Top tips for a twin-centre city break
Just three hours apart by train, the two main cities of Quebec Province share a common heritage. Founded by the French, taken by the British, and today populated by people from all corners of the globe, Montreal and Quebec are vibrant – but very different – cities and make a great combination for Silver Travellers.
Both are popular cruise ship stopovers but you’ll only scratch the surface in a day-visit. Fly into Montreal however and you can take the train to Quebec, and perhaps carry on by scenic train or hire car to explore the glorious Quebec countryside.
French explorer Jacques Cartier navigated the Saint Lawrence in the 16th century and in 1608, his countryman Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec City as a fur trading post, some 35 years before Montreal was begun by Monsieur Maisonneuve.
Here are a few tips for making the most of Montreal:
- Stay in Vieux Montreal so most major attractions are within easy walking distance. I enjoyed the Place d’Armes Hotel, three adjoining historic properties with a great rooftop bar. Don’t be put off by the sober exterior of Notre Dame Cathedral opposite – the colourful interior is a real ‘Wow!’ moment.
- Walk. And look up. Montreal has some wonderful architecture, all mixed in together. Imposing public buildings and traditional churches tucked in amongst gleaming skyscrapers and even the occasional 17th century French property like Chateau Ramezay, once the Governor’s residence, now an atmospheric museum. There’s even an authentic Art Nouveau Parisian Metro entrance in Victoria Square.
- Don’t worry about your French accent. Montrealers have an accent – and vocabulary – all their own. And most people here are bilingual. Retail and restaurant staff will greet you with ‘Bonjour-Hi’ and then carry on in whichever language you answer.
- Take the metro to the 1976 Olympic Park and then enjoy a 2-minute ride up the world’s tallest inclined structure, the Tower Observatory, for panoramic views. Don’t miss the Biodome, a combination of eco systems housed in the former Olympic velodrome. I also loved the nearby Botanic Gardens with meticulously labelled show beds as well as lawns, lakes and an arboretum.
- City people meet friends and even do business over brunch, so make like a Montrealer and try out some of the informal eateries such as Cartet, a cafe and deli amongst the restaurants of McGill Street. The wafer thin pancakes with blueberries and maple syrup were so good!
- Don’t expect too much from the waterfront area – I’ve seen prettier. But in the summer months, the river shore is a buzzing place to be with cafes, small shops and public gardens. Montrealers are big on biking so maybe hire a bike from Ca Roule or book on a themed cycling tour.
From Montreal, it’s just three hours by Via Rail to Quebec City. Catch a train around 9am and you can be sitting down to lunch in very different environment. Don’t want to miss anything in Quebec?
Here are some ideas for a short break in the city:
- The only walled city in North America north of Mexico, Quebec City is rightly included on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Unlike Montreal, it has kept many more buildings from the early French era, but you’ll need to head down to the river bank rather than stay in the upper town at station level. I’d advise walking down to Place Royale and the Petit Champlain district then taking the funicular back up.
- As with Montreal, aim to stay in the Old Town with its European style maze of streets, reminiscent of traditional France. I loved the character rooms and warm welcome at Le Manoir d’Auteuil couldn’t resist walking inside turreted Chateau de Frontenac on the cliff top. One of the world’s most photographed hotels, it has more than 600 rooms, built to tempt the first passengers on Canada’s coast-to-coast railway.
- Battlefields Park is the evocative name for the Plains of Abraham, named after a local Scottish farmer, and scene of the French defeat by General Wolfe in 1759. It’s easy to discount one of the world’s largest urban parks when there’s serious sightseeing to be done, but this is the place to walk, relax and enjoy river views from the belvedere, as well as enjoy the varied music of the Summer Festival.
- Top up your history with a guided tour of the British Citadel on the highest point of Battlefields Park. The Changing of the Guard – bearskins and all – takes place every morning throughout summer.
- Parliament initially seems like just another grand building with a pretty park, but there’s much more on offer. Tours of the historic chambers are free and you can dine at Le Parliamentaire restaurant inside. Many of the fresh vegetables are grown in the beds out front, where some areas are even designated for public picking. Imagine that happening at Westminster! Take time as well to discover the statues of famous people of many nationalities decorating the facade and dotted round the park.
- For a complete chill out, try the Monastere des Augustines which opens this summer. The Augustinian Sisters laid the foundation for Quebec’s healthcare system and the nunnery once housed 350 Sisters. Today just a dozen elderly ladies remain in their own wing, the rest of the vast building transformed into a well-being hotel and public museum. Book one of the simple, but freshly-painted cells, or a more contemporary room with private facilities. Guests are invited to leave their mobile phones at reception, take breakfast in silence, and eat healthy choices for their evening meal in a detox for body and soul. Alcohol is, however, offered with dinner – apparently the Sisters all enjoyed a tipple!
- If you’re not yet ready to catch the train or plane back to Montreal, head north along the Saint Lawrence to Charlevoix for wide open spaces and outdoor activites, but that’s another story.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Frontier Canada