Montreal and Quebec City
If you love Europe but lack the time or money to travel across the ocean, you can do worse than visiting the cities of Montreal and Quebec City. If you are a Francophile, you’ll really enjoy these cities. French abounds, especially in Quebec City, and the architecture will remind you of–you guessed it–France. Art Deco fans and those who appreciate the universally reviled 60s-70s style–I find it weirdly interesting–will have a lot to see.
Montreal: Old Montreal, Mount Royal, Expo
We started our weekend trip with a flight into Montreal, checking into Le Square Phillips Hotel in Downtown Montreal. Our first stop after gorging ourselves on fish and chips at a place called Brit and Chips was Old Montreal (Vieux Montreal). As the name suggests, Old Montreal is the oldest part of of the city. It is here where Montreal’s distinguishes itself from many American cities in its architecture and design. The narrow, cobblestoned streets and grey brick buildings evoke a distinctive European feel; if you squint you might think you are Rouen or Caen or another city in northern France. Some of the highlights we saw were the Customs House and the Art Deco style Aldred Building.
At the water’s edge, looking southeast, we got a great view of Habitat 67, the distinctive set of block-like apartments built for the World’s Fair in 1967.
I thought the large public square called the Place d’Armes bounded by the Notre-Dame Basilica on its southern side, was really great. After browsing in a Christmas shop called Noel Eternel, we sat on the church steps for a while and took in the scene while planning our next stop. We then walked the length of Old Montreal to the city’s Chinatown, which is nothing to write home about.
Mount Royal, the highest part of the island of Montreal’s, gives the city is name. At its foot is the beautiful campus of McGill University, one of the country’s top institutions. We walked through the campus and up the hill through the switchbacks of Mount Royal Park. I was surprised to learn that Frederick Olmtead, designer of Central Park, also designed this one. We were there on a beautiful fall day in peak fall foliage, accentuating our view of the city below from Kondiaronk Belvedere. Atop Mount Royal is the beautiful Chalet de Mont Royal, which is open the public and reminded me of an old ski lodge. It was built during the Great Depression as a make-work project, sort of like those built by the American Works Progress Administration during the same period.
We spent the remainder of the evening on St. Catherine street, one of Montreal’s busiest shopping and restaurant districts. One thing I noticed is that all the street signs were in French but the old advertisements on the sides of 100 year old brick buildings– were in English. Back in the early 1900s, there were more English speakers than French speakers in Montreal, I believe, so the language of commerce was in English. In the 1960s and 70s, the separatist parties in Quebec began to gain more power, eventually passing a law making French the official language of Quebec.
We booked a $66 roundtrip train ticket for the next day to Quebec City on VIARail, Canada’s Amtrak. The two-hour train ride departs from Montreal’s Central Station, which is a sight to see itself. I love old train stations; this one is full of art-deco bas relief friezes on the walls. The ride to Quebec City took us through the Montreal suburbs and farmland along the St. Lawrence River. Arriving into Quebec’s train station,the chauteau-like Gare du Palais, we could tell instantly that we were in a unique place.
Our main destination was Old Quebec, a quaint area of beautiful old buildings, squares, and the huge fortress that covers the upper part of the the old town (called Upper Town). This area of Quebec City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; there is nothing else in North America quite like it. On the way up the hill towards the fortress area of Old Quebec, there are a bunch of shops and restaurants to choose from. We tried poutine at a restaurant near the fortress and then took some photos from a great vantage point overlooking the St. Lawrence River below.
Quebec City’s most recognizable landmark is the Chateau Frontenac, one of Canada’s Grand Hotels. It stands impressively over the city and looks like a castle.
Behind the hotel are the Plains Of Abraham, now a big grassy area with ramparts still visible. Here General Wolfe in 1759 defeated French forces during the Seven Years War and took control of Quebec City. On the edge of the Plains is modern Quebec City, which has taller skyscrapers and tastefully designed government buildings.
Montreal (last day)
On our last day, we took the metro out the small island of Ille Saint Helene, in the St. Lawrence River. We got a look at the Biosphere, part of the ’67 Expo and now an Environmental Museum. Afterwards, we took another metro to Olympic Stadium, former home of the Expos. My friend J had to then leave to catch an earlier flight, so I spent the next few hours at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, one of Canada’s best museums.
This is technically an international trip without the long haul flight to Europe or the jet lag. The prevalence of the French language is a reminder to a the “foreignness” of the place, and the unique architecture of Old Montreal and Old Quebec are sights that you shouldn’t miss.
- Take bus from the airport to Downtown
- The Montreal Metro system is the best way to get around the city other than walking
- Try to stay Downtown near St. Catherine Street; great location and fun nightlife
Le Square Phillips Hotel (Downtown) I was really happy with this hotel. The location was perfect, being right off St. Catherine Street on a quieter plaza. The room was spacious, it had a kitchenette and comfortable bed and the free breakfasts were extensive and tasty. The price was reasonable too. Close to several metro stations but its great location allows you to walk almost anywhere within the downtown area in less than 20 minutes. Rated 9 of 163 hotels on Tripadvisor.
Montreal: Brit and Chips: a small fish and chips place that serves tasty but probably really unhealthy English pub-food fare.
Montreal: Les 3 Brasseurs (The 3 Brewers): a small brewery and restaurant serving big plates of meat and potatoes with a huge selection of home brewed beer. I especially liked how you could see the brewing tanks and piping all over restaurant
Quebec City: Le Chic Shack: a unique burger shop right next to the Chateau Frontenac serving not only burgers but a big selection of poutine, a French Canadian specialty made with cheese curds, light gravy, and other vegetables.
Quebec City: Mille et une pizzas: located right next to the Quebec train station, this nice pizza place served up a big variety of pizzas with interesting topping combinations.
Montreal: Reuben’s Restaurant Delicatessen: venerable downtown institution serving huge pastrami sandwiches in a diner type setting. Think Katz’s deli in NYC without the really high prices.