Many feel the need to go far and wide for a glimpse of culture or something different. People lean towards cities in Europe, South America, Asia, etc. As amazing as traveling overseas can be - it tends to break the bank and requires weeks (if not months) of planning. Close to never would you hear someone suggest Canada. Yes, I said Canada! If you need a recharge or small extended weekend getaway from New York (we all need it sometimes, right?), then check out Montreal.
Montreal is the 2nd largest city in Canada. Impressively, it’s also the 2nd largest French-speaking city in the world following Paris. If you were looking to rely solely on your English, then you should know the whole city is in French. Don’t be alarmed. It is one of the most bilingual cities in the province of Quebec and all of Canada, so commuting with people won’t be much of a problem. Although, it wouldn't hurt to know a few basic phrases.
Since Quebec is the only French-speaking province, then naturally the local Québécois are not your typical Canadian. They have their own language, foods, and culture. Make no mistake, they do live up to the Canadian reputation as polite and friendly people. Even their damn squirrels are approachable! Some Québécois are modest and shy about their English-speaking capabilities, but they do speak it and well, too. Tell them their NHL team (the Canadiens) are the best and they'll love you forever.
Depending on your budget and level of patience, there are few different ways of getting to Montreal. It’s approximately 6-hours away by car, 8-hours by bus, or a 1.5 hour flight from New York City. Don't forget your passport or passport card.
When you do, breathe in the clean air and gaze at the green scenery the city has to offer. Our eyes and lungs need it. Certain areas shine with features of a European city with cobble stone streets and architecture, while others with resembling elements of neighborhoods in Brooklyn with its small boutiques, coffee shops, street art/murals, and flannel shirts.
I’ve traveled between Montreal and New York frequently over the span of a year. I’ve witnessed all four seasons. Do yourselves a favor and ignore going there in the Winter. Describing their winters as cold is a bit of an understatement. Autumn is a beautiful time of year. Meanwhile, the summer has various outdoor festivals and events. Anytime between mid-April to mid-November would be a good time for a visit.
The city is predominately safe, so walking is a great way to see the city and admire some of the neighborhood's charming Victorian and row houses. However, you can't walk everywhere. Transportation will be necessary to get to the locations and sights you may wish to see.
The metro system in Montreal, in terms of reach, is a bit poor. There are only four lines, so as a result, buses are used quite frequently. It may take some prior planning to figure the appropriate lines and routes, but you'll manage to figure it out.
If you are any way like me, then you won't see this public transit drawback as a limitation. There is always the more convenient option, Montreal's bikeshare - the BIXI. It's easy, comfortable, and a great way to both learn and navigate the city. The BIXI works and feels like any bikeshare, so for all the CitiBikers in New York - Welcome Home. I recommend purchasing the 3-day pass ($15) if you expect to be bounce around from place to place. A lot of locals use them, too, so you'll fit right in.
- The Old Port
- Mount Royal
- Parc Jean-Drapeau
- Mile End district
- Centre d'Histoire
- Museum of Fine Arts
- Parc La Fontaine
FOOD / DRINK
Local Quebec cuisine is best described as hearty. Most of their traditional dishes consists of meats, vegetables, potatoes, baked beans, and/or maple syrup. By maple syrup, I don't mean the diabetes-inducing concentrated kind like Aunt Jemima's or Log Cabin. I refer to the rich and organic kind. Food from the region is known for its tourtière (meat pie), pâté chinois (shepherds pie), ragoût de boulettes (meatball stew), and pommes persillades (cubed potatoes fried and decorated with persillade).
It's difficult to mention food in Quebec without saying the magic word...POUTINE! Poutine may not look or sound very appetizing, but it is actually quite good. Golden-brown french fries topped with warm gravy and squeaky cheese curds. Basically, it's comfort food. Everyone eats them, no matter what the age.
Poutine could be found almost anywhere (even Fast Food chains), but if you want to get your hands on some legit poutine, then look no further than La Banquise. During peak hours, expect to wait 15-20 minutes. People are willing to line up outside in anticipation to stuffing their face. There are other delicious variations to the classic; such as poutine topped with sausage and peppers, ground beef and onions, and so on. La Banquise prides itself in having more than 30 types of poutine with very generous portions and prices.
Another personal favorite is Mange-Moi, a poutinerie with more of a bar setting. Not a bad idea to power up with a filling poutine meal and washing it down with a beer before hiking up Mount Royal just a few miles away.
Speaking of beer. Let it be known, the legal drinking age in Canada is 18-years. WoooOoooOoo! Don’t get too excited. Based on experience, I discovered the pour of alcohol for drinks is not the same like in New York. In other words, don’t be surprised if your cranberry and vodka just tastes like juice. I’m not sure if it’s by law, license, or by business. The only other reasonable explanation for this is that we, Americans, are alcoholics. Imagine the disappointment when paying $10 for a whiskey straight up and only receiving about an ounce pour. A LOT of places (if not all) serve like this.
The next day, choose your own adventure, whether it's enjoying a nice breakfast/brunch at Fabergé or SuWu, a mid-day coffee and live music at Le Dépanneur Café, a burger at Comptoir 21, food and drinks with friends at L'Gros Luxe, or wine and dine at Le Local with someone special.
You won't be disappointed with any of it.
The Québécois take their cycling seriously and it shows! Montreal is the premiere city for cycling in North America. It helps that the city spends a great deal on advocacy and infrastructure for riders with its vast quantity of bike lanes, parking accommodations, and campaigns.
It all pays off. Take a look around and you'll quickly discover the plethora of cyclists on the road. You can easily pick out the commuters, fixed-gear society, and Louis Garneau's. If you see take a look at the bike map, THAT is something to be proud of.
It won't always be the smoothest ride. Those Canadian winters inflict some serious damage to the roads. Many of the streets are in desperate need of attention and repavement. Attention to pot holes and other obstacles while riding is a must.
It's not strictly the bike lanes making Montreal a pleasant and safe city to ride a bike. There is a respect and harmony between pedestrian, auto-driver, and cyclists.
New York loves being "the best." Unfortunately, we're going to have to succumb to the fact that we're not in this case. In the meantime, let's observe and take notes from our friends up north.
If there is anything about New York, we don't just like doing things well...we like doing them better.
We'll get there.