A tale of two cities - Montreal and Quebec

If you only have one day in Montreal

We landed in Montreal Airport from Vancouver in the late afternoon and, after a slightly crazy taxi ride, checked in to our very comfortable hostel near the Latin Quarter. It was both strange and pleasant to hear French being spoken in the streets and good to find that we could still retrieve enough of “la belle langue” from the recesses of our brains to carry on a conversation. 

Not being urban people, we had allowed only one day to see what we could. Montreal is an extremely bike-friendly city and has a very efficient metro. So, first thing in the morning, we headed to the local station and caught the metro to Île-Ste-Helène, mid-stream in the St Lawrence River, to wander through its gardens and tree-covered parks in the warm sun.

Montreal skyline

Parkland in Île-Ste-Helène

Place Vauquelin


The Biosphere Museum - Île-Ste-Helène

Montreal across the St Lawrence

Then, for want of a navette to cross the river as planned (the boat terminal seemed abandoned), we caught the metro back and wandered down to the Old City, with its 19th century architecture. Just next to it is the Old Port, now home to various exhibitions.

Montreal City Hall

Levis Tower - Île-Ste-Helène

Dome of the Bonsecours Market

Restaurant in Place Jacques Cartier


After wandering past the modernised quays of the old port, we headed back to check out the amazing Basilica of Notre-Dame de Montreal, built from timber in the 1830s – the most impressive timber building I have seen.

Back of the Bonsecour Markets

The all-wooden interior of the Basilica of
Notre-Dame de Montréal

The ceiling of the Basilica of
Notre-Dame de Montréal

Mid-20th century architecture
at the Place d'Armes

Juxtaposition of the ultra-modern
and the old

The turrets of McGill University
and downtown Montreal

Leaving the old city, we headed to Centre-Ville, the modern business heart of Montreal with its glass and concrete towers connected by kilometres of underground shopping galleries. We explored a few hundred metres of them, before heading up through the stately setting of McGill University with its turreted buildings. This brought is to Mont Royal Park, where we climbed to an impressive viewpoint over the city, St Lawrence River and flat plains beyond, and bagged our first Canadian peak by climbing to the summit (all 231m of it).

Montreal from Kondiaronk Look-out in Mont Royal Park

View over the old Olympic Stadium

Terrace houses in Le-Plateau-Mont-Royal

From here we headed back down through the shaded streets and quaint town houses of trendy Le-Plateau-Mont-Royal – a little bit of suburbia. While there, we passed a cafe called “La vache qui pete” - who could resist having a coffee there! That was the end of our walk and the day, so one last metro trip brought us back to the hostel. It had been a lightning tour of several different parts of the city, but we liked what we saw.

Montreal, we salute you.

Quebec City

After leaving Montreal, we spent time in Mont Tremblant and La Mauricie Parks (described in the following pages) before heading to that other great French Canadian city - Quebec City.

While there, we stayed in a very comfortable apartment on the south bank of the St Lawrence River owned by the friendly Line, who rents it out through AirBnB (there is an interesting source of holiday accommodation). The easiest way to get into the historic part of Quebec City from there was to drive down to the ferry terminal at Levis and catch the ferry across the St Lawrence to the quay just below the cliffs of Old Quebec. It was good to approach it from the river, as visitors probably did of old, with the instantly recognizable profile of the Chateau Frontenac growing larger as we neared the shore.

Crossing the St Lawrence by ferry from Levis to Quebec City

As the ferry docked between two of the three big cruise ships berthed along the quay, we disembarked and headed into the lower part of Old Quebec, where all the cruise ship passengers seemed to be already milling about. It is a very popular tourist destination, and, with its classic French-style architecture and  wonderful cliff-top setting on this mighty waterway, rightly so. It was easy to see why Champlain built the city here.

The buildings of the lower city

Chateau Frontenac perched
above the lower city

Cruise passengers fill the streets
of Old Quebec

Le drapeau quebecquois flies high
above the city

We spent the best part of the day wandering the narrow streets of the lower city, climbing to the upper city to see its places, historic buildings and, of course, the Chateau, as well as sitting in the sunshine and listening to the music and songs of the many buskers that set up at different spots around the city. It was a perfect sunny autumn day.

Statue of Samuel Champlain - the city's founder

The city walls and gate (Porte Kent)

A small city square

The Railway Station

Western wall of the old city

Classic old Quebec buildings

View over the St Lawrence River

After lunch, we followed the Governors' Promenade around the cliff-tops and Citadel to explore the Plain of Abraham, site of the defining battle between the British and French for sovereignty of Canada. Out on the sparkling river, yachts sailed by, ferries plied their way and large vessels chugged upriver -  the St Lawrence is both playground and a working transport route for the people of the region. The British may have won the war, but the descendants of the French have won their “beau Quebec” -  and rightly so. 

The Citadel

Plains of Abraham

View back over the Chateau Frontenac and the St Lawrence River from The Citadel

Terrace houses with a view

We did a loop around the deep moat of The Citadel, taking in views from this high-point over the old city and its impressive 18th-19th century sky-line, doing one last pass through the upper and lower parts of Old Quebec before catching the ferry back across to Levis and a last comfortable night in Line's apartment.

More than Montreal, Quebec City struck us as the soul of French-Canada. It should be part of any visit to this region – just try and avoid the days when the cruise ships dock!