I have been to several regions of Canada during my travels. Vancouver and British Columbia, Banff and Jasper national park, Nova Scotia, Ontario. But Franco-Canada, and especially the beautiful city of Montréal, was still missing on my list. The friendly Québécois with their unique and European culture, the amazing food, the fascinating architecture, and the modern art and culture scene…There are many reasons why this region is worth a visit.
Day 0: Afternoon flight with arrival late evening in Toronto
Day 1: Gananoque, 1000 Islands and Montréal
Day 2: Montréal
Day 3: Québec City
Day 4: Return to Toronto
Day 5: Toronto
Trip date: 05/2018
Trip duration: 5 days (on the ground, without travel time)
Vacation days required: 3 (Departure after work and holiday in between)
Budget total: ~658€ / p.P. (~131€/day)
Cost rating: moderate (100-200€/day) (due to very cheap flight, rest is expensive)
We got lucky with two error fare tickets on Air Canada to Toronto and excellent flight times. Departure late afternoon, so you can work and save a vacation day and a return flight at midnight, straight to sleep on the plane and waking up back in Europe well-rested. Air Canada is a good carrier and the flight was smooth and fast. Immigration is a pain though and took us over 1hr waiting time. Also don’t forget that Canada adopted the horrible process of the U.S. with ESTA. They call it eTA and all EU citizens must get this before immigration. Thankfully you can apply online and do not need to print anything. Important: There are many fake websites for this. The real price is just 7USD and you can apply and get approval online. Takes about 15mins. Website: www.canada.ca I did it while waiting at Heathrow for the flight change. 😉 After passing immigration we picked up our jeep and went off to an airport hotel to get some sleep.
Day 1: Drive to the 1000 Islands Region and Montréal
After waking up early and having an extensive breakfast, we headed off to Gananoque, which is about 2.5hrs north-east of Toronto. This is one of the many smaller cities that access the 1000 islands region – popular not just because they got a salad dressing named after them 😉 This was the only day of the trip when the weather was really bad, so we cut our stay short to just a boat tour. There are actually 1139 islands in this region, spread pretty evenly between the U.S. and Canada. The highlight of the area is Boldt Castle, but it is actually not that old (about 100yrs) and many of the islands feature beautiful houses and sights. The long tours can be monotonous and if you are short on time, the area is [not recommended].
Since the weather wasn’t great, we only did the short tour and did not go kayaking. Instead we continued onwards to Montréal. This way we still had plenty of time to explore the city and enjoy the evening. Our hotel was something else: The art-deco style Loft Hotel used to be Montreal’s first underground parking garage and was later a storage for Canadian military tanks. Check out the elevator! 😉
Also the location is perfect, right in the middle of the Latin Quarter. This is one of the best areas for going out. We took our sweet time to stroll through the streets and towards oldtown and the port with all main tourist destinations. Many guides recommend the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel for its beautiful miniature ship models. To be honest – this is overhyped and [not recommended]. There are much more beautiful things to see (including the Basilique Notre Dame in the center) and the whole harbor area is beautiful. You can take some great shots of the old Silo #5 as well as the Habitat 67, built as part of the Expo 1967, which has signficantly shaped Montréal.
After this it was time for the first local national dish: Poutine! And for desert … chocolate fondue… 12 Million calories in one sitting. 🙂
After this “super light” dinner and desert, we walked it off and headed again to the harbor area for some night shots. (check below for photo spot recommendations).
Day 2: Exploring Montréal
The second day started with a very cold morning and some chilly northern winds. We had underestimated the weather, so except for a visit to the river islands, a skyline shot, and the Biosphere, we did not accomplish much during the morning and rather visited many “second cups” (which is a local coffee chain like Tim Hortons – both recommended to try at least once). I had originally planned to explore the city by bike, but BIXI (the bike sharing provider) does not accept foreign phone numbers. The other option is to use their app, but be careful as you get only one bike per app (and 3$ per 30mins is not cheap). Finally we gave up and since we could not use the bikes, went by subway instead. You can explore Montréal by car, but traffic is not good and at least for the city center I would [not recommend] that.
The weather improved considerably, so we restarted exploring in the afternoon and headed out to the Olympic park. Contrary to what I just wrote, this you can do well by car as there are lots of (free) parking opportunities nearby. The architecture of the biodome and tower is great, but the view from the top of Montréal tower is not that impressive. You can see the Olympic park, but otherwise if you want to go up for the view it is [not recommended] as you are too far away from the center. However, you can buy a discount ticket for all locations combined (biodome, botanical gardens, montreal tower). The botanical gardens are probably not on the standard tourist list, but they should be. There are among the most beautiful gardens I have ever been to and the park area is huge! This is a must-do when visiting Montréal.
If you fancy a more local experience for dinner, the Hochelaga suburb is nearby and features several nice local restaurants. After dinner we headed up to Mont Royal for skyline views of the city. Do not make the mistake of stopping at the first viewpoint – head all the way up to the summit and the large parking area. A 5-minute walk and you can enjoy a perfect view:
Day 3: Québec City
Québec City is the capital of Québec province and located at the estuary of the Saint Lawrence river. It is the only North American city with the historic fortifications and ramparts intact. This did not help them much against the English, but at least they now have a UNESCO heritage site. The drive from Montréal takes about 3hours, but we first headed past the city to the Montmorency Falls (the yellow coloring is due to the high iron content of the water):
Afterwards it was time to explore the city. Parking is difficult, so better check in advance. The interesting areas of the city can be explored on foot, so it is best to get a hotel in the center. The upper town Vieux-Québec is linked by the”Escalier casse-cou” (neck breaker stairs) or an old funicular to the lower town near the river. Both areas are really beautiful and lower town has the historic petit champlain district and the ferry port to the town of Lévis on the other side. Just stroll through the city and enjoy.
The main postcard feature of Québec city is of course the Château Frontenac, one of Canada’s grand railway hotels and as beautiful as it is expensive. We explored the old town (upper and lower) for the entire day. A beautiful walkway leads past the parliament building, around the citadel, passes the park Plains d’Abraham and ends at Dufferin Terrace. You can find many beautiful cafés and restaurants all across town or just sit in the sun and listen to the street musicians on the Place d’Armes, which is what we did.
For sunset we took the ferry across to Lévis (~8$ return), which offers you a beautiful postcard view of the old town and the château. (But actually not much else, staying in Lévis overnight might sound inviting but is boring and [not recommended]) After taking the pictures, we headed into the Fairmont hotel at the Château and into the bar ‘1608’ for dinner and drinks. Try the cheese platter and the georgian hotel cocktail.
Day 4: Drive to Toronto and Island Skyline
Day four was a long driving day all the way back to Toronto. It takes you about 7.5hrs and is pretty much straight foward. We had started early and still had the whole evening in Toronto. We took the opportunity to head over to the Toronto Islands. The ferry to center island departs every 30mins (every hour in the evening) and from the islands you can get a perfect shot of the city skyline:
Day 5: Toronto and Hamilton
Our last day in Canada. Since our flight was very late in the evening, this gave us the whole day to explore Toronto. We had been to Toronto before, so we skipped many first time essentials like the CN tower or the museums and instead headed towards Toronto University and Queen’s park. The university grounds are old and impressive. I recommend to visit the Thomas Fisher Rare Books library. This huge collection is public access and one of the largest in the world!
I had planned to explore the abandoned lower bay subway station for some impressive pictures, but public access is closed (and secured again). So sadly [not recommended]. Instead we spend the rest of the morning at the waterfront in the sun and then picked up our car and headed south. Destination: Hamilton – the city of waterfalls. Hamilton is a 1hr drive from Toronto and features many impressive waterfalls. Sadly almost always the direct access is fenced off and restricted for safety reasons. Still you can get some beautiful shots:
The falls are quite spread-out over the city, so we did not have time to visit all of them and had to head back to the airport for our overnight flight home.
- Skyline: Mont Royal
- Skyline: From the parking deck at the old port on Quai Alexandra
- Skyline: From Ile Saint Helene (Location of La Ronde)
- Botanical Gardens
- Architecture of Olympia Park and Montréal tower
- Old Town (at night!)
- Old Port and Jaques Cartier Bridge (illuminated at night)
- Silo #5
- Habitat 67
- City Hall (at night)
- Notre Dame church inside
- Skyline: From centre island
- Skyline: From the top of the CN tower
- CN Tower and Railroad museum (open air)
- Harbor / Waterfront
- University grounds near Queens Park
- Street life around Yonge Street
- Hamilton Waterfalls (Webster & Albion most beautiful)
- Skyline: From Lévis on the other side of the river
- Streets: petit champlain and near Place d’Armes
- Château Frontenac (ideal spots: Lévis, terrasse dufferin and from Place d’armes)
- Montmorency Waterfall north of the city
- Book hotels short notice and you can sometimes get good deals (but careful in main season)
- Don’t forget to complete the eTA immigration online (all Europeans)
- Restaurant prices are high, better re-supply in supermarkets
- La Ronde amusement park is only open in summer months and often only on specific days. Check online in advance.
- Parking is very expensive and difficult in the city centers. Use the Parkopedia app to find cheap option or park outside and use public transport
- BIXI for bike use in Canada is restricted to local numbers only. Alternatively install the app before you travel to Canada and register. Only one bike per app!
- Don’t forget – Tax is added to all prices. This can include many hotel pricings and makes quite a difference
- Winter can be very tough.
- Even in Spring/Autumn it can get cold, windy and rains a lot. Come prepared.
- In summer you can go rafting both near Montréal and Québec. Gear is provided but in Spring/Autumn it can still be very cold. Check avilability online.
- Tipping is handled the same way like the U.S. waiters work off tips and you should give between 15-20%.
- Low-price hotels are often pretty run-down. This is similar to the U.S and applies even for big chains. So a best western or holiday inn express does not compare to European or Asian standard of the same chain.
- Montréal less-so, but the rural areas and Québec city requires French. Be polite and at least get the basic vocabulary in place.
- Not need to change money or get cash in advance. You can pay literally everything with a credit card.
- Traffic is bad in / around Toronto and Montréal
- Canada is very safe. There is low crime risk.
- Speeding fines are high, although everyone goes 10-20km/h over. Drivers are generally respectful and friendly.
- Don’t antagonize and be respectful – Quebecers are a unique kind. They are NOT Americans, NOT (just) Canadians and NOT French. You will be treated kindly in return.
- Pay attention to cyclists. Montréal and Québec city (but Toronto as well to a lesser extent) are very bike friendly and they are used to people politely stopping. 😉