From a surprising street art scene, to discovering Montreal’s bagel rivalries and the charms of old Québec, here’s my five day adventure in French Canada.
Montréal and Québec City both had elements of European old world charm. Cobblestone streets, old towns, historic buildings, towering cathedrals and cafes with alfresco seating surround you. Combine that with many features of France – delectable viennoiserie in bakeries that were never too hard to find and a love for coffee, cheese and socialising with of course the language (French) around you. Side note – be prepared for quite a different French accent when you arrive. However, the moment you cross from one side of the city to another, you’re reminded you’re in North America – whether it’s the sprawling skyscrapers of downtown Montréal or classic North American suburbia. The confluence of these cultures will always intrigue me. But when it comes to patisserie, as delicious as the treats were in Québec, Paris is still my winner.
I split the 5 days I had in Québec between Montréal and Québec City to get a bit more of a sense of Québecois life. I was curious to understand the dynamic around French vs English, having read that Québec as a whole had very strict language laws (to try and ensure its French roots are well and truly alive). The Québecois are rightfully proud of their culture, heritage and language and there is a clear will to try and hold on to that as far as possible. I’m no politician but it seems like that debate has taken on new grounds politically – am unsure at what point it crosses from preserving culture to creating rifts.
There were some interesting aspects I hadn’t expected:
- Commercial advertising and public signs MUST be in French (although another language may also be used alongside, provided it’s the less dominant one). This language debate has led to Starbucks changing its name from Starbucks Coffee (which is how it exists in France) to “Café Starbucks” in Québec.
- On public transport, all signs and announcements are in French only. This is interesting given that in Paris, the metro announcements (at least the ones I’ve been on to/from the airport) are in both French and English.
- I spent a day in Paris before arriving in Montréal and given my very poor French I tended to preface each conversation with “my French is very bad, so would you mind speaking slowly, please?” In Paris, often (surprisingly) this was met with a friendly, “I also speak English, if you prefer?”, to which I’d try and politely decline. Whereas in Québec, they continued to smile and encourage me along in French.
At one point this city had the largest population of French speakers outside of Paris (it has since been overtaken by Kinshasa and Abidjan). Today Montréal (which is actually an island in the Hochelaga Archipelago) has quite a few distinct neighbourhoods, and I tried to meander through each, one at a time.
I started with the bohemian Le Plateau Mont Royale. Starting from humble working class beginnings, it became an immigrant neighbourhood (big Jewish and Portuguese communities) before gentrifying into the Shoreditch-esque area it is today. It’s probably the most quintessential of Montréal neighbourhoods. Punctuated with boutiques and cafes, it’s quite francophone and it’s also a pretty safe bet you’ll see a colourful mural. Or ten. There’s never a shortage of places to sit, nibble a croissant, sip a coffee and admire the Victorian buildings or classic winding external staircases as daily life unfolds. In fact there is a Mural Festival each June where artists from all over come and repaint a set of walls along the Boulevard St Laurent. It resembles an open air gallery today with more than 100 works of art in the area!
Montréal’s street art | Saint Louis Square’s houses with colourful rooftops and facades
Nearby is Little Italy / Mile End, where the main draws are charming Italian trattorias and cafes together with the Jean Talon Covered Market. I found a corner cafe owned by a Sicilian-Canadian, bought a cannoli and sat on a chair one morning in the winter sun, relishing each bite.
I skipped downtown largely because it resembled any other North American city (skyscrapers, wide avenues, more anglophone in nature). Instead I spent my last day in Vieux Montréal (Old Montréal) where thanks to the historic buildings (some of which date back to the 17th century when the city’s first settlers came from France) and atmospheric lanes, you feel like you’ve gone back several decades in time.
There are a few gems in Old Montréal like the Crew Collective Cafe. It takes a few seconds to sink in that you’re drinking a coffee in the former Royal Bank of Canada building, the marble floors and brass fittings intact. Another is the Notre Dame Cathedral. This gem might have won my vote for the most colourful interior I’ve seen in a church. The stained glass and blue ceiling are quite spectacular. If you’re lucky enough to see the light show that’s on most evenings (I sadly wasn’t), I’m told it’s a spectacle to remember.
Finally came Canal Lachine and the Little Burgundy neighbourhood – which to me was a bit underwhelming. Perhaps the colour of the trees alongside the canal could be quite picturesque in autumn, but in (cloudy and windy) April, it certainly was different. If you’ve walked along Regent’s Canal in London or Canal St Martin in Paris, this doesn’t quite fall into the same league. However you’ll enjoy seeing different sections of the city as you walk along the canal from Old Montréal to the more industrial & hipster neighbourhoods.
The Bagel Rivalry
Bagels are hot on the Montréal agenda. I mistakenly assumed bagels were just a New York tradition, but oh how wrong I was. My unrefined palette couldn’t tell the two apart, but these bagels were different. They follow an old tradition of being boiled in honey-infused water and baked in wood-fired ovens. The result? Crispy on the outside and melt in your mouth on the inside.
Its origins trace back to Isadore and Fanny Shlafman, a jewish couple from Ukraine, who opened a tiny bakery in the Plateau. They made yeast bread rings according to a family recipe. After WWII many Holocaust survivors emigrated to Montréal and the demand for bagels boomed, and Isadore opened Fairmount Bagel. Meanwhile Myer Lewkowicz, a Polish Jew who had survived Aushwitz, established St Viator Bagel and the rivalry began. Most believe Montréal bagels are lighter, sweeter, crustier and chewy but not as dense compared to their New York cousins.
Hiking up Mont Royal
For a bit of exercise and a view from above (one of my favourite things to do in any new place I visit), I hiked up Mont Royal. The weather wasn’t on my side that day. Howling winds and cloudy skies marred the otherwise spectacular scenes one might witness from here. There are a couple of different walking trails that you can follow. The one I did took about 2 hours, and involved stopping at the Belvedere Kondiaronk and Belvedere Camilien-Houde lookout points. Fun fact: according to local regulations, no building can be taller than Mont Royal.
What’s Montréal without the Maple?
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to visit a sugar shack (cabane à sucre) where the annual spring maple tree sap is boiled down to a sweet syrup to make the classic treat we love and a myriad of other products. However, I did get a chance to see a delightful lady at the Marché Atwater (near Canal Lachine) who showed me how molten maple syrup is magically transformed into Maple Taffy.
Food and Drink in Montréal
Clockwise from the left: Crew Collective Cafe, Cafe Olimpico and Marche Jean Talon
Here’s my hit list of places. I didn’t have time to visit all of them but have highlighted the ones I went to in bold 🙂
- Cafes: Crew Collective Cafe (sitting in a former bank headquarters is somewhat unreal), Cafe Olimpico (no frills Italian cafe with great coffee), Nous Sommes Cafe (best coffee I had in Montréal – in Le Plateau), Pikolo Espresso Bar, Pacquebot, Cafe Italia (Italian quarter – old school, guys with grey beards wearing flat caps; grab a panettone and espresso)
- Pastries: Pâtisserie Au Kouign Amann (the buttery goodness of a Kouign Amann awaits), Mamie Clafoutis (famed for their pistachio croissant)
- Bagels: St Viateur Bagel Shop, Fairmount Bagel
- Smoked Meat: Schwarz – opened by a Romanian Jew in 1928, the meat is cured and smoked for 14 days with a final three hour steam before you eat it. Considered the best smoked meat in Montréal
- Markets: Jean Talon, Atwater (personally I preferred the latter)
- Food court: Le Central (Downtown Montréal – casual, relaxed vibe with different stalls serving food from ramen and poké to burgers and pizza)
- Restaurants: Yokato Yokabai Ramen (Ramen), HÀ Mont-Royal (Vietnamese), Satay Brothers (Asian street food)
- Brunch: Beauty’s – been there forever, a Montréal institution; L’Avenue; L’Anecdote (all in Plateau); Olive et Gourmando (Old Port); Les Enfants Terribles (great views of the city – downtown), Faberge, Le Cartet
- Poutine: La Banquisse (a Montréal legend, has 30 varieties, open 24h) which some may say is a bit mainstream; other alternatives include – Ma Poule Mouillée, The Orange Julep; Frites Alors
A cold, sharp breeze prompted me to put the hood of my winter jacket up. The sky was the shade of a grapefruit, bathing the iconic Chateau Frontenac in pink light. Perched 60 metres high on the cliff-top terrace, I could see the town of Levis across the river reflecting the last rays of the sun. That’s my most vivid memory of Québec City – a charming old town. The only walled city north of the Mexican border and easily mistaken for somewhere in Europe.
Because Québec City is so compact, it felt much more cozy compared to Montréal. There was no need to take the bus – I walked everywhere. While the Old Town is definitely the crown jewel of French Canada (with its narrow streets, charming stone squares, historic buildings and colourful palette), St Jean Baptiste and St Roch were more up-and-coming neighbourhoods that had their own character (street art, excellent coffee, small independent restaurants). Aside from absorbing its old world charms, Québec City’s bakeries were definitely a notch above the ones I went to in Montréal. I think 4 of my 7 meals in Québec City were just scrumptious pastries (my dentist wasn’t pleased). After stuffing my face and trying to walk through almost every street in the Old Town, I ventured out to Montmorency Falls – an easy day trip away.
Quartier Petit Champlain – one of the most beautiful neighbourhoods of the city with 17th century architecture. It’s like stepping back into olden France with its buildings and gabled roofs. The street was voted Canada’s most beautiful street in 2014.
Hotel du Parliament – home to Québec’s provincial legislature. Motto of Québec: Je me souviens / I remember
My three favourite vantage points at sunset?
- Atop the fortress wall at La Citadelle, overlooking Chateau Frontenac and the rest of Old Town
- Dufferin Terrace (which is directly in front of Chateau Frontenac) perched on a clifftop above the St Lawrence River
- From the pier at Levis (across the river, easy crossing via ferry) for an excellent view of Quebec City’s skyline
My history lesson:
- Québec produces more than 11 million gallons of maple syrup annually. This is more than 70% of the world’s maple syrup production
- More than 95% of the province is French-speaking
- Québec City is one of the oldest European settlements in North America (founded 1608)
- Québec was under French rule, then fell to the British (in 1759 under General Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham) before becoming integrated into the Dominion of Canada in 1867
Day Trip from Québec City: Montmorency Falls
The cliffside boardwalk and suspended bridge are both great for aerial views of the Falls. Interestingly, at 83m, it’s 1.5x times higher than Niagara Falls. In summer, I’m sure the panoramic staircase has even better views.
I walked down to the base along the road instead of taking the cable car, and would definitely recommend going to the bottom because it adds another perspective entirely.
Side note: found it hard to believe in the middle of April, the better part of the park was covered in snow!
Food and Drink in Québec City
Places I tried:
- Le Casse-Crêpe Breton – great breakfast crepes, there might be a queue on Saturday mornings! Popular with locals and tourists alike. Breakfast ~ $15
- Tora Ya Ramen – ramen soups in a cozy informal setting, ~$20 for dinner including tip. The veggie ramen was just average; I wasn’t a huge fan.
- Boulangerie Louis Marchand – best bakery in St Roch – quiet and cozy with communal tables. Tried the butter croissant, latte, maple syrup & nut brioche, and the breakfast scone with cheese, onion and spinach (total ~ $20). Everything was delicious!
- Le Croquembouche – a much loved bakery – croissants, cakes, eclairs, brioches, gourmet sandwiches and Danish pastries. Croissants were great. Their Paris Brest was so-so, it wasn’t my favourite.
- Boulangerie La Molette – great croissants and churros (1 croissant + 2 churros ~ $8)
- Chez Ashton – a down to earth chain restaurant (with a fairly grungy basement) offering classic piping hot poutine (~ $8). I finally got to try the beloved Québécois dish here – French fries, brown gravy and cheese curds. It tastes a lot better than it looks!
Places that were on my hit list but for whatever reason, I couldn’t make it to in the end:
- The Billig (creperie) – was eyeing their chocolate, strawberries and whipped cream crepe
- Le Chick Shack – for poutine
- La Petite Cabane à sucre – for maple butter, maple fudge
- Chez Tampourel – little cafe in old town serving french bakery items in a cute side street
- Paillard – bright cafe with high ceilings and an attached bakery serving gourmet sandwiches, soups and salads
- Poutineville – unpretentious eatery serving poutine
The final verdict
Montréal vs Québec City? Tough call to make – it really depends. Montréal being a larger city will naturally have a lot more diversity and much more going on. Personally, I prefer smaller towns that are easier to explore on foot, I have a sweet tooth (no surprise there) so mouth-watering pastries are always a plus, I enjoy views from heights and proximity to national parks to go hiking. On that basis, I’d vote for Québec City 🙂