Montreal is a bit of France without crossing the Atlantic. The commercial and cultural capital of the Canadian province of Quebec, bounded by the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, the city lies just 40 miles north of the U.S.-Canadian border and a one-hour flight from Washington, D.C.
Average temperatures in the winter dip down to 22 degrees Fahrenheit, but in the spring and summertime, they range from a pleasant 65 degrees to 79 degrees, offering a temperate escape from Washington’s unpredictable spring and typically sweltering summer.
What awaits visitors is remarkable cuisine and couture, style, history and a francophone city where nearly everyone still speaks English — and, unlike Paris, doesn’t resent speaking it to help tourists.
If not a world capital in the league of Paris, Montreal has its own distinct advantages. Perhaps, most important, one won’t feel daunted by seeing all of the city’s A-list sights, a real dilemma for those visiting the City of Lights for brief jaunts. Everyone agrees on the top 10 to 15 tourist sights in Montreal and there is no Louvre-like blockbuster among them.
In a long weekend of three days, one can see many of the Montreal’s best sights, and — well-fed, well-entertained and well-rested — pledge to come back for those you missed. Finally, Montreal is just plain comfortable — just foreign enough to be interesting, yet similar to large North American cities.
Here are some highlights from our trip:
Vieux-Montréal (Old Montreal) is the perfect part of town to set up camp, near many of the historic sights, retail areas, and close to downtown. The city radiates outward from this original European settlement, a square warren of centuries-old buildings and narrow streets, many reclaimed from industrial use and converted into condominiums, hotels or shops.
Le Petit Hôtel, where we stayed, is conveniently situated on Rue Saint-Paul, just blocks from the gorgeous Basilique Notre-Dame Catholic church and the St. Lawrence River. Soft down sheets, stylish rooms with exposed brick, and just enough distance from the business and tourists on the street below made the property an ideal choice.
We parked our car in one of several garages on the nearby quay at a price of only $20 for all three days. With Montreal’s excellent bus and subway system, unless you are purchasing big items or exploring the surrounding environs outside the city, you likely will not need that car.
Part of our hotel package was a collection of discount tickets to some of the city’s best attractions, including four free subway passes, that probably saved us $60 or so over the course of the trip. Overall, the hotel bill came to about $700 for the three nights. If you are willing to stay further out, less expensive options abound, including some bed and breakfasts that were located less than a mile away that would have been about half that price.
A stunning centerpiece of Old Montreal, the Basilique Notre-Dame is a must-see. Designed by a Protestant architect who later converted to Roman Catholicism, the church features a ceiling of brilliant blue and gold stars and a nontraditional rectangular layout unlike the typical cross configuration of Roman Catholic ecclesiastic architecture. The stained glass windows are remarkable for their scenes depicting the history of Montreal, rather than typical biblical imagery.
A couple of blocks away from the hotel is Pointe-à-Callière, Montreal’s Museum of Archaeology and History, a rarity that is both enlightening and educational. On the very spot of the museum, the fortress village of Ville-Marie was founded in 1642 and French colonists fought hand-to-hand battles against hostile Iroquois tribes. Bloody scenes from the battle are also depicted in the Maisonneuve Monument, which honors Paul de Chomedey, the founder of Montreal and its military defender, in the center of Place d’Armes in front of Basilica Notre-Dame, a few blocks away.
Nearby, in 1701, Louis-Hector de Callière led an enormous conference with numerous Indian tribes that ended for a considerable period the settlers’ conflict with the natives, highlighting the noticeably more progressive attitude of the French toward the indigenous tribes, as compared to the English and Spanish royal governments. The Pointe-à-Callière museum has a fascinating, high-tech light show that makes it appear as if the ground and stones are moving. A woman’s voice begins, “I am Montreal,” and continues to tell the tale of the city with a digital timeline and multimedia images and graphics. After the show, you can walk down to the bowels of the city in the basement of the museum, which includes the foundations for the Royal Insurance Building that once occupied this site and an early settlers’ gravesite of settlers. It’s the perfect first stop for getting one’s bearings in the city.
Quebec, formerly called New France, fell into British hands in 1760 at the conclusion of the French and Indian War, and its citizens were subjected to British mercantile dominance. The following century of British dominance left a curiously dualistic nature to the city, with many downtown streets named after British heroes, such as Lord Horatio Nelson, within a larger sea of French ones. Even the architectural styles are different, with British buildings using square limestone blocks, while French ones use irregular fieldstones.
Pondering all that history makes for a healthy appetite. We had a late lunch on Rue Saint-Paul at Olive and Gourmando restaurant, where we enjoyed a delicious pasta and bean salad with eggplant and pesto dressing for about $10, as well as one of the best tomato soups we’ve ever had, with chipotle peppers, salsa verde and olive oil pooled on it. A glass of excellent pinot noir rounded out a first-class meal. We picked out a window corner where we could watch romantic horse carriages amble by as we bit into the soup’s side of artisanal bread, which was perfectly crisped.
For dinner, we headed to a small bar on Rue Crescent, one of Montreal’s eating and bar hubs downtown, and discovered a surprisingly good Indian restaurant, Devi. We enjoyed piping-hot spinach-laden lamb saagwala, aloo gobi, a cauliflower and potato dish, and butter chicken so sweet and good it almost qualified as dessert.
Swearing off our meager breakfasts at home, we launched into our hotel’s lavish breakfast buffet, then headed past innumerable art galleries and up the block to a poster shop, L’Affichiste Vintage Poster Gallery, with beautiful vintage and reproduction posters.
We walked to the nearby subway at Place d’Armes and zipped to Jardin Botanique, the city’s botanical garden. The ride was almost as pleasant as the destination, with a clean, functioning subway system that featured cars running like clockwork every few minutes. There was no lurching, no track work, no unexpected schedule adjustments. D.C. Metro — take note.
Located some distance from the city center, near the futuristic 1976 Olympic Stadium, which looms over the horizon like an abandoned Star Wars spaceship, Jardin Botanique is a fantastic green expanse with a variety of themed gardens. They include a Japanese garden punctuated by tranquil ponds with well-fed koi, a sprawling Chinese garden highlighted by a palace-like Chinese pavilion decorated with somewhat kitschy paper-mâché warriors, dragons and animals for an impending lantern festival, and a rose garden that seems to stretch for blocks.
Lunch was at Marché Atwater, a block-long series of indoor and outdoor farmers’ markets located west of Old Montreal that feature gourmet food stalls with high-quality produce, milk, meats, chocolates and other specialties. We bought duck terrine, fresh bread and well-priced Pyrenees sheep cheese and enjoyed an impromptu picnic at one of the many open, immaculate tables. Another alternative would have been the larger and more famous open market, Marché Jean-Talon, which is a bit further out.
But Marché Atwater is close to the antique row along Rue du Notre-Dame, an up-and-coming neighborhood with trendy eateries and endless antique shops, many specializing in different goods, such as chandeliers and East Asian wares.
But back to food, which, of course, is always on the minds of most tourists. Fortunately Montreal is chock full of excellent restaurants. That night, we dined at Brasserie T!, the less expensive sibling to premier Montreal restaurant Toqué!. Located near the Place des Arts, the city’s central entertainment complex, Brasserie T! is perfectly situated for a fabulous meal before a night at the theater or symphony hall. We sat outside and watched a dazzling spectacle of red-and-white water fountains dancing to a computer-programmed cadence, as the rainbow of theater lights were reflected in the pools. It was a spectacular sight and meal — venison with truffles and baby carrots was only $27, and the flank steak $20. Our profiterole of incredibly rich chocolate over ice cream and brioche bread rivaled anything we’d ever had in France. Altogether, the bill came to a reasonable $107.
We later slowly walked a few blocks to the House of Jazz, gorgeously decorated in the fashion of a 1920s speakeasy, but with a somewhat institutional air. Evenings in Montreal are also made for strolling, with all of the historic areas, such as Place d’Armes, beautifully illuminated. As a result, figures on the Maisonneuve Monument, including a crouching Native American, colonist and Maisonneuve himself, throw ominous, foreboding shadows across the pavement.
A city tour of Old Montreal with Guidatours revealed the eastern portion of the old city. I asked our tour guide René whether Quebec would secede from the rest of Canada, as it has nearly voted to do in the past, but René dismissed the constant political tug of war: “We Quebecers have everything, so nobody wants to withdraw. They are just making noise.”
But the city is noisy — with a vibrant contemporary culture that stands alongside its more traditional historic treasures. While walking back to the hotel, we passed an artistic cooperative, L’Empreinte Coopérative, with lovely souvenirs crafted by local artists that were reasonably priced. After that, we perused gallery after gallery of striking original art.
Later, we headed downtown to the city’s premier museum of fine arts, the Musée des Beaux Arts de Montréal, home to an enormous art collection. We had only a few hours before dinner, so we limited ourselves to the Bourgie Pavilion, which offers multiple floors detailing the evolution of Canadian art, from slavish imitation of European masters juxtaposed with the first Native American arts, all the way up to modern Canadian artists.
Irony and introspection marked some of the exhibits. In Kent Monkman’s “The King’s Beavers,” history is a matter of perspective, as some pictures tell the history of Montreal from the Native American point of view, while others from the European point of view, be it Anglo or Francophone. But perhaps most interestingly, the “The King’s Beavers” tells it from the point of the view of the beavers, mercilessly hunted down for their pelts by both human “tribes” of Native Americans and European furriers. The sardonic, epic-size painting features rapacious European and Indian humans alike mercilessly impaling anthropomorphized beavers clutching rosary beads and pleading for mercy, complemented by saintly beaver angels floating in the sky.
For a less high-minded diversion, there’s always shopping. A few blocks away is La Maison Ogilvy, a posh, pricey Old World-style department store. Examining gorgeous $600 leather winter jackets with fur collars, I was momentarily tempted to part with my beloved 15-year-old Eddie Bauer jacket, but somehow stayed true.
But we did splurge for our final night on a nine-course dinner at nearby Europea, one of the finest restaurants in the city. Inside, the exclusive, candle-lit tables were elegant and the service was impeccable, as they sped us through their prix-fixe menu so that we could make our 8 p.m. symphony date.
We were spoiled with numerous surprises, including a delicious lobster and truffle bisque, as well as calamari cut like tagliatelle pasta, the tenderest version of that mollusk I have ever had, swimming in tiny salmon roe that approximated caviar. Our main dish, Cornish hen, was succulent and moist. Wine prices were not for the feint of heart, starting at $60 and rising to the hundreds of dollars. Our $60 Côtes du Rhône was excellent.
The dessert was a medley of small charms, whose highlights included playful touches, such as a side of cotton candy and chocolate caramel lollypops coated, amazingly enough, with Pop Rocks, the candy of my youth that fizzles in your mouth. Our flavorful French press coffee formed the beautiful, smooth denouement to an unforgettable meal.
At the end of this sublime experience, the waiter delivered another surprise — “for madame,” it was a basket full of delicate and buttery madeleine cookies. The waiter then turned to me. “And for monsieur,” he handed me an envelope with a dramatic pause and flourish — “Oh, I am sorry monsieur, this is the bill.” With a fair tip, it came to about $300, but was well worth the splurge. After all, as Downton Abbey’s dowager countess quipped on the hit TV show, “Nothing succeeds like excess.”
But with our symphony starting in 18 minutes, we were cast out from our gastronomic Eden. The recently constructed La Maison Symphonique de Montréal is breathtaking, featuring curved walls of golden Quebec beech with such outstanding acoustics that you can hear a pin drop. A triumphant performance by conductor Kent Nagano’s Montreal Symphony Orchestra of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 yielded three standing ovations. The French horn instrumentalists play offstage to create a haunting effect, while Mahler’ s “Resurrection,” featuring a chorus, ranges from delicate melodic interludes to Wagneresque sturm und drang. Alas, the demographics of the audience approximate those of the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, suggesting a limited future appeal if this excellent orchestra does not appeal to a younger generation. Our tickets cost $180 total, a harmonious investment.
The beautiful people — and the not quite as beautiful tourists — sashayed up and down for several blocks. A street artist used colored chalks to deconstruct the street into geometric forms, while shows also took place inside various industrial buildings.
Many of the art galleries were also still open. The area around Rue Saint-Paul is well stocked with an extraordinary assemblage of galleries. It just so happened that night was the opening of artist Marleen Provençal’s show at Blanche Galerie d’Art. One beautiful abstract work that would have looked great with the colors of our living room was perfect — aside from the $3,700 list price. We had seen it earlier in the day and vowed to come back that evening and talk down in price.
When we entered the showroom, which was wrapping up for the night, we were astonished to find many of her newly displayed works had been sold. So much for our plan to bargain hard. Provençal was still there and walked over to us. Like so many others in the city, she seemed genuinely interested in us, asked whether we were our enjoying our stay, and continued to chat even after we explained that her works were outside of our price range.
That highlights the overriding factor that the trip a success: the people themselves. Throughout our visit, innumerable Montrealers asked us how we were enjoying the city. Returning to the inevitable Paris comparison, I cannot recall any Parisian ever asking me the same in my several trips there, the clear assumption being that you are enjoying that magnificent city and, if you are not, then the problem is clearly you.
But with Montreal, the constant vibe was, “Bienvenue, we hope you are enjoying it, and please come back soon!” We will.
About the Author
David Tobenkin is freelance journalist in the greater Washington, D.C., area.