If you’d love to go to Paris but don’t want to leave North America, give Montreal a try. Its varied neighborhoods boast cobblestone streets and 18th century stone houses, elegant Victorian brownstones, outdoor cafes and restaurants, plus museums, art galleries, and lots of shops featuring the best of both European imports and hip new Canadian designs. No matter what your ideal travel experience might be, there’s something for everyone in Montreal.
This sexy city, actually an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, boasts a long and colorful past. First discovered in 1535 by French explorer Jacques Cartier, the Amerindians living there led him to the summit of a mountain which he named Mont Royale, later to become “Montreal.” Over 100 years later in 1642, Paul de Chomedy, Sieur de Maisonneuve founded the settlement which became Montreal. Within 25 years, the city became a prosperous military and trading center. Montreal’s development was not a peaceful one, however, first due to constant warfare with the surrounding Indian tribes, and later because of wars on the European continent which spilled over to Canada. In 1760, New France and the city of Montreal, with its 60,000 inhabitants, was officially ceded to Great Britain. Still, to this day the province of Quebec, which includes Montreal within its borders, has retained its French character, with French spoken by many as their native tongue.
Happily for us, the easily reachable Montreal has developed into a truly international city, with the Boulevard Saint-Laurent flaunting entire communities along its path including Chinatown, the Latin Quarter (where pulsing music engages happy revelers far into the night), a Jewish section featuring several kosher delis (Schwartz's), a Portuguese area, and believe it or not, even a 1960’s red light district now transformed into a nightlife hot spot.
Since my trip to Montreal was for only 2 days, I did my best to see as much as I could in such a short time frame. Following are some of the fun places I found, and would recommend visiting, whether you’re in Montreal for a day-or a week or longer.
For your first stop, head straight to Vieux-Montreal (Old Montreal). Whether you spend an hour or 24 hours there, you won’t run out of things to do or see. Some highlights of a visit there should include Place Jacques Cartier, once a 19th century marketplace and now a pedestrian plaza featuring artists, street performers, restaurants and superb outdoor cafes. We visited the wildly popular restaurant Jardin Nelson, (407 Place Jacques-Cartier) nestled behind the faux façade of an ancient building, featuring multi-level gardens and reasonably priced casual cuisine. Unless you are a party of at least 20 though, expect to stand in line for a while, as first-come, first-served is the rule here.
Place Jacques-Cartier also offers a great view of the Quays of the Old Port of Montreal, a 2.5-km-long recreational waterfront tourist park which offers a variety of activities including cruises, excursions, exhibitions and entertainment. It also offers quiet benches to watch the sunset, and parking, which is priceless if you’re traveling in Montreal by car.
Next, head out to the just-steps-away Rue Sainte-Paul, once Montreal’s main street, with buildings and warehouses that date from the 19th century and now serve as art galleries, boutiques, cafes, artist’s studios and even homes. Some of our favorite shops included the boutique Meli Melo (205 St-Paul Ouest), Yves La Roche Galerie D’Art (4 Rue St-Paul Est), and the not-to-be-missed Marche´ Bonsecours (350 Rue St-Paul Est), the city’s main agricultural marketplace for over a century, and now a sort of “artistic mall” with a variety of shops featuring hand-crafted, and locally designed goods of all sorts, from clothing to sculpture.
Don’t call us corny until you see the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal (110 Rue de Notre-Dam West) with your own eyes! Although there is normally an entrance fee ($4), if you go on Sunday morning as I did quite by accident, it is free, plus you get to enjoy a lovely church service that includes heavenly music produced by a remarkable multi-story organ and angelic-sounding choir. A masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture, Notre-Dame Basilica was built between 1824 and 1829. The magnificent (and I am not kidding) interior is sculpted in wood, paint and gold leaf, and features paintings, sculptures and stained glass windows that illustrate biblical passages as well as 350 years of Parish history.
If you’re in the area at night, be sure to check out the Lighting Tour of Old Montreal, in the area of the intersection between Rue Commune, Rue Saint-Paul, and Rue Sainte-Helene in which Montreal’s historic buildings glow in all their splendor. The sensual lighting emphasizes the beautiful architectural details of these structures inherited from centuries past. To add to the enchanting atmosphere, 22 gas street lamps have been installed along Rue Sainte-Helene, making the area home to many a movie set. (The Score, Taking Lives, The Aviator, Heist, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button were all shot there.) Also dazzling at night is the high-tech “And Then There Was Light” Sound and Light Show at the Notre-Dame Basilica (6:30 or 7 pm, Adult $10), which demonstrates the historic birth of Montreal and the building of the Basilica.
While wandering about, I stumbled upon the charming Chateau Ramezay Museum (280 Rue de Notre Dame Est), an 18th century Governor’s residence whose collection offers a unique view of the history of Montreal and Quebec, from Amerindian pre-history to the beginning of the 20th Century. You might want to stop and smell the roses at the museum’s outdoor café overlooking the magnificent Governor’s Garden. I also enjoyed visiting the 18th century Pierre du Calvet House (401 Rue de Bonsecours), one of the most beautiful examples of the early architecture developed in New France. Particularly striking are its massive, crude rock walls, chimneys, and steeply sloped roof. Pierre du Calvet, its illustrious original occupant, was a supporter of the American Revolution and held meetings there with Benjamin Franklin. Today, it is operated as a first-class inn and restaurant.Though I didn’t have time to visit, I was intrigued by the elegant Victorian façade of Le Place D’Armes (55 Rue St. Jacques), a hotel situated on one of the most prestigious addresses in Montreal, Place d’Armes. I actually spotted it while pondering an intriguing 1895 statue of Paul de Chomedey “Sieur de Maisonneuve,” founder of Montreal. The hotel’s brochure states that it “offers all the grandeur of the past combined with the ultra modern comforts and amenities of today.” Most intriguing were the white umbrellas I spotted on the roof, which indicated that there just might be a cool restaurant or bar with a great view on top of the hotel. If you can, check it out for me!
Since one of my friends is an avid epicure, I asked her to suggest a fantastic restaurant for one of my two nights in town. She came back with the easily remembered Bonaparte Auberge and Restaurant (447, Saint-Francois-Xavier Rue), where three friends and I were fortunate enough to grab the last reservation they had available for that night. In a small room that seated perhaps 60 guests and oozed with understated charm, I was treated to a delectable Table d’Hote (fixed price menu consisting of 3 courses). From the varied menu I decided on an appetizer of Marinated Nordic Shrimps with Avocado, a main course of tender Beef Sirloin with Bordelaise Sauce and baby vegetables, and a Fresh Fruit Salad with splash of Kir, presented in a goblet, for dessert. The restaurant’s varied and venerable wine list was also quite intriguing. Including 2 glasses of a lovely merlot, my dinner cost only $50 plus tip, truly a bargain for such a great experience.
I might add that the Bonaparte is also a 4-star Auberge, and as a matter of fact, I liked the place and the location so much that the very next day I impulsively changed hotels and moved in there. I loved my elegant and large queen sized room with ultra-modern bath and all the trimmings ($170 per night), and would definitely stay there again if (when) I return to Montreal.
Though I didn’t have the energy to party after such a great meal, several of my companions opted to hit the clubs. Tribe (390 Rue St. Jacques Ouest) is a new club that’s been open for less than a year. It’s located on the same block as the famous St. James Hotel, so it attracts the attention of the executives as well as the celebrities that stay there. The club invites different DJ’s from all over the world to come and play their own mixes. The club also features a VIP lounge at the top with leather banquettes and gleaming glass where you can have your own seating - very cozy, very private. Downstairs, there’s a very large dance floor. The same owners operate the well-known restaurant ORA (394 St. Jacques Ouest) which features Mediterranean cuisine. UNITY is located at (1171 Rue St-Catherine Est) and is what is called in Montreal a “mixed” club (where gay people, different races,”mix”). The layout is multi-level, and features a Bamboo bar room, a main room, and an outdoor terrace. The club hosts different DJ’s from all over.
Though this article is about Old Montreal, there is so much more to see and do than is possible to include here. There’s the lovely and scenic Mont Royale, the chic cafes and shops around St Laurent & Rue Prince Arthur, and an amazing 30 mile long “underground city” that meanders from subway station to subway station under the streets of the city. There's the hip Plateau Mont-Royal, Rue Crescent street featuring shops, cafés and even grocery stores, and believe it or not (move over, Las Vegas) the Casino de Montreal, just to name a few.
Special thanks to Bertin Jacques of Tourisme Montreal for his help in gathering the information for this article.
Want to get tourist literature before your trip? Check out "http://www.bonjourquebec.com" or call 1-877-BONJOUR
(FYI: Most Francophones speak English. The current exchange rate for the Canadian dollar against a US dollar is one to one, not too bad in comparison to the Dollar-Euro exchange rate in Paris (0.8044). Also, it is easy to get around in Montreal by riding the user-friendly underground Metro system called RESO (which means "network"). It's a convenient way to travel, especially in uncomfortable weather, and the line connects to several hotels in the area.)