Every so often one dreams of escaping to another country to experience different sights, sounds and cultures. While France possesses all of these elements, so does the little island of Montréal, Canada. Tucked just over the U.S border, close to Vermont and New York, this destination offers all the big city charms and ambiance with a hefty dose of French style.
Having the distinction of being the only Canadian city completely surrounded by water, Montréal is approximately 30 miles long and only 10 miles wide. But what it may lack in mass, is more than made up for by its people who have made it the second most visited tourist destination in the country, just behind Toronto.
While I may have had to brush up on my French while visiting France, there were no such concerns in Montréal where roughly half of its citizens are bilingual with English as their second language. In fact, the city is a melting pot with neighborhoods offering distinctive shopping and dining options from every culture.
The Metro system is a snap to learn as it has far fewer lines than that of Paris and can take you to most destinations in the city. At the Square Victoria station, you will find an authentic Parisian metro grille, which was donated to the city by Paris during Expo 67.
Exploring downtown Montréal on foot is a fun and enjoyable experience. Along popular Sainte-Catherine Street, you will find restaurants, department stores, boutiques, and movie theaters, all brimming with locals and tourists enjoying the best the city has to offer.
Once you get your fill of topside attractions, enter one of the access points and head down to the Underground Pedestrian Network, also known as RÉSO—one of the city’s most remarkable treasures. With 20 miles of walkways, including 1,700 boutiques, 7 hotels, 200 restaurants, museums, and common spaces, RÉSO is the largest man-made underground network in the world. Most maps have these areas in blue and you can see much of the city via this marvelous underground system, perfect for rainy days or colder weather.
Montrealers love the outdoors, and in the Old Port area, you can find them strolling along the Saint Lawrence River waterfront, biking or skating. There is also an IMAX theater at the Science Center.
Located slightly uphill from Old Port, Old Montréal is a beehive of activity, especially in Place Jacques-Cartier, named after the French explorer who claimed Canada for France. This public market with brick-lined streets and Victorian lamps has been transformed into a cornucopia of specialty shops, restaurants and sidewalk bistros. There are also plenty of street performers, caricature artists and musicians, all entertaining the large crowds that congregate here.
There are other areas not to be missed and those include the Atwater and Jean Talon Markets. Both are a combination of inside and out farmer’s markets with vendors offering wares from flowers to locally grown vegetables, crepes, fresh juice, and gelato. Market Jean Talon also has a host of international eateries to delight any palate.
Speaking of food, Montreal is a food Mecca with the largest number of restaurants per resident in North America, offering 80 different types of cuisine. And among those who live here, the most popular foods are bagels, smoked meat and poutine (french fries topped with cheese curds and brown gravy). The latter is very popular in Canada and can be found just about everywhere with many variations.
When it comes to bagels, St-Viateur has been hand rolling and baking them in brick ovens since 1957. Selling over 12,000 per day, this landmark is one reason why you will want to put this on your taste buds’ must have list.
Not to be outdone, Schwartz’s delicatessen has been tempting Montrealers with its own version of smoked meats for over 80 years. Using a secret blend of herbs and spices and marinating the meat for 10 days imparts a unique flavor and creates instantly loyal customers.
With more than 90 festivals per year, including their incredible jazz festival as well as 32 museums, 2 symphony orchestras and 50 dance companies, Montréal became the first North American city to become part of UNESCO’s City of Design network for its contributions to art and culture.
Blending a proud French history and a menagerie of cultures, Montreal is a small city that will make a big impression. More convenient to get to and less expensive than Paris, Montreal is the perfect small city getaway with a global feel–Global Gumshoe feel to be exact.
Metro System (STM)