For a Sophisticated Vacation, Escape to Montreal
The festive French-speaking capital is the perfect spot for a getaway.
In returning to Montreal after several years’ absence, what struck me was that, although things have naturally changed, the Canadian city remains about the same as it was when I first discovered it during the early 1980s. Like picking up a novel you first read in college, everything gradually comes back to you.
Like Manhattan, Montreal is an island metropolis. The city is situated between two rivers—the wide St. Lawrence and the narrow Prairies. Whereas Manhattan has Central Park as its focal point, Montreal owns a real mountain, though a small one—Mont Réal or Mount Royal. Of course, part of Montreal’s charm, and an occasional frustration, is its history as the heart of French-speaking, French-heritage Canada, the province of Quebec. Not to worry, though—most residents engaged in commerce speak both French and English.
With about 1.7 million residents, Montreal is large enough to have all the amenities of a cosmopolitan city, yet it’s small enough to navigate. Moreover, it’s divided into sections and neighborhoods that make it easy to keep one’s bearings. Several of these sections—the arts district, Old Town, Chinatown, west Sherbrooke Street, Mont Réal itself and the waterfront—are within easy walking distance of each other. The trendy Mile End, on the city’s broad plateau, is a short cab ride away from the others.
Last summer, I returned to Montreal for the 38th annual Montreal Jazz Festival, one of the world’s biggest and best music festivals, which runs from late June through July 4. As Stephanie Halley of Tourisme Montreal pointed out to me, this is a city that seems to run on festivals. “In additional to the jazz festival, we have Montreal en Lumière [a winter festival], the circus festival, Just for Laughs comedy festival and even a festival for all the wall murals that you see on buildings around town.”
A good place to start a tour of the city is the centrally located arts and entertainment district along Rue Sainte-Catherine, which runs roughly north-south through the center of the city and parallel to the Saint Lawrence River. The Hyatt is centrally located here, and (as I found out for the jazz festival) most of the small and large entertainment and concert venues are within a four-block radius, as is the Museum of Contemporary Arts. For those in town on business, it’s also convenient to shopping and fast food in the expansive, partly underground Complexe Desjardins next door, and it’s within walking distance of the convention center.
A few blocks away to the west (toward the mountain) lies the museum district along the Rue Sherbrooke. The campus for McGill University is here, and it’s a great place to stroll or go for a morning run. McGill is home to the Redpath Museum, a natural history venue. A few blocks away, the Museum of Fine Arts is known for its exciting exhibits and collections. Finally, Sherbrooke is home to many fine, expensive shops, high-end restaurants, and first-class hotels like the Ritz-Carlton.
Overlooking Sherbrooke is Mont Réal, most of which is a public park with lots of paths, trees and fields. From the top, there’s a beautiful view of Montreal. (In my younger days, I’d run from my hotel to the top and back before breakfast—a great way to start the day.) The mountain is most easily accessed from downtown by walking up Rue Peel. At the head of the street are stairs that lead to Chemin Olmstead(named after Frederick Law Olmstead, who also designed Central Park), a broad path for hiking and biking that leads to the top. In winter, the path is also used for cross-country skiing.
Going in the other direction from the arts district is Chinatown, then the old city and finally the riverfront. As in Chinatowns everywhere, the district is marked with inexpensive restaurants featuring platters of comfort food, and it’s especially popular for after-hours dining.
The old town is similar to those you find in every European city: narrow cobblestone streets with lots of restaurants, many with sidewalk dining, and affordable shops. It’s the perfect place to go for lunch, with some window-browsing afterward. For those with an edifice complex, the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal is also located in old town.
Adjacent to old town, the riverfront is the center of boat tours and other water attractions. It’s also the place to take ferries to the Parc des Iles, site of the 1967 World’s Fair. Today, you can go to the islands to visit the Biosphere environmental center and Le Ronde amusement park, the latter a Six Flags attraction.
Finally, there are a couple of trendy neighborhoods not far from downtown on the plateau that drapes itself along the city’s Northeast. Farthest out is Little Italy; closer in is Mile End district, which was once a garment district. Today, Mile End is home to many younger artists and craftsmen, miscellaneous shops and galleries, and many good small and casual restaurants.
Mile End is too large to explore in its entirety, but it’s a good way to spend an afternoon. Find a restaurant along Blvd. St-Laurent (like the lively Lawrence), then go shopping for finds, books, vinyl record albums and so on. This is also the place for such local favorites as Montreal bagels (wood-fire baked), smoked meats and poutine (French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy). For the former, try Fairmount Bagels; for smoked meats, hit Schwartz’s Deli (owned by Celine Dion). Head back to the arts district to the counter of Blumenthal brasserie for poutine.
If you go during the cold weather, ask your hotel concierge about Underground Montreal. Montreal is a beautiful city. But in the Canadian winter, you might be tempted to see more of it from below.