From the historic cobblestone streets of Montreal and Quebec City to the towering waterfalls and spectacular fjords of Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, and with Charlevoix’s bountiful farmlands in between, visitors road-tripping across Quebec will discover a surprising breadth and depth of experiences.
This road trip traces an approximately 437-mile itinerary beginning in the international hub of Montreal, heading to the historic old town of Quebec City, then winding through the farmlands and port towns of the Charlevoix region, ultimately reaching Saguenay and the small vacation villages along Lac-St.-Jean, the last stop on the edge of where the “savage” wilderness of Quebec begins.
You could easily spend two weeks or more on this Quebec route, exploring the province’s many immersive city experiences and backcountry byways, but this weeklong itinerary still shows off some of the highlights you can see in a quick trip or use as inspiration for a longer journey.
While this drive is great from spring through fall (and even in winter for ski enthusiasts), autumn in Quebec is a highlight, for both its vibrant fall foliage and the fruit and wine harvests in farm country. Add the cool, crisp air, and you have a perfect setting for outdoor activities. From September through November, Quebec regularly updates its province-wide fall foliage map.
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Day 1: Montreal
Begin your Quebec journey in Montreal, a Canadian epicenter of cuisine, culture, shopping and history that can be a full vacation destination in itself. To get a literal overview of the city, start your day with a stroll in the eponymous Mount Royal Park. Beginning in mid-September (depending on the weather), you can expect to see oranges, yellows and reds bursting forth along the park’s many tree-lined paths.
For a different sort of city overview, hop aboard La Grand Roue de Montreal, the nearly 200-foot-tall Ferris wheel in Montreal’s Old Port waterfront entertainment district. Checking out the city lights at night from the Grand Roue makes a nice bookend to the morning perspective from Mount Royal. Montreal’s famed Cirque du Soleil offers performances in a big circus tent along the waterfront, but be sure to purchase your tickets in advance, as many performances sell out.
In keeping with the road trip theme, a fun way to explore Montreal’s waterfront is by bicycle. Ça Roule Bike Tours, headquartered at the Old Port, leads guided rides across the city. Take the flat, family-friendly route to the Old Port along the St. Lawrence River, crossing over to St. Helen’s Island to see the unique architecture of Expo 67 and the Biosphere from Montreal’s World’s Fair. Cruise around Parc Jean-Drapeau to enjoy its fall foliage (or a summer swim in its Aquatic Complex).
Food & lodging
The Omni Mont-Royal Hotel, about midway between Mount Royal Park and the port, is near shopping and McGill University, and makes a good base for your Montreal visit. For a one-stop destination where you can savor Montreal’s diverse food offerings, head to the 40,000-square-foot Time Out Market in the city’s Eaton Centre mall (a short walk from the Omni), with 16 local restaurants offering cuisines from around the world. In the Old Port district, grab lunch at the new La Cantine terrace restaurant.
And of course you can’t leave the city (or the province) without sampling the region’s signature dish, poutine — French fries with cheese curds, gravy and every manner of added ingredients. Montreal Poutine, near the Old Port, is a great spot to try it out.
Day 2: Quebec City
Quebec City, about a 170-mile, three-and-a-half-hour drive from Montreal, is a smaller, more historically preserved city than its big sister to the southwest. Walking the cobblestone streets of Quebec City’s Old Town through the shop-lined alleyways of the Petit-Champlain district, you’ll see centuries-old churches, city walls and monuments. You can fuel this city road trip with ice cream cones, maple syrup treats and, of course, more poutine.
See and hear the past come alive in Quebec City by joining a historical walking tour with Cicerone Tours, whose costumed guides play characters from the 18th century and offer a personal perspective on the city, giving their family histories of working and living in the surrounding buildings.
Food & Lodging
The Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, looming over the city like a castle on a hill, is Quebec City’s iconic lodging property, with hundreds of refurbished rooms and lavish public areas. Its breakfast buffets alone are worth a visit. Dine at La Bȗche in the Old City to try traditional Quebec cuisine, including shepherd’s pie and homemade poutine with a maple-whiskey sauce. Visit the Archibald Micro brasserie to sip microbrews produced in-house, which pair very well with their burgers.
Day 3: Quebec City Side Trips
Just outside Quebec City, road-trippers can start to enjoy both the majesty of nature and the bounty of the province’s farmlands.
A 15-minute drive from Quebec City, the Parc de la Chute-Montmorency is worth visiting for a couple of hours to marvel at 272-foot Montmorency Falls from above and below — and maybe even in front, dangling on a zipline. Park near the bottom of the falls and take a stroll on the boardwalk close to the waters, then ride a cable car to the park and suspension bridge above the cascade. Guided tours explore the history of the manor (with a few ghost stories mixed in) and lead to observation decks where you can take in the panoramic view, enjoying both the fall foliage and the cool, refreshing mist from the falls.
Next drive across the St. Lawrence River on the historic Pont de l’Île d’Orléans suspension bridge to the bucolic island of Orléans. While any time from spring through summer will make for a pleasant visit to the island’s many farms, wineries, and markets, the fall harvest time, with its bounty of fresh fruits and food offerings, is a real treat.
Splurge for lunch with lobster and shrimp rolls and trout tartare at La Goéliche Restaurant, overlooking the St. Lawrence River, then head to Chocolaterie de l’Île d’Orléans for ice cream (some of the best strawberry ice cream you’ll ever taste) and delectable chocolates.
Make a circuit tour of the island’s unique food and wine producers, stopping at Cassis Monna & Filles for its black currant cassis liquors and jams and at Cidrerie Verger Bilodeau for some hard and nonalcoholic ciders. Sit on a park bench to enjoy wine tastings and the views from the hilltop Isle de Bacchus vineyard.
Day 4: Le Massif and Club Med Charlevoix
Driving northeast from Quebec City along the St. Lawrence River on Route 138, you’ll see a quick transformation from an urban setting to small-town rural Quebec. The river widens, the mountains rise, forests begin to cover the hills, and you can feel life slowing down a bit.
One way to immerse yourself in natural Quebec while still enjoying all the comforts of home is to stay at the recently opened Club Med Quebec Charlevoix, about an hour’s drive from Quebec City. The resort is adjacent to Le Massif de Charlevoix ski mountain, which is open year round for hikers, bikers, skiers and sightseers.
Take the gondola 2,500 feet up to the peak of Le Massif, and marvel at the views over forests and the St. Lawrence. You can return by gondola or join a guided hiking or mountain biking tour down the mountain (or, in winter, strap on skis or snowshoes).
You can join guided hikes through the nearby hills, known for their maple syrup harvesting. Taste freshly made syrup in spring, and just enjoy the gentle trails in summer and fall, taking plenty of breaks to appreciate autumn’s dazzling maple trees.
Back at Club Med, reward yourself for your outdoors exertions by indulging in the resort’s all-inclusive meals. Sample a little of everything at their buffet —about half the size of Quebec — try your hand at fondue at Terroir & Co. or dine at the upscale Le Chalet for steak frites in the atmosphere of an Alps ski chalet.
Club Med’s facilities and activities (including a large pool and hot tub, circus training and performances, Kids Clubs and music shows) can keep a family occupied for a week. Or just use it as a good spot to recharge mid-trip before heading farther into the province.
Day 5: Charlevoix
Driving farther north into the Charlevoix region, you’ll pass lots of farms, their red barns and well-tended fields giving way to forested mountains behind them. Kids will enjoy a visit to the Ferme Marie-Noëlle Beaulieu near Baie-Saint Paul to pet some of their menagerie of farm animals and learn about typical Quebecois farm life. You can explore more farms and food producers at dozens of stops along Charlevoix’s Route des Saveurs (“Trail of Flavors”).
Get a feel for small-town life in Baie-Saint-Paul in the Charlevoix region, about 60 miles from Quebec City. Its central Saint-Jean-Baptiste Street offers a walkable, tourist-friendly stroll among curio shops, restaurants and art galleries.
Just outside of Baie-Saint-Paul, you can explore the region’s nautical heritage at the Musée Maritime de Charlevoix (group reservations required in the off-season, after Oct. 9). It’s a shipping museum so authentic you’ll half expect a salty old sea captain to pull you aboard one of the restored fishing vessels for a sail. Wander through the gardens, ships and workshops. You can even sit in the hold of one of the old fishing vessels to watch a film on the region.
Food & lodging
Auberge et Bistro La Muse, located in the middle of Baie-Saint-Paul’s shopping district, has a quaint and quirky old boarding house feel to it, with a pleasant sunroom for breakfast. Make a point of dining at Le Diapason Bistro — a few blocks from the hotel — for entrées featuring boar flank, portobellos stuffed with ratatouille, and salmon.
Day 6: La Baie
The 80-mile drive north from Baie-Saint-Paul to La Baie brings you into Quebec’s wilder countryside, passing through Grand-Jardins National Park en route to the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean district. The rolling hills turn into towering mountains, with the highway winding through inspiring scenery of remote lakes and tiny hamlets. It’s a route that becomes an ongoing tapestry of color in fall.
The small city of La Baie, on the scenic shores of the Saguenay Fjord near the mouth of the St. Lawrence, is a nice base for further exploring natural Quebec. Hike, bike and kayak in the two national parks (Monts-Valin and Fjord-du-Saguenay) that flank the fjord. In winter, the frozen bay is transformed into an ice fishing village when what seems like the entire local population decamps to portable cabins out on the ice.
For a fun and educational look into the natural world, visit the Musée du Fjord on the banks of the bay. Its aquarium shows off the underwater life of the fjord, and exhibits explore both animal and human ecosystems, with an entertaining space-age film experience to tie it all together. You can even join the staff on a sloshy tidepool walk to spot marine life (high season only).
For a curated immersion in Quebec’s combination of native culture, dramatic scenery and plentiful wildlife, visit nearby Okwari Le Fjord with a tour by Contact Nature. Watch bears from protected viewpoints, canoe on a peaceful lake, stand in awe of the power of nature on cliffside overlooks above waterfalls, and learn about the region’s First Nations history at a cultural demonstration.
Food & lodging
Make an obligatory Quebec road trip food stop (besides Tim Horton’s for coffee and doughnuts) at one of La Baie’s Fromagerie Boivin canteens and dairy counters for fast-food poutine, served with a wide choice of cheese, gravy and meat toppings. It’s a popular lunch location for troops from the local military base.
For lodging and a great dinner with a view, go to La Baie’s hilltop Auberge des Battures and dine at its restaurant, O’Batillage. The chef uses local ingredients to complement fresh fish (and tasty mussels) from the bay as well as game meats from the province.
Day 7: Lac-Saint-Jean
The scenic hour-long drive from La Baie to the shores of Lac-Saint-Jean takes you past farms, fishing outfitters and summer vacation outposts. Hammer some crystals and buy souvenirs at the Cristal du Lac geology activity center, then explore the caves, bridges and ziplines at Parc le Trou de la Fée. Stock up on picnic goods at Lac-Saint-Jean’s many roadside fruit sellers and shops. The crops are so plentiful that the local folks are referred to as bluets (blueberries).
As you approach the wilderness of Quebec, go to where the wild things are at the Zoo Sauvage de St-Félicien, at the lake’s northwest edge. Take a safari-like drive through the zoo’s outdoor areas to see Canada’s biggest animals, including black bears (with cute cubs climbing trees), wolves, musk ox, caribou, moose and more. Then visit the indoor zoo for more critters and exhibits.
Food & lodging
Both an atmospheric lodging choice and a tourist destination, the historic village of Val-Jalbert, near Lac- Saint-Jean, attracts visitors to see its living history museum and spectacular 236-foot Ouiatchouan Falls.
Bill Fink is an award-winning travel writer specializing in outdoor adventure, with credits in dozens of publications, including Afar, National Geographic Traveler and Outside.