Published January 13, 2010
It's tempting to sum up Montréal simply as a French city that doesn’t require a transcontinental flight. But this cultural soul of Francophone Canada, while it does capture the joie de vivre of Paris, conveys very much its own vibe.
Montréal is an amalgam of old-world style and modish fashion and design, with a mix of resolutely traditional brasseries and boutiques, scene-y contemporary restaurants, and edgy galleries. Few cities in North America so jubilantly celebrate both the past and the present. Canada's second-largest city technically sits on an island between the Ottawa and St. Lawrence rivers - its proximity to year-round outdoor fun is just one more plus.
5…Take in the Vieux
The bustling, modern city you see today sprung forth entirely from Vieux (Old)-Montréal, where Samuel de Champlain established a fur-trading post four centuries ago. This charming neighborhood that encompasses such landmarks as the imposing neo-Gothic Notre-Dame Basilica and the handsomely restored, tin-domed Bonsecours Market building (now filled with cafés and boutiques) is made up mostly of 19th-century stone and brick buildings. It's home to the city's historic maritime port as well as one of the seminal museums in Québec, the Pointe-á-Callière Museum of Archaeology and History (350 Pl. Royale, 514-872-9150, $14, www.pacmusee.qc.ca), which was designed ingeniously above and around ruins of buildings that date back to the 17th century.
Many of the neighborhood's former warehouses now contain decidedly swank boutique hotels, sophisticated restaurants, and high-end boutiques and galleries. Be sure to stroll along Rue St-Paul, with its impressive antiques shops, and visit the stately Place d'Armes, the neighborhood's central square, that's dominated by a mix of notable Montréal buildings, including the basilica. If you're in town at the right time, you might catch of performance of the Montréal Symphony Orchestra (www.osm.ca), which occasionally performs inside the basilica.
4…O Can o’duck
Truly getting to know Montréal culture requires a bit of belt-loosening, otherwise it might be tricky to properly partake of the city's regional take on classic French bistro fare. To be sure, you can find perfectly rendered Parisian-style cuisine in Montréal that'll have you thinking you've somehow been airlifted directly to the Left Bank. Convivial L'Express (3927 rue St-Denis, 514-845-5333, entrees $15 to $25,) is your go-to in this category, a lofty-ceilinged bistro with a long zinc-top bar and a menu that warmly celebrates Montréal's French heritage: Coq au Vin, steak frites, crème brulée
But for a distinctly Québécois take on French cooking, book a table at Au Pied de Cochon (536 Rue Duluth Est, 514-281-1114, entrees $13 to $37, www.restaurantaupieddecochon.ca), a festive spot that turns out such regional classics as tarragon-seasoned bison tongue, poutine (fries topped with cheese curd and brown gravy - you can also order it with foie gras here), and maple-syrup pie. The restaurant's piece de resistance, which should probably be offered with a free angiogram, is duck-in-a-can: breast of duck actually cooked in a can and opened at your table, served alongside foie gras over toast, along with a venison demi-glace.
3…Feel the magic of the lanterns
It's just a 10-minute cab ride north of downtown to the city's vast Olympic Stadium and Parc Maisonneuve area that you'll find one of its most vibrant and colorful attractions, the verdant Montréal Botanic Garden (4101 Rue Sherbrooke Est, 514-872-1400, $16, www2.ville.Montréal.qc.ca/jardin), ideally during the Magic of Lanterns Festival that takes place here over two months every autumn. Year-round, the garden promises lush greenery. Just saunter through one of the 10 exhibition greenhouses, which specialize in everything from fragrant begonias and gesneriads (of which colorful African violets are a member) to cleverly designed "Hacienda" rife with succulents and cacti and meant to capture the flair of a Mexican garden.
Out of doors, and dependent upon the season, you can tour more than 30 themed gardens, the aforementioned Chinese Garden perhaps the most eye-catching; its flora and beautiful ornamented architectural elements evocative of Ming-era private estates. By the middle of spring you can bound through the smile-inducing Lilac Garden or the tranquil Flowery Brook. And a dramatic First Nations Garden interprets the hardwood and coniferous forests of Canada's aboriginal inhabitants.
2…Skate across the skyline
Winter is the perfect time to bundle up and ascend to the singular geographical feature that defines Montréal. In fact, the city is named for it: Mont-Royal. The dramatic land mass, which is crowned by three peaks (the tallest rising to 764 feet), is home to 500-acre Parc du Mont-Royal (Ave. du Mont-Royal Ouest and Ave. du Parc, 514-843-8240, www.lemontroyal.qc.ca/en), laid-out by designer Frederick Law Olmsted, who years earlier helped design a little-known New York City green space called Central Park . From the several viewing areas, you can peer down over Montréal's impressively modern skyline, and on the clearest days, you can see as far as Vermont's Green Mountains.
The domain of picnickers, cyclists, joggers, and hikers during the warmer months, Parc du Mont-Royal hardly retreats into hibernation in winter, the season when outdoor enthusiasts snap into cross-country skis and take to the park's nearly 20 kilometers of signed, groomed trails. Snowshoeing is another favorite pastime (on Saturday nights, guided tours overlooking the city's twinkling lights are offered). Artfully renovated Beaver Lake Pavilion rents all manner of winter-sports equipment, including ice skates, with which you can glide around the adjacent rink. Warm up with hot cocoa and notably excellent contemporary food in the pavilion's upstairs restaurant, Bistro Le Pavillon (514-849-2002, entrees $10 -- $20).
1…Hunt for smoked meat and bagels along "The Main"
A stroll along Montréal's Boulevard Saint-Laurent, known colloquially as "The Main.” constitutes a genuinely international culinary journey. This fabled street that's long been the de facto divider between French- and English-speaking Montréal is also the hub of several ethnic neighborhoods, and thus a trove of Chinese, Portuguese, Middle Eastern, and Haitian eateries. Above all, it's the city's traditional Jewish Quarter, having been immortalized in novels by Mordecai Richler and songs by Leonard Cohen - both men one-time residents.
Appropriately, The Main is home to some of the finest Jewish food in North America. Since the 1800s, the neighborhood's has been famous for shops selling smoked meat, a hand-sliced delicacy that bears a close resemblance to what Americans call pastrami. In fact, ardent advocates of both frequently debate their respective merits with great passion. A prime locale for sampling Montréal's viande fumée is Schwartz Delicatessen (3895 Blvd. St-Laurent, 514-842-4813, $5.50, www.schwartzsdeli.com), a cacophonous dining room that's been doling out sublimely salty smoked-meat sandwiches since 1928.
Bagels are another neighborhood staple. Montréalers prepare theirs in wood-fired ovens - they're generally chewier and softer than New York-style bagels (again, debates often ensue about which is better). See what all the fuss is about by snacking on a poppy-seed or garlic bagel at Fairmount Bagel Bakery (74 Ave. Fairmount Ouest, 514-272-0667, $2, www.fairmountbagel.com), a 90-year-old shop just off The Main.