoenix, Arizona in August. Here is my summer’s tale of these two desert cities…

PALM SPRINGS – It’s Hip to Be Cool 

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Palm Springs has long been a weekend get-away and/or permanent residence for the rich and famous, but the city also holds a special appeal for the ever-growing breed of ‘snowbirds’ from Canada longing to escape the doldrums of winter or, in my case, a rainy spring/summer. With 350+ days of sunshine and very little annual precipitation, I eagerly soaked up the dry, warm air that hits you immediately like opening an oven door. Upon landing at Palm Springs International and strolling through the Sonny Bono Concourse, I was also reminded of the city’s show business/Hollywood playground notoriety first made popular by iconic stars such as Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Dinah Shore dating back to the 1940s and onward. It was hip then for the “Chairman of the Board” and his “Rat Pack” friends to hang out in Palm Springs, and it’s still cool in the 21st century to venture to this desert oasis.

Soak Up the Sun, Bask in the Color

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In the summer, traditional desert plants bloom in a frenzy of bright, bold colors and grow in a variety of interesting shapes and sizes, such as the Golden Barrel Cactus above.

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Surprisingly, flower beds and shrubbery also flourish. I was delighted to discover that the grounds of Indian Wells Tennis Garden were ablaze in shades of burgundy, fuschia, pink and purple with hints of white. Even though the facility is more active earlier in the year when it hosts the annual BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, it would appear that the grounds are immaculately maintained year-round making for prime picture-taking no matter what month you visit.

Find the Fun in Funky Public Art

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While window shopping at The Gardens on El Paseo, my eyes happily landed on a painted big horn sheep fittingly named ‘Spring Time’ owing to its floral motif and bright/cheery color scheme. As I subsequently discovered, the statue is not just a random, funky art piece; it’s part of an initiative that was sponsored by the Bighorn Institute back in 2002 to bring attention to the plight of the Peninsular desert bighorn sheep that are endangered in the Coachella Valley. There are 33 other sculptures found throughout the region and the project known as ‘Path of the Bighorn’ continues to attract positive attention for a good cause.

PHOENIX – The Valley of the Sun Heats Up BIG TIME in the Summer

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With the temperature soaring well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and barely a breath of wind to offer any cool relief, it did not surprise me to find the streets of downtown Phoenix pretty much empty during my mid-August visit. Even shaded benches and inviting water features in the city’s core could only entice a few people to venture outside the comfort of air-conditioned buildings. As I quickly discovered, the blazing sun (as depicted above in the decorative copper sculpture at City Hall) really heats up in the summer and taking cover is a must in order to keep from feeling like a wilted flower or fried egg!

Taking Cover in the Arts

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As luck would have it, West Side Story happened to be playing at the Herberger Theater Center and last minute tickets were available. Although it was a local high school theater group putting on the show, the teens gave it their all and it had the look and feel of a full Broadway production. ‘Tonight, tonight,’ I was feeling all right in the comfort of a cooled room and a bunch of cool cat Jets and Sharks singing and dancing up a storm.

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Boasting a permanent collection ranging from Western American to Asian and European, as well as Contemporary and Modern holdings, another great spot to escape the heat was at the Phoenix Art Museum. I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around this expansive space, the largest museum in the US southwest, and admiring some of its more than 18,000 objects. The Nude Man sculpture below was gifted to the museum on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, and the Thorne Miniature Rooms feature many historically accurate and highly detailed interiors, the one shown being an Italian dining room circa 1500.

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Taking Cover in the US Airways Center

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Having never attended a WNBA game, I was excited to learn that the Phoenix Mercury were in town and that the team was playoff bound boasting the best record in the league. On a steaming hot Saturday night outside, the temperature-controlled stands were a nice reprieve but the mercury would soon be rising.  Indeed, the Mercury Train inside was in full motion and the action quickly heated up with one roaring rally cry after another! The players were pumped, the fans were vocal and their boisterous support helped the home team come away with another win. Go Mercury! Turn It Up! NOISE!

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Taking Cover in the Cool-ish Morning Air

Not wanting to completely shy away from the desert heat, I figured an early morning walk was the best way to enjoy the outdoors. I was rewarded with crystal clear, electric blue skies, a slight breeze and just the right amount of warmth to make my stroll around the downtown campus of Arizona State University absolutely delightful (and, by the way, perspiration free!).

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The Moral of the Tale of Two Desert Cities Story

Truth be told, I do like warm, dry air but I have to admit that visiting the desert in the heart of the summer was too much even for this self-professed sun seeker. I’ll be back, but it will be in another season when it’s not so scorching hot out…all the better to appreciate and admire the beauty of the desert city landscape!

 

 


A Colorful Time Out in Tucson

October 25, 2017
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Rubber Ducky, you’re the one. You make pool time so much fun. Rubber Ducky, I’m awfully fond of you…especially when you greet me in early spring on a much-needed time out in Tucson, Arizona!

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Aside from the promise of days on end of brilliant blue skies and sun-kissed golden pretty posies all in a row, mid-April turned out to be a magical time to visit the desert for other colorful reasons.

Shades of Pink

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Even from a distance, it was hard to miss the mass of pink that is the Pima County Courthouse. The surrounding gardens, full of vibrant shades of pink flowers and bushes, perfectly complemented and strikingly contrasted with the pale pink hue of the building’s Spanish Colonial exterior. Just like the soothing digestive effects of Pepto Bismol, the pinkness of the Pima County Courthouse washed over my being and definitely soothed my work-weary mind.

Purple Ribbons and Bows 

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The main entrance of Saint Augustine Cathedral beckoned me to its doors with regal — yet friendly — shimmery purple bows, presumably to coincide with the festive Easter season. The cathedral is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson and the building’s stone facade features numerous varieties of local desert plants.

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In an effort to enhance the cathedral’s sacred space and worship experience, a major interior and exterior restoration project was completed in recent years. An outdoor stage featuring a charming and beautiful arched canopy decorated in flowers and butterflies immediately caught my eye. From top to bottom, inside and out, I was inspired by the entire cathedral complex that can’t help but appeal to parishioners and visitors both young and old.

Fiery Red-Orange Hues of Terra Cotta 

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Perhaps one of the most distinctive colors of the desert, terra cotta truly stands out. As soon as I walked past the El Charro Cafe with its quaint windows and arched doorway, trimmed in said desert color, I knew that I would be coming back to enjoy an evening meal. Offering authentic Mexican cuisine in a casual atmosphere, I was sure to leave room for some tasty sopapillas and churros for dessert.

Goodness of Green

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While I expected to see a lot of green in the form of cactus plants, I was pleasantly surprised by the other forms of greenery I came across in Tucson, most notably the plethora of trees and shrubbery around the campus of the University of Arizona. The soft green steel benches added to the oasis garden-feel of the grounds, and I thought the precisely cut-out ARIZONA lettering provided another layer of visual interest (and probably served the purpose of instilling a healthy dose of school and state pride!).

Colors of the Rainbow

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Finishing off my tour of Tucson back in the downtown core, this public art display captured the essence of this colorful southwest gem of a city. For me, Tucson in all its spring glory proved to be the perfect place for a quick time out!


One Town That Won’t Let You Down

October 23, 2017
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With all the wind blowing through my hometown of Calgary this fall, it’s reminded me of another great city south of the border that also starts with a ‘C’ and also has its fair share of blustery days! The winds of Chicago, Illinois may knock you down, but the town itself won’t let you down…

Yes, if there’s one thing you can count on in Chicago, it’s the ever-present wind that is either welcomed or shunned depending on the weather conditions. In the heat of the summer, a gentle breeze off of Lake Michigan cools the masses; but in the dead of winter it freezes their toes! For tried and true Chicagoans, it’s just part and parcel of the charm that comes with living in the ‘Windy City’ and many wouldn’t want it any other way.

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As the sun begins to set, the Chicago skyline begins to glimmer, shimmer, and gloriously GLOW!

Architecture

One of the redeeming qualities in this fine mid-western city, and indeed adding to its charm, is the wide array of architectural styles in the downtown core that is best observed either on a walking tour or a river cruise. Chicago is the birthplace of the skyscraper and you’ll have to look up, WAY up to see the tops of the John Hancock Center and the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, two structures that, in the past, have both held the distinction of being the world’s tallest buildings. Although not nearly as tall, the iconic Wrigley Building located on Michigan Avenue along the Chicago River is nonetheless just as eye-catching and holds its own as a beloved city landmark. From modern, innovative designs to classical and Art Deco treasures, there are plenty of spectacular marvels of construction to behold and admire.

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Gather with the throngs underneath the Cloud Gate Sculpture (a.k.a. ‘The Bean’) and enjoy an altered perspective of the city’s skyline.

 

Culture

When you’re done surveying the exterior of the city’s superstructures, you’ll be equally ‘blown away’ (pun intended!) with what Chicago has to offer by way of arts and culture. Public art includes The Bean, The Picasso, Flamingo, Buckingham Fountain and Agora to name but a mere few of Chicago’s popular installations that now number over 500 and are spread out across the city. Museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Science and Industry are world-renowned for their collections. The Art Institute is the second largest museum in the United States and includes pieces by Monet, Chagall, Rembrandt and Dali among other treasured artists. Both the Art Institute and the Field Museum are part of ‘Museum Campus’ in beautiful and peaceful Grant Park that also features the Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium.

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Baseball fans in Chicago rejoiced when the Cubs FINALLY won the World Series again in 2016.

Sports 

Not unlike other large American cities, Chicago sports fans have the luxury of many teams to throw their support behind, including two baseball franchises. While the city has had its fair share of champions, there have been some lean years, most notably the Cubs baseball team that, up until 2016, sadly held the distinction of the longest National League pennant and World Series droughts in the history of Major League Baseball. Other heralded teams include the Chicago White Sox (winners of the World Series in 1906 and 2005, representing the American League), the Chicago Bears (winners of the Super Bowl in 1985, representing the National Football Conference), the Chicago Blackhawks (winners of six Stanley Cups in 1934, 1938, 1961, 2010, 2013 and 2015, representing the Western Conference), and the Chicago Bulls (winners of six NBA Finals in 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997 and 1998, representing the Eastern Conference). More recently, Major League Soccer has been added to Chicago’s sports offerings and the Chicago Fire made the playoffs in 2017. Chicago also boasts a team in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and the Chicago Sky appeared in the 2014 finals.

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Ahoy, it’s Navy Pier…the Midwest’s number one tourist attraction located on the shores of Lake Michigan and home of the Centennial Wheel.

Entertainment

If watching sports isn’t your idea of a good time, there are other ways to have fun and be thoroughly entertained in Chicago. With its prime lakefront location, Navy Pier is open year-round and includes more than 50 acres of parks, gardens, shops, restaurants, family attractions and exhibition facilities. The area is currently undergoing a major upgrade with the Phase 1 “Centennial Vision” project completed in 2016 adding  amenities such as a new fountain and plaza at the pier’s main entryway; a greener and modernized promenade at the south dock; an authentic Chicago Food Experience featuring deep dish pizza, Chicago-style hot dogs, rainbow ice cream, etc.; and the grand new Centennial Wheel, the only one of its kind in the United States.

Chicago also has great appeal for fans of live music, theater and comedy productions. Musical genres associated with the city include the blues, Dixieland jazz (Chicago style), gospel, and house (electronic dance). From large Broadway shows to small local productions, there is something for all theater goers to enjoy. For those just looking for a good laugh, Chicago is home to The Second City, the well-known comedy club that has brought fame to the likes of Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Bill Murray and others who honed their skills and tickled the funny bones of Chicagoans before launching their careers on the national and world stages.

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Be it by the slice or by the whole pie, Chicagoans really, REALLY love their deep dish pizza!

Food

Considered to be one of America’s best food cities, it’s not just Chicago-style pizza and the classic ballpark hot dog that have critics raving. From fine dining in Michelin star restaurants to grabbing a bite on the fly from trendy street food vendors, the Chicago food scene has something to satisfy every palate and food craving. Local celebrity chefs include Rick Bayless whose specialty is Mexican regional cooking, Stephanie Izard whose passion is casual international cuisine, Art Smith who puts his heart and soul into southern comfort food, and three star Michelin superstar, Grant Achatz, who has skyrocketed to the top of the modernist cooking movement. Not to be overlooked are other staples such as Chicago-style popcorn, the original rainbow ice cream cone, and Bertha’s famous brownie. Can’t decide what to eat? Try out one of Chicago’s food tours where you can sample the best bites at the best digs in no time at all.

My Kind of Town

In the words of songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen and as sung with such incredible vim and vigor by Frank Sinatra, Chicago IS my kind of town and I think you’ll like it too!


Boston Strong All Year Long

September 17, 2013
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In the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, a city reeling from tragedy found comfort in a short, simple rallying cry.

“Boston Strong” perfectly captured the stalwart spirit of Bostonians on display for the world to see that fateful April day, and while springtime in Boston will forever be associated with the genesis of the powerful mantra, it’s a sentiment that has since been embraced by many of the city’s other heralded institutions/events held throughout the year.

No matter the season, no matter the month, Boston is truly strong all year long.

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The Charles River Esplanade in all its springtime glory.

Spring

You don’t have to be a sports enthusiast to know that in Boston the advent of spring and third Monday of April (Patriots’ Day) is synonymous with thousands of runners descending upon the city to participate in the aforementioned Boston Marathon.

The 2013 edition attracted over 20,000 participants from around the globe, of which some 5,000+ were unable to finish the race owing to the bombings, and featured an Ethiopian winner in the men’s event and a Kenyan in the women’s.

With early invites already extended to those non-finishers who completed at least half of the 2013 race, next year’s marathon promises to be bigger and better and STRONGER than ever.

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Every year, the Boston Marathon attracts thousands of runners eager to pound the city pavement and sweat up a storm en route to the finish line at Copley Square.

Summer

Given Boston is the site of many important events associated with the American Revolution, it comes as no surprise that the city spares no expense with Independence Day celebrations.

In addition to a 4th of July parade, residents and visitors are treated to a Boston Pops concert along the banks of the Charles River and one of the country’s best fireworks displays set to a fantastic musical score, culminating in the playing of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture with its booming cannon section.

The summer months are also an ideal time to check out Boston’s Freedom Trail and National Historical Park that features properties such as the Bunker Hill Monument, Paul Revere House, and Faneuil Hall where many pro-independence speeches were held.

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It looks peaceful now, but come July 4th the Back Bay district is one of the busiest harbours in America.

Fall

When the dog days of summer make way for the  cool, crisp days of fall, baseball fever in Beantown takes on a heightened sense of fervour – especially since 2004 when the “Curse of the Bambino” was finally lifted with the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series after an 86-year drought.

As one of Major League Baseball’s oldest and most-decorated teams, taking in a Bo Sox game at Fenway Park is a must for diehard sports fans, but will also appeal to those who appreciate historic landmarks and quirky architecture, such as the Green Monster in left field so named for its vivid green colouring and towering height of over 37 feet.

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Fenway Park is the oldest major league ballpark, and is home of the massive Green Monster wall looming larger than life out in left field.

Winter

There’s no denying the fact that Boston is a hub of winning sports teams (they don’t call it Titletown for nothing!) and after the athletes of spring/summer/fall hang up their cleats and jerseys, it’s time to head indoors to TD Gardens for some classic action in the hockey arena with the heralded Bruins, and in the paint on the basketball courts with the equally beloved Celtics.

As one of the Original Six franchises in the National Hockey League, the Bruins are the third oldest league franchise and oldest in America, and have won five Stanley Cup championships. Meanwhile, with 17 championship titles and 21 conference/division titles, the Celtics are a perennial powerhouse team in the National Basketball Association.

The winter months may be long and cold in NE Massachusetts, but having winning teams who share a common winning cheer sure helps to take the sting off…Boston Strong All Year Long!

Boston Strong

The “Boston Strong” sentiment extends to the city’s many sports franchises.


The Magic and Magnificence of Montreal & Quebec City

August 30, 2013
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Quebec Separation

To stay or not to stay…that is the question that has plagued Quebec voters for years.

While the politics of separatism may divide the people of Quebec (and Canada); one thing everyone can agree on is that when it comes to cities in Canada offering a sense of urban chic with a touch of old world charm, Montreal and Quebec City are at the top of the list.  Magic and magnificence abounds in equal measure in these two cities, and it doesn’t take long to fall under their respective spells.

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The altar inside of Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal.

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A lively re-enactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City.

MONTREAL

City of Islands – Situated along the Saint Lawrence Seaway, the city of Montreal is named after Mount Royal, a prominent three-peaked hill first documented by the great French explorer Jacques Cartier. The downtown core is built upon the Island of Montreal, but the city’s borders extend to surrounding islands such as Saint Helen’s and Bizard.

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The skyline of downtown Montreal.

Summer Festivals – Be it comedy, jazz, fireworks or film, Montreal is known for its wide array of festivals and every summer the city is inundated with throngs of people eager to soak-up Montreal’s unique cultural flare. If you’re looking for a hearty chuckle, check out the Just for Laughs festival; or if you want to be amazed with a kaleidoscope of spectacular fireworks displays, the Montreal Fireworks Festival will be sure to dazzle.

Jazz Festival

The annual Jazz Festival attracts internationally renowned performers, and standing-room only crowds.

Olympic Dreams / Sports Dynasties – When Montreal was selected to host the 1976 Summer Olympic Games, it was a major triumph for the city, province, and entire nation of Canada.  Despite soaring construction costs and ongoing maintenance issues with the primary venue, it was a point of pride for organizers that the games were a resounding success and produced some new sports heroes, notably Greg Joy who earned a silver medal in the high jump competition.

Canada may not have many elite track and field athletes, but the country does excel in other sports such as hockey and football and the city of Montreal is home to two heralded dynasties. The Montreal Canadiens are part of the National Hockey League and have won a record 24 Stanley Cups; while the Montreal Alouettes play in the Canadian Football League and have won the Grey Cup a total of seven times. During the 2000s, the Alouettes amassed an impressive win-loss-tie record, eight regular season first place finishes, and three Grey Cup wins.

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Over-budget and plagued by ongoing repairs, Olympic Stadium is still a marvel of architecture!

QUEBEC CITY

Old World Charm – In the historic district of Old Quebec, cobblestone streets and quaint, colourful storefronts are reminiscent of small European towns. Everywhere you look, proprietors are happily at work and visitors share their glee in wandering around at leisure and enjoying the casual, laid back atmosphere. Be sure to sample some sucre a la crème, a traditional Québécois fudge that is especially prevalent during the Christmas season.

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Looking for a taste of Europe? Check out the old world charm in the historic district of Old Quebec.

Winter Carnival – Nothing makes the winter more palatable like a good old-fashioned festival, and Quebec City’s annual offering certainly does its best to chase the winter blues away! Typically held in February, the festival’s star attraction is Le Bonhomme Carnaval, a jovial over-sized snowman who spreads Québécois joy wherever he goes. In addition to a winter amusement park, other attractions include a snow sled slide, ice sculptures and various outdoor shows. When in Quebec City in the heart of winter, a rendezvous with Monsieur Bonhomme is highly recommended!

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Bonjour, Monsieur Bonhomme! Vous etes tres beau, joyeux et plein de fun!

Chateau Frontenac – Sitting high on a hill overlooking the Saint Lawrence River below, the mighty and majestic Chateau Frontenac is a breath-taking sight at any time of day.  Designated as a national historic site in 1980, the hotel is noteworthy for being the most photographed in the world and is truly a wonder to behold!

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The regal and rustic Chateau Frontenac basks in the glow of a clear, bright sky.

 


Taking the Tarnish Off of Toronto

August 19, 2013
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One of the fringe benefits of working in downtown Toronto is the close proximity to Lake Ontario.

From its boisterous and belligerent mayor to its beleaguered police force, the city of Toronto has been in the news for all the wrong reasons this summer, but don’t let these public stains tarnish your image of what is otherwise one of Canada’s safest and most vibrant urban centres. Indeed, despite the recent bad press, the city has many redeeming qualities and boasts multiple world-class amenities that are worth a look-see time and time again.

The CN Tower

Situated along the shores of Lake Ontario, Toronto’s downtown core is an eclectic mix of modern and historical buildings with the iconic CN Tower being the star attraction. Rising over 1800 feet into the air, the tower remains the tallest free-standing structure in the Western hemisphere, and attracts in excess of two million visitors each year.

While many patrons prefer to take in the 360 degree view of the city from the inner observation deck, the thrill-seeking crowd were delighted when the EdgeWalk feature was added in 2011 allowing access to an exterior platform at 1168 feet. As TV personality Rick Mercer and singer/songwriter Jann Arden discovered, even being tethered to an overhead rail system and accompanied by a trained guide doesn’t put the butterflies at bay, but there’s no denying the spectacular views!

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With its sleek design and mammoth height, the CN Tower dominates the Toronto skyline.

Museum Central

Those looking for a break from the stress of a Toronto traffic jam on the 401 or mass of humanity on the crowded streets can seek refuge in one of the city’s peaceful cultural institutions. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), Hockey Hall of Fame, and Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) are all found in the general vicinity of the downtown core and each has unique offerings:

  • ROM is well-known for its Egyptian, Japanese and Chinese exhibits, as well as its extensive collection of natural history artifacts numbering in the millions.
  • Fans of the National Hockey League will enjoy a stroll down hockey’s memory lane at the Hockey Hall of Fame where the exploits of Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Maurice Richard and others greats of the game are celebrated in typical Canadian fanfare. The Hall of Fame is also the permanent exhibition site of the Stanley Cup and other significant league trophies.
  • AGO is one of the world’s largest art galleries and features an impressive array of works from Canadian artists, and a number of sculptures from Britain’s Henry Moore. AGO is also known for its many building expansions, with Frank Gehry being among the famous architects who have put their design stamp on the gallery.
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It may have an ultra-modern exterior, but the interior of the Royal Ontario Museum celebrates classical civilizations and timeless natural history artifacts.

Theatre District

As the world`s third largest English-speaking theatre district there are plenty of plays, musicals and festivals to take in on a regular basis in Toronto`s Theatre District. Be it a flashy West End or Broadway touring show production, or an uncensored Fringe Festival offering there is bound to be something that appeals to live theatre buffs. Canada`s Walk of Fame is also located in this area and the annual induction ceremony is a highlight on the Toronto high society calendar.

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The Royal Alexandria Theatre is the oldest continuously operating theatre in North America.

Yonge Street

As main streets go, Toronto has one of the longest in the world and one of the most culturally significant with Yonge Street playing host to street parades, performances, and demonstrations. The corner of Yonge and Dundas streets is often the site of free concerts and other public events at Yonge-Dundas Square, and is akin to the function and ambience of Times Square in New York City. Yonge Street is also a major transportation artery with the Yonge subway line running almost the full length of Toronto and connecting with most feeder routes.

For the city at the centre of the Canadian universe, Toronto often faces a lot of scrutiny from outsiders who delight in any blemishes that surface. It is a tall order to maintain a perfect complexion and it should be noted that the recent outbreak of unsavoury public activity is not a true reflection of what this city has to offer. Rather, Toronto is a dynamic and savvy metropolitan hub full of a palpable energy that fuels an air of excitement with every visit to its inner core – tarnished image or not!

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Yonge Street a.k.a. Main Street Ontario.

 


Venice: Veni, vidi, vici

August 9, 2013
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Vessels of all shapes and sizes navigate the busy, and sometimes choppy waters of Venice’s Grand Canal.

When travelling in Italy it is hard not to harken back to the glory days of the Roman Empire and the many conquests of its illustrious leaders.  Chief among the lost list of conquerors is Julius Caesar, whose epic battles at home and abroad contributed to the demise of the former corrupt republic and the establishment of a new noble state.

During his reign, Caesar was known for famously crossing the Rhine and the English Channel as part of his expansion efforts, and for coining the phrase “Veni, vidi, vici” following his triumph in Britain.  Given Caesar’s connection to the water, his immortal words are a fitting reference to how it feels as a tourist coming to Venice for the first time.

Being surrounded by water and an abundance of narrow, winding channels can be unnerving, but once your bearings are straight navigating this unique terrain is a breeze, and you’ll find yourself feeling like the mighty ruler himself. Yes, when it comes to visiting Venice, it is entirely possible to say: “I came, I saw, I conquered!”

The Grand Canal

A good place to start your conquest of this ancient marine city is on the Grand Canal where traditional gondolas can be found side-by-side with modern water taxis (vaporettis) and luxury yachts. Whatever your preferred mode of transportation, you’ll definitely need your sea legs to be in shape to get around Venice. The charm of a crooning gondolier will appeal to couples out for a romantic tour of the Venice lagoon waterways; while the speed and efficiency of vaporetti operators will attract those wanting to get from point A to B in short order.

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When in Venice, do as the tourists do: indulge yourself and take a traditional gondola ride!

The Rialto Bridge

As the most photographed bridge in Venice, the Rialto Bridge has the added distinction of once being the only way to cross the Grand Canal on foot. As beautiful as it is functional, the bridge owes its unique design to architect Anthony da Ponte who constructed a higher than usual arch to allow passage of galley ships common in the 16th century. Other notable features include three walkways, a decorative portico, and merchant shops on both sides.

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Opened in 1591, the Rialto Bridge is a busy crossing point between the San Marco and San Polo districts.

St. Mark’s Square / Bell Tower

Anchoring one end of the Venice promenade, St. Mark’s Square is home to the Bell Tower, St. Mark’s Basilica, and the Doge’s Palace among other must-see sights. The large open square provides ample space for outdoor concerts, as well as milling about with the plethora of pigeons who happily make their home here. Stylized street lanterns highlight the master skills of local glass-blowers, who demonstrate their craft and sell their wares nearby, but the main attractions in the square are the opulently designed/decorated basilica and palace that are as equally beautiful on the inside as they are from the outside.

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The bell tower in St. Mark’s Square is one of Venice’s most recognized and visited landmarks.

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One of the decorative columns in St. Mark`s Square that serve as the gateway to Venice.

The Promenade

Known as the Riva degli Schiavoni, the world-renowned promenade along the Venice waterfront starts at the Doge’s Palace and stretches to the Arsenal, Venice’s ancient shipyard area. The area is typically full of tourists eager to shop, eat, and soak up the Italian sun, which on a summer’s day may see temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius. The promenade is thus the ultimate hot-spot in Venice in more ways than one, and it’s not uncommon to see luxury yachts of the rich and famous anchored along its pier.

For those who prefer a little history and culture over a bunch of tourist traps, the Vittorio Emmanuele II monument and La Pieta church will satisfy your cravings. The former pays homage to the first king of Italy; while the latter was the home parish of Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi, who composed and performed many of his early Baroque pieces here.

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Detail of Vittorio Emmanuele II monument located at the centre of the Venice promenade.

The Arsenal

Established in the 12th century, the Arsenal quickly rose to prominence as one of the most unique and efficient ship-building facilities in the world. At its peak in the 1500s, the facility employed up to 16,000 skilled workers who could turn out a ship’s galley in less than 24 hours, a remarkable feat that was due in part to a production line technique that was far ahead of its time.

Nowadays, the Arsenal is not accessible to the public but the main entrance gate can still be admired, and is a worth a trip to do just that!  Considered to be Venice’s first Classical Revival structure, the gate was built in 1460 and its ornate façade ultimately provided the inspiration for other buildings under construction at the time to take on similar stylistic elements.

The Arsenal

The Arsenal was once the world’s largest shipyard.

With its numerous winding canals, charming gondoliers, and jaw-dropping gorgeous architecture, it’s easy to be inspired by all that Venice has to offer and it truly is a place to come, see and conquer!


All Hail to the Halifax Regional Municipality

August 2, 2013
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A tall ship sails by the iconic Purdy’s Wharf towers.

As the largest urban centre in Atlantic Canada, Halifax has a lot of things to rave about. Not only is the city a hub for East Coast businesses and government/private enterprises; it is also a haven for students who descend from near and far to attend some of the oldest, most well-respected universities in North America. Halifax is also a hotspot for those who enjoy everything from fine dining to sailing the high seas.

Yes, there is much to hail about the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM), and one of the best places to start is along the harbour.

Halifax Harbour

With the downtown business district as a backdrop, the harbour boasts a number of large office towers, trendy restaurants, historic sites, public markets, and other shops spread out over many blocks.  Long stretches of open water views add to the charm of this part of the HRM that draws people in no matter what the weather is. OK, so it’s not busy when remnants of a tropical hurricane make landfall, but when the conditions are just right this area is teeming with people from dusk ’til dawn.

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Outdoor restaurants and food stands draw large crowds along the Halifax Harbour and pier district.

Citadel Hill

Also referred to as Fort George, Citadel Hill is a defensive fortification originally built in 1749 to protect protestant settlers from enemy raids by the French, Acadians, and Wabanaki Confederacy.  Over the centuries, a series of four different citadels have been constructed on the hill`s summit that overlooks the Halifax Harbour and provided an ideal defensive position to protect the region from various enemy parties.

Today, Citadel Hill is a national historic site and has been restored to the Victorian period, which is known as the Fourth Citadel. Attractions at Citadel Hill include tours of the grounds, re-enactments of daily life in 1869, and the daily firing of the ceremonial noon hour gun.

Citadel Hill

Citadel Hill is a national historic site overlooking Halifax Harbour, the perfect defensive spot!

Spring Garden Road

With a freshwater spring running beneath it, Spring Garden Road comes by its name naturally but don`t let the name fool you…this is not a nature haunt! Rather, it`s a chic, boutique type area that attracts culture-seekers, but  also caters to the pub-crawling and java-drinking crowds, so there`s a little bit of something for everyone to feast on.

One of Spring Garden Road`s most famous landmarks is the Lord Nelson Hotel, which is situated at the corner of Spring Garden Road and South Park Street.  During the 1960s, the hotel was a popular gathering spot for hippies and artists to cultivate their causes and launch various protest efforts from the grounds. Nowadays, it`s still a hip place to be, but for a good night`s rest only!

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Unique shops, cafes and other amenities abound along always bustling Spring Garden Road.

Halifax Public Gardens

Established in 1876, the year of Canada`s birth as a nation, the Halifax Public Gardens is a 16-acre public park space that features a Victorian-inspired landscape. The gardens are a popular setting for wedding and graduation photos, but also draw in hordes of horticultural enthusiasts and amateur photographers alike looking to enjoy colourful vistas chock full of vibrant flower beds blooming at every turn.  But it`s not just flowers being admired, the gardens also include statues, fountains, bridges, ponds, and a large open-air bandstand area that hosts free public concerts on Sunday afternoons during the summer months. If you`re not allergic to pollen, the gardens are a heavenly place to escape and get lost in the wonder of one of Canada`s finest national historic sites.

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During the summer, the Bandstand at Halifax Public Gardens features free concerts on Sunday afternoons.

Point Pleasant Park

Located at the southern end of the Halifax peninsula, Point Pleasant Park attracts nature lovers with its many forest walks and harbour views. The park also hosts the annual Shakespeare by the Sea summer play series where fans of the Bard can revel in his illustrious prose that seems to become even more glorious when delivered in a beautiful natural setting.

Other attractions at the park include various naval monuments and the Shilling Ceremony that takes place rain or shine every year to mark the anniversary of the 999 year lease negotiated in 1866 between the British Crown and the HRM.  The lease is now held by the Government of Canada but the terms remain unchanged, so Haligonians have many more years ahead to enjoy this treasured public space.

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The HMCS Bonaventure anchor monument at Point Pleasant Park honours the lives of men and women who died in the service of the Canadian Navy during peacetime.

Beyond the HRM

When visiting Canada`s East Coast, a stop in Halifax is a definite must and the must-see sights are plentiful…but don`t stop there! Once you`ve had your fill of the HRM, the rest of Nova Scotia beckons with Peggy`s Cove to the south, Truro to the north, Digby to the west, and Cape Breton to the east.  Adventure awaits no matter the direction, and you`ll find yourself wanting to return more than once to this much heralded and much-loved region of Canada.


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