"You can't throw a stone without breaking a church window," Mark Twain once quipped of Montréal. Today, 21st-century Montréal is a city where churches have been transformed into artists' lofts, condos and concert venues. Yet there's something for everyone here, both old and new.
A slice of Europe on the St. Lawrence River, this francophone metropolis is crammed with nearly four million people who are expert in throwing world-class bashes. Case in point: the second largest French-speaking city in the world (after Paris), Montréal's business is pleasure and streets close for parties like The Festival International de Jazz de Montréal and the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival. Montréal also boasts a symphony orchestra and overflows with museums, theatres and restaurants.
So amble your way to a Rue St-Denis outdoor café for a feast of souvlaki in Parc-Extension, Italian espresso in Little Italy, or follow the wafting aromas of South Indian masala throughout the city. And shoppers needn't worry about the weather; Montréal has it covered. Roam the myriad shops of an underground city that says Non to winter. Visa is accepted at many restaurants, stores and attractions; but if you need cash, you can use your Visa Debit Card and get Canadian dollars at ATMs all across the city.
Canada's boutique hotel trend was first established in Montréal and shows no signs of slowing down. The recently renovated LHotel, which is housed in a former bank building from 1870, features high ceilings, a sizable contemporary and pop art collection, and crisp yet classic furnishings. For fin de siècle opulence, a stay at the Chateau Versailles is a must. When the building received a hip makeover by New York City hotelier Vikram Chatwal, the property soon became one of the coolest (and most elegant) places to sip cocktails and rest your cobble-weary feet. The Sofitel Montréal, nestled at the base of Mont Royal in the Golden Square Mile district on Sherbrooke St. West, occupies the former site of the Van Horne Mansion. In addition to its gallery atmosphere and reputation for showcasing contemporary art, the Sofitel features original furnishings from the mansion once owned by the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway. For inventive cuisine, your first stop is amongst the cobblestone alleyways of Old Montréal at Verses Restaurant. The chef here plays with memories of tastes and smells, creating inventive fare. Try the signature leg of lamb, which is braised for seven hours.
Step out of the Sofitel onto Sherbrooke Street into The Golden Square Mile district, once home to 70 percent of Canada's wealthiest citizens and the traditional heart of anglophone Montréal. Located roughly from Sherbrooke St. North to Mont Royal and between Guy and University streets, this district was once home to timber, mining and fur barons of Scottish descent in mansion after monumental mansion. These homes eventually became a burden, and many were sold, demolished or converted into apartments. Many of the surviving structures, still among the city's grandest, are now owned by adjacent McGill University.
A short walk west of the Sofitel brings you to the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, established in 1860 thanks to the contributions of wealthy families from the Golden Square Mile district. Québec's largest museum straddles Sherbrooke Street, with the original 1910 building on the north side and a 1991 addition by Moshe Safdie (architect of the city's famed Habitat '67 apartment complex) connected by a tunnel below. Fine collections include Asian, Arabian, African and contemporary art, as well as the occasional Rembrandt, Giacometti or Calder. A recent expansion of the museum has added to the exhibition space, which presents shows ranging from classical painters to modernist design to the world of fashion.
Originally the Shaughnessy house (1874) and home of the chairman of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Canadian Centre for Architecture was purchased by Phyllis Lambert (née Bronfman, of Montréal's Seagrams fortune, and local preservationist). She had a smart museum of architecture and design built around the home. Exhibits change a few times a year, and the museum's art-and-design bookshop is excellent. Naturally, you're free to explore the house too, with its marvelous woodwork and greenhouse.
A few blocks to the north on St. Catherine Street is Ogilvy's Department Store, one of Montréal's best-known Scottish landmarks. With its ubiquitous tartan boxes and noon-hour pipers, Ogilvy's has come to symbolize Québec's Scottish heritage. Established in 1866, Ogilvy's has welcomed musical groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers with Martin Luther King and the Vienna Boys' Choir to its Tudor Hall. Ogilvy's hosts piano recitals and choirs to this day, and savvy shoppers continue to browse its upscale boutiques as the bagpiper marches through announcing the noon hour.
From here it's a short walk to Montréal's métro (subway) system, and an underground pedestrian network which connects stations with some 20 miles of shops, dining, department stores and cultural attractions. Some Montréalers brag that in winter they enter the métro in the morning, arrive at work, go out for meetings and lunches, and never have to don their coats again until they return home.
Prime among the cultural attractions reachable underground is Place des Arts, home to Montréal's symphony and opera. Here also, around a striking rotunda, is the Musée d'Art Contemporain (Museum of Contemporary Art), which concentrates on Québec artists but usually has special exhibits featuring artists of world-renown.
For a change of pace and scenery, take the métro south on the Green Line to the Lionel Groulx station in St. Henri and browse one of Montréal's best-known markets. Immortalized in Gabrielle Roy's The Tin Flute, St. Henri offers a mélange of antique shops, market items and restaurants, the highlight of which is the vibrant Atwater Market on the Lachine Canal. Locals and savvy visitors descend on the Atwater Market's colorful produce, where Les Douceurs du Marché bursts with gourmet treats, from dark chocolate to 375 types of olive oil. Summer visitors can sip café au lait on Au Pain Doré's patio as cyclists spin and watercraft bob on the canal below.
Now head up to Boulevard Saint-Laurent near Sherbrooke St. to the Musée Juste Pour Rire (Just for Laughs Museum). Comedy fans will want to visit Montréal during the Just for Laughs Festival, but the rest of the year the museum has eight mini-theaters screening clips of 20th century francophone and anglophone comedians, from Laurel & Hardy to Dame Edna. Visitors with kids will want to head upstairs to the children's pavilion — where comedians and magicians devote personal attention to the kids in a fun-house setting.
Around here, St. Catherine Street becomes a curious combo of high-end shops and cafés on the north side and strip shows on the south, along with the occasional tattoo parlor, and it's here that the greatest variety of Montréalers mix quite amicably. The city's wild side culminates to the east in the Village, the thriving gay district with block after block of bars, clubs and cafés, including the six-story Le Drugstore (with a hair salon inside). In the city's strip clubs — both straight and gay — Montréal's permissive attitude means that the performers have nothing to hide.
Dinner tonight is Indian food at Restaurant Tabla in the Gay Village, followed by a leisurely stroll to check out the St. Catherine Street scene. If it's a summer Saturday, head to the Jacques Cartier Bridge for a display that's part of the SAQ international fireworks competition.
* Images: Downtown and St. Lawrence River: © Tourisme Montréal; Just for Laughs Festival: © Juste pour rire; Jacques Cartier Bridge: © Tourisme Montréal; Place Jacques-Cartier © Tourisme Montréal, Stéphan Poulin
(Updated: 07/06/11 BLS)