72 Hours in Montréal
Montréal is one of North America's liveliest gastronomic and historic enclaves. The second largest city in Canada, this Québécois cultural hotbed represents a little slice of Europe right on the St. Lawrence River; in fact, after Paris, it's the second-largest French speaking city in the world. Four million people call Montréal home, meaning the opportunities to experience museums, theaters, the great outdoors and incredible nightlife are nearly endless. And then there's the food.
From outdoor cafés along Rue St-Denis to Vietnamese Restaurants in Chinatown, from smoked meat and poutine to wine and charcuterie, Montréal's food scene has something for everyone. It has more restaurants per capita than New York City. Even in winter, the gourmet experience drives Montréal, with cozy neighborhood bistros, BYOB's and brewpubs leading the charge. It would be easy to spend months walking the city's cobbled streets and never eat at the same restaurant twice, but in 72 hours a lot can be covered.
Begin your journey by stepping out onto Sherbrooke Street in The Golden Square Mile district at the base of Mount Royal. Between 1870 and 1900, 70 percent of Canada's wealth was owned by about 60 families living in the traditionally Anglophone area between University Street and Guy Street. In addition to stunning mansions and views of the city, the area houses the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, established in 1860. Québec's largest museum includes collections of Asian, Arabian, African and contemporary art, as well as the occasional Rembrandt, Giacometti or Calder. The recently expanded exhibition space presents shows ranging from classical painters to modernist designers to the world of fashion.
A few blocks south 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. Look for the busker outside selling Irish musical spoons and playing along to recordings of jigs and reels. Established in 1866, Ogilvy's has welcomed a myriad of musical groups to its Tudor Hall, and hosts piano recitals and choirs to this day.
From here it's a short walk to Montréal's metro system (French: Métro de Montréal) and an underground pedestrian network that connects stations with some 20 miles of shops, restaurants and cultural attractions and helps people avoid the cold during winter. This network includes both Place des Arts — home to Montréal's symphony and opera — and the Musée d'Art Contemporain (Museum of Contemporary Art), which concentrates primarily on Québec artists.
For a change of pace and scenery, take the Green Line south to the Lionel Groulx station on the border of gentrified Griffintown and gentrifying St. Henri, and browse one of Montréal's best-known markets. The neighborhoods offer a mélange of antique shops, boutiques and restaurants, but the highlight is the Atwater Market on the Lachine Canal. Locals and knowledgeable visitors descend here for the colorful produce: the raw milk cheeses from fromageries Hamel and Atwater (don't miss the back all-local beer room), the impressive selection of local foie gras, sausages and organic meats from the upstairs butchers and the gourmet products from artisans such as Les Douceurs du Marché. Summer visitors can sip café au laits on Au Pain Doré's patio as boats bob on the canal below.
Before the day ends, jump on the metro to the Musée Juste Pour Rire (Just for Laughs Museum). Comedy fans will want to try their best to visit Montréal during the Just for Laughs Festival in early July, but the rest of the year the museum has eight mini-theaters screening clips of 20th century French-English-speaking 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 youngsters in a fun-house setting.
Year-round, Montréal boasts an impressive comedy scene. A short walk east on St. Catherine Street is the Theatre Sainte Catherine, an under-the-radar destination where local and touring comedians pass through. Here, the neighborhood becomes a strange and beautiful juxtaposition of high-end shops, neighborhood cafés, strip shows and the occasional tattoo parlor, eventually turning into the Gay Village, with block after block of bars, clubs and cafés, including the six-story Le Drugstore, which has a hair salon inside. During the summer, the area is pedestrian-only, with colorful flags and welcoming terraces lining the busy street. Dinner tonight is Indian food at Restaurant Tabla in the Village. Enjoy a warm evening with butter chicken, rogan josh and naan as well as some of the best people watching in the city.
* Top image: Downtown and St. Lawrence River: © Tourisme Montréal