Montreal: city guide & day trips in the area
Updated: May 7
Montreal is Canada’s second largest city after Toronto and is located in the ‘French-speaking’ east of the country. We wasn’t quite sure what to expect of the city when we came here as part of a road trip did around Eastern Canada and North-East USA but we came away pleasantly surprised, happy and learnt a lot about the people and local way of life in such a short space of time (also it took Danik getting used to some of the wording used in Canadian-French as I am used to ‘French-French!’). One thing for sure is we found European beers here very expensive and decided to drink the local stuff instead. Here are some of the spots we checked out in the city and highly recommend for anyone visiting the city for the first time.
Just to point out that Montreal has a fantastic subway system and links up all the sights very well. We had no problem getting around and the bonus for us was that my accommodation was on the outskirts of the city and we were in the heart of the city within fifteen minutes.
Exploring the streets of Vieux-Montreal
This was the first part of Montreal to be built in 1642 by French settlers but was first known as Ville Marie and is located at the banks of the Saint Lawrence river. The area has had its bad times and good times but it was only recently as the 1980s that this area was in bad shape and underwent a renaissance. All the 18th century buildings were transformed into bistros, boutiques and restaurants and are still pulling in visitors today. We did have a meal with a European beer here in the heart of the Vieux-Montreal but it does cost an arm and a leg here.
One of our favourite buildings is the Marche Bonsecours. The neo-Renaissance facade of this building is totally amazing and we couldn’t believe this used to be Canada’s parliament, then used as a vegetable market in the old days. Also worth checking out is the Notre-Dame church and the City Hall (Hotel de Ville). Walking around the streets here was the only true time we felt we were back in Europe, in France, in fact. This did not feel like Canada or North America so for us (even though we don’t suffer with it), it’s a great way to overcome European homesickness.
Checking out one of North America’s most beautiful churches
Just on the outskirts of the centre is Oratoire Saint-Joseph, a huge church located on a small hill. Every year about two million, YES, two million pilgrims climb the three hundred steps to the entrance of this place of worship. The reason why people come here is because many moons ago in the 19th century, Brother Andre was the man responsible for building a shrine to the husband of the Virgin Mary. Whilst the place was being built, it started off as a small chapel but then the disabled and sick joined Brother Andre to make the place bigger but at the same time there were reports of people getting cured. The word spread that miraculous cures were happening and in no time, pilgrims from far and wide came here hoping to get cured but also help build the ever-expanding church.
The highlight for ourselves was to check out the octagonal copper dome on the roof which is the biggest in the world. Inside the church all we could remember seeing was the hundreds of flickering candles that were lit up by hopeful pilgrims.
The island of Saint-Helen - Île Sainte-Hélène
In the middle of the Saint Lawrence river is a small forested island called Île Sainte-Hélène. Apart from walking around and chilling out in the summer sun (to which we did) we also checked out the Biosphere which examines the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence river systems. However it is not cheap to go in if you are not really interested in this sort of stuff. Another thing to check out especially if visitors love city views and taking photographs of them is checking out the modern skyline of Montreal from us. Totally awesome.
Overall view of the city
Montreal is the business city of the Quebec region and is plastered with history. With its open green spaces, fantastic public transport system (in the summer months, not sure what it is like with six feet of snow in the winter), and beautiful elegant buildings, We truly enjoyed our short stay here. Our top three sites are not the only places to check out, there is of course the Olympic Park, lots of art museums (it seems) and other religious sights. Montreal is a must visit when planning any visit to this part of Canada.
Fantastic day trips from Montreal
Montreal makes a great base whilst doing road trips in this part of the Quebec province. The region is pretty massive but here are TWO great day trip ideas (if you got a car of course as we had one and found a car is probably easier than public transport to reach the remote places in Canada).
Day trip one: Quebec City
Driving from Montreal to Quebec takes about two hours on the highway but don’t go directly to the city just yet. On the way passing the largest town of Trois-Rivières, over the river and straight away there is a turning sign posted for Cap-de-la-Madeleine. For those who love amazing buildings, then check out the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame-du-Cap, a beautiful basilica which acts as an important Catholic sanctuary which also receives thousands of visitors every year. Built in the 18th century, the basilica has several sides to it and we found this fascinating, we had never seen a structure like this before. However we weren't allowed inside (we think there was some maintenance work going on at the time), so our time here was short but it is a great stop before making the drive eastwards.
The next stop was the Montmorency Falls (Parc de la Chute-Montmorency) which means driving past the city of Quebec itself to the eastern side. This place is worth stopping off for a stroll and taking a walk over the bridge which overlooks the Montmorency waterfall where the water flows out into the River Saint Lawrence. There are also some great views of Quebec city from here but just a word of warning, there are a lot of wooden steps which go down to the bottom of the waterfalls. Also here there are a range of other hiking trails and sporting activities for the active freaks.
After a morning checking out a stunning church and beautiful waterfall, it was time to spend an afternoon in Quebec City. We have to admit we didn’t know much about the place or what to do when we arrived so we just got lost in the city, wandering around the cobbled streets and taking in all the beautiful buildings. Now compared to walking around Montreal’s Old Town and getting a real European feel, Quebec is more European looking than Montreal. The buildings here are just amazing but what impressed us the most is the layout of the city which is built around a small hilltop.
Looking above the Saint Lawrence, ‘La Citadelle’ is a beautiful fortress worth taking a walk around. Built by the French and British armies, the fortress was built to prevent Quebec from being attacked by the Americans which never came about (Do Americans really care about their neighbours to the north?) Because of this, the fortress was never destroyed and is still in very good condition (plus it is still in use today with the military). What we also love about the place is that it is a great viewpoint overlooking the centre of the city.
One of the main landmarks of the city has to be Le Château Frontenac which is a luxury hotel built by the Canadian Pacific Railway many moons ago. The hotel is designed on a French-style castle on a huge scale and has many towers, turrets and a copper roof studded with rooms of dormer windows. Made from stone and brick, this hotel took nearly one hundred years to build.
Day two: a day out in Parc Omega, fun for adults and children
Just off the ‘Route 50’ between Montreal and Gatineau/Ottawa (yes, heading towards Ottawa from Montreal is going to be tricky if ya going to follow the road signs and do not have a GPS, the Quebecers like to signpost the road to Gatineau, a small town opposite Ottawa on the northern side of the river which separates Quebec province and Ontario), and near the small settlement of Montebello is the Parc Omega. This is a great wildlife park to see the animals of Canada and a good educational trip for the young ones. It is not a zoo but a huge outdoor area where animals roam (so be careful in some parts whilst in the car, we are sure no one wants to have their heads bitten off by a bear).
The park is divided into five areas, the meadow (where animals from western Canada are represented), the mountain (which has animals like the Alpine Ibex), the forest (where wolves come out to play), the lake (plenty of fish and tortoises here), and the boreal region (animals from the far north of Canada but I didn’t see any polar bears). Also here there are bird of prey shows and there is also a chance to feed the deer whilst on the drive around (just remember to pick up the carrots at the main entrance). Parc Omega also makes a great day trip if based in Ottawa as well, it is only one hour drive eastwards.
So there you have it, we had a short time in the southern part of Quebec region but I hope these day trips will help in planning a short trip to Montreal. However, like we stressed, away from the cities, it is best to hire a car and drive. Planning a trip is so much easier with one.
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