Drawn & Quarterly
French is the official spoken language in Montreal, and while the province is part of Canada, the lifestyle has a decidedly Continental bent. Great food is a birthright—there are 26.81 restaurants per 10,000 people in Montreal, a number that bests New York City’s 19.57 per 10,000—and the city is home to a varied gastronomic landscape that reflects its French heritage as well as rich immigrant culture, with representation from Portugal, Italy, North Africa, and beyond. Public markets, such as the stupendous Marché Jean-Talon, are a locavore’s wonderland, and chic wine bars abound. Montreal is also home to a vibrant music scene, including the largest jazz festival in the world, as well as cool, walkable neighborhoods and acres of beautiful parks. As Montreal celebrates its 375th birthday and Canada observes its 150th, we tell you where to go to understand first-hand why Montreal is one of North America’s great world-class cities.
Though Montreal is one of the rare cities that does not shut down in the dead of a very cold winter, summer is the time to visit. The warm season, which lasts from June until early September, is when the city truly comes alive.
The recently expanded Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport is about a 20-minute ride from downtown Montreal. The best way to get there is by taxi (Diamond is a reliable local company) or by calling an Uber.
Montreal is a pedestrian-friendly city, with numerous walkways closed off to vehicular traffic, though with the greater metropolitan area covering nearly 1,700 square miles, you’ll want to catch a ride if you’re traveling across town. Uber is pleasant and affordable, as well as being the most convenient way to get around, though you can always hail a cab. The public transportation system isn’t vast, but the Metro is clean and convenient, as are the public buses. When the weather’s nice, Bixi bike shares are a top-notch option—Montreal is low on traffic, big on bike paths, and the cyclist etiquette is A+.
1. Visiting Marché Jean-Talon. If you don’t hear locals gushing about this superlative market, blame the no-big-deal attitude Montreal has toward its first-class food culture. Located in the heart of Montreal’s Little Italy, bustling Jean-Talon is open year-round with some merchants selling foods their families have been perfecting for generations. In high summer, vendors from all over the countryside display fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers that excel in beauty, variety, and quality.
2. Sitting in the grass. Whether it’s Parc Laurier, Parc du Mont-Royal, Parc Outremont, Parc La Fontaine, or one you discover all on your own, Montreal is full of beautiful, serene green spaces that make you realize a city can be a restorative place.
3. Having a glass of wine. Montreal is home to a progressive wine scene, with many early adopters offering organic and biodynamic wine lists, and wines from quirky independent producers. At sophisticated bars, such as Pullman and Buvette Chez Simone, and wine-savvy restaurants, like Joe Beef and Le Vin Papillon, you’ll want to order an extra glass or two.
Pop icon Celine Dion purchased Schwartz’s in 2012, but Montreal’s quintessential Jewish deli—one of the oldest in Canada—still has soul. Order the smoked meat sandwich, and don’t forget to specify if you want it fatty, medium, or lean (we suggest medium for just enough richness).
Poutine, french fries topped with cheese curds and drenched in gravy, may be Quebec’s most famous culinary export. Go to a proper casse-croute (snack bar), such as La Banquise (994 rue Rachel Est; 514-525-2415), to experience it in its purest form, i.e., loaded with gooey cheese melting in hot gravy.
If you’re into kitsch, check out Gibeau Orange Julep (7700 Decarie Blvd; 514-738-7486; orangejulep.ca). The fast food stand is located in a giant orange that looms over DeCarie Blvd on the outskirts of the city. The establishment, started in 1932, dispenses cool, milky Orange Juleps, Quebec’s answer to Orange Julius. No one knows the exact recipe, but think of a potable creamsicle and you get the idea.
Most restaurants are closed on Sunday and Monday nights. There are a few notables that remain open on one or both of those days—Au Pied de Cochon, Moishe’s, and Leméac, among others—but you’d be smart to make reservations in advance to secure your spot.
WINTER: If you’re coming in the winter, bring your thermal underwear and all of your layers. You’ll need them to maintain a reasonable body temperature in the frigid cold. That said, Montrealers know how to do winter, whether it’s the Fête des Neiges, a weeks-long festival of tube-sliding, dog-sledding, and other snow-centric activities, ice skating in Village Mammouth at the old Olympic Park, or sledding in Parc du Mont-Royal.
SPRING: The thaw can be slow in this wintry city, but once the mercury starts climbing in the spring, it’s cause for celebration—and maple syrup. Consider taking a day trip out of town for a maple-tapping excursion, which must include a gluttonous, syrup-drenched meal. The hot ticket is the sweet celebration at chef Martin Picard’s Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon (11382 Rang de la Fresnière, Mirabel, QC; 514-845-2322; cabane.aupieddecochon.ca), about a 45-minute drive from the city (reservations are a must). There’s a sugar shack within Montreal, too—Cabane Urbaine (cabaneurbaine.com), a seasonal pop-up in the St. Henri neighborhood.
SUMMER: Summer is a prime time to enjoy the beauty of the city. The lovely public pool opens at Parc Laurier, and festivals kick into high gear (think the Mural Festival, a weeklong demonstration of public art, as well as the world-renowned Jazz Festival, Osheaga, and many more). Cruising the back alleys of the Plateau, a picturesque district just north of downtown, is a must.
FALL: Hike up to St. Joseph’s Oratory (3800 Queen Mary Rd; 514-733-8211; saint-joseph.org) in Parc du Mont-Royal, one of the city’s greatest lookout points, to take in the colorful foliage that covers nearly 500 acres of park land, designed by the great Frederick Law Olmsted.