Charming, low-lit bistros that beckon you in, and serve up top-notch cuisine when you do so? Check. Street names like Rue de Notre Dame and Place de Jacques Cartier? Check. Buildings that look like 14th century chateau – elegant towers, green sloping roofs and minarets? Check. So we must be in France, no? Not if you’re in Quebec!
First stop on most people’s itineraries will be Montreal. A curious hybrid of large North American city, with skyscrapers shooting up to the sky all over the downtown area, and the joie de vivre of their European cousins across the Atlantic. When they say it’s a bi-lingual city, they really mean it – while the de facto first language is French (like on all the road signs, and everyone will greet you in French at first), there is no shame in speaking English back (though if you want to practice your French, this is a great place, knowing you can resort to English any time you want!). Both languages, bizarrely, are spoken without a trace of the accent of the one not being used.
Montreal has quite distinct areas, and each of which are worth exploring. The fairly compact Old Town near the harbour is where Montreal was effectively born, and now has a mixture of cobblestone streets (such as Rue St Paul, where noisy bars jostle with upscale art galleries, souvenir shops and restaurants), major sights (the Basilica de Notre Dame was the scene of Celine Dion’s wedding and the funeral of Prime Minister Patrick Trudeau) and museums detailing the areas history. From the harbour front you can also see across to Habitat 67, an architectural oddity quite unlike anything else around.
The main commercial hub is around Rue St Catherine, notable mainly for its shopping and museums in the surrounding streets. Far more interesting is the sprawling collection of areas east and south east of Parc Mont Royal. No trip to Montreal is complete without wandering the streets of St Laurent, St Denis (both running north / south), Rue Rachel and Rue Mont Royal (running east / west). Further north you have posh St Laurier and hip St Vivateur, comprising the area of Mile End.
Just like the French, the locals in Montreal take their food seriously – I went to 3 places with queues out the door, and passed by at least 2 others. All were deserving of the wait. If you’ve never tried poutine, this is the place to start – La Banquise, on Rue Rachel, is helpfully open 24 hours a day. Beauty’s on Rue Mont Royal and Schwartz’s on St Laurent are also legendary for diner dishes and smoked meat respectively.
For culture vultures, there is less in the way of sights here but you can satisfy yourself knowing that Mordecai Richter (of Barney’s Version fame) was inspired by the area, while local heroes Win Butler and Regine Chassaigne (of awesome indie-rock band Arcade Fire) lived in the area and performed a legendary gig at Casa del Popolo. Well worth a visit to break up all that walking – and where else can you find a vending machine that dishes out mini artworks instead of cigarettes, for only $2?
Once you’re done strolling the streets – or perhaps beforehand to see what you’re about to tackle – take a leisurely hike up Mont Royal for all-encompassing views of the city below. If you don’t make it as far out as the Olympic stadium, you can at least see the striking building from the lookout. Wait until sunset and you’ll get the best of the day and evening light – it helps me pretend I’m a better photographer than I actually am!
And if Montreal isn’t enough, well, European for you then a 3 hour train journey will take you to Quebec City, a place that is a complete anomaly in North America in terms of architecture, history, and ambiance. This region really has to be seen to be believed – which can be witnessed in the hordes of tourists walking round the compact city, seemingly outnumbering the locals about 3-to-1. In fact this would have to be my only gripe against the place, a victim of it’s own beauty – and if, like me, you’re lucky enough to see if shortly before Christmas, decked out with wonderful lights and decorations, you’ll see what I mean.
I can imagine Quebec City is like a Disney version of what North Americans perceive all European cities to look like. They say that the Chateau Le Frontenac is the most photographed hotel in the world, and it’s not hard to see why. Go prepared that you’ll be amongst hundreds of other non-Quebecois and be swept up in the gorgeous streets and buildings – and add to the hotel’s tally yourself.
All words and photos by Lee Hubbard.