Cobblestone streets, international cuisine, trendy bars and intimate jazz clubs make Canada’s second-largest city the next best thing to traveling in Europe
by Nubia DuVall Wilson
A European-style getaway is less than two hours away by plane when traveling to Montréal. Recently named a top waterfront city in recognition of its Old Port district, the largest city in the Canadian province of Québec has 19 distinct boroughs—where Québécois is widely spoken (don’t call it “French”), as well as English. The currency is the Canadian dollar, although the U.S. dollar is accepted widely (be wary of the exchange rate used). In addition to its great number of historical sites, museums, and 40 festivals annually, the second largest city in Canada is brimming with art galleries, shopping, fine restaurants, and a hot jazz scene.
The Montréal Museum of Fine Arts has been building its collections for more than a century. Canadian and international works include pieces by legends like Rembrandt, El Greco, Renoir, Cézanne, and Picasso.
The Jean-Talon Market is one of the largest public markets in North America. Located a block or so off Boulevard Saint-Laurent, this open-air bazaar is filled with aromas of grilled sausages, Québec cheeses, fresh produce, home-grown spices, and handmade pastries and chocolates.
Housed in the former Olympic bicycle-racing stadium, the Montréal Biodome is now home to four distinct ecosystems: a polar environment; tropical rainforest; a Laurentian forest; and the St. Lawrence marine environment. While strolling, you will feel the changes in temperature and view some of the critters that inhabit these zones, including monkeys, bats, fish, puffins, and penguins.
The famous Notre-Dame Basilica, built between 1824 and 1829, is one of the main tourist draws of this area. Visitors should enjoy a Hong Kong-style dim sum brunch in the morning and then walk along Rue Saint-Urbain towards Rue Saint Paul. This old main street is lined with art galleries, boutiques, and eateries, while the broad concourses of the Old Port are filled with green parkland and cafes along Rue de la Commune.
WHERE TO EAT
Café St-Malo, 75 Rue St. Paul, $
An intimate restaurant serving traditional French and Québec cuisine and imported wines, Café St-Malo has a kitschy décor filled with art and knickknacks. Its menu features brasserie favorites like moulet frites (mussels and fries), French onion soup, and steak frites. It fills up quickly for lunch and dinner, so get there early, and like most restaurants, it closes at 2:30 p.m. after lunch and re-opens at 5:30 p.m. for dinner.
Modavie, modavie.com, $$
Whether celebrating New Year’s Eve or just heading out for dinner, this is a spirited option, with great food, an extensive wine list, and live jazz every night. The two-level restaurant offers a bistro menu with lamb, fish, beef, and pasta dishes. Meat entrées include sesame-crusted rack of lamb with goat cheese and the filet mignon with demi-glace. Add some black truffle mayonnaise or smoked paprika mayonnaise as dipping sauces for your frites.
Club Chasse et Peche,
This is one of Montreal’s best restaurants, serving refined Québécois fish and game in a romantic, lodge-like setting. The friendly-yet-professional service and gourmet cuisine draw a crowd daily.
Menu highlights include seared scallops with fennel purée and the braised piglet risotto with foie gras shavings.
WHERE TO STAY
Well-positioned around the corner from the Notre-Dame Basilica and along Rue Saint Paul, this is a luxury all-suite boutique hotel in the heart of Old Town. Features include deluxe and executive suites with balconies and/or fireplaces, Sinclair restaurant and lounge, and special access to the Scandinave Spa Vieux-Montréal for massages and traditional Scandinavian baths. The hotel is a popular option during the annual International Jazz Festival, as it’s only a 10-minute walk from the concert site.
A former immigrant neighborhood that now houses a wealth of sidewalk cafes, restaurants, and bars, both locals and visitors enjoy exploring “the Plateau,” which is located next to Montréal’s beloved “mountain” (a large volcanic-related hill with a 764-foot peak) where one can walk and bike along the trails and lake. Mont-Royal Avenue is one of the main thoroughfares, lined with boutiques, great bars, and shops.
WHERE TO EAT
La Salle à Manger,
Known for its boisterous environment in a retro space, La Salle à Manger (“dining room”) cooks up seasonal Québécois dishes with a twist, served in a dining room with communal tables. The brunch menu features items like onion soup with smoked suckling pig, croutons, and aged cheddar, and confit duck leg with dupuy lentils and roasted vegetables.
La Distillerie II,
This hip bar offers patrons more than 145 unique cocktails (look for the creative ingredients), many of which are served in mason jars. The snacks menu includes goldfish, beef jerky, and popcorn. Cocktails are rated on “intensity” (aka alcohol level) scale of zero to five. A low-intensity option is the Jackalope, which includes homemade banana caramel, Bols Banana Liqueur, Jack Daniel’s Whisky, and coconut syrup. The pink-hued Mohawk is a stronger option, made with peach purée,
Tanqueray Gin, elderflower cordial, and homemade green tea syrup.
WHERE TO SHOP
By all means, head over to Rue St-Denis, between Laurier and Sherbrooke Streets, for a shopping experience that is a gratifying antithesis of the standard U.S. mega mall. Here, shoppers will find boutiques and shops selling antique books, music, vintage clothing, and funky home accessories. Nearby Laurier Avenue, meanwhile, features high-end shopping in a non-touristy environment.
Soaring skyscrapers and heritage buildings intermingle with quaint boutiques in Centre-Ville, or Downtown. Saint Catherine Street is filled with shoppers, while hip and trendy Crescent Street is the place to see and be seen. Upscale and sophisticated Sherbrooke Street boasts high-end boutiques and cultural institutions such as the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts and the McCord Museum, and close by is the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. The newly-developed Quartier international is located just beside Chinatown and is home to the kaleidoscopic Palais des congrès and Place Jean-Paul Riopelle, which features the sculpture/fountain “La Joute.” The art piece features a kinetic water sequence and dramatic ring of fire.
WHERE TO EAT
Europea, europea.ca, $$$
Helmed by chef Jérôme Ferrer, Europea offers a 12-course tasting experience that is a feast for all senses. Ferrer is an award winning Relais & Chateaux Grand Chef who brings his Spanish and French roots to the table in a unique culinary experience. Try his homemade foie gras with crispy lobster, fresh herbs, and citrus caramel, or the Cornish hen cooked in clay with smoked herb gravy.
Upstairs Jazz Club,
You’ll have to venture downstairs to actually enter Upstairs—a favorite jazz club among locals and a must-visit for tourists. Each night presents live performances and jam sessions. The narrow brick-walled and darkened interior offers an intimate setting where silence is appreciated during musicians’ sets—a vibe diehard jazz enthusiasts appreciate. The dining menu is pretty snappy, too, featuring a mash-up of Latin, French, American, and Italian dishes.
WHERE TO STAY
Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth,
This AAA Four Diamond hotel in the heart of the metropolitan area is connected to the extensive Underground City and its hundreds of boutiques, restaurants and cafés (see below). There are 91 suites out of the 982 rooms, plus a health club with an indoor pool and children’s wading pool, a spa, and two restaurants. The 600-square-foot John Lennon and Yoko Ono one-bedroom executive suite was the site of the legendary 1969 “Bed-in for Peace,” where the song “Give Peace a Chance” was composed and recorded. Its living room and bedroom feature memorabilia of the famous couple.
Ritz-Carlton Montréal, ritzcarlton.com, $$$
Set in the heart of Downtown, guests here can enjoy the surrounding neighborhood, which includes the Golden Square Mile, high-end boutiques, galleries, and museums. The only AAA Five Diamond hotel in Québec, Ritz-Carlton Montréal has hosted notables from Elizabeth Taylor and Queen Elizabeth II to the Rolling Stones. Its glamorous amenities include an indoor saltwater pool that overlooks the city, upscale dining at Maison Boulud, afternoon tea, suites with heated floors, and expansive living areas with fireplaces.
WHERE TO SHOP
It’s so cold in this town that they created a shopper’s paradise below the street, a massive space consisting of 20 miles of interconnected malls, cinemas, museums, eateries, train stations, hotels, and even residential complexes. It can be accessed from multiple metro stations, such as the McGill and Berri-UQAM stops. The shopping centers are Eaton Centre, Cours Mont-Royal, Place Montreal Trust, Complex Les Ailes, and Place Ville-Maria and include brand stores like Zara, Tommy, Guess, La Senza EXPRESS, Aldo Accessories, and True Religion Brand Jeans.