Canada is the land of my birth and I will always have a special place in my heart for this beautiful country and its warm, friendly people. There are many great cities in Canada, two of my favorites (for different reasons) being Vancouver and Montreal. Vancouver is one of the most breath-takingly beautiful cities in the world, which I’ll be discussing at another time. Montreal is a truly world-class city of history, youthful energy, and a rich cultural and culinary tradition.
Montreal (named after the hill that dominates it, Mont Royal) is built on an island and is the second largest city in Canada. Founded by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, it is also one of Canada’s oldest cities. Montreal has something to offer almost everyone. The historic portion of the city (Vieux Montreal) dates back four centuries and is a great area to leisurely explore on foot. Montreal has grown significantly beyond its historic roots. Its now a major center of banking, commerce and education, and has a dynamic youth and nightlife scene (if you’re into that). And of far greater interest to me, it is the culinary center of Canada. There are large numbers of restaurants of great diversity — all busy — most superb. While French is the main language of the province, and the Quebecois are very proud of their heritage, almost everyone in Montreal speaks English quite well so you can easily get by without knowing French — which is not true of the smaller towns and villages of the province. I think its a good idea for everyone to try to learn at least a few phrases of the language of the region they plan to visit — it entertains the locals and opens their hearts to welcome you as a friend into their hometown.
I love exploring old cities and Vieux Montreal (historic city) and Port, which straddles the north bank of the St. Lawrence River, makes for an interesting day of exploration. The heart of Vieux Montreal is the Notre Dame Basilica. This beautiful old church should be a stop on every visit to the city. Be sure to take the tour of the cathedral, as the guides are very informative and will entertain you with their wit and Francois accents. How else would you find out in which pew and exact spot Celine Dion was seated during the baptism of her firstborn? Did you know Prime Minister Trudeau and Henri Richard (the Rocket, of hockey fame), had funeral masses here?Explore the Place d’Armes square outside of the church, and cross the street into the old Banque du Montreal building, with its elegant architecture and vaulted ceilings.
Wander the cobblestone streets of old Montreal and explore those buildings that interest you. We spent time at the Musee de Chateau Ramezay, a nicely preserved historic residence, and Bonsecours Market, a collection of small shops in a beautiful old building. Be sure you stop for a coffee and pastry in at least one cafe, and take time to relax and people watch; for this its hard to beat a cafe on Place Jacques-Cartier, especially on a warm spring or fall day. Winters can be fiercely cold and summers hot and humid, but the shoulder seasons are often very lovely.
Move north from the river and spend some time exploring the newer more vibrant parts of Montreal most of which are clustered around Rene Levesque boulevard. The city demonstrates an interesting blend and assortment of skyscrapers and older buildings.
The best way to see all of Montreal is to hike up Mont Royal to the Chalet Du Mont Royal, which offers panoramic views of the city. Take time to walk around this beautiful and large park and explore some if its side trails which offer nice views of the St. Lawrence River and Olympic stadium. During our travels we always enjoy visiting colleges and universities for their bookstores, history and beautiful architecture. So stop off at McGill University, one of Canada’s pre-eminent institutes of secondary education.
Another worthwhile stop is at Olympic Park, conveniently located by the metro. Montreal’s Olympic stadium remains one of the most architecturally unique athletic venues in the world, with its distinctive leaning tower and (problematic) retractable roof. Site of the 1976 Summer Olympic games, the stadium was home to the Montreal Expos baseball and Alouette football teams, but now is only rarely used. Rides up its leaning tower (which suspends the umbrella-like roof) are available. While interesting to look at, the stadium has been a financial drain on the people of Montreal who have (at best) mixed feelings about it.
Next door to the Olympic stadium is the Biodome, site of Olympic cycling and now a natural history museum. Across the street is the Montreal Botanical Garden, a place we highly recommend spending at least a half day on your visit. Besides hundreds of acres of beautiful manicured plant gardens, lawns, hedges and trees, there are several themed gardens (eg. Chinese and Japanese) and the fascinating Montreal Insectarium, housing a rather tastefully presented (not really “gross” in any sense) display of some of the planet’s most fascinating bugs. Kids especially will be fascinating by these exhibits, as will the kid in you.
While we did not visit it, Parc Jean-Drapeau, another island south of Montreal, is visible from Vieux Port, is a popular place for families to visit. It was site of the 1967 World Expo; of the many persisting structures, the Biosphere dominates the landscape and is best known. Other frequently recommended places we didn’t have time to get to include the Museum of Archeology and History and Museum of Fine Arts. You might want to visit these if you enjoy museums, or on a particularly cold or rainy day.
There is no shortage of restaurants in town and I can honestly way we’ve never had a bad meal during our visits to Montreal. Chinatown has dozens of small restaurants offering excellent, inexpensive and tasty Chinese cuisine. A number of fine restaurants are established in Vieux Montreal. Of these, we especially enjoyed Vieux-Port Restaurant. The highlight of our visits has been dinner at the historic Beaver Club Restaurant in the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel. Wonderfully prepared and presented food and pastries — a treat we guarantee you’ll always remember. If you can, order the Beef Wellington (needs to be requested in advance). The Beaver Club remains one of our all time favorite restaurants.
Je Me Souviens — its the official moto for the Province of Quebec, and you’ll see it on each license plate. It means “I remember”. I do. You will too after your first visit to Montreal.