Each year, visitors flock to Paris to experience the French way of life, to sit in cafes on tree-lined streets and soak in that certain je ne sais quoi.
But on the other side of the ocean, Montréal has been steadily building up its reputation as the Paris of North America.
Montréal is the largest city in its province, Quebec, and the second largest in Canada.
It boasts several well-known attractions such as the Biodome, the Olympic Stadium and the Notre Dame Basilica (where Celine Dion, perhaps the most famous Quebecoise export, was wed in 1994).
But for those who want to experience the hidden gems of Montréal, skip the expected hot spots and head to the parts of the city where the locals go to escape tourist crowds. The best way to experience the city is to simply walk around and hop inside whatever establishment catches your eye.
The Quebecoise hospitality will make you feel welcome and, amidst the stunning architecture, French atmosphere, laid-back vibe and café culture, you’ll have a hard time convincing yourself you’re not in Europe.
BREATHE IN THE FRESH AIR
The city of Montréal takes its name from Mont Royal, a mountain which was scaled by Jacques Cartier, a famed European explorer. The mountain is surrounded by Parc du Mont Royal, Montréal’s largest and most popular park. Created by Fredrick Olmsted, who also designed New York’s Central Park, it boasts activities for every season.
For those with enough courage to brave the bitterly freezing cold that is the Quebecoise winter, a variety of winter sports are offered, from sledding to skiing to tobogganing. In the summer, the locals take in lazy afternoons sprawled on the grass, reading a book and enjoying the scenery.
Picnicking, paddle boating and cycling are also popular activities. A climb from the base to the top of the mountain offers spectacular views of downtown Montréal and the St. Lawrence River. After a day of communing with nature, stop by Le Péché Glacé, a cozy café revered by the locals for its homemade ice-cream and gelato. 517-525-5768
The nearby neighborhood of Plateau Mont Royal is characterized by its laissez-faire attitude and offers many charming streets such as the Avenue du Mont Royal. It’s a short walk from the park, or, if you’re coming from downtown Montréal, hop onto the immaculately clean metro and take the orange line to the Mont-Royal stop.
L’Avenue du Mont Royal is a melting pot of cultures. French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese cafes and restaurants are plentiful and quirky souvenir and special interest shops, such as the L’Original International, a small shop selling belly-dancing outfits, hookah, masks and other Middle Eastern fare, abound. 514-843-1755 www.loriginal-int.com
MINGLE WITH THE HIP CROWD
When you’ve had your fill of café hopping and boutique shopping, head to Boulevard Saint-Laurent, a nearby street with a hipper, more urban vibe. Home to numerous trendy clubs, pubs and restaurants, it caters to all ages and lifestyles.
Grano and Euro-Deli offer cheap but delicious lunch fare. For a truly “hip” neighborhood experience, head to Buona Notte, a neighborhood bar/eatery known for its attractive wait staff, funky music, over-the-top drinks and affordable food. Grano: 514-840-9000; Euro Deli: 514-843-7853; Buona Notte: 514-848-0644
Not to be missed, especially for the night-owl traveler, is the nearby Rue St. Denis, Montréal’s nighttime hotspot. Le St-Sulpice, inside a four-level Victorian mansion, is the local favorite.
Its terrace, café, disco lounge, and back garden draw huge crowds on summer nights. Although the action doesn’t “officially” start until after 10 p.m., make sure to arrive early and reserve a table on the expansive terrace where you can sip the signature sangria and people-watch. 514-844-9548
WALK THROUGH HISTORY
If you’re still not convinced that Montréal is the Paris of North America, head to Vieux-Montréal, the Old Town. Nestled along the St. Lawrence River, it was once a fortified city and it’s not exactly “off the brochure.” But if you’re headed to Montréal, it’s also a don’t-miss destination.
The cobblestone streets, 17th century architecture and small patisseries and chocolateries of Old Town are reminiscent of Montmartre. For a guided tour, the standard is the Old Montréal Walking Tour which lasts about 90 minutes. The tour departs in front of the Notre-Dame Basilica boutique and takes you all around the town. www.guidatour.qc.ca/en
However, the best way to soak in the European-esque atmosphere is to simply walk through the town yourself. You’ll find yourself surrounded by numerous boutiques, cafes and art galleries. Montréal has the most extensive amount of art galleries in all of Quebec. Walk into the Gallerie D’Art Yves Laroche, an intimate gallery dedicated to showcasing the work of “underground” artists. Graffiti, tattoo and pop illustrations by artists from all over the world cover the walls. 514-393-1999, www.yveslaroche.com
Just a short ways away is La Guilde Graphique (at right, photo courtesy Guilde Graphique), an art gallery specializing in original engravings and paper-arts such as lithography and printmaking. Housed inside a beautiful ancient building typical of the Old Town, the works hanging on the walls are equally impressive. Hundreds of artists, of Canadian and European origin, display their works ranging from modern to fantastical. 514-844-3438, www.guildegraphique.com
Take a break from artistic immersion and stop into the Chocolaterie Les-Bouchées-Gourmandes, a gourmet chocolate shop I can just about guarantee you will fall in love with. The pastries are fresh, the hot chocolate sinfully rich and there is a little sitting area in one corner. The ancient brick walls are covered in postcards sent to the owner from people all over the world, expressing their appreciation and all vowing to return. 514-845-3663
If you need to burn off those chocolate calories, take a walk along the Old Port. Right next to the Old Town, it stretches along the St. Lawrence River, offering magnificent views of the river and the grand ships which are harbored there. Rent a bicycle and peddle along the shoreline, or head indoors to the Montréal Science Centre, a complex which houses an IMAX theater and a cornucopia of scientific and technological exhibits and hands-on activities that are sure to keep you entertained for hours. www.oldportofMontréal.com/en
Another overlooked attraction is the Point-a-Calliere, the Montréal museum of archeology and history, also located in the Old Town. The museum sits right on the land that was first settled.
Visitors can take a tour of an actual archeological dig inside the museum, view hundreds of ancient relics, and see models of the city as it grew over the centuries. www.pacmusee.qc.ca
Make sure to stop by the Jean Talon Market, an outdoor farmers market set up much like an Italian piazza, located in Little Italy. Locals come here to stock up on groceries or to grab provisions for a picnic lunch. Vendors set up stalls with flowers, fruits, vegetables, cheeses and meats. Vehicles are not allowed within the market streets on weekends, making for a great pedestrian experience. www.Montréalfood.com/jtalon
By Ana Gomtsian for PeterGreenberg.com. Photos by Tourisme Montréal except as indicated.
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