By Jim Ferri
Given Montréal’s proximity to a good swath of the U.S – it’s only a six-hour drive from New York and a 2 ½-hour-flight from as far away as Atlanta – it’s amazing how different the city’s architecture, cuisine and culture is from its New England neighbors.
Nestled on the banks of the St. Lawrence, Montréal is a port city that over the years has attracted numerous immigrants, with each infusing the city with the flavors of its former homeland. Nowhere is this more evident than in the multi-ethnic neighborhoods that still pepper the city today.
These immigrants have also made Montréal North America’s most European city, which is what makes it so attractive to travelers, especially for those within that 2 ½ hour flight range. Adding to its lure are the almost 100 festivals held every year, in every month, events for just about every interest from theater, dance and music to cinema and comedy. The city is also home to some 250 theatre and dance companies.
If you’re looking for a quick weekend getaway you’ll find there’s a lot you can do in Montréal in a 48-hour period.
As one might expect, the Old City is most popular place for tourists, with ground zero being Notre-Dame Basilica on the Place d’Armes. Highly decorated with a colorful interior, Montréal’s Notre Dame is one of the most beautiful churches in North America, and also where Celine Dion was married. Be sure to see its majestic 100+ year-old organ (with nearly 7,000 pipes) and the Sacré-Cœur Chapel.
Walk around the cobblestone streets of Vieux-Montréal, perhaps taking a carriage ride in warmer weather, and just let the atmosphere soak in. Wander up Rue Notre-Dame to the Hôtel de Ville, Montréal’s City Hall, built in French Second Empire style and the place where Charles de Gaulle gave his controversial “Vive le Québec libre!” speech in 1967.
Across the street, and In stark contrast to City Hall, is Château Ramezay, a low-rise house with dormer windows that is typical of the building style of the early days of the city. Once the home of Montréal’s French Governors in the early 18th century, it now houses a small museum. You’ll find more of the same old-style architecture alongside it on historic Place Jacques-Cartier.
On Place Jacques-Cartier, right around the corner from Château Ramezay you’ll see Nelson’s Column, which predates its London counterpart in Trafalgar Square. While its presence may seem ironic in a Francophile city, if nothing else it symbolized the marriage of Montréal’s French and British heritages.
Quartier du Musée
Montréal has some terrific museums, several located in the Quartier du Musée. Most famous is the outstanding Montréal Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal) that boasts not only a collection that includes Rembrandt, Picasso and Monet but also superb works by Canadian artists. Admission to its permanent collection is free although there is sometimes a charge for temporary exhibits.
Other Montréal museums include the Museum of Contemporary Art (Musée d’art Contemporain), the Montréal Science Centre and the Museum of Archaeology and History.
Food, Food, Food
Montréal is one of the top food cities in North America, a foodies paradise that’s been aptly described as a mix of Paris and Portland, with a unique Canadian flair.
Best known of the city’s comfort-food offerings are smoked meat sandwiches (thick slabs of marinated brisket piled high on rye and slathered with mustard) and the Montréal bagel – chewy dough boiled in honey-flavored water, baked in a wood oven and covered with poppy- or sesame-seeds – that tastes best, say purists, when pulled hot from a paper bag.
Whether you’re wandering about Vieux-Montréal, Little Italy or among the skyscrapers downtown, you’ll find plenty of good restaurants and cafes. For the best experience dole out your dining in different areas of the city, perhaps taking in the historic atmosphere of the city during lunch in Vieux-Montréal and later enjoying dinner in an ethnic restaurant in one of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods.
If you’d like to see where much of that food comes from, as close as possible to the source, visit Marché Jean-Talon, the famous farmers market in Montréal’s Little Italy.
It’s one of the best farmers markets you’ll see anywhere, and the largest outdoor public market in North America. In addition to myriad vegetables and other edibles, here you’ll find everything from sugar pies to every maple-flavored baked good imaginable as well as cheesemongers and fishmongers.
The best time to visit is during the summer and fall months when the food for sale is most abundant. But it is open year-round, even during Montréal’s notorious bitter winters.
The Underground City
If you visit Montréal from December to March you’ll find that winter in the city is severe. But Montréalers have learned how to cope with the extreme temperature.
They’ve built themselves a subterranean city of passageways that connect many of the buildings at street level and the city’s good Metro system. It’s a warm underground 33-mile mini-metropolis filled with shops, restaurants, bars and mostly anything you’d find up above, all very clean and well lit. You can enter it through many of the Metro stations.
If you visit Montréal during the warmer months head up to Parc Mont-Royal, the nearly 500-acre city park on the mountain that rises in the middle of the city. Originally landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, it provides great views over the city.
If you go:
1255 Peel Street