Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu offers a bucolic getaway, 50 kilometres southeast of Montreal. The city of about 92,000 residents is situated on the Richelieu River at the tip of Lake Champlain. Tourists flock to Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, coming by car on the historic Route Richelieu, by boat via Lake Champlain or Chambly Canal, or by hot air balloon.
Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu is the Balloon Capital of Canada. For nine days every August, a dazzling array of hot air balloons in myriad shapes and colors fills the sky. The annual Hot Air Balloon Festival (L'International de montgolfières) attracts thousands of people who come to gaze at the spectacle or embark on their own airborne excursions. Of course, a festival would not be a festival without cheerful crowds, live entertainment and oodles of edibles. If you cannot make it to Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu in August, Balad’air in nearby Mont-Saint-Grégoire offers Champagne hot air balloon flights all year round.
Back on the ground—but not necessarily solid ground—visitors will find a lot to do. Perhaps the biggest attraction in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu is water. The city is located on Chambly Canal, a national historic site. The canal was built in 1843 for commercial purposes but is now primarily a recreational waterway. Visitors can take wine-and-cheese or dinner cruises on the canal from Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu to Saint-Ours, 70 kilometres to the north. Tourists can also take a narrated cruise along the Richelieu River or cruise the waves of Lake Champlain from Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu to the Vermont border, 30 kilometres to the south.
Chambly Canal also appeals to hikers and cyclists. A multi-use trail hugs the canal’s edge, offering riders and walkers stunning views of the waterway along the 20-kilometre route to Chambly. Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu is a bike-friendly city. Le Route Verte, a cross-provincial cycling path, has three trails in Vieux-Saint-Jean. Piste cyclable La Montérégiade is a 48-kilometre unpaved bike path built on a former railway that cuts through the countryside to the Eastern Townships. La vallée des Forts bikeway extends to the American border.
For tourists coming to Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu by car, Route du Richelieu, the first official tourist road between Quebec and New York, is a must-drive destination. Head up from Lacolle in the south to Sorel-Tracy at the northernmost point of the route and then return on the opposite side for a scenic road trip marked with national monuments, historic sites and roadside parks. Agro-tourists can take delicious detours along the way to enjoy the region’s farms and orchards, maple-sugar shacks and wineries. Cidrerie Verger Léo Boutin in Mont-Saint-Grégoire offers apple treats and tastings; ice cider is a favorite local libation. You can sample artisanal cheeses at Fromagerie Au Gré des Champs in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu.
The most famous historic attraction in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu is Musée du Fort Saint-Jean. The riverside fort has been occupied since 1666 by the likes of Amerindian warriors, French and English troops, American revolutionaries and several Royal Canadian regiments. You can tour the pavilion, guardhouse and square at this national historic site, also the home of the Royal Military College Saint-Jean, an officer’s training academy.