By the time I left Toronto in the Spring of 2013 I thought I had had it with North American cities.  Over the course of just six weeks, I had spent time in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, before travelling up the Pacific Coast and across the length of Canada.  As much as I’d enjoyed the scenery en route, I’d had my fill of urban stopovers.  I’m a country girl at heart (growing up on an island will do that to you!), and would happily pick mountain backdrops over skyscrapers any day.  In all honesty, I was beginning to find Canada’s cities less and less inspiring.  Perhaps it was just because I was a little weary and jaded; perhaps I’d been dropped off in one-too-many dodgy Greyhound stations; perhaps I’d grown tired of seeing the same old chains over and over again, the McDonalds, the Starbucks, the Taco Bells…I couldn’t help but find it all a little samey.

And then there was Montreal, a city which came along and walloped me from behind and restored my faith the power of the metropolis.  Montreal is only five hours by train from Toronto and yet it feels a world away.  It’s also the second most populous city in Canada, and yet somehow manages to fall off many travelers’ radars.  Why, I’m not quite sure.  In short, I think it’s bloody brilliant.  Here’s just a few of the reasons why Montreal is so very loveable…

The location

Smack bang in the heart of Quebec, Montreal’s location is hard to beat.  The city is built onto an island in the Saint Lawrence river, and is named after the imposing Mt. Royal, whose triple-peaked summit dominates the skyline.  This means that just about every direction you turn, you are guaranteed a stunning view.  Quebec itself has lots to offer, and the Montmorency Falls and Cap Saint Jacques Nature park are within easy reaching distance if you fancy a little day trip.  Similarly, it’s less than three hours drive to Quebec City if you feel like hopping between the two.

 

The French Influence

With 60% of the population speaking French as their first language, it would be easy to forget which side of the Atlantic you’re standing on as you gaze around the centre of Montreal.  The city has been French-occupied since the explorer Jacques Cartier first set foot on its soil in 1535, so be sure to pack your phrasebook, or you may well find yourself becoming stuck whilst trying to decipher the local signs!  The French vibes can be felt throughout, from the narrow cobbled streets of the Old town to the brimming cafes and the local cuisine, meaning that the whole city has a wonderful European/American dynamic that’s hard not to love.

The Arts

Montreal is a hugely colourful city, and fast gaining reputation as a haven for creative types.

For art exhibitions:

Be sure to check out the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and, for more contemporary work, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal.  If you’ve got time on your hands you might also want to head down to La Plateau, a trendy neighbourhood known for its assortment of indie galleries and street art.

For shows:

It doesn’t get much better than a night at the Place des Arts, home to multiple performance halls, and base camp for the Montreal Symphony OrchestraLes Grands Ballets Canadiens, and the Opéra de Montréal.  There are countless great gig venues across the city, from large scale numbers like the Bell Ampitheatre and the Oscar Peterson Concert Hall to intimate haunts like Casa del Popolo and Théâtre Corona.

For festivals:

Montreal is a festival junkie’s dream, with events to suit just about every taste going on throughout the year.  The city’s population swells over the summer, however, when the internationally renowned folk, jazz and Just for Laughs festivals kick off.  Check out montreal.com’s website for a breakdown of the city’s festival seasons.

The Food

Let’s not beat about the bush here; Canada’s national dishes aren’t exactly known for their health properties.  That being said, a tray of poutine or a smoked meat sandwich are hard to beat, and there are plenty of decent places in town to give into the carby temptations: La Banquise, Poutineville and Lester’s Deli are just a few names that come to mind.  However, let’s not forget the city’s European flavours too.  The city is awash with great delis, restaurants and farmers market stalls.  Stuck for where to begin? Check out one of the city’s food tours for inspiration – the Mile End Tour with localmontrealtours.com will keep you full for days!

The Architecture

Now we all know my thoughts on skyscrapers, and I’d be lying if I said Montreal was devoid of any of the great towering eye sores…That being said, the majority of its architecture is actually very traditional and it’d be easy to whittle away whole afternoons just meandering down unknown streets and admiring the pretty townhouses.  St Paul Street, in the Old Town, could easily be mistaken for a Parisian backstreet, and the gothic interior of the Basilique Notre Dame will blow your mind.  For some serious home envy, try taking a stroll through Plateau Mont-Royal; those turreted gems will have you dashing to the nearest real estate agent and applying for a visa faster than you can say boo to a Canadian goose.

The Walks

One of my favourite things about Montreal is that you don’t have to spend a lot to have a good time there.  There are plenty of great walking routes throughout the city, though the view from the summit of Mt. Royal itself is hard to beat!  If you’re in the area on a Sunday, make sure to head along to Mont Royal park to see the Tam Tams in action; every week, an informal drumming festival takes place with percussionists forming a massive drum circle.  It’s quite an experience!

The Coffee

I’m a sucker for a decent flat white.  So much so that I will quite happily base my opinion of a town on the quality of its espresso-making skills.  Thankfully I can say that Montreal does not disappoint.  Like so many of my favourite cities (Melbourne, Edinburgh, Rome…), Montreal has a thriving coffee culture, and the local baristas know how to grind a bean or two.  You’ll find a decent coffee shop on just about every block of the city, but for ambience, technique and cake-providing skills, the Humble Lion on Sherbrooke St. West gets my vote.

The Nightlife

From wee folk joints to swanky wine bars, night owls will not be disappointed by Montreal’s range of watering holes.  The East Side is the place to head for cosy, intimate drinks, whereas the more energetic partiers might want to check out trendy clubs like New City Gas or Stereo.  During the summer most bars spill out onto the outdoor terraces, bringing the streets to life and a cacophony of chatter to the city air.  The city is also going through a real craft beer boom and micro brewing is taken very seriously by the locals.  Those interested in sampling a swally or two might want to check out the Montreal Craft Beer Guided Tour to learn more about the impact of brewing on the city.  Just don’t forget to leave the car keys at home.

I arrived in Montreal exhausted and left bereft.  Two days was not nearly long enough to get to know the city, but it was enough to leave a lasting impression.  To me, Montreal has all the makings of a great city; warmth, character, colour and a never-ending list of things to do.  A bit like an old pal really.  And like old pals, we shall meet again!

Have you been to Montreal?  Let me know what you thought by leaving a comment or dropping me a tweet.

About The Author

A twenty-something-year-old with a penchant for travel and a never-ending supply of terrible puns.

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