After spending a couple of days wandering the streets and admiring the old architecture it was easy for us to see why visitors are drawn to the Old Towns of Montréal and Québec City. The streets are lined with lovely heritage buildings making both cities a must-see for lovers of architecture.
Our Great Canadian Road Trip took us along the Trans-Canada Highway from Ottawa to Montréal. The city of Montréal is on an island at the confluence of Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers. At its core is the city’s historical district, Old Montréal (Vieux-Montréal).
Branching up from Old Port on the banks of St. Lawrence River, the cobblestone streets of Old Montréal make you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. Lined with beautifully renovated 17th century heritage buildings the streets are arranged in an organized grid. Most of the building are now functioning as shops, restaurants and small hotels making this a vibrant area filled with plenty of locals and tourists. A few of the streets are designated as pedestrian-only which allowed us to pay more attention to the gorgeous architecture.
The Montreal Clock Tower is almost all that remains of the Old Port of Montréal. In its place is a multi-use centre including a Science Centre, walking paths, restaurants and the Montréal Yacht Club. From the walking path there is a great view of Montréal’s iconic Jacques Cartier Bridge.
Across from Old Port the buildings have a more stately feel and make Old Montréal feel very grand. The most impressive of these is Bonsecours Market. It is a majestic building with a large silver dome on its roof. It has been used as a public market for over 100 years. Beside it Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours has a statue of The Virgin as Star of the Sea on its roof. The statue faces the port and asks for safe voyages for all sailors.
In western Canada we call it Québec City, here they call it Québec. Located 250 km north-east of Montréal, Québec City is the capital of the province of Québec. Being one of the oldest cities in Canada it makes sense that their historic centre is the most charming. Old Québec (Vieux-Québec) is surrounded by the original fortification wall of the Citadel of Québec. This formidable stone wall is the first thing you see as you approach the heritage area. When you see it you know you’re in for a treat.
Enter through one of two old stone gates, St. Louis or St. John, and step back into the past. Once through the gate you’ll be mesmerized by the quaintness of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The cobblestone streets are lined with beautifully renovated 400 year old buildings. Many of the stone buildings have colourfully painted doors and window frames. Old Québec has a more quaint feel than Old Montréal. This is probably in part due to the seemingly unplanned nature of the streets that climb up and down the small hills in all directions. You could spend hours aimlessly wandering through the pretty streets of what is undoubtedly the most European city in Canada.
In the summer the sidewalks are filled with patios for all budgets and tastes. In the winter, the area is still busy with tourists for Québec’s Wnter Carnival (Carnaval).
As you make your way to the far end of Old Québec you’ll be in awe of Fairmont Chateau Frontenac as it stands like a castle along the St. Lawrence River. Built in the late 1800s, the hotel was one of the first of the grand railway hotels built by the CP Railway to entice travel across Canada. At its side is the busy Place d’Armes where buskers entertain tourists around the park’s statues and fountain.
Not to be outdone by the Chateau, there are other grand buildings in Old Québec. Two of them are government buidings; the Parliament Building and City Hall. These gorgeous heritage buildings are actively used by provinical and city governements today.
Tips for visiting Old Montréal and Old Québec
- Both cities are very walkable and best enjoyed on foot. Park as close as you can, but plan to spend your days on foot.
- The busiest times to visit both cities are July and August making spring and fall more pleasurable times. The winter festival Carnaval de Québec is held in January and February in Québec City and is also a busy time with many winter activities.
- The primary language in Québec is French. All signs, including traffic signs, in the province are in French. Some signs have English as well, but not many. This mostly becomes problematic when driving. Make sure you know your route so you don’t have to depend on a quick translation. On this trip we found that most people do speak some English, especially those working in the tourism industry.
- Another reason to know exactly where you’re going is because Google Maps may get confused. As we were entering Montréal we approached a complicated intersection with lanes going in multiple directions. Google’s voice actually said ‘I don’t know’!! Thankfully we had been paying attention to the street names and route numbers and were able to navigate ourselves to our destination.
- Even though we only wrote about their historical centres there is a lot more to do in both cities beyond their Old Towns.
- Remember that QST (Québec sales tax) is 9.975% and GST 5% will be added on to most purchases.
Coming Next – Quebec’s Picturesque Gaspé Peninsula
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