Trois-Rivières is the second oldest French-speaking city in North America, just about halfway between Montreal and Quebec City. Here’s how to spend a day in the city exploring the brutal history of logging, touring a horrific old prison that operated until the 1980s, learning about Quebec culture and eating some really, really good food.
The writer was hosted for this trip.
It can be quite expensive to fly into Quebec City from Chicago. It’s much cheaper to fly Chicago-Montreal and rent a car. That’s how I first discovered the charming old city called Trois-Rivières (Three Rivers in English). Canada’s second-oldest city, Trois-Rivières was founded in 1634 in what was then called “New France.” It has been through some hard times since.
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Today, it is a charming city located at the confluence of the Saint-Maurice River and the Saint Lawrence, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River across the Laviolette Bridge from the city of Bécancour.
It’s impossible to see all that Trois-Rivieres has to offer in a day; these are the highlights.
TravelingMom Tip: Opening days and times are subject to change without warning, as are rules for visiting including advanced reservation requirements. Always call ahead or check the website for the most up-to-date information before heading out for the day.
2 Ways to Learn the History of Trois-Rivieres
Trois-Rivières owes its growth to the paper industry. But the paper industry is historically tough on the environment and the people who work in that world. The Borealis Museum is the place to learn more about the brutal history of the logging and paper industries.
Located in a former papermaking plant, the museum has a very small play section for little ones and an interactive area that allows visitors to smell the unpleasant smells, feel the sweltering heat and hear the deafening sounds of papermaking.
But this museum is really best for teens. The videos and stories illustrate a brutal history. For example, when the logs clogged the river on their way to the paper mill, the resulting logjam had to be dynamited apart. Who got that risky job? The person who could run the fastest. Often that was a teen-aged boy. Besides, the officials reasoned, if he didn’t run fast enough, he wouldn’t be leaving a wife and kids bereft without a husband and father.
If that story isn’t dark enough to amaze your teens, head to the old prison.
Old Prison in Trois-Rivieres
Raise your hand if you knew that Amnesty International lobbied to close a prison in Canada in the 1980s. No one? Me neither. Who would have thought that those friendly Canadians had a prison where as many as 21 men were housed in small cells meant to keep only two? Or that the cells had no plumbing (even in the 1980s!), just one bucket shared among them all?
Amnesty International, the nonprofit that most often rails against inhumane treatment of criminals in Third World countries where you might expect to find such appalling conditions, finally managed to get the Trois-Rivières prison closed in 1986! It had operated for 100+ years. The biggest change over those years? Cells designed to hold 2 prisoners were fitted with 6 sets of triple bunks to house as many as 21.
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The horrific history, including a look at the windowless solitary confinement cell and the basement where men were shackled by the ankle via a chain embedded in the stone wall, is cringe-worthy.
At one point, the prison also housed women and children. Kids older than 12 could be sentenced there for their own crimes. Kids 12 and younger were sent there with their mothers who were accused or convicted of crimes if the mom did not have anyone else to care for her children during her incarceration.
TravelingMom Tip: This tour is only for mature kids.
2 Ways to Celebrate Culture in Trois-Rivières
All year round, head to Musée Pop. This lovely little museum celebrates Quebec culture. Its first-ever permanent exhibit, opened in the summer of 2019, focuses on 8 cornerstones of Quebec life:
- First Nation
- storytelling and comedy
- sports (mainly hockey–it is Canada, after all)
The exhibit is called “Attache Ta Tuque!” — “hold on to your hat!”
This is a spot with something for kids of varying ages. For younger ones, there are winter clothes to try on, old fashioned puppets to play with, plastic food for creating a pretend feast and — the teens even love this — a feature on language that includes a kids’ section featuring bad words in French and their origins.
Most of the exhibit’s videos are recorded in French, with English subtitles. So unless your kids are fluent in French, they need to be able to read to get the gist of most of the exhibits. Or they can just play dress up while you read.
Music Festivals in Trois-Rivieres
FestiVoix de Trois-Rivières, an annual music fest, takes place each summer in the old city. There are 16 stages set up around the historic district and downtown Trois-Rivières, with the main stage on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River. It makes a lovely setting on a warm summer evening. We watched famous Canadian performers prance across the stage while ships cruise the St. Lawrence in the background.
Even better for families, this is one of the most affordable music festivals anywhere. Many of the performances are free and a ticket to the 9-day festival (100 performances) was just $46 (Canadian) in 2019. Even better, kids 12 and under get in free with a pass-holding adults.
The 2020 FestiVoix was canceled thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but the event is scheduled to go ahead June 25 to July 4, 2021.
Food in Trois-Rivières
Kids gotta eat, right? Flight delays meant we didn’t arrive in time for dinner at the Le Temps d’une Pinte Microbrewery. So we headed there for breakfast instead! No, we didn’t have beer for breakfast. We had Eggs Benedict with capers and a perfectly poached egg.
Lunch was a vegan adventure at Cafe Frida where I was tempted to order Eggs Benedict again to compare with my non-vegan breakfast. Instead, I opted for the waffles and not-chicken lunch. That vegan not-chicken tasted just like chicken. And sitting outside looking at the river on a perfect summer day made everything taste that much better.
Dinner was a gastronomic delight in an historic building built in 1757. Le Buck serves a mouth-watering selection of locally sourced wonders, from fish to burgers.
We stayed at the Marriott-operated Delta Hotel. This lovely high rise property along the river is centrally located. From check-in to the incredibly comfortable bed to breakfast in Le Brasier, there was nothing that wasn’t top notch about this newly renovated hotel.
But its best feature, by far, is its downtown location. It was easy to walk around this charming city, no car required.
There is bus service from Montreal to Trois-Rivieres and a train from Toronto, so it’s easy to do this trip without renting a car. Although if you do rent a car, it would make it easy to travel between Montreal and Quebec City, exploring the beautiful countryside along the way.
There are many other hotel options, including several in Trois-Rivieres-Ouest, near the Laviolette Bridge that links Trois-Rivieres with Becancour. If you prefer something closer to nature, head to Camping Du Parc, near La Mauricie National Park of Canada.