Last Updated on February 22, 2021 by Jim Ferri
For a long-ish weekend getaway from Florida, we decided to fly to Montreal since it is known to have such a variety of different ethnic neighborhoods, which give the city a unique flavor. Cutting to the chase – it was a great weekend…
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
By Jim Ferri
A few weeks ago we spent a long weekend in Montreal, hoping to explore the city. I had always heard the city was a great place to visit, and a good budget destination, but you can take it from me that the first is true, the second isn’t. Blame it on the dollar.
Still though, with the mix of English and French, the bilingual signs, the cobbled streets and architecture in the city’s old town, it is like a mini-trip to Europe sans the long flight. (On the other hand, I guess that would depend on from where you’re flying.)
One of the things we wanted to do in Montréal was to explore its old ethnic neighborhoods and at our hotel we were happy to learn that most of them were located along Boulevard St. Laurent. Better yet, we discovered the #55 bus ran the entire route.
Aboard #55, Headed for the Old Neighborhoods
Early Saturday morning we bought day passes good for the bus and metro, and wandered over to Chinatown, the first of the neighborhoods, just a few blocks from our hotel. It was a disappointment — very small, nothing at all like the Chinatown’s of New York, Vancouver and San Francisco. In fact, many of the shops in the few square-block area were not even Chinese, but Vietnamese. We decided to catch the bus.
We took it up to Prince Arthur Street, which is the nightclub and trendy area of the city, although that didn’t do us much good since we there at 10 o’clock in the morning. So we continued walking northward into the old Jewish area, which has now been taken over by the Portuguese, with the possible exception of Schwartz’s, the famous Jewish deli of Montréal, which seemed a lot smaller than the Jewish delis I’ve been to in New York.
A lot of people compare Montréal to New York, and for good reason. In a taxi the evening before, for example, on our way to the Beaux Arts Museum, we drove through an area reminiscent of Park Avenue in Manhattan. We got the New York feeling again in the ethnic neighborhoods along St. Laurent, especially on the little side streets which are chockablock full of small restaurants and shops. You can stand in front of a boulangerie and look across the street at an African restaurant, which is next to a pâtisserie, which is next to a sushi importer that’s across from a Moroccan restaurant specializing in couscous. You almost feel as if you’ve stumbled into the dining room at the United Nations.
Reaching Little Italy, a Great Old Neighborhood in Montreal
We continued up through the Mile-End section – stopping to buy an Indonesian puppet we saw in one store window – before reaching Little Italy, our final destination in our search for Montreal’s old neighborhoods. When you enter Little Italy there’s no mistaking it: in addition to the Italian stores, outdoors cafés line the sidewalks and big pots of flowers sprout everywhere. It seems that everyone is out on the sidewalk either sitting and sipping coffee or chatting with friends. It seemed odd, however, that the first intersection you come to in Little Italy is Shamrock Street.
What we really wanted to see in Little Italy, though, was not the cafés but Montréal’s famous farmers market, Marché Jean-Talon. And we’re glad we made the trip, since it turned out to be one of the best farmers markets I’d ever seen, filled with every imaginable type of vegetable grown in Québec or, I would say, in North America.
We looked at seemingly hundreds of varieties of watermelons, beans, tomatoes, garlic, potatoes and thousands of other foodstuffs. The place was not only amazingly clean, it was also a riot of color: bright red strawberries, purple peppers, yellow corn and squash, greens of every imaginable hue. As you made your way deeper into the market, towards the rear you found a number of restaurants. We stopped at one deli-like place for a quick lunch, which turned out not to be great but probably not as bad as it could as could have been.
We made up for the mediocre lunch by deciding to have a really good dinner that evening. I looked around online for a good restaurant but, as usual, found the reviews frustrating — one raved about a place, the next made me fear I’d get ptomaine poisoning just setting foot inside the door.
The Hell With It All, Let’s Go to Bonaparte
I finally said the hell with it all and decided on Bonaparte, just a few blocks away in the old city, where we had an incredible dinner. Not only was the food really good, but also we were seated in a semi-private little area by the front window. There was an art gallery across the street with paintings in the window, which made it feel almost as if we were having dinner in a little museum.
Before we left the next day we set out and to explore a little bit of Montréal’s underground city, 33 miles of underground passageways, some filled with shops and restaurants and everything else you’d find on the streets above. It links different areas of the city, including some of Montreal’s old neighborhoods, and is all very clean and well lit, and you can enter it through many of the Metro stations. We were staying at the Intercontinental and entered through the hotel.
Needless to say, it’s a popular way to get around town during the cold winter months. Bonaparte, unfortunately, is not connected to the underground city – but if I ever go back in the winter I would even consider walking barefoot in the snow for another serving of its incredible mushroom ravioli.
If you go:
1255 Peel Street
447 Rue Saint-François-Xavier