How to Drive to Europe In 3 Easy Steps:
1) Enter your vehicle and turn on the engine.
2) Drive Northeast until you pass the Canadian Border. Note: People and signs will begin communicating in French.
3) Locate either Montreal or Quebec City and look for a parking space.
Who says you have to cross an ocean just to experience the charms of Europe? All those boats and planes are so unnecessary when North America has its own version of it without all that pesky transatlantic nonsense. Sure, you’ll still need a passport, but at least you won’t have that unfavorable exchange rate to deal with (assuming of course you are from the US and using US dollars, otherwise none of this will make much sense).
Yes, only a few hours from the US/Canadian border are two of Canada’s showcase cities: Montreal and Quebec City – bastions of European heritage in the fiercely-proud French-speaking province of Quebec. From the New York City area they are a mere 7 to 49 hour drive, depending on traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Though both are nestled against the mighty St. Lawrence River, neither would look out of place on the Loire or the Seine, and such is their draw. The fact that they can be reached by car is just a bonus.
If the two cities were siblings, Quebec City would be the classy, reserved older sister who listens to her parents, while Montreal would be the younger, hipper, wilder little sister who gets the most attention. But despite their differences and the two and a half hours (again, by car) that lies between them, there’s no doubt they’re related as they share a common resemblance – the aforementioned European charm.
Quebec City – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is about as Old World as you can get, and has the distinction of being the only walled city in North America north of Mexico. This is a fact that was apparently overlooked by American soldiers during the Revolutionary War who unsuccessfully tried to capture it. I suppose military theory hadn’t yet stumbled upon the principle of: less walls equals more chance at success. But the threat of an American attack during the War of 1812 prompted the construction of many of the stone fortifications still found on Cap Diamant – a bluff perched along the St. Lawrence River – that is now regularly invaded by American tourists. So maybe the tactic worked after all . . .
The Old Town can be fittingly divided into two sections; Haute-Ville (Upper Town) which is larger and more functional, and Basse-Ville (Lower Town), which is smaller and more geared toward tourists. Most visitors begin their itinerary at Quebec’s most famous landmark and icon, the Chateau Frontenac—an imposing castle-like hotel built in 1893 for the express purpose of attracting tourists and promoting the Trans-Canadian railway. This magnificent edifice dominates the city’s profile, looming benevolently like a stately, elegant giant. In the shadow of the giant is Place d’Armes, a lovely square teeming with quaint architecture and bustling cafes in a scene right out of Paris. Nearby is tiny Rue de Tresor, an alleyway packed with local artists offering etchings and watercolors primarily depicting city scenes like the one you’re standing in.
After meandering your way through the rest of Haute-Ville with its array of restaurants, shops, and authentic residences, a stop at the city’s former defenses, such as the Citadelle, makes for an interesting diversion. So does a stroll along Terrasse Dufferin—a broad wooden boardwalk that offers expansive vistas of the river. Visitors can then either descend a series of stairways, or for about $3 take a funicular ride down to Basse-Ville. Since you came by car I’d normally suggest you stretch your legs and just take the stairs, but since funiculars are hard to come by in the US, and even harder to pronounce, I recommend you take it in at least one direction.
Nestled between the banks of the St. Lawrence and the Chateau Frontenac, Basse-Ville is a collection of refurbished stone and mortar buildings with more of that distinctive European flair. Nowadays, these buildings house an assortment of souvenir and clothing shops along with several eateries in this pedestrian-friendly part of town (See step #3). All in all, it is a great place to sate your inner Francophile, and perhaps even serve to whet your appetite for the real thing. But now that you’re in the neighborhood, it’s time to hop back in the car and follow the St. Lawrence to lively Montreal.
Situated on an island, Montreal is far more cosmopolitan than its relative to the northeast. This metropolis boasts great ethnic neighborhoods, a lively arts scene, and great views—especially from Mont Royal, the oversized hill from where the city draws its name.
Most of the action and tourists can be found on the waterfront that encompasses the historic district of Vieux-Port—or Old Port. As the name would suggest, this area retains much of its colonial charm and architecture as seen in bustling Place Jacques-Cartier – a spacious pedestrian avenue crowded with restaurants and street performers. Throughout the adjacent streets there are also plenty of shops and boutiques in French Colonial flavor. For those who can’t get to Quebec City, the Old Port is a worthy stand-in.
For those looking for more than just atmosphere, there are some impressive attractions just a few miles to the east. After a comfortable ride on the convenient and easily-navigated Metro, one will find themselves faced with the options of visiting the Biodome, Botanical Gardens, Olympic Stadium, or some combination thereof.
The gardens are among North America’s best, with particularly elaborate versions of both Japanese and Chinese gardens. The Chinese boasts a gushing waterfall, reflective lake and oriental pavilions. The Japanese has its own variation on the theme while both have impressive collections of bonsai trees—some of which date back over 100 years. On the garden grounds is another attraction—the Insectarium, where as you’ve probably guessed, there are many opportunities to get up close and personal with all sorts of creepy crawlies. You might want to save that one until after lunch.
Hopping on one of the frequent shuttle buses across busy Rue Sherbrooke, is Olympic Stadium, formerly the home of the Montreal Expos (which sadly, was never quite as busy) and now a municipal arena. The attraction here is its soaring inclined tower which offers amazing views. Nearby is the third of the aforementioned attractions—the Biodome. Not surprisingly, this is a biological showcase featuring flora and fauna from four different ecosystems, ranging from tropical rain forests to polar zones.
Since this is Canada, one must take the seasons into account when choosing a time to visit. If you plan on spending time outdoors, the summer is high season for good reason – fall and winter can get downright frigid (though the cities have lots of winter activities for those who don’t mind losing a finger or two to frostbite). While it is convenient to arrive at either city by car, you’re probably best off not using it much upon arrival. Most of Quebec City is geared to pedestrians, and Montreal’s traffic make the Metro a far more appealing mode of travel. You’ve already skipped an ocean crossing – a little time out of the car won’t kill you (though a little time under it will).
Of course, like any cities, they boast a downtown with tall buildings, museums and the like. But what differentiates Montreal and Quebec City from any other cities in North America, is the inescapable sensation of walking through Europe that only ends when you realize that you’ll be driving home in your own car. So hang your air freshener on the rear view mirror and leave your Euros at home. The road to North America’s Europe lies north, not east.