Is Montreal just watered-down France? To put it bluntly: no. I’d say Montreal is more of a blend of Portland and New Orleans than France — and that’s a good thing. (Since I visited in Paris last summer, I wasn’t particularly excited about a diluted version of my experience.) My recent trip to Montreal was brief, but I had a delightful time, and my hope is that we will someday stop comparing Montreal to France and instead appreciate this lovely Canadian city for what it is.
Anthony and I stayed at a boutique hotel in Old Montreal called LHotel. Montreal is a fairly artsy city (it’s hard not to notice all the murals everywhere), so it felt appropriate that our hotel was basically a gallery for the founder of Guess Jeans, who lives on the hotel’s fifth floor and shows off his contemporary art collection to guests. Our room had intimidatingly high ceilings, and an original Damien Hirst could be found hanging above our bed.
Our neighborhood of Old Montreal, especially by Old Port, is disgustingly touristy — just think of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Fortunately, our hotel is just a block away from the Place d’Armes station, and we used the convenient 2 train to venture west to the less touristy areas. The train system is small, clean, and easy to navigate. Some of the stations even had TVs playing the news.
On our first morning, we met up with Anthony’s parents (the real reason we decided to come to Montreal!) and headed over to the Notre-Dame Basilica. The church is in the dramatic Gothic Revival style, with a blue ceiling, a huge 32-foot pipe organ, and intricate wooden carvings. We took a free tour and learned that the stained glass windows do not depict biblical scenes, but rather scenes from the history of Montreal. Unlike at cathedrals and duomos in Europe, there was absolutely no line to get in, and advanced tickets are unnecessary.
For lunch, we took a train to Marché Jean-Talon, a huge indoor farmers market in Little Italy. The market is a former lacrosse field and became a public market in 1933. Most of the vendors are farmers from the countryside surrounding Montreal. We were able to sample maple products, fruits, and smoked fish. In fact, if you stock up on samples, you could probably have a free meal here (just like Costco!). We picked up some souvenirs and tried maple cornets — tiny little cones with maple taffy and maple butter.
We then wandered around Mile End, a neighborhood home to artists like Arcade Fire and Grimes. The laid-back mix of trendy cafes and cute shops reminded me of Portland. Mile End is also home of Montreal’s two most famous bagel bakeries, Fairmount Bagel and St-Viateur Bagel. You can watch the bakers at both places hand-make their bagels. Compared to New York bagels, Montreal bagels are smaller, denser, and thinner, with a larger hole, and boiled in honey-sweetened water before being baked. Fairmount is the larger one and claims to be the original Montreal bagel bakery. St-Viateur is just a few blocks away and open 24/7. Anthony and I bought a sesame bagel each from Fairmount and St-Viateur and did a taste test. After much deliberation, we decided that St-Viateur is slightly sweeter and thus won the contest.
The highlight of our trip was probably our hike up Mont Royal, a huge hill after which the city is named. Mont Royal is actually an extinct volcano, most likely active millions of years ago. It was a beautiful day for our hike — not too chilly, with clear blue skies. Many people walked their dogs up the hill. Even more impressive were those wearing sneakers; some sections of the hike were pretty slippery, so these must have been the true Canadians. At the top, we were rewarded with stunning views of the city and a huge chalet at which we could rest and purchase snacks.
We made sure that our last meal in Montreal was poutine, that gluttonous Canadian comfort food of french fries, cheese curds, and brown gravy. This dish originates in Quebec and can be found all over Montreal. We went to the famous La Banquise, which serves 25 different varieties of poutine. To maintain the crisipiness of the fries, room-temperature cheese curds and hot gravy are added just prior to serving the dish. Temperature control is important so as not to melt the cheese completely. The portions at La Banquise are huge, and I ended up taking about three-quarters of my meal back to New York that night for dinner. (Yes, you can bring poutine on the plane!)