I was born in the great city of Montreal but left as a boy in the first wave of Anglo flight in 1977. The rise of French nationalism made my English parents feel increasingly unwelcome in their long-time home. So we moved southern Ontario, a place that has a lot more in common with the American Midwest than it does with Quebec’s largest city.
I’ve been back several times over the years, but with little family left in the province, there was less need to do so. I was making several business trips to the province between 2007-2010, but then moved to Chicago which stopped that. As a result, there’s been a huge gap in my visits.
In many ways, Montreal feels very foreign to me. It’s the world’s second largest French-speaking city. Its province clings to its culture. It’s unlike any city in the US, and frankly, unlike any other city in Canada. I notice how different it is, and I have roots there. If you’re a “meat-and-potatoes” American sports fan, Montreal can truly make you feel like you’re on another continent.
The language has a lot to do with that; while you can get away with just English, a little knowledge of French will help you navigate a little easier. It’s a city where people live in modest dwellings and drive modest cars, but go out to eat at great restaurants regularly. Montrealers party with a little more abandon (at all ages) and take a very open/liberal attitude to life. They dress with a little more style, especially the women. Summer is just one festival after another. And despite miserable winters, the locals just bundle up and refuse to let cold and snow keep them from experiencing that renown Quebec “joie de vivre”.
Quite simply, Montreal is more cosmopolitan, more sophisticated, and more European, than any other city with a Big 4 sports team. And it knows how to have a great time.
Many tourists fall in love with the cobblestoned streets of Old Montreal. And centre ville (downtown) is always bustling. But it pays to go beyond those areas. Little Italy and Little Burgundy are both favorites for foodies. And Plateau-Mont-Royal and Mile End are home to many hipsters & artists and perfect for a stroll.
The 747 bus provides efficient service from the airport to downtown, so you may think twice about renting a car (and I say that as one who’s not a huge fan of public transit). The Metro makes travel easy, and taxis and Ubers are plentiful.
If you drive, be sure to note that you can NOT turn right on a red on the Island of Montreal.
But the best way to explore the city is on foot. If you have decent weather (hardly guaranteed), get a nice pair of comfortable, yet stylish shoes and take to the sidewalks.
EATING YOUR WAY THROUGH “LA METROPOLE”
While there are plenty of amazing restaurants in Montreal, there’s also great pleasure to be had in their cheap eats. There are five MTL staples that everyone should try if there on a visit: Montreal-style bagels, Montreal smoked meat, poutine, all-dressed “steamie” hot dogs, and an Orange Julep.
A fresh-from-the-oven Montreal bagel is a carby taste of heaven: like a perfect cross between a classic New York bagel and a soft pretzel. Try one, and if you don’t agree, you’re wrong. The two most iconic bagel shops are St. Viateur and Fairmount Bagel, both in Mile End. I’ll argue, they are the two best bagel shops on the planet. Grab a couple of dozen to take home, and try not eat more than three on the way back to your hotel.
A Montreal smoked meat sandwich is another pleasure. Not quite pastrami, not quite corned beef, a medium-fat sandwich with classic mustard and a pickle may be your best meal on your visit. While there are several good places in town, venerable Schwartz’s Deli has been smoking meats for nearly a century and is the place to go if you’re only eating one. Waiters are gruff, the place is always crowded, and it feels like a time warp, but they make a damn good sandwich. Other options here include Smoke Meat Pete, Snowdon Deli, Dunn’s and Lester’s.
Poutine was invented in Quebec. There’s something incredibly satisfying about a plate of excellent french fries smothered in gravy and squeaky cheese curds. You can’t swing a cat without hitting a place that sells it, but the top options include La Banquise (24hrs, very popular), Chez Claudette, and the Montreal Pool Room.
Under the right circumstances, a great hot dog can be incredibly delicious. A classic Montreal dog is served “all-dressed” (relish, onion, slaw and mustard) in a toasted top-slice bun. I prefer “steamies” to grilled dogs, and Décarie Hot Dogs does those best (unless you’re at the hockey game). Local chain La Belle Province also does a good & cheap steamie. Another local chain, Restaurant Lafleur offers a great grilled version and also makes great french fries to boot.
Finally, there’s the Orange Julep. This milky-orange elixir may be my favorite beverage on earth. The closest description would be like it’s drinking a juicier, not-quite-as-sweet Creamsicle, but better. You can get it at Gibeau’s Orange Julep car stand; just look for the giant orange sphere. The place makes a good hot dog and poutine as well, so you can get three food groups in one visit.
BEER. MY OTHER FAVORITE DRINK.
Of course if you follow this blog, you also know that my “other” favorite beverage is beer. Montreal is home to Molson Breweries but also offers a rich assortment of great craft breweries. Many are stylish joints that feel more like Euro cafés than they do brew houses. Most offer Belgian-style grisettes, sours and farmhouse ales, English-style stouts and ESBs and American-style IPAs in addition to some well-crafted lagers. I made it a point to visit as many as I could on my last trip and was not disappointed with any of them.
In the Rosemont/Petite Patrie neighborhoods:
- Isle de Garde: Sleek, stylish, almost romantic spot. They emphasize clean lagers and offer an excellent menu as well.
- Broue Pub Brouhaha: Good house beers as well as a few guest taps. Patronized by locals, not tourists. Good carnivorous bites as well.
In Mile End:
- Siboire: A smaller selection, but everything was done well. My bartender was exceedingly friendly. Beautiful space.
- Dieu du Ciel: My choice for best microbrewery in town (and I know I’m not alone given the consistent crowds). They do the classics perfectly, but also offer some cool takes such as their Disco Soleil (a kumquat IPA), and the Rosée d’Hibiscus, a Belgian style hibiscus wheat beer. The Moralité and Petit Détour IPAs were among the best in town as well.
In the Plateau neighborhood:
- Pit Caribou: The Montreal outpost of a great Gaspésian brewery (Gaspé being a rustic, rural area in Eastern Quebec with a strong maritime vibe). Combine a visit here with a stop at La Banquise for a beer/poutine carb overload.
- Reservoir Brasseur: Another stylish place close to Schwartz’s (though the food is really good here too). On a cobblestone road which adds to the charm.
In Old Montreal:
- 3 Brasseurs: A chain featuring decent home brews, Main draw is the location: a neighborhood that feels more like France than North America.
In the Latin Quarter:
- L’amère à Boire: Had more in the Czech, German and American style here. Mix of older and younger patrons. Fun vibe.
- Le Saint-Bock: Huge selection and range of styles. Outdoor seating was packed on a cool March evening. One of the few places with TVs (you decide if that’s good or bad). Loved their Sanguinaire, a blood orange IPA. Fun vibe.
- Cheval Blanc: Montreal’s original microbrewery and home to the namesake Belgian white found all over town.
Places-Des-Arts Centre Ville (Downtown):
- Benelux: Lots of Belgian-style offerings in this very stylish space.
SATURDAY NIGHT HOCKEY IN MTL
This was feeling more like a travel log than a post in sports blog. But there were sports involved.
The 2021-2022 Canadiens, despite being only a few months removed from a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2021, stink. The 2021-22 Ottawa Senators also stink. The two met for a meaningless late-season game on a drizzly, cool Saturday in March. But the Bell Centre was packed, and the atmosphere was fantastic. It felt like a game that mattered.
I wax poetic in my review on stadiumdude.com/montreal-canadiens and call this the closest true “Bucket List” rink in the NHL. While, I find it hard to believe that those narrow concessions are up to fire code, it truly is a place that all hockey fans must visit.
I also loved that among the many banners was an Expos banner honoring the 4 retired numbers from the team’s 35-year history. And Youppi! continues with his wacky antics that brings me back to games at Olympic stadium.
The Montreal Conundrum
My return to my “foreign home” was a walking contradiction. On one hand, it’s a city that feels very, very different. Yet it still manages to remind me of my roots and bring me back to my childhood. It’s novelty and nostalgia, sometimes simultaneously.