Departing Fundy National Park with our sights set on Montréal, we mentally prepared for what would be the longest day in the car of the trip. Since Maine nearly slices Canada in half up there, the most efficient way between these two points (which lie at the same latitude), is to loop way up north over Maine. Québec City is on the route and it’s fantastic, but we’ve been there before and had planned to speed our way home since we’d already been on the road for three weeks.
There was very little traffic as we traversed the pretty New Brunswick countryside. Frequently the highway passes within sight of the Maine border. When we stopped for lunch at Presse Café in Edmundston we were firmly in the French language realm, and shortly after we entered Québec where all English language road signs disappeared. We had a good laugh while passing the town of Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! the only town in the world whose name officially includes two exclamation points. That’s some good random trivia. Upon approaching the St. Lawrence River, the Trans Canada Highway makes a 90 degree left toward the southwest. Once we reached Québec City, the traffic picked up and we were noticeably back in the more heavily populated region of the country. About 9.5 hours after departing Fundy National Park we arrived in Canada’s cultural capital and the largest French-speaking city in the Western Hemisphere.
Whenever people ask us for our favorite cities, we both put Montréal near the top of the list. Its combination of big city amenities and Canadian friendliness with a touch of French elegance makes it hard to beat. It frequently pops up on rankings of most livable places in the world due to its history, culture and charming ambiance. Old Montréal is about as close as you can come to a trip to Europe without getting on a plane. Our last visit was in the summer of 2010, so we couldn’t pass by without spending a couple days. We booked two nights at the Auberge Le jardin d’Antoine in the Latin Quarter near the University of Québec at Montreal (UQAM). This put us close to public transit and within walking distance to great neighborhoods. Our small but comfortable room was located on the ground level off the back terrace. Each morning a European style breakfast was served in the dining room. The sidewalk patio tables were a lovely place to start the day.
We made dinner reservations at Manitoba in the Mile-Ex district on the first evening. This trendy neighborhood has recently become a creative enclave and is home to several well-renowned restaurants and bars. It happened to be the 10th anniversary of our first date, so we felt justified in splurging a bit. Manitoba’s concept celebrates fishing, hunting and foraging with locally-sourced and uniquely Canadian ingredients. We were seated on the back patio surrounded by decorative prairie grasses and flowers. For our first course we selected two unique dishes, clams served on tomato with greens and seal served nearly raw with berries and cabbage. Eating seal was a first for both of us. I wouldn’t say it was my favorite meat, but if you’re feeling adventurous, Manitoba is the place to try it. The entrees, cocktails and dessert were also perfect and I was constantly impressed by our server’s ability to recite multiple obscure ingredients in both French and English. After dinner we walked around the corner to Bar Alexandraplatz for a nightcap on the patio. Mile-Ex gets our seal of approval for sure, while seal itself gets a cautious thumbs up.
The following morning we walked to the Old Montréal neighborhood, where the narrow streets and old stone buildings are more reminiscent of Europe than North America. We passed through the silver-domed Bonsecours Market that was Montréal’s main public market for a century. Today, after surviving a 1960s plan to demolish it, the building is full of cafes, shops and event spaces. We made our way to the true heart of French Canada at Pointe-à-Callière Museum. The modern building sits on a site inhabited for over 1,000 years and the very spot where Montréal was founded. The museum covers archaeological and historical accounts of the city as it evolved from native meeting place to modern day metropolis. An introductory multimedia show introduced us to the basic historical plot. Following that, we descended stairs that led to underground archaeological galleries embedded amongst the real streets, building foundations and even sewer systems of Old Montréal. Our favorite exhibit narrates the historical uses of a site with color-coded light outlines. In the upstairs gallery, a temporary exhibit on the timeline of the telephone taught us how to operate a switchboard and an observation deck overlooking the neighborhood provided photographic opportunities. It’s a large complex and worthy of at least a few hours of exploration.
There’s no shortage of good food and drink around there either. We enjoyed a quick but delicious lunch at popular Olive et Gourmando and then perked up with coffee at Flyjin Cafe a block away. Their maple syrup latte is something everyone must try. We browsed around the central business district for a bit before taking the Metro green line to the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Exhibits here are meant to put architecture into the context of society and foster awareness with the public. The scale models and conceptual illustrations reveal design processes the public usually doesn’t get to see. It also serves as a library and resource center for the study of architecture.
After a quick cold beverage at Le Saint Bock and a little relaxation time at the hotel we were ready for some more eating and drinking in the evening. Our reservations were booked at License IV, a French bistro in the Griffintown neighborhood which was accessible by the Metro orange line. For traditional French fare with friendly French-Canadian service it really hit the spot.
One of Canada’s favorite ways to celebrate their 150th birthday was with light shows. A large one was being staged nightly in the Old Port with scenes of area history projected onto stacks of shipping containers and fountains while a booming voice narrated. We didn’t have tickets to get inside the grandstand because they sold out quickly, but we observed a bit from outside the fence. The anniversary was also being celebrated with an interactive art exhibit all over Old Montréal. Called “Cité Mémoire“, it featured projections on the sides of buildings that were activated by a phone app that then played the audio as we watched. Walking around the neighborhood, we could see lots of people taking part, watching dancers, historical figures and even a family of beavers come to life on the brick walls. We walked back to the Auberge Le jardin d’Antoine and remembered why we loved Montréal so much, there’s always great food and culture plus something a little unexpected around every corner.
The next morning we departed to visit a new city, the national capital of Ottawa. It’s located just a few hours west of Montréal on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River. We found another cute hotel called Auberge McGee’s Inn in the happening Byward Market neighborhood. Most of the rooms are in the upper floors of an ornate 1886 mansion, but we chose a nicely-furnished lower level room with private entrance in the back. They provide a killer breakfast in the dining room in the morning. The inn is within walking distance of much of central Ottawa from the restaurant-filled Byward Market to Parliament Hill.
Our afternoon walking loop took us past the Rideau Canal, a 202 kilometer waterway (another UNESCO World Heritage Site), and to the cluster of gorgeous buildings crowning Parliament Hill. The Peace Tower stands 92 meters above it all, and in refreshing fashion the buildings are not surrounded by obvious military-grade defense structures. We weren’t able to tour the interior unfortunately, as the timed tour tickets sell out very quickly during the busy season. If you want to see inside or climb the tower, it’s best to line up at the visitors center across the street first thing in the morning (we saw the insane lines the next day on our way out of town). Behind the super-ornate library portion of the Parliament House we descended a long set of zig zagging stairs to a riverfront pathway that brought us back around to the mouth of the Rideau Canal. We were able to catch it in its hand-operated glory while a large group of pleasure boats made their way up the set of locks connecting the Ottawa and Rideau rivers.
We then took a break from the summer heat and humidity by spending several hours at the National Gallery of Canada. It has an extensive collection, so we focused mainly on the Canadian and Indigenous galleries to keep with our summer theme. It does an excellent job of highlighting the contributions of all the nation’s groups and demonstrates the trajectory of Canadian art through history.
For dinner we enjoyed Italian on the courtyard patio at Mama Grazzis on George Street before heading back to Parliament Hill. That night we’d get to see a great Canadian light show that didn’t require tickets. Every summer evening the Parliament House became the canvas for the “Northern Lights” show celebrating Canada’s birthday. The 30 minute display depicted a timeline of historical events accompanied by narration and music. The finale set to “O Canada” brought the crowd to its feet as the images on the building gradually coalesced into the iconic maple leaf flag. In that moment I was so proud to be Canadian… and then I remembered, oh crap, I’m American. Send help Mr. Trudeau. Afterwards we found a rooftop deck on the 16th floor of the Andaz Hotel called Copper Spirits & Sights and enjoyed the view of the regular city lights.
We had two more days of driving left on our epic road trip, with an overnight in Toronto as a stopover. We last visited our fellow Great Lakes metropolis on that 2010 Canadian loop, so we’ve been eager to get back. Toronto may lack the old world charm of Montréal, but it has its own appeal, and man is it booming. It only overtook Montréal in population and business importance in the 1970s, but now it is clearly “Canada’s Downtown”. The skyline is a tangle of construction cranes building tall residential and commercial towers all over the central city. With an amazing 13 of the 20 tallest buildings having been built since 2010, we hardly recognized it. They could do with a little more architectural variety though, the spacey CN Tower is one of the few structures that provides any unique visual identity.
We tried out Airbnb for the second time with more happy results. We were housed in a studio condo unit in a brand new building in the West Queen neighborhood. The caretaker even left us a bottle of wine, so we celebrated by popping it open and having a Grenache-fueled dance party set to the new Arcade Fire album. With just one evening in Toronto, there wasn’t much time to really get out and about, so we kept it local in West Queen with some flights at Bellwoods Brewery on Ossington Street. This neighborhood is cool. While sitting at the bar we looked out the window and both remarked how if we did not know where we were, we’d swear we were on Division Street in Chicago circa 2007 (when it was still cool). We followed that up with tapas at the chic Carmen restaurant. Our most memorable stop of the night turned out to be BarChef, where they take cocktails to a whole new level. The menu is divided into sections ranging from classic to “molecular,” where they really push the boundaries of cocktail culture (and price). We went with middle of the road section because we’re not made of money, and were impressed. We did get to watch someone down the bar receive a molecular drink that arrived under a smoke-filled glass bell cover, so that was fun.
It was a drippy and overcast morning when we began our trek back to Chicago. The traffic on suburban Toronto freeways has to be some of the worst anywhere, making a slow start to our departure. We finally broke out of the pack and sped the rest of the way across Ontario. We savored one last Tim Horton’s stop at an OnRoute on the side of the freeway. I think my drink was technically a cup of liquid frosting rather than anything coffee-related, but it did the trick. Around midday the Ambassador Bridge loomed above us while waiting in line to re-enter the United States. Do we really have to? Just across the border in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood we found one last brewery to add to our vacation total; Batch Brewing turned out to make it an even 30 and made a delicious pasty for lunch as well. Michigan and Indiana were a blur, and before we knew it we were heading up the Dan Ryan with the Chicago skyline looming ahead. Music blared from Lollapalooza as we passed Grant Park and the whole city seemed to be out and about along Lake Shore Drive. Just like the end of all our incredible trips, Chicago was welcoming us home.
Previously: Halifax and Fundy National Park
Previously: Fortress of Louisbourg
Previously: Cape Breton Island Part 2
Previously: Cape Breton Island Part 1
Previously: Nova Scotia – Annapolis Royal to Grand Pre
Previously: Nova Scotia – Digby to Keji
Previously: In & Around Bethel, Maine
Previously: Chicago to Maine