Montreal Travel Guide: Your Personalized Tour
20 April, 2012
Québec, the only province in Canada that adopts French as its official language,* is often described as “Europe in North America,” and in many ways, it offers the best of both continents. Montréal, its largest city and the former centre of activity for Canadian commerce, is an island close to the U.S. border that floats within the St-Lawrence river (la Rive St-Laurent) and looks out to the shores of the cities of Laval in the north and Longueuil in the south. Teeming with some 3 million people—mostly young, and mostly immigrant—from all four corners of the globe, this vibrant, cosmopolitan city is an international, multilingual bubble in a French province historically inhabited by the Iroquois tribe (“Canada” is Iroquois for “village”) and subsequently settled by French colonists in 1608, some 200 years before the English arrived.
I love this city like no other, and it is time to share this love with you countless others who live here but have never experienced the full extent of its wonderfulness, as well as with you travellers, national and foreign, who venture to my fair city every year without a clue as to how to begin sampling the overwhelming richness and variety of its social, cultural, and historic offerings. For this important feat, you need a strategy. Read on.
Pick your lens
There are quite a few methods for experiencing a new city; for the best effect, limit your selection to one or two of the choices below:
- Sightseeing – popular, historic, or esoteric landmarks
- Music – concerts, music festivals, live shows in bars
- Outdoor festivals – of all kinds
- Performing arts – theatre, opera, dance, recitals
- Sports – major events or local inter-city games
- Food – working the restaurant/eatery circuit
- Art – photography, sketching/painting, museums
- History – museums and sight-seeing
- Immersion – homestay with locals
- Products – shopping districts
- (If you have any other innovative lenses to suggest, please feel free to send me a message.)
To avoid being overwhelmed (in a positive way, though) by Montreal, you must first pick your lens, as detailed above, and stick to it, or to two, or at MOST three. Next….
Choose Your Timeline and Sample Size
Timeline: (1) a day, (2) three days, (3) a week, (4) a Québec resident
Sample Size: (1) a whiff, (2) a taste, (3) a hearty bite, (4) a feast
Research Your Options
Now, armed with your lens, your timeline, and your sample size, you are ready to plan your visit to Montreal. To begin your research, you may use the following resources:
- Lonely Planet Montreal: probably the most comprehensive compilation available of your myriad options.
- Montreal festival website: Montreal is Festival City. All year-round, there is something going on. This website gives you a bird’s eye view of the entire festival year ahead. There are fun festival activities even in the wintertime, such as the Montréal en Lumière festival, one day of which is dedicated to Nuit Blanche, and all-night event tradition started in Paris several years ago.
- Your food guide: Resto Montreal is perhaps your best resource for selecting a restaurant of your liking in any part of Montreal. Ratings and reviews are available online.
- The Montreal Museums organization is your best source of information on the island’s museums. Three-day and one-year passes are available for reduced rates on multiple museum visits.
- Low-carbon-footprint sightseeing: to expedite your visit by foot, the Montreal subway system, called the Métro and managed by the Société de Transport de Montréal (STM), provides an inexpensive, quick, and environmentally friendly way to get around. The Métro website also provides a trip-planning service—click on Trajet and then Tous Azimuts. (Also available in English.)
- Performing Arts: For dance, music, and theatre events, the Place des Arts is as good a place to start as any. Attracting internationally renown as well as new artists, this sprawling arts centre regroups concert halls, theatres, showrooms, restaurants, a bookstore, the Museum of Modern Art, and some of the best vantage points for witnessing the outdoor summer festivals.
- Sports (and music): The Montreal Bell Centre is also a good resource for A-list concerts. For sports fans, the Bell Centre is home to the Montreal Canadians team and is the only place to catch ice hockey games. For football games, the Montreal Alouettes play at the McGill University Percival Molson Stadium, which is accessible by foot from the McGill University metro station on the green line.
- Shopping: Shopaholics need not bother with preliminary research—simply gravitate to St. Catherine Street (specifically, the section of the street located between the metro stations Guy-Concordia and Place des Arts), and budget a good two hours or more to explore the shopping malls: the Eaton Centre and adjoining Ailes de la Mode, Place Montreal Trust, and Les Proménades de la Cathédrale, which are a world unto themselves with subterranean life that includes more shops, a few food courts, scattered cafés and restaurants, and a cinema. These all connect up to the Montreal Underground City, which extends southward, through China Town.
If you just can’t make up your mind and it’s not your style to strategize but rather to just wander into a city and let stuff happen to you, you may find it interesting to try out my own, personal picks for getting a whiff, a taste, taking a hearty bite, or making a feast of Montreal.
One-day Visit: Whiff
Wake up early, if you can, and have breakfast or brunch at l’Oeufrier. Brunch is a time-honoured Montreal tradition, and l’Oeufrier serves a kick-ass breakfast with the best crêpes and as much coffee as you can handle. Be careful, though, for their servings are large and your afternoon plans may quickly evaporate into an afternoon siesta. If you visit the l’Oeufrier branch near Vendôme metro on the orange line, you can get to the Côte-des-Neiges metro fairly quickly, afterwards, to hike up to the top of the St-Joseph Oratory for a breathtaking view of northern Montreal.
Next, stroll downhill on Côte-des-Neiges (CDN) Avenue and pick up some groceries for a lunchtime picnic, while taking in the cultural diversity of the Middle Eastern/Philippino/East Asian neighbourhood, which is also the campus extension of the University of Montreal and thus brimming with students at all hours of the day.
Turn around and hike south up CDN Avenue, cutting left to chemin Remembrance right before the road takes a sharp dive southward, to get to Mount Royal, the one and only hill on the island and an important city landmark (the city, Montréal, was named after the mountain, as the mountain was referred to, in Middle French, as Mont Réal). At the top of the mountain, in the Mount Royal Park (Parc du Mont Royal), you will find Beaver Lake (Lac aux Castors), the surrounding of which provide an ideal lawn with gently rolling slopes for a luxurious lunchtime picnic under the shady trees.
After lunch, continue your hike eastward, across the mountain, to the Plateau neighbourhood, one of the most sought-after neighbourhoods to live in, a see and be-seen pedestrian jungle, and a commercial haven for trendy and ecological businesses. Walk all the way down Mount Royal Avenue and hang a right at Papineau Avenue to get to the green-line Papineau metro station, located in the Gay Village, or turn right from Mount Royal Avenue onto St-Denis Street and continue south past Sherbrooke metro and Berri-UQAM metro all the way past Notre-Dame Street to the St-Lawrence River on the southern border of the island. By the point, your fuel-tank gauge will be knocking on zero and you will be ready for dinner.
Turn right/west and walk along Rue de la Commune or Rue St-Paul to choose a dinner location from the wide selection of terraced restaurants lining the St-Lawrence River (preferably on St-Paul Street or in Jacques Cartier Square). If you choose from the restaurants in the plaza, you can sit inside or, weather permitting, outside on the terrace for a memorable dining experience serenaded by musicians and entertained by magicians while taking in the beautiful work of the many talented artists in the square.
Finish the night off with a slower, more leisurely walk along the riverfront, or stop into one of the many bistros in that cobblestoned Old City for more live music and a nightcap.
Three-day Visit: Taste
Expand the itinerary above with the following selections:
- A dinner at Pied de Cochon (this venue is so popular that reservations are often made several months in advance, so this might not be a successful plan) or at Joe Beef, two of the most memorable dining experiences you will have.
- The following cafés are highly recommended: Juliette et Chocolat (also a dessert place; several branches in town); Em Café on Avenue du Parc; and Les Délices de l’Érable on St-Paul street in Old Montreal.
- A trip to at least one of the local public markets is recommended—grocery shopping is not a requirement, especially at Jean Talon market, which comes equipped with street musicians, restaurants, a crêperie and other non-shopping-required treats. There are four local public markets: the aforementioned Jean Talon market, Atwater Market (the next biggest), Maisonneuve market (a little smaller), and Lachine market (the smallest).
- And finally, if you can fit it in, I recommend a visit to the Botanical Gardens, the Olympic Park, the Biodôme, or the Insectarium, all located in the same area close to the Pie IX metro on the green line.
One-week Visit: Hearty Bite
In addition to all of the activities previously recommended, the following are strongly encouraged:
- If you can manage it, include all of these restaurants in your dinner plans: Pied de Cochon, Joe Beef, Chez Levesque, Les Entretiens, and Rockaberry. Pied de Cochon, Joe Beef, and Chez Levesque are institutions. Café Les Entretiens is a particular favourite of mine and will transport you to France. It features live music (usually a pianist and a singer) on most nights, intriguing art work, and an internal courtyard/garden that lends the feel of being at home and yet…not quite. Rockaberry is another Montreal institution, but it is a pie house rather than a restaurant, in the traditional sense of the word. They do have other food than pies, but the pies are what people come for. I find that the experience at these four places are particularly enhanced by the magical atmosphere that only nighttime can summon.
- For lunch options, I would recommend Schwartz’s—yet another Montreal institution, heavy on the meat; and for those seeking a lighter palate, the absolutely scrumptious cuisine of the vegan restaurant Aux Vivres.
- If you are looking for good sushi, visit Odaki on St-Catherine street, Le Vent Dosaka on St-Denis street, or Kaizen Sushi Bar & Restaurant on St-Catherine street.
- Add to your week-long itinerary the following city walks, best for the morningtime or for a few hours before sunset:
1. St-Laurent street—begin at the St-Laurent metro on the green line and head north.
2. St-Denis street—begin at Berri-UQAM metro and head north; this walk comprises the Latin Quarter, a necessary pit stop, and a highly recommended destination for another day.
3. Mount Royal Avenue—begin at the corner of Avenue du Parc and Avenue Mont Royal (accessible by foot from Place des Arts metro on the green line, or by bus on the 80 bus line), and walk east.
4. The waterfront along the St-Lawrence River in Old Montreal—begin at the corner of Rue Berri and Rue de la Commune near Champs-de-Mars metro on the orange line and head west.
- Another highly recommended activity for this type of visit is a bike ride along the Pistes Cyclables, part of the Route Verte network of bike trails throughout the province. The section that runs between Verdun and Dorval (passing through LaSalle and Lachine) is particularly scenic and my favourite section; but the trails along the Canal Lachine are not bad either.
Québec Resident: Feast
Sample all the picks in the three sections above, then use the resources detailed in the Strategy section to go crazy.
My favourite festivals are the Montreal International Jazz Festival (late June to early July), the Francofolies Festival (mid-June), the Nutis d’Afrique Festival (mid- to late July), and the Just for Laughs Festival (mid- to late July). In case you are new to Montreal and you were wondering, it is very normal for Montreal festivals to overlap each other this way, particularly in the summertime, when 3 or 4 concurrent festivals only add to the confusion of where to go and what to do with your time (…but not for lack of options!).
For general information on what’s going on in town on a particular day, you can check out the Montreal Info website or consult one of the community newspapers, Voir (French), the Hour (English), or the Mirror (English), that are freely supplied to metro stations, libraries, and dépanneurs.
As a point of general interest, the strong bilingual capabilities of Montreal residents create a new type of English that you might find, at first, quite curious when you visit. For more on this particular style of English, read this newspaper commentary.
Have a great visit to Montreal and bonnes découvertes!
*New Brunswick is the only other province in Canada that adopts French as its official language (in addition to English); in 1981, the New Brunswick legislature ruled to have equal status, rights, and privileges for both French and English, and they were made official languages, through a constitutional amendment, in 1993.