Montréal & Quebec City: A Trip to France without Crossing the Atlantic
By Carolee Duckworth, NABBW’s Independent Travel Associate
OUR JULY ARMCHAIR TRIP:
Montréal & Quebec City: A Trip to France without Crossing the Atlantic
Are you ready for another Armchair Trip? It’s July, so this time let’s head off to the more moderate temperatures of Northern Canada to visit two historic cities with winding cobbled streets, flanked by seventeenth and eighteenth-century stone houses and churches, graceful parks and squares.
Our destinations will be the French speaking cities of Montréal and Quebec City, rich in unsurpassable French cuisine, French culture and French “joie de vivre.” Parlez vous Français? Mais Oui!! Both Montréal and Quebec City have colorful pasts… sometimes British and sometimes French. Think of this as a preview trip to France, but without crossing the Atlantic.
We’ll immerse ourselves first in the international, dynamic, but also old, city of Montréal, perched along the St. Lawrence River—Gateway to America. Montréal has been called by some the “Paris of North America.” And this reputation is well deserved. Like Paris, the city is vast. But it is a collection of distinctive neighborhoods. For this trip, we’ll be focusing on the old ones… Old Port and Old Town.
We’ll check out the city views and hear its stories from shore and from the river. We’ll trek out to the Montréal Biodôme, former venue for the biking competitions of the 1976 Winter Olympics and visit the five ecosystems now housed there, including the Arctic Environment, complete with penguins. And while we’re out of the city proper, we’ll take in the nearby Château, modeled after Versailles, built and inhabited by two wealthy brothers, each occupying his own wing of the mansion.
From Montréal we will catch the train north to the more provincial (and more walkable!) Quebec City, also set beside the St. Lawrence, known as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. In Quebec City we’ll divide our time between “Haute Ville” (high city, perched up above the river) and “Basse Ville” (low city, down at river’s edge), making our way up and down between the two using our choice of road, stairs, or funicular. And we’ll venture beyond the city on a cruise out to the magnificent Montmorency Falls, 100 feet higher than Niagara.
DAY 1: MONDAY…ACROSS THE BORDER TO MONTRÉAL
We’ll board a plane to Montréal on a Monday in July. The room we will have booked well before our trip will be at the Hôtel Uville, near the St. Lawrence River, across from Quai Alexsndra. This will put us close to many of the places we’ll want to see, and the shops and cafés, parks and squares, walks and Ferris wheels that we’ll want to experience.
LUNCH AT MODAVIE IN OLD MONTRÉAL, ON SAINT-PAUL STREET
After a day of navigating airports and eating airplane pretzels, we’ll be starving by the time we check in. So, our initial goal, as always, will be all about food and we’ll have a destination in mind.
Our welcome meal will be at Modavie (1 Saint-Paul Street West; 11:30 AM to 10:30 PM), a French Bistro just a 5-minute walk from our hotel, in the heart and center of the Old Montréal.
This arrival meal will start us on our way to adapting to our French-Canadian surroundings. First, we’ll need to start translating prices into the Canadian currency system. The dollar sign ($) on menus and in shops will indicate Canadian dollars (CAD) and not US dollars. There’s a difference! The French Onion Soup may look pricey at $13. But when you translate from CAD to US dollars, this turns out to be just $10 US. And so forth.
To get a handle on how much things actually cost, we’ll need to memorize a few conversions so we can estimate. Or we can invent an algorithm to get us close enough..:
Secondly, items on the menu will be in French. Escargots a L’ail (snails in garlic). Aubergine Parmigiana (Eggplant Parmigiana). Escalope de Veau (Lamb Chops). Moules Frites (Mussels with Frites…that amazing French version of French Fries). Salade César au Poulet (Chicken Caesar Salad). This restaurant does have an English version of the menu. But we’ll start now to try to order in French.
A third important adjustment… We’ll learn to spot the “Formule” or “Table d’Hôte”or “Menu” options. These can often can be very good deals. As an example… At Modavie, for an additional $7 CAD ($5.50 US) we can add to our meal our choice of a soup/salad or a dessert, plus coffee/tea. Not bad!
Today, we’ll just have lunch at Modavie. But we’ll also be checking out this spot to get familiar with its location and ambience. We’ll probably be back here at some point for a Cinq à Sept (5 PM to 7 PM), a French term for activities that take place after work and before returning home.
In France, the term Cinq â Sept originally referred to a tryst, but here in French Quebec, it stands for a gathering of friends or colleagues. And we’ll be back to Modavie yet again for live jazz or Blues (nightly at 7 PM), by Montréal-based artists playing electric guitars, basses, saxophones, drums, trumpets and pianos.
WALK-TO PLACE JACQUES-CARTIER AND WANDER
After lunch, we’ll walk over to Place Jacques-Cartier to wander around. This will be our first exploration of a “Place” (Square) in this city, and this “Place” may quickly become one of our favorites. Jacques-Cartier, for whom the square was named, was one of the men who discovered Canada. Now his square is a haven of restaurants and shops, buskers and ice cream vendors, that will make us think that we’re in Paris.
Today we’ll be here to enjoy and experience, and also to spot opportunities for later visits. We won’t be able to resist hopping into a few shops today, but we’ll plan on a deeper immersion and cultural connection when we return here tomorrow.
We’ll pick one side of the square to walk up the hill, stopping to window shop, or even to step inside. When we’ve walked far enough up the hill, we’ll cross to the other side of the square to walk back down toward the harbor. Since we’ll only have a short time here today, we’ll start by taking a look at just two shops: Boutique Bonjour Montréal Gift shop (421 Place Jacques-Cartier; 11 AM to 6 PM) and Galerie le Chariot (446 Place Jacques-Cartier; 10 AM–6 PM). When we return here to Place Jacques-Cartier tomorrow, we’ll have time to visit more shops.
We may split up to wander in different directions and at different speeds. If so, we’ll meet up for our 5 à 7 at Jardin Nelson (407 Place Jacques-Cartier; 11:30 AM to 9:30 PM) in the flower-filled (and heated) garden patio. This is a lively spot for casual fare & sangria, with live jazz. We’ll soak in the atmosphere from the old buildings that surround this secluded courtyard and escape the hot afternoon sun.
OVER TO OLD PORT TO RIDE LA GRANDE ROUE
Walking down towards the water we’ll spot La Grande Roue (“Big Ferris Wheel”), the 60-meter high giant ferris wheel to our left in the park out in the river— Parc de Bassin Bonsecours. We will have booked tickets before our trip for a 20-minute ride up and above it all, with the river and the city spread out beneath our feet. Our tickets will be valid only for today, but can be used any time.
Out beyond the Ferris Wheel, we’ll spot Terrasses Bonsecours (364 Rue de la Commune; open noon to 1 AM), an open-air restaurant with food, cocktails, a dance club and a rooftop patio. We’ll be heading to Terrasse Bonsecours after our ride for our 5 à 7 sangria, followed by food and dancing at the water’s edge. And as the air cools and the lights come on, we’ll take a deep breath and soak in our surroundings, pausing to celebrate that we have arrived!
DAY 2: TUESDAY… OLD MONTRÉAL ON THE ST LAWRENCE
On Tuesday we’ll start with a light breakfast at what will become our “go to” café nearby—Tommy’s Café (151 St.-Paul St; opens 8 AM)—a 2-minute walk from our hotel. Here we’ll order a breakfast croissant (with smashed avocado, tomatoes, prosciutto and a sunny side-up egg) or maybe an almond croissant stuffed with fresh fruits and marscapone.
Then we’ll be off to visit the Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History, located at the very spot where Montréal was born. Here we’ll get a sense of the 1,000 years of human occupation of this river-front locale.
Given its name, the museum may sound stuffy. But it is far from it. We’ll start our visit seated in a sloping auditorium overlooking the actual architectural remains under the building, watching the intriguing multi-media show “Yours Truly, Montréal” (running every 30 minutes). Visual and lighting effects, surrounded by three screens, will focus on various sections of the ruins and bring to life the history of Montréal, from its beginnings to the modern city it is today.
BACK TO PLACE JACQUES CARTIER; LUNCH AT L’USINE DE SPAGHETTI
After experiencing the museum, we’ll amble along Saint-Paul Street, the most picturesque and popular street in Old-Montréal, noting the beautiful architecture and ambiance, as we make our way back to Place Jacques Cartier for lunch at L’Usine de Spaghetti (“Spaghetti Factory”; 273 Rue St Paul; 11:30 AM to 9 PM).
If we have time before lunch, we’ll wander a few more shops, then meet up at the restaurant in time for our reservations. L’Usine de Spaghetti offers casual Italian eats in a space with stone walls and wood accents, plus all-you-can-eat salads & bread. And, as one pleased client described it: “The best Italian food I’ve ever tasted outside of Italy itself. Jaw droppingly good.” We may consider sharing an order of pesto spaghetti with salmon or some other marvelous option so we won’t end up with “to go” boxes to carry around all afternoon.
We’ll keep our eye on the time to allow for the 5-minute walk to Grande Quai and arrive early for our 2 PM Bateau Mouche cruise of the Saint-Lawrence.
CRUISE THE ST. LAWRENCE ON THE BATEAU MOUCHE
We’ll be sure to arrive early to board the Cavalier Maxim for our 2 PM cruise and get a good seat indoors, under the arching glass ceiling, or on the outside terrace, sitting in the sun.
To understand any city built along a significant body of water, it’s essential to get out on the water and look back. From the river, we’ll gain a unique understanding of the geography, history and interdependence of river and city.
As we cruise the waterfront, passing Old Port, the Olympic Stadium and more, a certified guide will narrate the fascinating history of Montréal, complete with stories and anecdotes. Montréal is a working port, so we’ll cruise by cargo boxes and cargo ships as well as beautiful buildings and bridges.
SOME FREE TIME
After our boat ride, we’ll have some free time before our 6 pm multimedia show at the Basilica. This will be the perfect opportunity to find an outdoor table at Créperie Chez Suzette for a shared treat.
Or we may just wander up and down more of the streets of old Montréal, browsing through shops and otherwise enjoying the old-world ambience. We won’t need to worry about getting lost so long as we keep clearly in mind what direction the river is in.
THE AURA MULTIMEDIA SHOW AT THE BASILICA
We’ll arrive early for the 6 PM AURA multimedia show at the the 193-year-old gothic-style Basilica. This spectacular show was launched in 2017 to celebrate the 375th anniversary of Montréal and now has been revamped.
It is a 4-act artistic and technical marvel that weaves together powerful music with a mesmerizing light show, projecting virtual paintings onto the architectural elements , textured ceilings and walls of the Basilica. The 21 projectors, 140 lights, four lasers and 20 mirrors required for the show took 90 days to install.
The musical score for the show is performed by 30 musicians, 20 choristers and Pierre Grandmaison, master organist for the Basilica on the 1891 Casavant Organ.
This organ is matched only by the organ in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and is known as the greatest instrument in North America. It features 7,000 pipes, 92 stops on four manual keyboards of 61 notes, and a 32-note pedalboard. The longest pipe, measuring 32 feet, will be one that we’ll feel as well as hear, resonating throughout our bodies.
HOTEL NELLIGAN ROOFTOP TERRASSE FOR SUNSET
We’ll use the rooftop Terrasse Nelligan at the Nelligan Hotel (106 Saint-Paul Street; 11:30 AM to 10:30 PM) as our meetup spot after the multimedia show, a 2-minute walk from the Basilica. We’ll know by now how to get to Saint-Paul Street. In fact, Old Montréal will have begun to feel very familiar by this point. We are in the process of becoming “temporary locals.”
At Terrasse Nelligan, we’ll enjoy splendid panoramic views as the sun sets and evening falls over the river. First to arrive snags a table and orders a pitcher of clear sangria to set a relaxed tone for exchanging the stories and discoveries of the day.
We may stay on here for dinner. Or perhaps we’ll head back to Mondavie near our hotel for live music with our dinner.
DAY 3: WEDNESDAY…OLYMPIC MONTRÉAL BIODÔME
& A FRENCH CHÂTEAU
This morning we’ll Uber to Mamie Clafoutis (3660 Rue St. Denis; open 7:30 AM to 7 PM) in the Latin Quarter for for coffee and croissants or a breakfast sandwich. While we’re here, we’ll pick up extra sandwiches for our picnic lunch out at the Montréal Biodôme.
This will put us in the heart of the bohemian and laid-back Latin Quarter (“Latin Quarter” here means where the University and students are located).
After breakfast, we’ll walk back in the direction of the port, browsing the carnival of shops, theaters, terraced cafés and art venues. This quintessentially French area is known as one of the top sights of Montréal, and unrivaled when it comes to inexpensive bistro dining, food in a hurry, music, performance venues and people-watching.
When we’re ready to move on, we’ll walk over to Hotel St-Thomas (430 Sherbrooke St. E.) to make it easier for our next Uber driver to find us for the drive out to the Montréal Biodôme.
UBER OUT TO THE OLYMPIC BIODÔME AND/OR CHÂTEAU DUFRESNE
By picking us up at Hotel St-Thomas, our Uber driver will have a straight shot out Rue Sherbrooke for the 30-minute drive to the 1976 Olympics complex. This compound, ran into one disaster after another during its construction. The problems started with the 65-ton retractable umbrella roof over the stadium that never worked properly and couldn’t be moved during high winds.
And when a stationary roof was built to replace the retractable one, that new roof collapsed, dumping snow and ice onto workers who were setting up for the Montréal Auto Show. In the end, the costs for this travesty of a complex totaled $1.6 billion, or $1000 per man, woman and child living in the city of Montréal.
We’ll have our Uber driver drop us off at the Biodôme (open 9 to 5), former venue for bicycle racing, now housing Espace Pour la Vie (Space for Life)—five ecosystems, complete with the plants and animals that would be found in each.
- Tropical Rainforest.
- Gulf of St. Lawrence.
- Laurentian Maple Forest.
- Labrador Coast.
- Sub-Antarctic Islands.
Our first order of business will be to locate a spot where we can sit down and eat our picnic lunch.
After lunch, we’ll venture into the Montréal Biodôme. We’ll already have our tickets in hand, purchased online in advance for a specific date and time ($22 adult; $19.75 senior). So, we’ll be all set.
- Penguins will frolic in the pools a few feet from us as we explore the Sub-Antarctic Islands.
- Puffins will parade their fancy beaks on the Labrador Coast.
- And lynx, otters and bats will roam the Laurentian Forest.
- We’ll see monkeys teasing the alligators in the Amazon and watch for lobsters and sea urchins in the tidal pools of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
- If we keep track of our time, we may get to go have a look at the unlikely Château Dufresne nearby when we’re finished here.
CHÂTEAU DUFRESNE: VERSAILLE OF THE AMERICAS
Château Dufresne (https://chateaudufresne.com/en/home/) is a 100-year-old gem. We’ll want to make a visit if our timing works out (open 9:30 to 5; closed Mon/Tues). But we’ll wait until we get to the mansion to purchase tickets ($14 adult; $13 senior) in case we run out of time for a visit today. We can reach the Château from the Montréal Biodôme by foot (14-minute walk) or call an Uber for the 11-minute ride.
In 1916, brothers Oscar and Marius Dufresne commissioned this opulent Beaux-Arts mansion, modeled after Versailles. The brothers each had their own wing for themselves and their families. This place is unbelievable.
- Stained glass.
- Italian Renaissance coffered ceilings.
- Murals of nymphs.
- Marble floors.
- Artwork and historical items that belonged to notables such as Joan of Arc, Marie Antoinette, Louis XV and Napoleon Bonaparte.
MEET UP AT OUR TOP CHOICE OF FAMILIAR SPOTS
We will have had quite a vigorous day today, so we may want to head to a familiar spot for dinner. And we now know what some very nice options are:
- Terrasse Nelligan?
- L’Usine de Spaghetti?
- Terrasse Bonsecours?
- Or Tavern Gaspar, if we’ve spotted it walking by and want to give it a try.
We’ll take our pick. We know our way now. And we know what spots we most enjoy. So, we’ll happily spend our final Montréal evening dining where we’ll feel most comfortable. Whatever our choice, we’ll call ahead for reservations as soon as we’ve made our selection.
DAY 4: THURSDAY…TRAIN TO QUEBEC CITY & SETTLE IN
TRAIN TO QUEBEC CITY (3½ HOURS): ARRIVE 12:22 PM
We’re eager now to make our way to Québec City. So, we’ll take the morning train at 9:06 AM to arrive there at 12:22 pm. We booked our train tickets before we left on our trip and chose “Business Class” (not Economy) for an additional $50 or so.
In Business Class we’ll have a better seat with a table, newspapers, exclusive access to the Business Class Lounge and a 3-course catered meal, with complimentary full bar service and hot or cold beverages at will. Our lunch will include bread, appetizer, main course (with a vegetarian pasta option), dessert, Canadian wine, and a selection of hot beverages.
STAYING IN THE HEART OF IT ALL
In Quebec City, we’ll be staying at Hôtel Manoir Vieux-Québec (6 rue de la Porte, +1-418-907-2361), just 150 feet from Château Frontenac, the epicenter of activity.
Our accommodations will be elegant and comfortable, with air conditioning and soundproofing, a sofa and a sitting area. We’ll also have a kitchenette and dining area, with a refrigerator, coffee machine, microwave, and kitchenware.
So, if we’re getting weary of dining out every meal, we’ll have the option of bringing home bread and paté, wine and cheese, fruit and pastries, for an occasional meal in our room or a picnic on a nearby bench.
Since we ate lunch on the train, we’ll be set to go as soon as we’ve checked in and deposited our bags.
ORIENTING OURSELVES: CHÂTEAU FRONTENAC & TERRASSE DUFFERIN
Orienting ourselves in Québec City will not take us long. All we’ll need to do is spot the Frontenac. We may even be able to see it from our hotel window. And that’s the place to begin.
We’ll walk out our door and over to Terrasse Dufferin, the broad boardwalk in front of the looming, almost sinister Frontenac. From here, we’ll continue out to the wall that overlooks the river. As we “promenade” the Terrasse Dufferin, we’ll soak in the ambiance and check out the various offerings here.
When we look down to the river, we’ll quickly grasp the geography of the city, with Haute (high) Ville and Basse (low) Ville. As we stand in Haute, we are looking down on Basse.
Moving down and up between the high and the low parts of the city, we’ll have three options:
We’ll end up using all three of these for the next few days. What goes up, must come down. And, what goes down, must come up.
FRONTENAC GUIDED TOUR AT 3 PM
We will have booked in advance a 1-hour small group (no more than 10 people; US $22 each) guided tour of the spectacular Château Frontenac. And by now, after viewing the exterior from so many angles, we’ll be eager to see inside.
We’ll find the meet-up spot (Au 1884, a small café on Dufferin Terrace), where our bilingual guide (English and French) will be easy to find, dressed in the period costume of an authentic character who lived at the Château during the early days.
Our guide will show us through many rooms and areas inside the Château, and regale us with the history of the building as well as stories and anecdotes about all the famous people who have visited here.
DRINKS AT SAM’S BISTRO & DINNER AT BRASSERIE FRANÇAISE CHEZ JULES
After our tour, we’ll head to Sam’s Bistro for our 5 à 7 drinks, and then to Brasserie Française Chez Jules for dinner. Both are close to the Frontenac.
DAY 5: FRIDAY…HAUTE VILLE & BASSE VILLE
HAUTE VILLE MORNING
Today we’ll be back and forth between High and Low Ville, starting with High. We’ll be able to go everywhere today on foot, starting by picking up a croissant and coffee for breakfast along the streets of Old Town. Then we’ll find Rue de Tresor, the narrow alley where local artists display and sell their artwork. There will be many interesting places to stop into along these narrow streets.
We’ll step into the 30-minute Quebec Experience—a vivid 3-D show that re-creates the grand, but more often grim, realities of the evolution of the city. We’ll claim a padded bench seat at least halfway back to have “the full experience,” including:
- The difficult weather conditions by the European explorers endured in the 17th century.
- The disease and fire that plagued immigrant workers in Old Port in the 18th century.
- The wars between French and British troops in the 19th century.
- The modern construction disasters in the 20th century.
- Guns and cannons point at the audience to increase the effect.
- A simulated bridge comes crashing down.
- Faux flames and screams fill the hall.
Next, we’ll look through the Brousseau & Brousseau Inuit Art Gallery (35 rue Saint-Louis; 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM) to admire the amazing North Canadian Inuit sculpture. The current Gallery director, Jean-Francois Brousseau, has for the past 15 years selected the best work by a number of Inuit artists, encouraging these artists to pursue their works in total freedom and in faithfulness to their ancestral traditions. This also has helped these artists improve their standard of living in the Canadian arctic.
We’ll catch lunch in Haute Ville at Café-Terrasse La Nouvelle-France (8 Rue du Trésor; Open 11AM to 9:30PM) under the green umbrellas.
After lunch, we’ll take the funicular down to Basse Ville, where we’ll spend the afternoon. In Basse Ville, we’ll wander the streets, find the river, and take in the Museum of Civilization, “a place of knowledge and ideas that will transport us into the great cities of the world, the fascinating ancient civilizations, and the significant sociocultural movements and the heart of Quebec society.”
The three main themes that guide the museum’s collections are:
- Power and structure of societies.
- Exchange and communication.
- Creation and innovation.
We’ll meet up for our 5 à 7 drinks and a relaxed pub fare dinner in Basse Ville at Pub des Borgia (12 Rue du Petit Champlain; 11 AM to 1 AM), on the patio under the cheerful red umbrellas. If we’ve split up to shop in Basse Ville, the first to arrive will be in charge of snagging a table.
As we savor our leisurely, typically French meal, our only time constraint will be to allow enough time to catch the last Funiculaire back up to the Château Frontenac by 10:30 PM. If we miss it, there are always the stairs.
DAY 6: SATURDAY…CRUISE TO MONTMORENCY FALLS
We’ll treat ourselves this morning to brunch at Place Dufferin Restaurant (1 rue des Carrières; 7 AM to 10:30 AM, Monday to Friday, 7 AM to 11AM, Saturday/Sunday) at the Frontenac Hotel, overlooking Dufferin Terrace. We will have made our reservations in advance for 9 AM. We’ll try for a window seat to enjoy the incomparable view of Dufferin Terrace and the St-Lawrence River.
Here, we’ll probably pick the $38 sumptuous buffet, with eggs, potatoes, bacon/sausage, waffles, juice, and fruit, plus an omelet station, a variety of fish (salmon, sturgeon), cheeses (bries, hard cheeses), olives, capers, sour cream, and wonderful bread, croissants, and hot cereals.
After brunch, we’ll have free time to spend in Haute Ville.
We may go back to Rue de Tresor to check out more of the art on Artists Alley.
We’ll look through the artisan shops along Cote de la Fabrique, making sure to step into Artisans Canada, La Maison Simonsand 3 Poules.
As we shop, we’ll keep our eyes on the square (Place de l’Hotel de Ville) with the fountain, across the street from 3 Poules and facing City Hall, to spot any performance artists who are preparing to stage an impromptu show. These shows are charming and fun, and not to be missed.
DOWN TO BASSE VILLE TO CATCH OUR CRUISE TO THE FALLS
By 1 PM at the latest, we’ll head down to Basse Ville to locate Chouinard Pier for our 2 PM (1½ hour) cruise of the St. Lawrence to the spectacular Montmorency Falls—272 feet high… 98 feet taller than Niagara Falls!
These imposing waterfalls dominate the landscape a few minutes from Quebec City, about 7.5 miles from the heart of old town. As we cruise, our guide, costumed as Louis Jolliet, will reveal the unsuspected history of the city, the river, and the surroundings.
Although we’ll be seeing the falls by boat, it also can be reached on foot, by cable car or from the Manoir Montmorency. And for the very daring, there’s even the option of ziplining across the falls.
This place turns into a fairy-tale in the winter, when splashes from the tumbling water freeze and form the famous “Sugar Loaf,” an impressive cone of ice at the foot of the falls. During July and August, the plunging water is illuminated.
After our cruise, we’ll explore Old Port Market, then head to Le Pub du Vieux Port along the water for our 5 à 7 under the orange umbrellas. This will be our time to share our tales and observations of the day.
Tonight, will be our final evening in Quebec City. So, we’ll make our way back up to Haute Ville to change into something stylish for dinner and jazz at Le Charles Baillairgé, the sophisticated restaurant and jazz bar in the Clarendon Hotel. Here we’ll splurge on the eclectic French fare and enjoy the music. Tomorrow we’ll say “Au Revoir” to Quebec City — “Until we meet again.” And we will…