A Taste of Europe in Montreal

by  Jim Sherman | Jul 31, 2010
Montreal skyline
Montreal skyline / Vladone/iStock

I enjoy visiting Montreal because it feels like a little enclave of Europe here in North America. Montreal, part of the French-speaking province Quebec, is one of my favorite destinations for its mix of city sights, top-notch cuisine, and cosmopolitan nightlife. Go for a spring, summer, or fall visit; winters can be pretty harsh.

Montreal resembles San Francisco with its slightly cool temperatures (even in summer), calm city ambience, rolling hills, and friendly inhabitants. The city, dotted with French bistros and cute boutiques, presents a lovely mélange of Anglo and French cultures. Don’t be surprised if you trot out your high school French and get a reply in flawless English: People here move effortlessly between the two languages.

In choosing a hotel, one must decide between Montreal’s downtown and Old Montreal. I suggest staying downtown since this area has more to see and more nightlife. Plus, one day is probably sufficient for taking in Old Montreal. On my recent trip last fall I stayed at Hôtel Le Germain Montréal (from $200/night) and greatly enjoyed it. This downtown boutique hotel is convenient for visiting area sights, shops, and restaurants; ask for a room with a view. Another smart luxury option downtown is the Loews Hôtel Vogue Montréal (from $256/night). Despite its name, it’s not trendy, just an upscale choice with some terrific online specials. Still, Old Montreal is home to the place to stay right now: Hôtel Le St-James ($400/night), housed in a former bank building (the vault is now a spa), its gilded rooms brimming with antiques and art.

When visiting the city, start off by exploring Old Montreal. It is just that – the oldest part of town, with 300 years of history, but it has a scent of newness that North American cities can’t quite avoid, unlike their old world counterparts. Alas, Old Montreal can feel overrun with tourists these days, and it’s home to few really worthy restaurants. Begin by visiting the Musée du Château Ramezay, a mansion (and a former governor’s home) turned museum that chronicles the city’s rich history. Some say this is also where Benjamin Franklin failed to convince Quebec to join the United States. Nearby is the Notre-Dame Basilica, dating back to the 17th century; its Gothic Revival style was inspired by the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and the decorations include beautifully carved wood. Place Jacques-Cartier, a square lined with cafés – and outdoor performers in nice weather – is a good place to grab an afternoon drink.

Downtown attractions include the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal, and the underground city, with more than 20 miles of tunnels connecting shops, restaurants, hotels, and museums. Since this urban underground complex is the world’s largest, some refer to Montreal as two cities in one. After walking for hours, pause to enjoy lunch at Bistro L’Aromate, a lovely French place on Rue Peel; I liked the steak tartare. Also worth a visit is Parc Mont Royal, great for biking or hiking. Be sure to explore the Latin Quarter’s Boulevard St-Laurent, which comes alive at night.

Montreal has many fabulous dining options, and prices are reasonable compared with those of other major cities. A local favorite is Restaurant La Chronique, with outstanding French cuisine, a small setting, and impeccable service. It’s one of the more expensive spots in town, but dining there is definitely a smart splurge. A larger and livelier venue in the Latin Quarter is Primadonna, where one can enjoy superb Italian food amid a boisterous crowd. For an amazing steak house (with seafood options), head to the more formal Queue de Cheval, which has an impressive interior and draws a celebrity crowd.

A beloved annual event is June’s jazz fest, which runs for 11 days. In the fall, Montreal hosts the world-renowned Black and Blue Festival. Consider adding a visit to Quebec City, a 3-hours’ drive away: Even Montrealers say that’s the real New France.

From the Summer 2010 issue of
Sherman’s Travel magazine.

For general trip-planning information, see our Montreal Travel Guide.

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