Québec truly feels like a country within a country, an island of francophone linguistic and cultural identity within the greater Canadian sea. Of course, this is Canada, with its interplay of vast wilderness and cosmopolitanism, but Québec's embrace of terroir, its language, its passion for everything from winter snow to wine to gastronomy, is something else, an 'else' that encompasses identities both distinctly North American and European.
Montréal and Québec City are bustling metropolises with a perfect mixture of sophistication and playfulness, and history-soaked preserved quarters tucked away around town. The rustic allurements of old Québec are scattered among the Eastern Townships, and produce from bucolic Charlevoix graces the tables of the region's stellar restaurants. Past these creature comforts is the raw outdoors: the jagged coasts of the unblemished Gaspé Peninsula, the vast taiga and tundra of the North Shore, and the windswept isolation of the Îles de la Madeleine.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Québec.
The charming, leafy expanse of Parc du Mont-Royal is charged for a wide range of outdoor activities. The wooded slopes and grassy meadows have stunning views that make it all the more popular for jogging, picnicking, horseback riding, cycling and throwing Frisbees. Winter brings skating, tobogganing and cross-country skiing. History Montréalers are proud of their "mountain," so don’t call it a hill as Oscar Wilde did when he visited the city in the 1880s. The park was laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect of New York’s Central Park. The idea came from bourgeois residents in the adjacent Golden Square Mile who fretted about vanishing greenery. Contrary to what people may try to tell you, this place is not an extinct volcano. Rather, Parc du Mont-Royal is a hangover from when magma penetrated the earth’s crust millions of years ago. This formed a sort of erosion-proof rock, so while time and the elements were wearing down the ground around it, the 761ft-high (232m) hunk of rock stood firm. Bird-watching Parc du Mont-Royal has some fantastic bird-watching opportunities, particularly in spring. A great number of migratory birds use the area as a passage on their way to breeding grounds. In both the park and in nearby Cimetière Mont-Royal, look out for screech owls, red-shouldered hawks, northern orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks, bluebirds, olive-sided flycatchers, indigo buntings and many more species. In winter hardy bird-lovers come out for walks along the bird-feeder circuit that goes around the Summit Loop (the park places feeders out from November to April). Contact Les Amis de la Montagne, located at Maison Smith, for information on guided walks. Lookouts Head to Belvédère Kondiaronk at Chalet du Mont-Royal and Belvédère Camillien-Houde lookout for astonishing views of Montréal and surrounding landscapes. Cemeteries On the north side of the park lie two enormous cemeteries: Cimetière Mont-Royal is Protestant and nondenominational, while Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges is Catholic. The latter has several interesting mausoleums. The Pietà Mausoleum contains a full-scale marble replica of Michelangelo’s famous sculpture in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Other mausoleums in the cemetery emit solemn music, including that of Marguerite Bourgeoys, a nun and teacher who was beatified in 1982 – for more details on her life, visit the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours. Built in 2007, the Esther Blondin Mausoleum is a modern facility housing 6000 crypts and niches, reflecting the increasing popularity of communal memorial spaces. Top tips for visiting Parc du Mont-Royal There's much to experience on Mont-Royal, but it's wise to have a plan before you go. There are park info centers at Chalet du Mont-Royal and Maison Smith. You'll also find loads of info online (including a handy map). Head to Lac aux Castors for winter sports and summer boating. Binoculars are a good idea for the bird feeders set up along some walking trails. Note that walking in the park after sunset isn’t a safe idea. How to get there Walkers will find main entry points on Rue Drummond and Peel in downtown and Rue Rachel in the Plateau. Alternatively, take bus 11 from Mont-Royal metro. There are two parking lots in the park.
Montréal’s Museum of Fine Arts is an accessible and beautifully updated oasis of art housed in architecturally striking buildings. A visit here is a must for art-lovers, with centuries' worth of paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, furniture, prints, drawings and photographs on display. European heavyweights include Rembrandt, Picasso and Monet, but the museum really shines when it comes to Canadian art. Highlights include works by Prudence Heward and Paul Kane, landscapes by the Group of Seven and abstractions by Martha Townsend and Jean-Paul Riopelle. Temporary exhibits are often exceptional and have included a showcase on French fashion designer Thierry Mugler. There is also a fair amount of Inuit and indigenous artifacts and lots of fancy decorative knickknacks, including Japanese incense boxes and Victorian chests. The Pavilions The collection is housed in five pavilions. The beaux-arts, marble-covered Michal & Renata Hornstein Pavilion presents World Cultures – everything from ancient African to modern Japanese art. Behind this building is the Liliane & David M Stewart Pavilion, where you'll find an eye-catching decorative-arts collection. Glass, ceramics, textiles, furniture and industrial-design pieces from around the globe have been assembled. Adjacent to this building on Rue Bishop is the Michal & Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace (not to be confused with the similarly named pavilion mentioned above), which opened in 2017 and features 750 works from Old Masters to contemporary artists, and the new Michel de la Chenelière International Atelier for Education and Art Therapy. Across Ave du Musée, the Claire & Marc Bourgie Pavilion is situated in a renovated 1894 church and displays some magnificent works of Canadian and Québécois art. Head to the top floor to delve into Inuit art and its cultural legacy. The church’s Bourgie Concert Hall features gorgeous Tiffany stained-glass windows and live shows. The modern Moshe Safdie–designed annex across Sherbrooke is the Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion, home to the Old and Modern Masters, with paintings from the Middle Ages stretching through the Renaissance and classical eras up to contemporary works. It can be reached via an underground passage from the Hornstein Pavilion. Underground tunnels connect different pavilions so there's no need to brave the elements between exhibitions. Individual Pavilions may be closed for reinstallation, so be sure to check in advance of your visit. Tickets and other practicalities Timed-tickets must be bought online in advance of your visit. These admit you to the Major Exhibition, Discovery Exhibitions, and the museum's collections. Outdoors guided tours on architecture and sculpture are available for an additional fee. Tickets are half price on Wednesdays after 5pm. Admission is cheaper for people under 30 and free for those under 20. Plan in lots of breaks or multiple visits. There is lots of walking to be done so trying to see it all in one day can be tiring.
Montréal's famous landmark, Notre Dame Basilica, is a 19th-century Gothic Revival masterpiece with spectacular craftsmanship – a visually pleasing, if slightly gaudy, symphony of carved wood, paintings, gilded sculptures and stained-glass windows. History Originally it was a humble building dating from 1683; The Sulpicians commissioned architect James O’Donnell to design what would be the largest church north of Mexico. It opened in 1829. He converted to Catholicism from Protestantism so he could have his funeral in the basilica, and is buried in the crypt. Everything, from the great bell in the western tower to the 1891 organ with its 7000 pipes and the stained-glass windows depicting the city’s history, speaks of the strong faith of the congregations of yesteryear. The basilica made headlines in 1994 when singer Céline Dion was married under its soaring midnight-blue ceiling, and again in 2000 when Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro shared pall-bearing honors at the state funeral of former Canadian prime minister, Pierre Trudeau. Statues While decoration is fairly minimal on the stone facade, you'll note three prominent statues: the Virgin Mary in the center (patron saint of Montréal), St John the Baptist (representing Québec) to the right, and St Joseph (for Canada) to the left. The interior The basilica has a spectacular interior with a forest of ornate wood pillars and carvings made entirely by hand (and constructed without the aid of a single nail). Gilt stars shine from the ceiling vaults and the altar is backlit in evening-sky blues. The stained-glass windows are conspicuous for their depiction of events in Montréal's history rather than the usual biblical scenes. The organ The basilica is home to a famous 7000-pipe Casavant Frères organ, which you can hear played at festivals and concerts throughout the year. Check if the Take a Seat at the Organ tour is running, as it allows you to get up close. The bell The bell in the West Tower, known as Jean-Baptiste, weighs nearly 12 tons (10,900 kg). It's said to be the biggest bell in North America. Chapelle du Sacré Cœur A popular place for regular Montréalers to tie the knot is the much smaller Chapelle du Sacré Cœur behind the main altar. Rebuilt in a hodgepodge of historic and contemporary styles after a 1978 fire, its most eye-catching element is the floor-to-ceiling bronze altarpiece. Aura light show The spectacular orchestral light show Aura Basilica is currently not running, but when it resumes, expect a dazzling performance that celebrates the beauty of the basilica. Tickets and tours Guided tours (20 minutes) are part of the entry fee, but at this time, the basilica is not open for any tourist activities. Once the site reopens to tourists, you can pay an additional fee to have an hour-long guided tour, giving you access to the 2nd balcony and parts of the crypt. Check the basilica's website for the latest information.
The stunning Oratoire St-Joseph church built on the flanks of Mont-Royal commands grand views of the the Côte-des-Neiges area and northwest Montréal. The majestic basilica is a tribute to mid-20th-century design as well as an intimate shrine to Brother André, a local saint said to have healed countless people. The largest shrine ever built in honor of St Joseph, this Renaissance-style building was completed in 1960 and commands fine views of the northern slope of Mont-Royal. The oratory dome is visible from anywhere in this part of town. Brother André The oratory is also a tribute to the work of Brother André (1845–1937), the determined monk who first built a little chapel here in 1904. Brother André was said to have healing powers – as word spread, a larger shrine was needed, so the church began gathering funds to build one. Rows of discarded crutches and walking sticks in the basement Votive Chapel testify to this belief and the shrine is warmed by hundreds of candles. When Brother André died at age 91, a million devotees filed past his coffin over the course of six days. His black granite tomb in the Votive Chapel was donated by Québec premier Maurice Duplessis. Brother André was beatified in 1982 and finally canonized in 2010. His heart is on display too, in an upstairs museum dedicated to him. The stolen heart How much is a holy man’s heart worth? Fifty-thousand dollars, according to thieves who broke into a locked room in the Oratoire St-Joseph in March 1973. They made off with Brother André’s heart sealed in a vial and demanded the sum in a ransom note that scandalized Montréal. The purloined organ was the subject of tabloid articles, musical compositions and even an art exhibition. Church officials reportedly refused the ransom demand, and nothing more was seen of the heart until December 1974 when Montréal lawyer to the underworld, Frank Shoofey, received a mysterious phone call asking him if he wanted to know its whereabouts. Shoofey was directed to an apartment building storage locker that contained a box, and inside was the vial housing Brother André’s heart. The thieves were never found, and today the heart is secure in the Oratoire behind a metal grille and a sturdy transparent display case. But some believe the Church actually did pay the ransom to get it back. Was Shoofey, who was shot dead in 1985 in a still-unsolved murder, a go-between? Whatever the case, Montréal’s great heart heist has continued to inspire artists long after the saint himself died. Visiting the Oratoire Tours are currently suspended and the Oratory Museum remains closed until further notice. The Oratoire is served by bus route 51, and Snowdon and Côte-des-Neiges Stations. Religious pilgrims might climb the 300 wooden steps to the oratory on their knees, praying at every step; other visitors take the stone stairs or one of the free shuttle buses from the base parking lot.
Montréal’s Jardin Botanique is the third-largest botanical garden in the world, after London’s Kew Gardens and Berlin’s Botanischer Garten. Since its 1931 opening, the 75-hectare garden has grown to include tens of thousands of species in more than 20 thematic gardens, and its wealth of flowering plants is carefully managed to bloom in stages. The rose beds are a sight to behold in summertime. Climate-controlled greenhouses house cacti, banana trees and 1500 species of orchid. Here are some of the garden's highlights. Chinese Garden The twinning of Montréal with Shanghai gave impetus to plant a Chinese Garden. The ornamental penjing trees from Hong Kong are up to 100 years old. A Ming-dynasty garden is the feature around Lac de Rêve (Dream Lake). In fall (mid-September to early November), the Chinese Garden dons its most exquisite garb for the popular Magic of Lanterns, when hundreds of handmade silk lanterns sparkle at dusk. Montréalers are devoted to this event and it can feel like it’s standing-room only even though it’s held in a huge garden. Japanese Garden A popular draw is the landscaped Japanese Garden with traditional pavilions, tearoom and art gallery; the bonsai ‘forest’ is the largest outside Asia. Frédérick Back Tree Pavilion In the northern part of the Jardin Botanique you’ll find the Frédérick Back Tree Pavilion, a permanent exhibit on life in the 40-hectare arboretum. Displays include the yellow birch, part of Québec’s official emblem. First Nations Garden The First Nations Garden reveals the bonds between 11 Amerindian and Inuit nations and indigenous plants such as silver birches, maples, Labrador and tea. Birdwatching This is a prime spot for birdwatching, so be sure to bring your binoculars. Look out for nuthatches, woodpeckers and goldfinches (among many others), who visit the feeding stations. Tickets and other practicalities Buying timed-tickets online in advance is highly recommended, which includes access to the gardens. There is restricted entry to the greenhouses and pavilions to control the numbers of guests. If you also plan to visit the Biodôme and Planetarium, buying a combined ticket may save you money. The Insectarium is currently closed for renovations and should reopen towards the end of 2021. Facilities are accessible, and wheelchairs are available for loan free of charge.
Spare at least a half-day to visit this extraordinary art museum, one of the province's best. Permanent exhibitions range from art in the early French colonies to Québec’s contemporary artists, with individual halls devoted entirely to 20th-century artistic giants such as Jean-Paul Lemieux, Fernand Leduc and Jean-Paul Riopelle. Arguably the museum's highlight is the Brousseau Collection of Inuit Art, a selection of 100 pieces by 60 artists located at the top of the Pavillon Pierre Lassonde.
Reputedly the world's most photographed hotel, this audaciously elegant structure was opened in 1893 by the Canadian Pacific Railway as part of its chain of luxury hotels. Its fabulous turrets, winding hallways and imposing wings graciously complement its dramatic location atop Cap Diamant, a cliff that cascades into the raging St Lawrence River. Over the years, it’s lured a never-ending lineup of luminaries, including Alfred Hitchcock, who chose this setting for the opening scene of his 1953 mystery I Confess.
This stunningly beautiful park on the Gaspé Peninsula's northeasternmost tip is a place where the mountains plunge directly into an ocean dotted with spouting whales. You may feel as though you've truly reached the end of the world, as you hike the sea cliffs, looking for whales and seals offshore or great blue herons flapping on dinosaur-like wings. Along the forested slopes of the park's interior, you might spy porcupine, deer, moose, fox or even bear.
Home to Québec's Provincial Legislature, the gargantuan Parliament building is a Second Empire structure completed in 1886. Free 30-minute tours, offered in English and French, get you into the National Assembly Chamber, Legislative Council Chamber and President's Gallery. The facade is decorated with 26 statues, mostly of significant provincial historical figures, including explorer Samuel de Champlain (1570–1635), New France governor Louis de Buade Frontenac (1622–98), and English and French generals James Wolfe (1727–59) and Louis-Joseph Montcalm (1712–59).