Montreal has always been one of those cities that I’ve wanted to visit but just never made it happen. “What, you’ve never been to Montreal?!”, people would say to me totally a gasp. “It’s an amazing city, I love it, you have to go!”, they’d follow it up with. Yes, I’ll admit it; I’m one of those Canadians who has seen more of the world than my own country. So since returning to Canadian soil, I’ve made a promise to start exploring and discovering what Canada has to offer for travelers.
It’s funny how some of my travels come about because I find a great deal on transportation (case in point, my trip to New York City last September). Back in the spring, Via Rail was having a wicked sale; $25 one-way from Toronto. It doesn’t get any cheaper than that and after a quick discussion with Tristan, a weekend trip to Montreal was finally in the works.
We really didn’t have too much planned for our short time in the city, but knew that we wanted to eat great food, walk the streets of Old Montreal, and generally try to soak in the vibe of the city.
Throughout the course of the weekend, we meandered our way around Montreal checking out the Jean Talon Market and Notre Dame Basilica, hiked Mont Royal and enjoyed the view of the city from the Chalet, and took in a free walking tour of Old Montreal.
My impressions were that of a youthful, energetic city with a strong emphasis on nurturing and showcasing art (in all its forms). It seemed like everyone was outdoors enjoying the weather with joggers and cyclists routinely passing us by. Young families strolled along the waterfront, couples enjoyed picnics in the parks, and friends were grabbing drinks on outdoor patios. The city felt alive.
Known as the festival city, Montreal puts on more than 100 festivals throughout the course of a year. And on the particular weekend we were visiting, there were 3 festivals happening simultaneously including the Mural Festival where artists were given the side of a building to showcase their work. It was amazing to watch these artists work their magic over the course of 4 days, transforming drab looking brick walls into an outdoor art gallery.
The city has a strong culinary scene and we made sure to taste it at every chance we had. When I asked about food we should try in the city, the overwhelming response was Shwartz’s, the place in the city to get smoked meat sandwiches. Luckily for us, we timed our visit between the lunch and dinner rushes and didn’t have to wait in their notorious long line-ups. Woo! Our food was served within 10 minutes and before you could say “pass the mustard”, I was left sitting there completely satisfied and impressed that it lived up to the hype.
Montreal is also one of the best spots in Canada to grab a plate of poutine, a combination of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy. It may not sound all that appetizing but let me tell you, it is and soaks up a night of drinking beautifully. We stopped in at La Banquise located on rue Rachel Est. Their menu boasts 30 varieties of poutine including ones called La Kamikaze, La T-Rex and La Three Amigos. The fries were crispy, portions were generous, and even tasted great cold the next morning.
We had really wanted to check out Olive + Gourmando in Old Montreal, but on our very last day, trudging through the pouring rain, we arrived for lunch only to find out it was closed for a commercial shoot. Sigh. I guess it’ll have to wait for the next visit then!
What I loved most about Montreal was how much it felt like I was far away in some other country, but really I was just a 5-hour train ride away from home. With French being the official language spoken (Tristan had a great time brushing up on his French speaking skills), and the old Gothic architecture throughout the city, it was easy to forget I was still in Canada. I was slightly thrown off whenever I would reach into my wallet to pay for something only to pull out my own Canadian currency. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were in a city in France.
We found the people to be very hospitable and friendly, the public transportation was easy to navigate, and English was widely spoken. So getting around and interacting with Montrealers was easy-peasy, as I like to say.
Montreal is a popular destination with many options for every type of traveler. It’s easily accessible by train, bus, car, and plane.
A short weekend in Montreal definitely doesn’t do the city justice. I want to explore more of the diverse neighbourhoods, check out the craft beer scene, and learn more about the city’s history. Knowing now what a short and easy jaunt from Toronto is it, I’ll be keeping my eye out for more seat sales so I can plan my return visit.
Have you been to Montreal before? What other places do you recommend we should check out?