Updated: Jul 31, 2022
Montréal is like a shiny, dichotomous coin: on one side is Quebec, on the other is Canada; on one side English and the other French; one part modern and the other vintage. The city is named for the large hill masquerading as a mountain called Mount Royale by French Navigator Jacques Cartier (not to be confused with the luxury watch but pronounced the same). If you enjoy a mélange of eclectic cuisine, seamless bilingualism, a smattering of French architecture and Catholic ecclesiastical style, ethnic enclaves and history, hidden speakeasies and street festivals, and a unique blend of Old and New World style, Montréal is the city for you.
My trek up North was by land. I drove up the coast from Washington DC to the northern tip of Vermont where I breached the Canadian border. Customs stopped me and asked the usual questions expected of an American making his way up to Canada, I suppose. With the awkward politeness one comes to expect from Canadians, the young border patrol officer pressed me:
“Do you have any Cannabis?” he said.
“No.” I said with a beaming blush.
“Do you have any guns?”
“No.” I said with a slight grin.
(Word to the wise: try not to laugh when you respond, it only leads to even more ridiculous follow up questions.)
After the humorous battery of daily double questions was over, I was happily admitted. From there, the drive to Montréal is brief and relaxing – maybe an hour or so across flat fertile farm land and spots of little green woods on either side. The city emerges in the distance like the halo of a cloud in the sky. Next thing you will see is the St. Lawrence river and the sights become ever more spectacular from there.
Montréal is a sizable and sprawling city without being overwhelming to the eyes and ears. It is industrial and modern, well furnished with skyscrapers and smoke stacks that peek just above the metropolis. It has impressive bridges offering panoramic views that mesmerize as you cross into the city. Montréal is very walkable, the streets are wide open, and the traffic is mild. The air energizes and does not suffocate the way big cities like New York or Hong Kong tend to do.
The first thing tourists lacking in all imagination (like me) do is to climb Mount Royal. Hiking up to the summit is a steady but manageable trudge. It takes maybe thirty minutes and is well worth it. At the top is a spectacular view of the entire city. Do it first, do it last, whenever and however, march up the hill. Laid out before you is the finest city in Canada served on a luminous silhouette.
Montréal is a proper city. It has history (originally called Ville Marie – a Catholic Mission), culture (the Quebecoise verve), universities (Concordia and McGill), cathedrals (Notre Dame Basilica), cuisine (kind of), nightlife (cocktail clubs, underground bars, and pubs) and festivals (the Jazz Festival is my favorite). Montréal is glacial in the winter so visit in the summer if you can. When the weather is nice city dwellers stay in a mellow state of perpetual celebration. People are always outside: bikers bike, hikers hike, walkers walk, and partiers – well you get the idea. There are gleeful fireworks every Wednesday night because why not?
Montréal is somewhat compartmentalized. The waterway and the numerous paths that run through the city makes it very bikeable. Montréal is divided east and west by Saint Laurent Boulevard (also called “the main”). Generally speaking, west of Saint Laurent is more English and east is more French. On the west side is the Old Port, a tourist heavy and high-end part of the city. Definitely stroll through the Place de’Armes to see the Maisonneuve Monument across from the Notre Dame Basilica. Saint Paul street has some great restaurants ideal for a late brunch or an early evening dinner. Then there is Saint Catherine street where most of the downtown shopping, nightlife, and festivals happen.
Friendliness is not always the M.O. in big cities but not so in Montréal. People are welcoming, polite, and unassuming. Despite a robust business quarter, few people are in a hurry although this may be different in the winter. No brisk Parisian judgementalism comes your way for not speaking French either. Just don’t be boisterous or defiant about it like some Americans. It is the Quebecois (French Canadian) spirit that represents the culture of the city.
The Quebecois strongly value their identity and language. French spoken in Canada harkens back to an earlier, more antique version of the language. It is quite different I am told from Parisian French, a distinction the Quebecois seem to prize. Every waiter, bar tender, or barista in Montréal is expected to be fluent in English and French – and they are – which makes Montréal a uniquely bilingual metro. The Quebecois dress smartly, strut with confidence, party with control, and tend to be nonchalant, the men more so than the women. Indeed, the Quebecois verve makes Montréal (city) and Quebec (province) distinct from the rest of Canada.
There is a youthful exuberance about the place. The drinking age is 18 and no doubt that is not a hard and fast rule. Depending on where you go the youthful exuberance can feel a little bit like a college flashback. Renowned universities like McGill attract international students, adding rank and file to the pubescent crowd. Still, there are plenty of aging hipsters that frequent the speak easies, clubs and pubs so not to worry if you are no longer on the sunny side of thirty.
The nightlife is just as varied as the clientele. There are clubs like Soubois, pubs like the Winston Churchill pub (the “Winnie”) and speak easies like Velvet. Crescent street is a popular hub for eager young party goers. For a more refined scene, there is a swanky speak easy called the Atwater Cocktail Club near the Atwater market. However, my personal favorites are Bar George and House of Jazz (HOJ). I recommend attending HOJ during a week night to avoid lines and tourists.
The food scene is serviceable. It has the usual dietary accoutrements of any big North American city: some excellent Italian restaurants, Korean and Vietnamese food, and a string of bistros that serve everything from crepes to burgers. The popular fast food chain in Canada is Tim Hortons. (My host derisively called Tim Hortons the McDonalds of Canada. I passed on eating there and so should you.) As for the local eats, they have 2 dishes that are most often mentioned:
· Poutine – brown gravy over French fries and cheese curds (bar food)
· Croque Monsier – baked or fried ham and cheese sandwich
*Neither inspired my palate. Try the bagels instead.
What I admired about Montréal was its pride. I find the best cities carry the weight of history with flare rather than regret. Quebec is a province that has always flirted with the idea of forming a separate country. Strangely enough, as an American visitor I could sympathize with their cause.
The creeping influence of Americana underlined by the linguistic scuffle between French and English is very much at play in Montréal, less so in the rest of Quebec where French is still deeply rooted. Unfortunately, this is a battle the Quebecois cannot win because English is just too widely spoken and far easier to learn than French, especially in an international city like Montréal. I say this with a heavy heart because I admire the language and wish only for its preservation.
Decades ago this fight came to a head during the height of the so-called October Crisis. A separatist group called the FLQ had taken several people hostage and threatened worse if the government did not acquiesce to their demands for a split from Canada. The government - led by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (Justin Trudeau’s father) – did not give in. Ultimately, Quebec did not separate from Canada though friction between Quebec and the rest of British Canada lingers to this day, it’s subtle but it’s there.
Pierre Trudeau had a fraught tenure as prime minister. He made French and English co-official languages in Canada, a controversial act at the time. Bilingualism has always been a source of conflict and during his frosty tenure a Canadian reporter asked Trudeau if he dreamed in English or French. His evasive answer – “I dream in the abstract” – reflects the delicacy of the issue.
On the lighter side, those who have chilled out in Montréal dream only the best of dreams in whatever language they fancy. I would describe Montréal as a half-way house between Europe and North America. Like cities in Europe, it is laid back and refined. It has history and identity. However, it feels closer to an American city than a European one. People are less dressy and more casual. They favor outdoor activities even in the winter.
What makes Montréal unique is its eclectic bilingualism and cosmopolitan spirit. Some Quebecois might conclude that present day Montréal is a grim compromise, a failure to realize the promise of an independent Quebec. While I sympathize with their perspective Montréal is still the finest city in Canada and far superior to Toronto. I would imagine that is a compromise worth claiming.