Although Montreal also has an impressive historic district, there’s almost nothing in North America that compares to the walled fortifications of Old Quebec. A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s the only city north of Mexico City to still have its historic walls. Along with the beautiful government and religious architecture, the Quartier Petit-Champlain is an ideal neighborhood to explore and shop in if you’re looking for something quaint and charming.
Montreal is recognized for having countless local and international festivals all year round—from the International Jazz Festival in June to the outdoor electronic music festival in January called Igloofest—but when it comes to winter celebrations, Quebec City is the clear winner. The Carnaval de Quebec is the oldest as well as the most well known of the winter festivals that take place each year across the country, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.
Montreal is an island, and although there are beautiful parks and landmarks both within and just outside the urban areas, it doesn’t quite compare to the natural setting of Quebec City. For example, nine miles (14.4 kilometers) northeast of Old Quebec along the St. Lawrence River, the Chute Montmorency stands at 272 feet (82.9 meters)—taller than the famous Niagara Falls. Within a half-hour drive of the city, you’ll find valleys and lakes, green mountains, wooded areas, and rolling fields, and just across the St. Lawrence is the scenic Île-d’Orléans.
One of the oldest attractions in town, the toboggan run has cut right through the middle of the city from mid-December to mid-March every year since 1884. At speeds of up to 70 km/h (43 mph), you can take a wild ride on an old-school wooden toboggan that seats up to four passengers. There are stunning views of the iconic Château Frontenac on one side and the St. Lawrence River on the other.
Although Montreal is the largest French-speaking city in the world after Paris, you’ll find that the city is generally fluidly bilingual, and in many ways, English and French both co-exist and interweave with one another as you wander through the downtown areas in particular. In Quebec City, especially beyond the main tourist hot spots, you’ll find a deeper concentration of the French language, which makes it a better option if you want to practice your conversation skills and get a sense of the richness of Québécois.
Montreal is considered to be very cosmopolitan, and its population is notably larger than that of Quebec City: the metropolitan area of Montreal is home to over four million people, while around Quebec City, the metro population is just over 800,000. Even still, this makes it the second-largest city in the province and the seventh largest in Canada.
Both Montreal and Quebec City offer glimpses into the region’s French colonial past, but the historical sites and monuments around the latter are especially noteworthy. From the Notre-Dame de Québec Basilica, which has been in the same place in the heart of Old Quebec since 1647, to the Citadelle of Quebec, which is the oldest military building in Canada, numerous political, religious, and military monuments have played crucial roles in the country’s history. Quebec City is also home to the Musée de la Civilisation, which is one of the most visited museums in Canada, and the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec—a vital institution for the preservation of the province’s artistic heritage.
The Aquarium du Quebec is a 40-acre space that comprises both indoor and outdoor zones, which house over 10,000 animals that represent a range of fish, amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates, and sea mammals. Located just 15 minutes from downtown Quebec City, the Aquarium is unique in the province and attracts thousands of visitors every year.
When it comes to opportunities for ice skating, nothing compares to Quebec City. You can find outdoor ice-skating rinks throughout the city during the winter months. One of the most charming is the rink at Place D’Youville. If you have your own skates, admission to the rink is usually free. There are on-site skate rentals as well.
Montreal has nothing like Quebec City’s incredible Hôtel de Glace, a popular wintertime attraction. The hotel, located just a few minutes from the city center, consists of 44 rooms constructed annually using approximately 30,000 tons of snow and 500 tons of ice. You can visit the hotel during the day, or if you’re brave, you can try a nighttime stay at this unique destination.
Although both cities push up against the banks of the St. Lawrence River, Quebec City offers up the best scenic views of not just the surrounding countryside but also of the striking city skyline. The magical Château Frontenac, which is the most photographed hotel in the world, dominates the cityscape. Take in the beauty of it with a leisurely ferry ride during the warmer months of the year.