Montreal is a vibrant, convivial cultural capital, often thought of as the most European North American city. The city is primarily French speaking (although English is spoken widely as a second language). It’s respectful to attempt some French while visiting; it’s also realistic to expect locals to grow weary of a mangled version of their native tongue and opt to reply to you in English.
Language barriers aside, Montreal natives are laid back and inviting, and visitors often yearn to stay on at the end of their holiday – the many festivals, cafes, shopping districts, and friendly people make one fantasize about permanently dwelling there. In fact, when in Montreal, one becomes amused and enthralled with its culture, neighborhoods and people – less for any landmark tourist attraction.
There’s a slow pace in Montreal. Food, drink and fun seem to be the focus rather than a pursuit of money. In this way, it’s a city that draws you in, and makes you feel welcome, as if you were instantly a comrade. If you really get the urge to stay, check out the rent rates – quite cheap by U.S. standards.
The city has a safe and efficient metro system, although walking or biking through the neighborhoods is a healthy and fun way of seeing every bit of what Montreal has to offer. In the winter, check out the Underground City, a 20-mile pedestrian walkway below the city, complete with restaurants, shopping, cinema and theatres.
The BNP Tower/Laurentian Bank Tower at 1981 McGill College Avenue is a modern complex that is highlighted by "The Illuminated Crowd", a tall sculpture by Raymond Mason that almost looks as if it were sculpted in butter; an important addition to the city’s vast artistic landscape.
Chinatown, at the corner of Saint Laurent Boulevard and de La Gauchetiere, was established in the mid 1800s. It features vibrant, original, exotic products, medicinal herbs, handicrafts and restaurants.
Le Bateau-Mouche cruises in the Old Port are a wonderful way to see the city. Daytime cruises offer historically insightful commentary, costing $17.95 for a 60-minute cruise. On board one can purchase salmon or roast beef sandwiches, as well as pasta salads and fresh fruit. A three-hour treat is $85.00.
Musee d’art Contemporain de Montreal is the premier Canadian modern art museum. With showings and installations by the likes of Samuel Roy-Bois and Pascal Grandmaison, the museum highlights both world renowned artists, and those just beginning to make their mark. The museum is free on Wednesdays from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. Do check out its adjoining boutique, which features attractive and unique designs that make original gifts (for yourself or others).
Notre-Dame Basilica is Gothic Revival architecture at its best, and one of the city’s most visited attractions. It's open from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The evenings feature a popular sound and light show For tickets, call the box office at 1-866-842-2925. Pop culture warning: Celine Dion got married here in 1994.
Quartier Latin (named after the one in Paris), in the middle of the city is considered the cultural center of the city, and home to the Universite du Quebec a Montreal.
Check out rue Saint-Denis for superb 19th century architecture, shops, cafes and bistros galore. The Alpenhaus at 1279 rue St MarcReal deals European fare in a rustic and cozy setting, and has been serving Swiss, Bourguigonne and Chinese fondue since 1967. The two dining rooms, bar and live piano music make this a wonderful setting for a large gathering of family and friends. Expect to pay between $15.00 to $25.00 per person, drinks and dessert excluded. The faux Swiss décor is a definite plus, although stuffy types will find it tacky.
Beauty’s at 93 Mont-Royal Avenue is a Montreal brunch landmark, with a 1950s feel. The food can be highly caloric and overflowing on the plate, just what one wants after a long night of imbibing or other such vices. To keep everything in check, Beauty’s serves a heaping helping of fresh fruit on all plates.
La Iguana at 51 Roy Street, East, opened by a Mexico-obsessed couple, is a lively restaurant that gets all the details right. Authentic, fresh food served in a Caribbean hued dining room, La Iguana is perhaps the city’s best casual venue for celebrating in the city – especially if it’s summer on the terrace and the Mojitos are flowing.
L'Entrecote St Jean at 2022 rue Peel is what you’d expect from this Francophile city – a Parisian bistro complete with authentic bistro fare at neighborhood prices. Best bests are the house special of grilled rib steak with French style mustard sauce and matchstick fries, the croque monsier (complete with béchamel sauce), served with matchstick fries and salad for a mere $11.95 Canadian. Also recommended is an appetizer of chicken liver mousse served with onion marmalade, pickles, and toasted bread, $6.95. L'Entrecote St Jean offers chocolate profiteroles on the tempting dessert menu.
Le Caveau at 2063 avenue Victoria in a downtown French venue that serves wonderful rabbit, trout and rack of lamb – complete with buttery sauces and creamy desserts. The comfortable setting is complimented by superb, attentive service. The owner routinely greets guests, and offers buttons he designed himself. Entrees start at $1300.
A rare treat are the St. Viateur Bagel Shops – in the running for the best bagels in the world. The bakers soak the bagels in honey water before placing them in wood burning ovens exceeding 700 degrees Celsius. The results are thinner, smaller, and crustier than the New York variety. Buy some to take home. Mail order is currently not available (although the owners are trying to work this out with the FDA).
Willensky’s Light Lunch is the legendary café that opened in 1932 specializing in egg cream fountain drinks, pressed bologna and grilled salami sandwiches, served with pickles on the side. Doesn’t it sound appealing? Trust me – go there to experience it (and taste it) for yourself. Classic blue collar dining.
Shop O’Rama on Avenue du Mont-Royal (blocks between St.Laurent and St. Denis) is where you’ll find the city’s best second hand stores, although added notoriety has also meant an increase in prices. This neighborhood features a large concentration of artists, so expect trendy shops and fun finds.
Check out A La Deux at 316 Avenue Mont-Royal E. for ultra cheap vintage finds. Couleurs at 3901 St. Denis Street is a 1940s-1970s dream store, featuring lighting, furniture and housewares. Kitchen design staples include Fiestaware and Fire-King. Lust worthy!
Le Frigo Vert at 2130 Mackay is co-op grocery operated by Concordia University students. It offers the lowest prices in town on organic produce and other healthy items. Shop here for picnic supplies and spend your cash elsewhere.
Le Fromentier at 1375 rue Laurier Est is a shop for foodies featuring exquisite bread and pastries made of organic flour. It also sells tempting cheese and olives.
Madam Edgar at 6370 St. Hubert (metro stop Beaubien) is a gallery and boutique that has an eye for whimsy and fun. The boutique features ugly dolls and other plush toys, including produce. Stock up now!
Saint-Paul Street, Old Montreal Art galleries, boutiques and restaurants line Montreal’s oldest street. Go in the afternoon for a relaxing day, and take your time making your way through the various shops and cafes. Touristy, yes, but a must see for any visitor to the city.
A place to lay your head is Hostelling International, Montreal, 193 Mackay Street. It's a cheap place to stay, yet offers so much more, such as an in-house travel bureau, laundry room, internet, lockers and a variety of lodging options including dorm beds, private rooms, and a café. If you are in town for an extended period of time, opt for the job seeker package, including internet use and daily breakfast. This place is HUGELY traveler friendly. There are, of course, many hostels in the city.
Hotel de la Montagne bills itself as the smallest of Montreal’s grand hotels. It certainly is a looker. It’s extremely over the top and fun – like a Disney hotel, but smaller, a tad bit more European and more flamboyant. The hotel has 136 rooms and suites and features nine different styles on every floor. There’s also a French brasserie, a piano bar, a singles bar and a rooftop disco by the pool. I stand in awe of this pleasure palace. Fun in an ironic way for some, I’m guessing it's heaven for others.