It can be a travel-writing cliché to describe a destination as a “juxtaposition of old and new”, but in MONTRÉAL this is spectacularly evident. In the space of one weekend, you can stroll under gas lamps on the narrow streets of Vieux-Montréal, as a calèche (horse carriage) softly clip-clops by; flirt bilingually at a rooftop electro dance party; eat your way around the world, from Portuguese to Thai to Québécois; gaze up at the soaring ceiling of a neo-Gothic cathedral; pedal the leafy banks of the Lachine Canal; and watch the dizzying acrobatics of home-grown talent, Cirque du Soleil.
Canada’s second-largest city is geographically as close to the European coast as to Vancouver, and in look, taste and feel it combines some of the finest aspects of the two continents. Its North American skyline of glass and concrete rises above churches and monuments in a melange of European styles as varied as Montréal’s social mix. This is also the world’s second-largest French-speaking city after Paris, but only two-thirds of the citizens are of French extraction, the other third being a cosmopolitan mishmash of les autres (“the others”), including British, Eastern Europeans, Chinese, Italians, Greeks, Jews, Latin Americans and Caribbeans. The memorable result is a truly multidimensional city, with a global variety of restaurants, bars and clubs, matched by a calendar of festivals that makes this the most vibrant place in Canada.
It is also here that the two main linguistic groups – anglophones and francophones – come into greatest contact with one another. In the wake of the “francization” of Québec, English-Canadians hit Hwy-401 in droves, tipping the nation’s economic supremacy from Montréal to Toronto. Though written off by Canada’s English-speaking majority, the city did not sink into oblivion. Instead, it has undergone an extraordinary resurgence, becoming one of the driving forces behind the high-tech industries helping transform Canada’s economy.
Everywhere are signs of civic pride and prosperity. In the historic quarter of Vieux- Montréal, on the banks of the St Lawrence River, the narrow streets, alleys and squares make ideal strolling grounds, past the mammoth Basilique Notre-Dame and steepled Chapelle de Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours, old steep-roofed homes, boutique hotels and outdoor bars serving artisanal cocktails. Close by, the once-disused Vieux-Port has been turned into a summer playground with landscaped parklands and urban beaches facing onto the St Lawrence.
To the northwest unfolds the downtown area, where the modern glass frontages of the office blocks reflect Victorian terraces and the spires of numerous churches. Here, the boulevards and leafy squares buzz from the morning rush hour right through to the wee hours, when clubbers return from the establishments of rue Ste-Catherine and the diverse bars and lounges of the Plateau and Quartier Latin districts. The dazzling new Quartier des Spectacles serves as the city’s cultural hub – home to numerous festivals – booming with performing arts venues, lively restaurants and sun-speckled outdoor public spaces and walkways. Below the surface, downtown is underlain by the passages of the Underground City, which link hotels, shopping centres and offices with the Métro.
Rising above downtown, the city’s landmark, Mont Royal – known by residents as “The Mountain” – is best accessed from the easterly Plateau Mont-Royal. The cafés, restaurants and bars of The Main and rue St-Denis throng with people day and night. Further out to the east, the enormous Stade Olympique complex and the vast green space of the Jardin Botanique – second in international status only to London’s Kew Gardens – are the main pull. The islands facing the Vieux-Port that make up Parc Jean-Drapeau and the westerly Lachine Canal offer all manner of activities, many of them family-friendly.
The city has a notable clutch of museums. The Centre Canadien d’Architecture has one of the continent’s most impressive specialist collections, focusing on the role of architecture in society, innovative design practice and the history of ideas. The Musée d’Art Contemporain is one of Canada’s finest contemporary art museums, while the Musée des Beaux-Arts is the oldest fine-arts museum in the country. Among several superb new contemporary art centres is L’Arsenal in the emerging neighbourhood of Griffintown, showcasing temporary exhibits of emerging art, from sculpture to video installations. Equally outstanding are the museums devoted to Montréal and Canadian history; of these, the Musée McCord has a pristine collection of aboriginal artefacts, while the Musée d’Archéologie et d’Histoire de Montréal delivers a state-of-the-art presentation of archeological findings at the site of Montréal’s founding in 1642.Read More
In many cities, festivals are special occasions; in Montréal, they’re a way of life. In the summer, especially, the city explodes with festivals, many taking place in the gleaming entertainment quarter, Quartier des Spectacles. For festival news and updates, consult the excellent w tourism-montreal.org. You can buy festival tickets via a variety of sources, including the festival websites (worth checking frequently for special deals); La Vitrine Culturelle, the Quartier des Spectacles’ central and tech-savvy info and ticket centre; and Admission, a division of TicketMaster (t 514 790 1245, t 1 800 361 4595, w admission.com). The world-renowned Cirque du Soleil (w cirquedusoleil.com), based in Montréal, regularly puts on shows.
Fête des Neiges de Montréal Late Jan w fetedesneiges.com. Île Ste-Hélène hosts ice-sculpting and general seasonal carousing.
Vues d’Afrique Late April w vuesdafrique.org. Brings a rich variety of African and Caribbean films to Montréal.
Mondial de la Bière June w festivalmondialbiere.qc.ca. One of a number of food and drink events, this offers the opportunity to guzzle beers from around the world.
International Fireworks Competition Throughout June and July w internationaldesfeuxloto-quebec.com. The most visually spectacular of the city’s shindigs, featuring breathtaking, music-coordinated pyrotechnics from countries around the globe at the La Ronde amusement park on Île Sainte-Hélène.
Francofolies Mid-June w francofolies.com. Dance to international tunes at this festival, which brings French musicians from around the world to various downtown stages.
Festival International de Jazz de Montréal Late June and early July w montrealjazzfest.com. North America’s largest jazz event, with more than four hundred shows, most of them free at huge open-air stages in the Quartier des Spectacles.
Montréal First Peoples’ Festival Generally in July w nativelynx.qc.ca. A lively event celebrating aboriginal peoples’ history and featuring traditional activities, from throat-singing to stonecutting.
Juste pour Rire (“Just For Laughs”) Mid-July w hahaha.com. The world’s largest comedy festival, with past headliners including Tim Allen, Louis CK, Jerry Seinfeld, Rowan Atkinson, Jim Carrey, John Candy, Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg.
Festival International Nuits d’Afrique July w festivalnuitsdafrique.com. The sounds of African beats fill the city to full effect.
Montréal World Film Festival Aug w ffm-montreal.org. The most notable of the city’s numerous film festivals.
Griffintown: from factories to fashion
Griffintown: from factories to fashion
Griffintown was once the domain of Irish labourers; in 2012, Montréal Fashion Week moved in. This revitalized wedge in the southwest of Montréal is the city’s fastest-growing neighbourhood, with new restaurants, bars, boutiques and, in 2012, the opening of the massive arts centre L’Arsenal (2020 rue William; t 514 931 9978, w arsenalmontreal.com). Housed in a former shipyard, L’Arsenal is one of Montréal’s largest contemporary arts centres, featuring year-round exhibits and performances as well as the biannual Fashion Week (w montrealfashionweek.ca) in spring and autumn. Griffintown, which rubs up against another emerging neighbourhood, Little Burgundy, lies a little over 1km west of Vieux-Montréal; one of the most enjoyable ways to reach it is by walking or biking along the Lachine Canal from the Vieux-Port. Explore Griffintown by sauntering the streets, including rue Notre-Dame, dubbed the Quartier des Antiquaires, for all its antiques and vintage shops. Joe Beef was in 2005 one of the first eateries to move into this gritty neighbourhood. These days, it’s one of many. Other favourites include brunch at the popular Griffintown Café, where they smoke their own bacon. Drinking spots also abound, like the popular bar, the Burgundy Lion.
When you’re in the urban centre of Montréal, it can be easy to forget that it is, in fact, an island. One of the best ways to remind yourself is by taking to the waters. The Vieux-Port is the major departure point for various boat trips.
Amphi-bus Corner of rue de la Commune and blvd St-Laurent t 514 849 5181, w montreal-amphibus-tour.com; four to ten departures daily May–Oct; 1hr–1hr 30min; $32. A bus that morphs into a boat, first trundling through the city as a bus, and then entering the river as a boat.
Bateau-Mouche Quai Jacques-Quartier t 514 849 9952, t 1 800 361 9952, w bateau-mouche.ca; up to five daily departures mid-May to mid-Oct; 1hr–1hr 30min; $24–28. Leisurely explore the river on these meandering, glass-topped cruises, which feature views of the surrounding islands and the river. Sunrise breakfast cruises are also available.
Croisières AML Quai King-Edward t 1 866 856 6668, w croisieresaml.com; daily departures mid-May to mid-Oct; brunch cruise 1hr 30min, $49; maritime cruise 1hr 30min, $35. This family-run company offers a variety of comfortable cruises on the river, including a brunch cruise and a maritime cruise, and along the way you’ll learn about Montréal’s waterfront history.
Navettes Maritimes du St-Laurent Quai Jacques-Cartier t 514 281 8000, t 1 800 563 4648, w navettesmaritimes.com; mid-May to mid-Oct, daily departures; travel time varies, $7.50 one way. Hop on these maritime shuttles from Vieux-Montréal to Île St-Hélène or Longueuil. These casual rides are ideal for extending a bike ride or trek – pedal one way, take the boat back. The ticket stub can also be used for discounts with their partners, including Musée Stewart and the Biosphère.
Le Petit Navire Quai Jacques-Cartier t 514 602 1000, w lepetitnavire.ca; daily departures mid-May to mid-Oct; 45min; $18.70. Board these ecofriendly, electric-powered boats for short tours around the Vieux-Port. There are also boat tours during the annual International Fireworks Competition (1hr 30min; $37.80), where you can watch the fireworks explode in the sky from the boat.
Saute-Moutons Quai de l’Horloge t 514 284 9607, w jetboatingmontreal.com; daily departures May–Sept; 1hr; $67. Get wet in the Lachine Rapids on these exciting jet-boat trips. Also on offer are shorter speedboat trips (which don’t go into the rapids) for $26. Check website for discount coupons.
Montréal has an excellent gay scene, with the action concentrated in the area known as The Village – roughly located on rue Ste-Catherine est between rue Amherst and the Papineau Métro station. Fugues (w fugues.com) is one of the city’s main monthly French gay and lesbian magazines and websites. In early August, Divers Cité (w diverscite.org), the gay and lesbian pride parade, is the event of the year. Also popular is the autumn image + nation film festival (w image-nation.org). And, the massive Black & Blue circuit party (w bbcm.org) in October is one of the city’s – if not Canada’s – biggest and wildest gay parties.
Most of the restaurants and hangouts in The Village cater to a lesbian, bisexual and gay crowd in the evening, but are more mixed during the day.
Bixi: pedal your way across Montréal
Bixi: pedal your way across Montréal
Montréal’s public bike system – the first in North America – features over 5000 self-service bikes available 24hr across the city at 400-plus stations, from mid-April to mid-November. Montréal researched similar bike programmes in other cities, including Paris and Barcelona, to emerge with the well-oiled, wonderfully accessible Bixi (w bixi.com; the name comes from “bike” plus “taxi”). Renting a bike is simple: at a Bixi stand (which are all solar-powered, and liberally scattered across the city), swipe your credit card and ride off. A 24hr access pass is $7; during that period, you can borrow bikes as often as you like, and the first 30min is free. Beyond that, you pay additional charges. A 72hr pass is $15. Also on offer are 30-day ($30.25) and one-year ($80.50) subscriptions.
Montréal has a wide range of accommodation, from five-star palaces to moderately priced B&Bs and hotels to spare, rock-bottom hostels and university residences. Vieux-Montréal is easily one of the most popular neighbourhoods for bedding down, in large part because of the growing number of boutique hotels, many housed in charming historical buildings, and offering the inviting combination of ancient facades and stone walls plus high-thread-count sheets and gourmet minibars. Downtown is very central, with easy access to most parts of the city, and features an extensive variety of accommodation, from big-name chain hotels to sleek boutique properties. For cosy B&Bs, head to the Plateau neighbourhood, while the student-thronged Quartier Latin has a number of simple and cheap residences and hostels.
A culinary destination that rivals the gourmet capitals of the world, Montréal is said to have the highest number of restaurants per capita in North America after New York City. It was Toqué – helmed by master chef Normand Laprise – that catapulted the city to the top culinary ranks, and since then numerous home-grown chefs have captured the world’s attention, notably Martin Picard of Au Pied de Cochon, who has been largely responsible for ushering in a newfound pride in Québécois cuisine.
Montréal’s ethnic diversity is amply displayed by the variety of cuisines available. The city has its own Chinatown just north of Vieux-Montréal, a Little Italy around Jean-Talon Métro (near the excellent Jean-Talon market; w marchespublics-mtl.com) and a Greek community whose cheaper restaurants are concentrated along Prince Arthur; for more traditional Greek cuisine, head further north along avenue du Parc.
Most prominent of the ethnic restaurants are the Eastern European establishments dotted around the city. Opened by Jewish immigrants, their speciality is smoked meat, served between huge chunks of rye bread with pickles on the side. Another Montréal speciality is poutine, fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds, generally served in diners and snack joints. Montréal comes a close second to New York as the bagel capital of the world; they’re sold everywhere from grimy outlets to stylish cafés. The city has long embraced the concept of apportez votre vin (“bring your own wine”), and you’ll find plenty of “BYOW” establishments on rue Prince Arthur and avenue Duluth, many of which serve good ethnic cuisine.
Drinking and nightlife
Drinking and nightlife
Montréal has elevated joie de vivre to a high art – and nowhere more so than at the bars and clubs. The city’s nightlife keeps going strong into the small hours of the morning – bars are generally open until 3am. One of the liveliest after-dark areas is the bar-packed Plateau. Cutting a wide swath through the Plateau – and into the adjacent neighbourhood of Mile-End – is boulevard St-Laurent, lined on both sides with an eclectic array of nightspots, from sleek lounges to dive bars. Downtown, the action centres on rue Crescent, while Vieux-Montréal is increasingly buzzing with new hotel lounges, restaurant-bars and breezy terraces. Also popular are the student-packed Quartier Latin bars and the nearby Village, heart of the gay scene. For up-to-date listings, check out the English-language daily Montréal Gazette (w montrealgazette.com).
Montréal’s gleaming entertainment quarter, the Quartier des Spectacles, is the hub of the city’s performing arts scene. The world-famous Cirque du Soleil (w cirquedusoleil.com) is headquartered in Montréal, and though it doesn’t feature a permanent show, the circus generally performs in late spring and early summer in the Vieux-Port, where it erects its famous blue-and-yellow tents. Montréal also has numerous excellent dance troupes, from Les Grands Ballets Canadiens (w grandsballets.qc.ca) and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal (w bjmdanse.ca) to the avant-garde La La La Human Steps (w lalalahumansteps.com). For cinema check in the Montréal Gazette for show times; English films are indicated by v.o. (version originale), not v.f. (version français), which means it’s dubbed.