A tale of Quebec’s cities

Our deputy editor discovers history, European style and plenty for families in Montreal and Quebec City


Montreal may not be home to Canada’s largest Jewish community — that honour goes to Toronto — but visit Quebec’s biggest city and you can’t fail to discover its influence. It’s there in the food, in the older Jewish quarter of the town and the writing too (this was where Mordechai Richler, and so Duddy Kravitz, were born).

This history made a visit to the Montreal Holocaust Museum not only very moving, but also something of an eye opener. Telling the story of Jewish communities before, during and after the Holocaust, we were surprised to find out about antisemitism in the region and how reluctant the community was to take in Jewish refugees during the war.

The museum may be small but the history is well explained, with many heart-breaking items on display. It was an important part of our visit to Montreal, where around 93,000 Jews now live.

But where there are Jews, there is also food, and there was also plenty of Jewish-style food to fuel our exploring, not least the bagels at the Fairmount and Saint Viateur bakeries.

Natives of the city argue that their bagels — boiled in honey-infused water before baking — are far better than those in New York (or even London). We weren’t entirely convinced, but it was still fun to try them.

The Jews also popularised smoked meat in Montreal, although the sandwiches at famously popular Schwarz’s deli (now owned by Celine Dion), aren’t actually kosher.

The same is true of the classic diner Wilensky’s — although it’s definitely worth a look for its décor, and to sample one of its many home-made sodas.

Both were part of our Jewish walking tour with Round Table Tours, where we also saw (and sampled) delicious babka at Cheskies, one of a number of kosher restaurants and bakeries in the city.

Apart from its Jewish side, this part of Canada has a lot more to discover, especially on a first family trip like ours, and particularly when it was such an auspicious year: the country marked its 150th birthday in 2017, with Montreal celebrating its own 375th.

With its blend of North American and French sensibility, the city itself is gorgeous. Initially colonised by the French before falling to the British in 1760, the first language is still French and there is a real sense of history.

Strolling around Old Montreal’s cobbled streets, especially the best-known Saint-Paul Street, it often feels unexpectedly European. Don’t miss bustling Place Jacques Cartier, named after the first European to reach the area and the Place d’Armes , where you can see the city’s own Cathedral — Notre-Dame Basilica.

The city’s history is told in the Pointe-a-Calliere museum, set on the spot where Montreal was founded, and built on its archaeological ruins, while the delightful old port is just a short walk away, offering a zipwire for the adventurous (including my husband and son), plus stalls to mooch around, pedalos, a great high-tree climbing course and inflatable assault course (called “voiles en voiles”).

If you’re travelling with children, then add La Ronde, the city’s theme park to your itinerary: it’s a must-visit for anyone who enjoys scary rides, including —once again — my son and husband.

For less adrenaline-fuelled views, thankfully there’s the Au Sommet (“at the top”) observatory in Downtown as well as Mont Royal itself, the mountain for which the city is named.

The 233 metre high peak is a tempting green oasis in the heart of the city, while the views are spectacular, going all the way to the Olympic Park — which was just about finished in time for the opening ceremony of the 1976 summer Olympics (and nearly bankrupted the city in the process).

Take the metro to the park, and you can join a guided tour of the site itself and ride a funicular up to the top of the Olympic Tower for more views.

It’s sad to discover that the stadium itself is now barely used, unlike the magnificent swimming pool, but thankfully the same can’t be said of the Space for Life centre in the same area, which combines four natural museums into one complex; a marvellous biodome, planetarium, insectarium and botanical gardens.

The biodome was particularly good — as one of my children said, “like the Eden Project, but better” — with good explanations of the different climates and a number of native animals on view, from beavers and raccoons in one to penguins and puffins in another.

It’s easy to forget that for four months of the year, this lovely, busy city is so cold that people resort to getting about underground, where tunnels and the Metro connect to Downtown’s buildings, allowing an escape from the freezing temperatures.

Montreal may be the biggest city in Quebec, but its oldest is Quebec City, a three-and-a-half hour train journey away. It is also the province’s official capital and one of the oldest settlements in North America.

Smaller than its sister city and more touristy, it’s a real treat to visit, especially the simple beauty of the old city with its upper and lower towns. You can travel between these via a funicular, but it’s not far to walk to be honest.

Quebec City is full of shops, restaurants and bars. We had to drag ourselves (and our children) away from the fabulous Chocolato ice cream shop with its 20 dipping sauces and from the speciality flavours at Mary’s Popcorn.

Strolling past landmarks, including the famous Chateau Frontenac hotel, and the street performers on the Dufferin Terrace, we then rested our feet with a boat trip along the St Lawrence river to the Montmorency Falls.

We also visited a few of the best museums in the area, including the Musee de la Civilisation, which had a fascinating permanent exhibition on the First Nations of Canada, the country’s indigenous people.

The Musee de la Place Royale focuses more on the history of this part of Quebec City, and offers a chance to dress up in period clothing that’s definitely not just for children.

You can also discover a piece of history which still continues on summer days with the changing of the guard at the Citadelle. The soldiers of the Royal 22e Régiment all wear bearskins and it feels remarkably British — except for the ceremonial goat named Batisse.

Where else can you find such a mix? From the French to the Jewish, the food to the culture, this tale of two cities was an unexpected treat.

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