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Travel: In Montreal and Quebec City, hidden gems abound

On a recent trip to Montreal and Quebec City, the goal was to explore some lesser-known gems, and to uncover a few secrets.

What would you say if I told you there was a place in Canada that, cobblestone for cobblestone, could give France a run for its money — only without the crazy travel and where your loonie is still happily accepted at par?

Well, I think you’d say “oui, s’il vous plait” as quickly as possible, wouldn’t you?

And so it was that I found myself in Montreal and Quebec City recently, camera and Yeti in hand, ready to savour a taste of Europe in my own country. I’d visited before but this time my goal was to explore some lesser-known gems, and to uncover a few secrets that would enrich my experience.

Whether it’s your first or fifth time in Montreal, lace up your sneakers and start with a good walking tour. The Spade & Palacio tour called Beyond the Basilica sounded exactly like what I hoped to achieve on this trip. I know it hit the mark because weeks later, I still have a highlights reel looping through my head: The hot pink concrete artwork called Lipstick Forest, the retro ties dangling from the ceiling of the eclectic Eva B thrift shop, superb murals along Saint Laurent Boulevard (hey, Leonard Cohen), savoury pork baos in Chinatown and so much more.

I’ve always felt there was a bit of French goddess in me, so a Le Petit Navire boat tour seemed like a perfect way to see the Old Port and also channel my inner Juliette Binoche. I had the wind in my hair and a glass of wine in hand … but quel dommage, my chic meter refused to budge. The tour was marvellous, though! From the water the gleaming Port of Montreal Tower is the obvious star, with its striking design that adds such a contemporary swagger to the skyline. The tower itself is also worth visiting for its panoramic views; if you dare, inch your way onto the glass platform that’s suspended 50 metres in air.

“But where is the Alien Park?“ When you hear these words in Montreal, it’s a reference to Frederic-Back Park, my favourite discovery. At one time a quarry, then a landfill, today this 200-hectare site is being rehabilitated as a verdant oasis with picnic sites, lookouts and free bicycle and scooter rentals. It’s so fun that the alien-looking bio-gas capture wells have unexpectedly become an Instagram darling.

If bendy acrobats are your thing, fasten your safety harness and hold on tight. Sure, Montreal is famous for Cirque du Soleil, but it’s also home to the annual Montreal Completement Cirque and you’ll find spinning Cyr wheel performers, trapeze artists and every manner of performer everywhere. Eye-popping shows were even being staged on the 16-metre-tall steel Giant in downtown Montreal.

I think the best-kept secret, though, has to be the fact that so much of the renowned Montreal International Jazz Festival is free to see — in fact, fully two-thirds of the 350+ shows are unticketed. This summer, thousands attended concerts by the likes of Thundercat, Vance Joy and Ibrahim Maalouf, all gratis.

When I arrived in Quebec City a couple of days later, I learned it’s almost as crazy cheap to attend the Festival d’ete de Quebec. An 11-day transferable pass to 175 concerts this year cost just $140. That works out to less than $13/day to see acts like Green Day, Foo Fighters and Lana Del Ray among others playing on the historic Plains of Abraham. Music lovers, start your 2024 planning now.

Evening concerts are always a bit cooler but to beat the heat in daytime, take a dip in the new infinity pool at Promenade Samuel-De Champlain. The illusion of swimming in the St. Lawrence River is fantastic, and it’s free.

My ebike tour with Tuque & Bicycle Experiences was another fun heat-buster, a ride with history lessons and a pop culture component built in. I even got to see the famous red door popularized by the Korean TV series Guardian: The Lonely and Great God. This “magic portal” (actually the back door of a theatre) has helped spawn a fervour that’s brought thousands of Asian fans to the city.

If you’re intrigued by Indigenous culture, you could easily spend a day or night in Wendake, a Huron-Wendat Nation urban reserve just 15 km from downtown Quebec City. Indigenous tourism is on the rise, and businesses are stepping up to meet the demand. The Hotel-Musee Premieres Nations, with an on-site museum and longhouse, is wrapping up a $13-million rejuvenation to better showcase its brand of experiential hospitality. At Bastien Industries, where moccasins have been made since 1878, owner Jason Picard-Binet is focusing on fashion as the way forward and counting on his company’s reputation to underpin that growth. And Sagamite restaurant, which opened in 1999, continues to win new devotees with its sublime Indigenous menu.

Indeed, it seems like the culinary arts are thriving all over. In Quebec City, keep your eyes open or you’ll miss jjacques’ warehouse-like door with doorbell that diners must ring to enter. Beyond the speakeasy vibe, it’s all dark wood, golden tones and the happy chatter of diners (quite possibly oohing over the artistry of the seafood tower). And for sheer “wow” you can’t top the fresh, French cuisine of chef Charles Gignac and his team at Le 101 Restaurant de quartier. Impressively, many ingredients come from Le 101’s garden, and the open kitchen means diners can see the attention that’s paid in the creation of every dish.

Back in Montreal, the Marriott Chateau Champlain’s stylish Terrasse Belvu is a standout with an extensive menu that includes numerous vegetarian options. After sampling the Tropezienne I have a new dessert standard, and the bar is high.

In fact, wherever you dine, or sightsee, or take in a show, it’s tough to make a bad choice in Montreal and Quebec City. I think this may have been my best discovery.

So do yourself a favour: The next time the travel bug bites, forget Paris. Instead, book a flight to la belle province and experience the best of France right here in your own country. Bon voyage!



STAY: Fresh off a years-long, top-to-bottom reno, the Montreal Marriott Chateau Champlain is a superb choice. The hotel has a direct entrance to the city’s subway system, so sightseeing is a breeze.

DINE: Shoutout to Labo Culinaire for its locally sourced menus and tasty cod fritters. For lunch or supper, Pizzeria GEMA is my pick for its vibe and that crust. If you’re looking for upscale dining, check out Le Molière par Mousso.

PLAN: Tourisme Montreal


STAY: You won’t find a prettier view than from the newly and fully renovated Hilton Quebec. Come for the vistas of Old Quebec City, stay for the gorgeous rooms and heated rooftop pool.

DINE: A big chef’s kiss to Bistro L’Orygine for its elegant decor and next-level brunch menu.

PLAN: Quebec Cite

Juanita Ng was a guest of Bonjour Quebec, which did not preview or approve this story. Follow her on Instagram at