Oh, Canada! It was about (read: ah-boot) time that I visited our northern neighbors. And they certainly lived up to all the positive stereotypes of being friendly & helpful.
Canada has given the world some media greats like Drake, Justin Bieber, Shania Twain, Celine Dion, Ryan Reynolds and more. Justin Trudeau, their current Prime Minister is a political icon and their Canadian imports have helped DC win a National Championship recently. Needless to say, Canada has a positive reputation to most Americans.
On a slightly related note: I highly recommend that anywhere you travel, that you listen to that Country’s top 50 list on Spotify and also check-out to see if there are playlists with just native artists featured. For this trip, it helped me “rediscover” Celine Dion and Shania Twain.
The 5-days that we spent in Canada were in the Province of Quebec, which is the only French-speaking province. So why prioritize this province over the others? If you identify with the following for any reason, I would say go for it:
- You like churches, architecture, or are Catholic. (lots of churches to see, yay!)
- You are a North American history-buff. Quebec is the beginning of Canada!
- You want to visit a city near the U.S. with European flair.
- You want to try your hand at French with the fail-safe of most everyone speaking English.
- You like the idea of poutine (fries, gravy and cheese curds).
- You’re looking for a summer-vacay spot that is culturally significant, without an expensive price tag. (The U.S. dollar is a bit stronger than the Canadian dollar.)
- You’re favorite season is winter and you don’t mind being cold beyond feeling.
While the best time to visit is in the Summer and early Fall, when the temperatures are warm, but not overwhelmingly hot, winter time is also great. Consider visiting during the Christmas season to experience the warmth of the holidays or in early February for the one of the world’s largest winter festivals. Just be prepared for some extremely cold weather!
The following are recommendations for spending a few days in these two cities.
Upfront preview: take lots of walking tours.
Flying to Montreal:
Use Porter Airlines to fly to Toronto, and then connect to Montreal. It’s quite cheap to fly on Porter, though they have propeller planes, so the ride is a bit noisier than a jet.
Where to stay in Montreal:
I suggest booking a hotel in downtown Montreal. This will give you the ability to walk around more, rather than using auto-transportation. To the east of Downtown will be Old Montreal, to the north will be Mount Royal, and to the west will be a few museums. Downtown is central to tourist locations.
Getting around Montreal:
The airport is about 25 minutes away from the downtown area. There are plenty of taxis to take, and Uber is available, however Lyft is not (at the moment). If you are just staying in the city, I would recommend not renting a car. There are lots of public transportation options, including buses and metro services. They also have a local all-electric car company called Teo Taxi, that even features Teslas. Though I was informed that the Tesla part of the fleet is really only about 5%. So the likelihood is much higher that you would actually get picked up in a Nissan Leaf. Take your chances there!
Our first day began in the later part of Monday afternoon, so we decided to hit some of the big tourist spots first, before heading to dinner.
First, we made a walk down our street to the Cathedral of Marie-Reine-du-Monde. It was quite spectacular, and actually a scaled down version of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
From there, we headed to a spot near the bottom of Mount Royal, called St. Joseph’s Oratory. This minor basilica is a pilgrammige location for those looking to honor St. Jospeh, Jesus’s Step-Father. It is the largest church in North America and is quite stunning for it’s size and modern interior.
If you can, try to time your visit around 1:30 pm or 3 pm so that you can get a 90-minute tour of the Oratory. You can find out more about tours by clicking here.
After our visit, we headed off for our restaurant reservations at one of the best rated restaurants in Montreal: Damas! Damas is the French way of pronouncing and spelling what we call in English, Damascus, the capital of Syria. I was excited to try the Syrian cuisine. When we arrived, we were led to our table towards the back of the restaurant. Each room was decorated a bit differently, but all beautiful & themed. Our waiter described it as being similar to how royal palaces were decorated in Syria. It was a lovely environment.
Syrian food, is similar to other middle eastern food in that it is mostly shared dishes, focuses on appetizers like dips and salads, and has complex tastes. We ordered muhammara, baba ghanoush (both the Syrian style – a revelation- and the more well-known dip version), grilled octopus, fattouche, pita bread, and a steak aged for 60 days…needless to say, we were in absolute heaven. Out of all the places we ate on our trip, this was by far my favorite restaurant and a place you will not want to miss.
We left very full and happy back to our hotel to rest up for a long day of walking tours the next day.
Tuesday, we woke up, had croissants and coffee at our hotel, and headed towards the St. Lawrence river, where Old Montreal City was founded. Our first two walking tours were with Guidatour, which provides tours of both West & East Old Montreal over the course of a day.
Some highlights of our tour included:
- Notre-Dame Basilica, which, on the outside, is almost a replica of the Notre-Dame in Paris. However, inside it was inspired by Sainte-Chapelle, another church also located in Paris. Fun Fact: Celine Dion was married in this Basilica. At night time, there is a light and music show featuring the organ in the back of the Basilica that has over 1,000 pipes. Click here to access tickets.
- Learning about the two co-founders of Montreal, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve and Jeanne Mance, who originally named the city “Ville-Marie.”
- Understanding the evolution of Montreal as a city, its role in Canada’s politics/economy, and its recent new developments.
- The start of the Canadian banking industry.
- How the culture has appreciated both its French & English heritage.
- Montreal’s underground tunnel system (not the metro!).
- The relations between the First Nations of North America, Missionaries, and New France.
After our tour, we headed to the Montreal’s archeological and history museum, Pointe-a-Calliere. What is special about this particular museum is that it is housed on actual historic locations, and allows visitors to see up-close and personal, the foundations of the first settlement of Montreal, and the changes that occurred over time. Most of the museum is underground…
From there, we headed off to get drinks at a speakeasy, called the Coldroom, before dinner. To get in, you have to know exactly where the door is located. Using the navigation on your phone, you can track down the door, ring the bell and be seated in a cozy, wood-paneled room with interesting people. I had one of the best cocktails I’ve ever had here…and unfortunately cannot remember the name or ingredients. Ah!
Finally, we headed off to dinner, at Le Robin Square, where we got a Cornish Game Hen.
After dinner, we took the chance to see projected stories of Montreal’s history. The recent installment of these projectors, projecting videos on to historic sites, was pretty cool and interactive. All you need to do is download the app: Montreal en Histoires. Then, using the app, locate the different projection sites and watch as your an interactive video is displayed, telling you more about the founding and history of Montreal.
Finally, on our last day in Montreal, we headed out to the Mile End area of Montreal City for a food tour. This is the more artsy/creative area of Montreal. It has a vibrant food scene, which we devoured. One of the main delicacies is the Montreal bagel, which you can find at St. Viateur’s Bagel Shop. Their bagels are sweeter and more doughy, than the ones you will find in NYC. Click here to access the Local Montreal Food Tour website.
Things we missed in Montreal, due to time, that I would still recommend:
- Parc de Mont-Royal. The park was designed by Fredrick Law Olmstead, considered the father of American Landscaping, whose most famous park is Central Park in New York City.
- St. Patrick’s Basilica, the oldest English-speaking church in Montreal.
- Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
- Musee Redpath at McGill University, a natural history museum.
Montreal Places to eat:
- Breakfast or lunch at Olive et Gourmand in Old Montreal.
- Damas for dinner. It is a beautiful & delicious restaurant that serves Syrian food. It was hands-down the best dinner we had all trip!
- Le Diperie for dessert.
- St. Viature for authentic Montreal bagels.
- The Coldroom for drinks.
- Vin Papillion for wine & relaxing.
- Go to Atwater or Jean-Talon markets for snacks.
- Drogheria Fine for gnocchi with tomato sauce voted #1 in Montreal.
- La Panthère Verte for Montreal’s best falafel (and vegan eatery).
- Wine at Les Deux Gamins.
Transportation from Montreal to Quebec City:
To get in between Montreal and Quebec City, I recommend taking the Orleans Express bus. It is a 3 hour drive and is inexpensive, compared to flying or taking the train. The locations of pick-up and drop-off, in both Montreal & Quebec City, are near the older areas of the cities, where you would most likely be staying.
Where to stay in Quebec City:
In Old Quebec is best, since it will allow you to walk to most of the tourism areas.
Getting around Quebec City:
Mostly walking. It is quite steep in some areas, meaning there are a lot of steps to climb or a hill to slowly crawl down. Be prepared to walk a lot, since many areas, especially near the water, are not accessible by cars. Uber is available when needed, along with bus and metro transportation.
In Quebec, we took 3 tours with Tour Voir Quebec, because they were so highly rated on TripAdvisor. Our first tour was of Old Quebec, where we learned about the discovery of Quebec, the subsequent British take over and finally the founding of the nation-state of Canada.
Compared to Montreal, Quebec has more historical churches and structures that survived over time. Also, Quebec is technically older, as it is the place Jacque Cartier first discovered on the French exploration to find a passage to India.
Of the many things to see on the tour there is:
- The stunning Chateau Frontenac, which you can actually stay in.
- Fields of Abraham.
- The oldest grocery store in North America.
- A church turned into a library, now call Monique-Corriveau Library.
- Quebec City’s own Notre Dame Basilica.
After we finished our morning walking tour around the city, we grabbed a quick and light lunch, before heading on our food tour of Quebec City. There are so many interesting delicacies to try. I find that anytime I am traveling, my favorite part is eating, since you get a really feel for the culture through their food.
We tried their version of mulled wine, lots of Maple products at Le Delices and of course, Poutine. For those who don’t know what poutine is, it is French fries, covered in gravy and topped with cheese curds. I knew I wasn’t going to like it, but still tried it anyway. I think its something you have to grow-up with to appreciate. A+ for creativity, Canada!
After finishing our food tour, we checked out a few places of interest and rested before dinner. At around 9 pm, when we were finally hungry again, we ventured out. We ate at Chez Jules, a traditional French restaurant. I ordered escargot and steak tartar.
The next morning, we woke up, got ready and headed off to our final tour of Quebec City, which the tour group called “A Fabulous Country Tour.” The highlights included Montmorency Falls (which are 99 feet higher than Niagara Falls), a lunch visit on the Island of Orléans and finally a visit to the stunning Basilica of St Anne de Beaupre.
At Montmorency Falls, there are cable cars to take you to the top. Once there, you can go across a bridge to stand directly over the rushing water. It was pretty thrilling!
At the Basilica of St. Anne de Beaupré, we were stunned by the sheer size and gold decor of this basilica in a rural area. I would say it is in my top 5 most beautiful churches I’ve ever visited.
If I was to do these activities again, I would have given more time for all 3 of these stops, but we did enjoy the chance to see the places, even if we missed out on certain sections.
Quebec City Places to Eat:
- Le Buche, for an authentic brunch/breakfast.
- Le Continental, for a pricey dinner.
- Le Lapin Saute, for a rabbit themed menu.
- Le Delices, for maple everything!
- Chez Jules, for a traditional French menu.
- Drinks at L’Atelier.
I hope this post has inspired you to visit Montreal & Quebec City. If you have any questions, please feel free to comment.
Also, for my viewers who have already been to these two cities, am I missing anything?