Our timing couldn’t have been better. Friday night, a rare derecho storm blasted into the sweltering DC area, knocking out power to what seemed like half the town. (More than 1.2 million homes lost power in the DC, Maryland, Virginia area.) We miraculously maintained electricity in the home but jetted off to a weekend in the much-cooler Canadian town of Montreal.
Montreal is the second-largest French-speaking city in the world, so all my Spanish-cramming this year was totally useless. But luckily, the French-Canadians in Montreal are far, far nicer than the French in Paris, so we ended up having a fabulous time. My rundown won’t include clubs and bars because I have been off the booze since getting knocked up, but some other highlights if you are looking for a good three-day weekend escape:
For all its Francophiles and its European feel, Montreal is really just on the other side of the border from New York and Vermont (allowing us to catch the ever-entertaining WCAX News out of Burlington, VT), so plenty of airlines offer nonstop flights from points on the east coast. A direct flight from DC was only one hour and fifteen minutes, and customs clears you to re-enter the US before you leave Canada, which spares you from going through customs upon your return.
One of the kind Quebecois we met at the airport pointed us to these kiosks, where we bought 3-day public transportation passes for the low, low price of $16 per person and got way more than our money’s worth. The 747 bus (which runs all the time) takes you from the airport to 10 points downtown and ends at the Latin Quarter (so it’s almost inevitable your hotel will be somewhere along this route). These passes are also great for the Montreal Metro, which is clean, efficient, and people always give up seats for pregnant ladies.
I had read that there is almost always a festival of some sort going on in Montreal, and boy, was that true while we were there. The Montreal International Jazz Fest kicked off the night before we got there, so we wandered jazz fest and its multiple stages (and its Dairy Queen location) on Saturday night for the bargain basement price of zero dollars. Camped out on a patch of grass for a while, just taking in sights and sounds from several stages at once. Sunday was Canada Day, so there was another gigantic fest going on down at the city’s old port, a fantastic (but touristy) area along the St. Lawrence River. From that spot you can see Montreal attractions like the Expo 67 and the Biosphere. Throw in the finals of the Euro 2012 Cup (Spain beat Italy)
L’Express, 3928 Rue Saint-Denis
Montreal’s such an international city that there are plenty of places to get ethnic cuisine — Tunisian, Lebanese, Vietnamese, you name it. I’m a sucker for traditional French brasseries, and there’s no shortage of those in Montreal. We picked a place based on a suggestion from United Airlines’ Hemispheres Magazine and it didn’t disappoint. Fun perk? Jumbo cornichons and grainy mustard that come with every order.
St. Viateur’s Bagels, 263 Rue Saint Viateur Ouest (Mile End location)
The Jewish influence on Montreal is clear in the city’s signature bagels and its smoked meat. (The smothered french fry dish, poutine, is what Montreal is known for, but I have never been down with the cheese-curd-gravy-fries-combo.) We never made it to Schwartz’s, which is supposed to rival any New York deli, but did get to dine on the softer, sweeter bagels of the Montreal variety. At St. Viateur’s, enjoy your bagel with a huge selection of spreads, or have a bagel sandwich (I chose one with sliced hard-boiled egg, lettuce and tomato — divine.)
Maison du Nord, 2130 Rue Saint Mathieu
On a suggestion from Chowhound, I found a little hole-in-the-wall Chinese place with a dozen or so different varieties of dumplings (a regular order is served in a portion of 22) and a spicy beef noodle soup that Matty loved. The place had a 50″ HDTV playing a Taiwanese dating show while we were there. I can only describe it as The Price is Right, only, with potential mates as the prize. My meal and the atmosphere really made this place.
Little Italy: Cafe Via Dante, 251 Rue Dante
We went to Little Italy just an hour before the big Euro 2012 match, which meant the streets were overrun with people in their red, white and green flags. The restaurants were filled to the brim, with many of the larger inside tables already reserved for weeks. We tried to eat at a place called Cafe Dante, a corner location in Little Italy with a kind owner and DELICIOUS-looking food. But the place was booked way in advance, so I can’t vouch for the taste of the food, only its appearance. But little Italy is the kind of neighborhood, like Little Lisbon, worth spending a little time in if you can.
In this huge greenspace, we rented the ubiquitous Bixi bikes for $7 each and rode the 2.5 km up the winding slopes designed by Frederick Lee Olmstead, who also architected New York’s Central Park. Here, he has a giant hill to work with, the summit point offering a gorgeous view of the city below. The bike ride was mostly shaded and the way down was really fun. This is really worth checking out if you visit in the summer time, as it’s a gorgeous park and the scenic overlook at the top of “la montagne” is magnificent.
Jean-Talon Market, 7070 Avenue Henri Julien
One of the first farmers markets in Montreal, today this is a bustling source of activity and ethnic food. If you love European food markets like La Boqueria in Barcelona, the Jean-Talon Market is worth a visit for a snack and some fresh produce. I didn’t sample anything since we were in a hurry to catch the football match. But if you have time to take in more than just sights and smells, let me know about your favorite food stands.
This bohemian neighborhood near the park is full of vintage shops, cool boutiques and coffee shops. The South Congress or Montrose of Montreal, it’s also full of hipster looking people (but they are also French-Canadian so I don’t think they are actually TRYING to look that way.) Some store selections in this neighborhood, courtesy The New York Times:
“Need to furnish your home like an early-20th-century machine shop or farmhouse? Style Labo (5765, boulevard St.-Laurent; 514-658-9910; stylelabo-deco.com) sells old metal lockers (850 dollars), long-ago country fair medals (112 dollars) and other lovingly restored relics. More eclectic still, Monastiraki (5478, boulevard St.-Laurent; 514-278-4879; monastiraki.blogspot.com) sells everything from the ethnic (an Egyptian water pipe; 220 dollars) to the alternative (posters of women with machine heads by the local artist Rupert Bottenberg; 40 dollars).”
Worth seeing but full of tourists, it’s a pedestrian square with cobblestone alleyways near the city’s port. Wander to souvenir shops, see street performers and stop for some gelato. The place is near Montreal’s Old Port, where you can check out ferry terminals and get a glimpse of two Montreal attractions — Habitat 67 and the Biosphere — across the river.
The old Olympic Stadium (which wreaks of 1976)
The Biodome (which also wreaks but it smelled more like urine)
I made you a Google map of the places I mentioned, and then some. I listed a cool store in Chinatown because I enjoyed Montreal’s Chinatown but I know there are many better ones out there so I left it off the list.