Montréal is often said to be a little piece of Europe in North America. And it's true, to an extent; much of the architecture and culture feels like France or Austria.
But the Québec city is more North American than you might think. Its cosmopolitan energy, bold innovation and a vibe full of originality and character give Montréal a duality that is utterly charming and refreshing. You can ride bikes through acres of green parks, shop at farmers markets, visit world-class art museums and take in a hippie tam-tam drumming festival—all on the same day.
They don't even let winter get them down here, slapping it in the face with the Igloofest electronic music festival.
The island of Montréal is really one of individual neighborhoods. Inner-loop Houston residents will feel perfectly at home in Le Plateau, a working-class turned bohemian neighborhood full of vintage shops, sidewalk cafés, yoga studios, pubs and trendy boutiques in a free-spirited atmosphere with plenty of street art. Saint-Denis Street is the main drag, and here you'll find everything from posh shoppers to hipsters on bicycles to street guys who will serenade you with a Hannah Montana guitar (true story - this happened to my family as we sat eating crêpes). An interesting aspect of Le Plateau is the old duplexes, with their circular iron staircases built outside of the house to save space in the previous century. Lots of photographic moments.
Mont Royal is the lung of the city, with acres of parks that are highly used by Montréalers (designed by Frederick Olmsted of Central Park fame), and the mountain rising up in the middle of it. Well, they call it a mountain but it's really more of a big hill. Being Houstonians, we'll take it. Bird watching, roller blading, biking and boating are all popular activities at Mont Royal, and some of the best city skyline views can be found here.
Of course, every visit either begins or ends in Old Montréal and the Old Port area—or in our case, both. This is where the history of Montréal comes alive, with must-see spots such as Notre Dame Basilica, which surprised me with the contemporary chapel attached in back for an unexpected juxtaposition. This is the area that feels most like Europe, and half the pleasure is simply strolling along the cobblestone streets. The Pointe-à-Callière Museum of Archaeology and History is well worth a visit; built on top of the remains of the original city, you can actually go down into some of it and have a look around. There's even a cemetery down there.
Downtown is where you'll find the major hotels and high-end shopping (along with a few cabaret-style clubs of questionable repute). In the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district you'll find some of the city's top attractions such as the Biodome, Olympic Park and world-class Botanical Garden—all great spots to head with the family. The Village is Montréal's LGBT community and is a fun place for everyone, with a thriving art and antiques scene and, of course, after-hours hotspots. Montréal even has its own Little Italy and Chinatown, both small neighborhoods but lively and authentic.
Multi-Cultural Festivals Galore
Montréal is king when it comes to festivals, averaging more than one a week. Montréalers flock to all sorts of festivals, from music and comedy to art and fashion, and many of them are free or offer certain free performances. The monster of them all is the International Jazz Festival, held each year in late June to early July. Top names such as Robert Plant, Sade, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and more have played over the 30-plus years the musical extravaganza has been happening.
But that's only the beginning. July also sees the International des Feux Loto-Québec, a fireworks competition with dazzling displays of pyrotechnic skill from countries around the world. I caught a show this past summer when I visited with my family, and it was truly spectacular. We also saw a mind-blowing performance of the hip-hop acrobats Tom Tom Crew during the Montréal Complètement Cirque, a circus arts festival.
Upcoming recommended festivals include The Magic of Lanterns, an enchanting Chinese lantern festival happening now through October; the Old Montréal Extravaganza in December, a holiday celebration with choirs, sleigh rides and concerts; and Highlights, an 11-day event in February that includes gastronomy and wine, exhibits, music and an outdoor illuminated site in Old Montréal. They don't even let winter get them down here, slapping it in the face with the Igloofest electronic music festival.
Food, Glorious Food
To Montréalers, food is much more than something just to eat. This is another aspect of the city that is very European; dining is an event, a sensual experience and an important part of the social fabric. Montréalers are also quite demanding in the culinary department, and seek out creativity and ingenuity. They are such foodies that many of the forementioned festivals center around it.
There is a high density of dining options here per capita, and the entire global village is represented. You'll find everything from fine-dining restaurants to casual bistros and sidewalk cafés, and even a smattering of street food. Visitors from the U.S. will likely find prices 20-30% higher here, except possibly those from New York. For an upscale introduction to Québécois cuisine, try the rather boisterous Au Pied de Cochon or Jérôme Ferrer’s delectable nine-course tasting menu at Europea.
At the other end of the spectrum, you don't have to go upscale to get inventive cuisine with remarkably fresh, local ingredients. A half-day spent at the famed Marché Jean Talon is a fun and tasty adventure. Full of produce stands, patisseries and other vendors. Samples are constantly on offer and there is plenty of on-site prepared food as well. Colors and delicious scents abound, and I dare you to walk away without a rich goat cheese or flaky pastry, and perhaps a bottle of wine or bundle of fresh flowers. Because we were staying in a condo with a full kitchen, we shopped at Jean Talon for ingredients to cook a delicious meal that night, that was fresh and local as well.
If You Go
Here are a few tips and ideas if you want to plan a trip to Montréal. And believe me, you do want to go.
- A video put together by Tourisme Montréal, called Montréal in Two Minutes, is fun to watch and a offers a great overview of the city.
- Bixi, Montréal's public bike system, is a great way to get around. Stations are all over the city and it's easy to rent them and go. Tip: Once you've checked out a bike, charges are accrued in 30-minute increments. If you cycle from spot to spot and check the bike back into another Bixi station within a half-hour, you pay nothing.
- Marriott Chateau Champlain is a good full-service hotel in the heart of downtown, with easy access to just about everything. Or, especially if you're traveling as a family or group, consider renting a vacation house or condo, or even doing a home exchange.
- Check out Tourisme Montréal’s Official Tourist Guide online. The Guide offers mapped neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood tours of the city and it is replete with information on shopping, accommodations, restaurants, guided tours and more.