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Canada by rail: the best of Ottawa, Montréal, and Québec City

When I was a child train travel was the main way to move around. Today, in North America, it is a type of transportation you only take when you have to. But VIA Rail does in fact take you places, so this summer to try something different I took my mom on a 5-day train trip to see places we haven’t fully had time to visit in the past.

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Knowing that I can’t be out of the office for too long the itinerary was as follows: 1 night in Ottawa, 2 nights in Montreal, 2 nights in Quebec City, and fly home. The timing turned out to be quite perfect. With limited time we didn’t go into any museums and instead just mapped the cities for things to see, eat, and places to shop at. All in a relaxed attitude.

The train ride through Ontario and Québec offers a nice view of the farm fields, flatlands, a variety of greenery, and an occasional neighborhood. The trains are fairly spacious and for the most part, move fast. There’s onboard WiFi (not strong enough for movie watching) and basic catering at cost – I’d recommend packing your own snacks.

Side note: This post covers 5 days and 3 locations so it’s a little long but you can skip to cities you’re most interested in.

Stop #1: Ottawa

To See & Do:

Byward Market is a good spot to wander around for a couple of hours. Here, you can buy trinkets and gifts, relax on a patio, have a beaver tail, and buy some fresh fruits from local farmers. The area, naturally, is quite touristy but a popular spot for locals alike. Walking from the market you can explore the city’s architecture and museums on foot passing. Not too far is Rideau Canal, the Notre Dame Cathedral (do go inside, it is stunning!), Parliament Hill, and other notable government architecture.

Eats & Drinks

I was on a mission to find a craft brewery not too far from the city center and Flora Hall seemed to fit the need. The spot has a typical craft brewery garage feeling on the ground floor with a traditional restaurant sitting on the second level. The beer selection and menu are both great and offer a nice variety of flavours. The only downside is they don’t serve flights. This was information I just had no idea how to process quite frankly and the disappointment on my face is apparently something they see every day. They do, however, serve 7oz glasses so you can just make your own flight!

For breakfast, I would strongly recommend heading directly to Scone Switch. At this small shop, you will find delicious scone sandwiches (hot and cold), fresh salads, coffee, and sweet scone varietals to take home, or in our case for a train snack. I honestly can’t remember the last time I ate something so flakey and delicious!

The Stay: The Metcalfe Hotel

A lovely modern hotel* with a unique lobby that feels like two buildings bonded by a glass roof. The lobby offers a rather unique interior. Some rooms look out into the indoor courtyard, with lights dripping down all the way to the ground level. The overall decor is a mix of modern and mid-century with a lot of well-balanced wood and leather. Rooms are average size, with comfortable beds, a lot of storage space, and a fairly large TV. On the ground floor, there’s ample sitting space including couches and a harvest dining table, a mini library wall, and a restaurant. The only downside to this lovely spot is the pool. Shared with the neighboring hotel the pool seems to be the only room that was not touched by the same decorators as the rest of the property.

The Metcalfe Hotel ****
123 Metcalfe St, Ottawa
Ontario K1P 5L9

Stop #2: Montréal

To See & Do:

There are a few fun areas to walk around in Montreal. For this trip, we chose OldMontréal and Boul Saint-Laurent. Boul Saint-Laurent is a fairly long street dotted with stores, patios, street art, coffee shops, and great local eateries. A good place to start walking is the intersection of Rue Sherbrooke O. The streets behind Boul Saint-Laurent are a great showcase of local architecture – colourful multi-level houses with exposed staircases. Old Montréal is the second-day adventure. Here you can explore the waterfront market, ride a Farris wheel, enjoy street performances, and shop. The neighborhood has a lot of European-style architecture like Basilique Notre-Dame and the Marguerite-Bourgeoys Museum. The latter opens up on a 360 view of the city once you reach the top.

Canada by rail: the best of Ottawa, Montréal, and Québec City: Montreal waterfront with a ferris wheel
Canada by rail: the best of Ottawa, Montréal, and Québec City: a row of coffee bags at Dispatch coffee

Eats & Drinks:

For poutine, patio, and oversized margarita vibes there is Dirty Dogs on Boul Saint-Laurent. Dirty Dogs is hard to miss because there is a pink hippo around the corner. It is also hard not to enjoy: the staff is chill and efficient, the food is fantastic and those massive cocktails go down like lemonade.

For a cheffy dinner make a reservation ahead of time at  Restaurant Provisions, located a quick cab ride from the above. The menu changes daily based on what’s fresh and you can choose from a 5- or 7-course menu options. Everything is served family-style at a healthy pace. During our visit, the menu included a variety of seafood, meat, and vegetarian dishes, and was closed with a crafty and delicious corn dessert. Naturally, their daily drink and wine selections also change to match the menu, which is a nice touch.

Canada by rail: the best of Ottawa, Montréal, and Québec City: close up on a poutine

For a refreshing drink with a view of the city take the elevator to the Le Place D’Armes Hotel * rooftop patio that looks over Old Montréal square. They have a wealthy food menu and a long list of cocktails. I tried two – white wine sangria and a blueberry mojito – and they were both heavenly.

For a taste of French cuisine, my mind was set on finding a terrine and bone marrow. This turned out to be not an easy task but our hotel concierge recommended Taverne Square Dominion nearby. They had both. The restaurant pub has a great old-style decor with a full wall of neatly lined up liquor bottles. The portions are large and filling, the atmosphere is fun, and the people who come here seem to be mostly regulars. Always a good sign.

The Stay: Omni Mont-Royal Hotel

Omni Mont-Royal* doesn’t look like much from the outside and is clearly built for entry by car but once you do enter, the lobby greats you with a refreshing scent and smiling faces. The space is not particularly large with a check-in desk on one side and a lobby bar on the other. The bar has a lovely cocktail menu which you can either take with you upstairs or enjoy at the bar. The rooms are spacious, with comfortable bedding and a nice view of the city. There’s also an outdoor pool but the seating is quite limited with most of it in the back looking up at the building wall. A bit of a let down sadly.

Omni Mont-Royal Hotel ****
1050 Sherbrooke St W
H3A 2R6 Montréal

Treat Yourself:

Bota Bota is a river ferry remodeled into an upscale “floating spa,” designed by Jean Pelland from Sid Lee Architecture. Like with all spas, you can book services but most people come here for the water circuit. The spa etiquette at Bota Bota is taken quite seriously – no talking, no taking pictures. Though a quick look through Instagram will reveal some rule-breakers. The boat itself has a few hot tubs, various saunas, and a restaurant. In the garden, just a few steps down, are more steam rooms, a couple of relaxation areas, and a pool. Here, in the garden, you can speak quietly, which naturally makes it a popular place for groups. The water circuit prices range by day of week and season so check their website for your options.

Stop #3: Québec City

To See & Do:

Quebec City is divided into two parts: old and new. Old Quebec is the heart of this location and the primary tourist destination. It’s a place where the narrow streets are winding up to the city walls, lined with old, brightly coloured European-style houses. The city is quite small and you can pretty much walk the entire Old Quebec in one day. This was something I realized on day one, just before panicking about the lack of planned activities. Knowing that there were almost two more days left in Quebec I did a quick search and found a few activities that rounded up this trip into a nice package with a half-day tour and a spa day.

Tip: The Funicular is $3.50 each way and they only take cash. ATMs are hard to find so if you’re not up for walking up a steep hill make sure to bring change.

Canada by rail: the best of Ottawa, Montréal, and Québec City: funicular booth in Quebec city

From the city square, when looking at the river, on the right side down the boardwalk, is La Citadelle de Québec. This is a military fort that you can walk up to for a great view or enter for a tour. The walk from one side to the other is long and uncomfortable so I wouldn’t recommend it. To the left of the city square (with the giant Fairmont hotel on your right shoulder) are narrow streets, cafes, artist booths, street performers, and shops. Make sure to stop by the Jules to buy some tasty gifts. This side of the city will take you up towards the city walls which you could easily walk on.

Day Tours

There are a few tours that offer half-day outings including seeing the nearby waterfall and whale watching. We opted for a  3-Hour Food Tour on the island of Ile d’Orleans.

Our driver-guide was filled with knowledge and anecdotes about the island’s history. Ile d’Orleans is often referred to as the garden of Quebec City because of its vast farmlands. There are 6 villages separated by the said farmlands, we stopped in 3 and our friendly guide even added a couple of extra stops.

During these 3 hours, we ate chocolate, visited a local farmers market, and tasted local wine varietals. I absolutely loved the Ice cider with a cheese pairing at Domaine de la source a Marguerite. They are located in a stunning apple orchard. For our last stop, we visited Cassis Monna & Filles – women who ran a winery offering wine alternatives, like cassis, and lemonades, all primarily made with black currants. Monna & Filles is a beautiful, multi-level property with an ice cream shop and outdoor sitting area. If you are open to renting a car and exploring the Ile d’Orleans on your own it could be a wonderful full-day adventure.

Canada by rail: the best of Ottawa, Montréal, and Québec City: green apple orchard
Canada by rail: the best of Ottawa, Montréal, and Québec City: crostini on a wood board at Cassis Monna & Filles

Eats & Drinks:

When it comes to eating there are a lot of options and quite a few of them are simply fantastic. That being said, some research is necessary because it is a very tourist-heavy city. Aside from a rather disappointing evening at Cafe de Paris everything else we ate was great so here are my must-tries:

Légende for an elaborate tasting is located a bit on the outskirts of the Old City. Guests can order a la carte or take advantage of a tasting menu and wine agreement. We started with some refreshing pear nectar juice and a locally brewed gin with an in-house-made tonic. The tasting menu, which we opted for, was a selection of vegetable, seafood, and meat dishes, all beautifully plated and thoughtfully crafted, naturally ending with a delicious dessert. A vegetarian option is available.

Canada by rail: the best of Ottawa, Montréal, and Québec City: a radish and shrimp dish at restaurant Légende 

For breakfast, lunch, or really anytime solid Québécois meal, there is La Buche : a traditional sugar shack-style dinner with a rich menu. We had breakfast and lunch here on the same day, thoroughly enjoying the thick-cut bacon, sweet crapes, and hefty poutine.

For a patio and traditional French cuisine just nearby is Le Petit Château: a large menu of sweet and savory crepes as well as raclettes – because what girl doesn’t need to eat a block of melted cheese with beef and potatoes for lunch! The outdoor patio also hosts live music.

Local beers can be found in all restaurants and even in the convenience store but just outside the Old City walls is a fun microbrewery called La Barberie. There are two outdoor patios, a couple of rooms, lots of greenery, and a long list of in-house brewed beers. If you order a flight it comes on a spinning stand with 8 larger than average samples. They also serve food pairings that look quite promising.

Canada by rail: the best of Ottawa, Montréal, and Québec City: La Barberie brewery's tasting flight

The Stay: Le Clos Saint-Louis

If Old Quebec is what you plan to discover then staying it is essential. There are very few large hotels outside of the Fairmont* and I was looking for a more authentic experience. Le Clos Saint-Louis*, a 150-year-old building built by the original settlers, looked quite charming. Walking in through a red wooden door you immediately see a staircase winding up in a true European manner. Note that there is no elevator.

On the right is a traditionally decorated living room-style lobby where guests can rest on velvet couches. The rooms are not very large, with exposed stone walls and flower-patterned decor. We stayed in the Classic Queen Room which had a desk, wardrobe, a lovely tea set up, and a spacious well-lit bathroom with exposed brick. While it was a little cold sometimes (central heating makes it hard to keep a consistent temperature in old buildings) the room was cozy and great to rest in.

Le Clos Saint-Louis ***
69 rue Saint-Louis
G1R 3Z2, Quebec City

Canada by rail: the best of Ottawa, Montréal, and Québec City: vintage teapots at Le Clos Saint-Louis 

Treat Yourself:

Just a little bit outside of the city is the Strøm Spa Nordique. From the side of the road it is a futuristic black block building but once you enter the structure opens up with various baths, saunas, pools, and a plethora of relaxing spaces. As a visitor, you can book treatments or simply buy a day pass and enjoy the thermal experience for a few blissful hours. This was our last activity before heading to the airport to fly home and if this Spa was closer to home I would be a member.

Side note: bring a hair tie, the scrunchies sold here are a solid $20.

Tip: Taxi to the Aéroport from Old city is under $40 while Uber showed at $70 + so check both.

In the gear bag:  Fujifilm X-T100 with an XF50mmF2 R WR lens. To see the trip on Instagram look up #xoCanada19 or find the story highlight on my IG profile.

Canada by rail: the best of Ottawa, Montréal, and Québec City: Quebec City boardwalk

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