WHAT TO DO
Montreal is a beautiful and vibrant city with elegant architecture, a hip nightlife and amazing food scene. Founded in 1642 by French settlers, it is the largest city in Canada's Quebec province. Montreal is set on an island in the Saint Lawrence River and named after Mount Royal (Mont Royal), the three peaked hill at its heart. The City of Saints is the second largest primarily French speaking city in the world, after Paris. Its diverse neighborhoods are easy to explore on foot or by the clean and quiet metro (subway). It runs on rubber tires and with 4 simple lines (orange, green, blue and yellow), will get you to most of your destinations. I recommend purchasing a 3 day unlimited card before you begin your adventure.
Start your journey in the oldest part of town, the quarter known as Old Montreal (Vieux Montreal). With a quaint and lively mix of churches, museums, shops and restaurants - it's undoubtedly the most touristy part of the city. Spend a few hours walking the cobbled streets and take in the gorgeous architecture. Stroll by the magnificent public squares, Place Royale (oldest in Montreal) and Place Jacques Cartier. This famous square is at the heart of Old Montreal and is part carnival, part flower market and part downright fun. Enjoy a drink or maybe some ice cream at one of the sidewalk cafes as you are entertained by the many street performers. Eventually, make your way over to the Old Port for a nice view of the Saint Lawrence River. This family friendly area offers plenty of activities, from paddle boating and zip lining to an IMAX theatre and Science Centre. For an excellent introduction to Montreal's history, visit the Musee d'Archeologie et d'Histoire Pointe a Calliere at 350 Place Royale. The modern glass building is impressive, as is the audiovisual show on local history, but be sure to take the elevator ride down to the spooky archeological exhibition that shows you the actual foundations of the city (note the 350 year old tombstones). Next, head to what might be Montreal's most prominent public square - Place d'Armes. In the center of the square, there is a monument of the city's founder, Paul de Chomedey. Also located here is the majestic Basilique Notre Dame de Montreal. Everything about this spectacular church is grand, from the 228 feet twin steeples to the massive pipe organ, to the thousands of 24 carat gold stars spattered across the vaulted blue ceiling. Opened in 1829, Notre Dame's Gothic Revival architecture is among the most dramatic in the world and the stained glass windows along the walls do not depict biblical scenes, but rather scenes from the religious history of Montreal. Behind the main altar is Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Chapel and the stone residence on the west side of the basilica is the Old Seminaire, Montreal's oldest building (built in 1685).
Another religious site is the towering Oratoire Saint Joseph, located at 3800 Queen Mary Road on Westmount Summit. Each year some 2 million people visit Saint Joseph's Oratory, Canada's largest church. The most devout Catholics climb the 99 steps to its front door on their knees. It is the world's largest and most popular shrine dedicated to the earthly father of Jesus (Canada's patron saint). For a different kind of religious experience, I'd like to suggest a pilgrimage to Centre Bell - the home of the Montreal Canadiens. In a country where hockey is part of the national identity, the Habs have won the Stanley Cup more times than any other franchise (24 times). Founded in 1909, the Canadiens are the longest continuously operating professional ice hockey team worldwide and one of the oldest North American professional sports franchises. If you cannot attend a game, at least be sure to visit the square on the west side of the arena which has a life size statue of hockey legend Maurice "Rocket" Richard and the Montreal Canadiens Hall of Fame museum located inside the building.
A great place to take a break is Square Victoria. With a statue of Queen Victoria on one side and an authentic Parisian metro entrance on the other, this small park makes a perfect spot to relax and enjoy the scenery. If you are in the mood for more green spaces, head to Parc Jean Drapeau - named for the mayor who built the metro and brought the city both the 1967 World's Fair and 1976 Olympics. The park includes acres of flower gardens, a beach and the Casino de Montreal. Another park located in the Plateau neighborhood, Parc La Fontaine (take the metro to Sherbrooke or Mont Royal stop) might be my favorite in the city. The eastern half is French with gardens and lawns laid out in geometric shapes and the western half is English with ponds and meandering paths. In summer, the open air theatre hosts free events and in winter, one lake becomes a large ice skating rink. Finally, no trip to Montreal is complete without a trek to the top of Parc du Mont Royal (you can get there by bus or simply by walking). The lookout in front of the Chalet du Mont Royal provides commanding views of downtown and beyond. Be sure to take a look inside the chalet, especially at the murals depicting scenes from Canadian history.
A cool street to walk is Boulevard Saint Laurent. Nicknamed The Main, this thoroughfare is a national historic site and guides you through Montreal's cultural history. The shops and restaurants, synagogues and churches that line the 10 block stretch north of rue Sherbrooke reflect the various waves of immigrants that have called it home. You'll see everything along this gateway into the Plateau - from Jewish delis and Chinese grocery stores to Italian coffee bars and Greek restaurants. From there, make your way to the hip Rue Saint Denis where you'll find rad shops and record stores, in addition to many inviting bistros and bars. Wander the vibrant neighborhoods, from the Plateau to Mile End and Little Italy. The Plateau is always bustling, Mile End is funky and Little Italy is home to the top notch Marche Jean Talon. This huge, covered market is Montreal's most diverse and well worth a visit. Many chefs buy ingredients for their menus here or in the specialty food shops nearby. The long aisles are packed with merchants selling fruits, vegetables and flowers - all flanked by meat, cheese and wine stores. Many of the older residences in these neighborhoods have the graceful wrought iron balconies and twisting staircases that are typical of Montreal. The stairs and balconies, treacherous in winter, are often full of families partying come summer.
Conclude your tour of Montreal at one of Canada's oldest and most prominent museums, Musee des Beaux Arts de Montreal (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts). Located at 1380 rue Sherbrooke Ouest on the historic Golden Square Mile, the MMFA is a must visit for art lovers. It has assembled several millennia worth of paintings, sculptures, furniture, prints, drawings and photographs. European masters include Rembrandt, Picasso and Monet, but the museum really shines when it comes to Canadian art. Highlights include works by Jean Baptiste Roy Audy and Paul Kane, landscapes by the Group of Seven and abstractions by Paul Emile Borduas - all housed in a former church. Historical Note: On September 4, 1972 the museum was the site of the largest art theft in Canadian history when armed thieves made off with jewelry, figurines and 18 paintings worth a total of $2 million at the time (approximately $11.6 million today), including works by Delacroix, Gainsborough and a rare Rembrandt landscape (Landscape with Cottages). The works have never been recovered.
WHERE TO EAT
Montreal’s food scene is as diverse as its people. Eating has become synonymous with its culture, from smoked meat and poutine to bagels and foie gras - this city is a food lover's dream. I usually like to start my day with a good cup of coffee and something sweet. There are several patisseries in town, but I kept returning to the 2 that stood out from all the rest. Located at 355 Place Royale in Old Montreal, Maison Christian Faure is an elegant, multilevel French style pastry shop. The first floor is the boutique and cafe where you can sit and enjoy a delicious chocolate croissant or eclair with your coffee. The prominent pastry display includes classics like mille feuilles and fresh fruit tarts (try the passion fruit tart). The basement is where all the magic happens. Pastry Chef Christian Faure and his team are busy as bees working on all the tasty confections that the house specializes in. The upper floors are dedicated to the demo room and pastry school. Au Kouign Amann is located at 322 Mont Royal in the Plateau. This tiny rustic bakery is known for its kouign amann, a crispy butter cake like pastry. The fresh croissants are also pretty darn good.
Olive & Gourmando is a popular bakery and cafe in Old Montreal at 351 Saint Paul. It's legendary for its hot panini, ample salads and flaky baked goods. Try the O+G Grilled Cheese panini, its got gouda and caramelized onions. This place gets super busy around lunchtime, but it's worth the wait. Just off Parc La Fontaine at 969 rue Rachel is Ma Poule Mouillee. This casual Portuguese grill serves up the best chicken in town and it rules. The portions are huge and the prices are small - get the combo plate of half a chicken and chorizo, fries and a salad. Across the street at 994 rue Rachel is probably Montreal's most popular poutine destination - La Banquise. Poutine is a Canadian dish originating in the province of Quebec. It is made with french fries and cheese curds, topped with a light brown gravy and anything else you can think of. A Montreal legend since 1968 and open 24 hours, La Banquise has more than 30 types of poutine including La T Rex (ground beef, pepperoni, bacon, hot dog and sausage). There's an outdoor terrace and a solid selection of microbrews.
Another Montreal institution is Schwartz's, located at 3895 Boulevard Saint Laurent (metro to Sherbrooke stop). Opened in 1928 and one of the oldest delis in Canada, this icon serves up the best smoked meat in town. There is always a line out the door, but it moves fast. Once inside, try to score a seat at the counter and enjoy a smoked meat sandwich (medium) on rye with homemade french fries and some 1/2 sour pickles. You can't be in town very long and not discuss the classic Montreal bagel. They are light, crispy and slightly sweet (the dough is boiled in honey sweetened water before baking). There are 2 bagel shops that claim to be the best, so do what's only fair and try both. St Viateur Bagel has a few locations, but the one to visit is in Mile End at 263 rue St Viateur. Established in 1957 and currently the bagel favorite of Montreal, St Viateur has a reputation for its crusty and chewy bagels that are baked in a wood fired oven. The other shop is Fairmount Bagel and they too have a number of locations. Go to the one located at 74 Avenue Fairmount for an equally delicious and fresh out of the oven sesame seed bagel. Just down the street at 34 Avenue Fairmount is Wilensky's. It's worth a visit to this old school luncheonette for a hand pumped soda and the Wilensky's Special - a double grilled salami and bologna sandwich that's pressed flat.
For some serious eating, head to one of Montreal's most popular restaurants - Joe Beef. Located in the heart of the Little Burgundy neighborhood, this modest eatery presents a changing selection of hearty Quebecois dishes in a rustic country setting. The chalkboard menu is in French (friendly staff will translate) and if the weather is nice, try to sit in the backyard garden - be sure to reserve a table weeks in advance and get the lobster spaghetti. The sister establishment and neighbor of Joe Beef is Liverpool House. It has a laid back atmosphere, along with great drinks and some scrumptious regional grub. Next door is Le Vin Papillon (no reservations), a delightful wine bar that serves small plates. If there is a wait and there will be, head across the street to the Burgundy Lion for a few drinks. This modern British pub features a long list of beers and whiskeys and has a great vibe. One of Montreal's most respected restaurants is Martin Picard's Au Pied de Cochon, located at 536 Avenue Duluth. The dishes are rich and portions are large, so bring an appetite (and make a reservation). Features include pork, duck in a can and the signature foie gras plates. Make sure you save room for the pecan pie. Another local favorite is Bouillon Bilk, which serves modern French cuisine in a minimalist setting. For an over the top upscale experience, make arrangements to dine at chef Normand Laprise's Toque! The bright, wide open dining room has high ceilings and a glass enclosed wine cave. The farm fresh tasting menu is the way to go and allow yourself at least three hours to enjoy the feast.
Montreal has plenty to offer for some nighttime entertainment and a few drinks. Start at La Distillerie no 1 at 300 rue Ontario, this easygoing spot serves excellent cocktails in mason jars (try the Ziggy Stardust). Next, head to Big in Japan at 4175 Boulevard Saint Laurent. It opens at 5p and is kind of tricky to find with its unmarked door. Once inside, walk down the hallway into a candlelit room and enjoy a well made cocktail or two. Another solid cocktail bar is Le Lab, it's in the Plateau and has an old fashioned decor - The Green Fairy with Absinthe is a must. If you're in the mood for some microbrews, try Le Cheval Blanc at 809 rue Ontario. It has about 10 drafts on hand, all brewed in house. The outdoor patio is great during the warmer months. For some good jazz, make your way over to Upstairs just off rue St Catherine. If you cannot be in Montreal for the annual summer Jazz Festival, this place will do just fine. A few cool places for live music are Club Soda on Boulevard Saint Laurent and Metropolis on rue St Catherine.
WHERE TO STAY
Montreal offers a number of enjoyable places to call home during your visit. Since you'll be exploring several different neighborhoods on your trip, I would recommend staying in Old Montreal or downtown - both are easily accessible by metro, uber and walking. In my opinion, 2 properties that both have ideal locations are Le Saint Sulpice on rue St Sulpice and Sofitel Montreal on rue Sherbrooke Ouest.
Located in the heart of Old Montreal and adjacent to the Basilique Notre Dame de Montreal, Le Saint Sulpice is a charming boutique hotel. The chic lobby lounge opens onto a courtyard garden and you are just a short walk from the Old Port and nearest metro station. All the rooms are large suites and include free WiFi, flat screen TVs, iPod docks and Nespresso machines. If you care to indulge, upgraded suites add fireplaces and balconies. The staff is friendly and professional.
Sofitel Montreal Golden Mile is conveniently located at the foot of Mont Royal in the middle of downtown, close to a metro station, a Tim Hortons (coffee and donuts) and the Musee des Beaux Arts de Montreal. The spacious and sophisticated rooms with floor to ceiling windows offer complimentary WiFi, Bose docking stations and contemporary light wood furniture - bathrooms have a separate shower and tub, along with luxury bath products by L'Occitane and Hermes. The hotel also has an upscale French restaurant and a stylish bar.
Montreal is full of beauty, spirit and culture. Until next visit, au revoir.