Nikki Bayley spends a couple of days exploring this French Canadian city
One of Canada’s oldest cities, Montreal has an uniquely European flavour, with heavily-accented Quebecois French and English spoken here and all signage in both languages.
Unlike most Canadian cities, which gleam with modernity, Montreal also has its historic side, its tempestuous past threaded through with French and English invasions.
Known as a city of artistic endeavour and creativity, it’s the home of Cirque du Soleil and in the summer hosts one of the world’s premier jazz festivals, the Just For Laughs comedy festival and countless art and music events.
During winter, temperatures drop to well below zero but blue skies, powdery snow and a host of fun indoor and outdoor activities turn the city into a winter wonderland.
09.30: To understand this city of contradictions, the best place to start is at the Pointe-à-Callière, the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History in the Old Port. The star attraction here is a spellbinding 18-minute movie, played on a 270º screen, which tells you the story of the city from its birth and First Nations people to the French and British invasions, right up to the modern day.
11.00: Catch the 61 bus to St Catherine Street to explore Montreal’s Underground City, a labyrinth of some 20 miles of tunnels giving access to everything from shopping malls and hotels to offices and apartment buildings. Here, even in the middle of winter, you can shop in the warmth.
13.30: After a few hours hammering your credit cards, take a break at the Holt Cafe in the Holt Renfrew department store (think John Lewis meets Selfridges). Try fresh-shucked oysters from the East Coast and a steaming bowl of chowder in this stylish lunch spot.
14.30: For one last blast of culture head for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, just a few minutes’ walk away. Founded in 1860, it’s Canada’s oldest art institution and houses a sizeable collection of works by Canadians including First Nations artists.
16.00: Culture done and dusted, it’s time to indulge in that other Montreal passion – food. Hop on the metro at Lucien-L’Allier, a 10-minute walk away, catch the M2 towards Jean Talon and make for the market on Avenue Henri Julien. This is the place to stock up on maple syrup goodies: you’ll find everything from sweets to soap, and the beautifully-decorated cans make for great gifts. After you’ve had your fill sampling butter tarts and creamy Quebec cheeses, pop over to the Marché des Saveurs shop to taste the ambrosial local booze specialities: ice cider and the Baileys-like maple syrup cream liqueur.
19.30: Freshen up at the hotel then take the 55 bus along the Boulevard Saint-Laurent to visit one of Montreal’s most famous food institutions, Schwartz’s deli. You may have to queue to get in but it’s worth it. Order a ‘medium fat’ sandwich with a side of sour pickle and a cherry coke to get the true experience. You’ll receive a piled-high portion of the best smoked meat you’ve ever had, with a peppery crust and meltingly-salty-sweet fat, served on light rye bread (see picture below). They’ve been dishing this up since 1928 and it’s possible that the decor is exactly the same, give or take the odd signed photo from the likes of Nana Mouskouri and Celine Dion. If you’re still peckish, take a stroll a few blocks down to Patati Patata for a portion of poutine, the famous Quebec dish of french fries, gravy and squeaky cheese curds. It may sound bizarre but it tastes wonderful. The most infamous poutine is served at open-all-hours La Banquaise, but unless it’s 2am, this is a far better offering.
10.00: It’s all about enjoying the natural beauty of the city today, so after a leisurely breakfast, take a 20-minute cab ride up to the mountain that gave the city its name, Mont Royale, to strap on a pair of hired snow shoes. Explore the trails in the forest with a guide or go alone – even beginners will pick it up very quickly – and it’s a wonderful way to enjoy the snow and see the city views.
12.30: After all that exercise, you deserve something filling. Take the 11 bus from the mountain then change on Du Parc to the 80 to the St-Viateur bagel shop. You’ll have noticed the Jewish food influence in Montreal and the city is divided over which of its famous bagel shops is the best. After a morning on the mountain it’s worth noting that the St-Viateur shop has seating but the Fairmount Bagel shop does not. The bagels are boiled in honey-sweetened water before being baked in a wood-fired oven.
14.00: Full of smoked salmon and cream cheese, float back to the Old Port on the 55 bus, just a few blocks across on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, to spend the afternoon unwinding at the Scandinave Nordic Spa relaxing in the hot pools, steam room and sauna, then braving the cold plunges before zoning out on the huge bean bags. You’ll emerge a few hours later feeling refreshed and ready for anything.
20.30: Montreal is considered by many to be Canada’s culinary capital. Joe Beef is one of its must visit restaurants, but it’s nigh-on impossible to get a reservation. However, just next door is Joe’s more affordable sister restaurant, the Liverpool House, serving the same great food. Both are known for their steaks and lobster pasta – a tasty note on which to end a visit
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