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It’s often said that a trip to the Canadian province of Quebec is like going to Europe, only without the long plane ride and the often higher costs. (If you’re an American visitor to Canada, the American dollar is slightly higher than the Canadian.) I was dubious about these claims because it seemed impossible for someplace to feel and be like Europe when in fact it was a continent away. When I visited Montreal in 2013 I came to the conclusion that it was pure malarky saying a trip to Montreal was like visiting Europe (more on my beliefs below). And then last December I visited Quebec City and the connection was finally made.
Ideally, it would be a great thing if you had time to visit both cities in one trip since they’re just under three hours apart driving, with numerous train connections as well. However, if you’re like me and are looking for long weekend trips (i.e. only visiting one locale at a time), well, here’s a guide on how to decide which city to see (first).
Montreal (a major city like any other)
Best for individuals looking for ease of getting to, families with children, those wanting to see and do as much as possible, fans of public transportation
Ease of getting to: Almost two dozen American cities offer direct flights to Montreal, with many East Coast cities offering numerous flights a day. With that said, you can’t deny that it’s super simple to get to and for many people, an extremely quick flight too (around an hour). And even if you’re like me and have to connect, you’re still looking at a nominal flying time (you almost always spend more time waiting in the airport than the actual flying portion).
If you’re looking to save money, the 747 bus line offers service 24 hours a day, seven days a week between the Montreal Airport and the downtown. At only $10, it’s quite a bargain as the fare is for unlimited travel throughout the STM bus and métro network and is valid for 24 consecutive hours.
Families with children: It’s no lie that the bigger the city, the more offerings there are and this is especially the case for families traveling with children. In Montreal there are scores of attractions that will keep children entertained. The Tyrolienne MTL Zipline, the only urban zipline circuit in Canada, offers a bird’s eye view of Montreal. Or hanging with the animals at the Biodome, site of the 1976 Olympic Games and today home to an encapsulation of our natural world; there are more than 4,000 types of animals and plants there! Perhaps the Montreal Science Center, a fantastic spot offering a kid-friendly and interactive environment. The possibilities are truly boundless.
Wanting to see and do as much as humanly possible: Just as there’s a ton to keep the wee travelers occupied, the same can be said for the grown up demographic. Whatever your poison is-good food, craft beer, museums, hiking, even jazz (the Montreal Jazz Festival is world renowned and is held each year in the summer), Montreal has it all. It’s Canada’s second largest city so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the number of things to do and places to eat is endless.
Fans of public transportation: In addition to a fleet of buses, Montreal also is home to a busy and popular metro system (it has the third largest ridership in North America, trailing only New York City and Mexico City). There are four lines in all and it’s a great and convenient alternative to taxis or Uber (the latter due to its unpopularity in the city). A regular ride for one trip is $3.25.
Quebec City (straight out of Europe)
Best for couples looking for a romantic getaway, individuals wanting to feel as if they’ve been transported to Europe, those travelers wanting more ambiance and less a “go go go” regimen.
Couples looking for a romantic getaway: The area of Old Montreal, compared to Old Quebec, is quite small. That’s why in Old Quebec, it’s easy to wander the streets with your significant other and feel as if it’s just the two of you. In Montreal, you have scores of people all about, coupled with loud noise and skyscrapers off in the distance. Dine at a small eatery on Rue du Petit Champlain and afterward stroll down the beautiful pedestrian-only street. Just savor being in a city whose architecture screams a seductive allure.
Individuals wanting to feel as if they’ve been transported to Europe: The first thing I noticed about Quebec City was that everyone spoke French, unlike in Montreal where, at least in the touristy areas, I heard more English than French spoken. This alone feeds the whole “I feel like I’m in Europe” feeling. Don’t worry too much if you don’t speak French; anyone you encounter in the tourist industry and even at more locals only restaurants will know some English. But one of our guides did say that less than five percent of households in Quebec City are English speaking, which blew my mind.
The tallest building in Quebec City is only 31 stories high so most of the buildings are not only petite but also from another time, which adds to the whole “I’m in some charming European town.” I’ll be honest, on many of the side streets, you wouldn’t think you were in a city at all. It almost feels more “village like,” in a good way. And the Place Royal? It felt as if time had stood still right in that spot where the city began.
And even though I definitely saw the Quebec province flag flying in Montreal, in Quebec City the flag was everywhere, and almost always on its own, without the Maple Leaf next to it. Not turning this into a political science post, but many people in Quebec have wanted it to be its own country for decades, even centuries.
Travelers wanting to simply soak in the ambiance rather than go go go: I came to the conclusion that Quebec City is very much like Charleston in the sense that while there are certainly plenty of things to see and do, its greatest charm to me lay in the fact that you simply want to wander the streets, admire the beautiful buildings, and partake of delicious foods like a warm flaky croissant as you do. Not to mention the fact, there’s no shortage of incredible Instagrammable places here in Quebec City.
In Quebec City it’s very easy to imagine whiling away the hours while sitting at an outdoor cafe (well, in the warmer months, that is), drinking a cafe au lait and just people watching or trying to imagine what the street looked like back in the 1800s (probably very similar to today, just with different fashions and horses instead of cars). As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become (slightly) less concerned with trying to visit as many attractions as possible and instead concentrate more on truly experiencing the culture, for it’s this that I feel stays with you the longest.
My final thoughts? I much preferred Quebec City to Montreal. Don’t get me wrong, Montreal was a great place to visit and I had some terrific meals there, but it was still very much a major city which in some regards I have tired of in recent years. Quebec City was unique and oh so beautiful and visiting at the holidays made it even more special.
If you’re wondering where to go first, I wholeheartedly recommend Quebec City. It’s Canada but worlds apart from the Canada you think you know.