A taste of Europe is just a short drive away in Montreal

Want to experience a taste of Europe without jumping on a plane? The magic of Montreal, with its combination of Old World charm and hip, cosmopolitan chic, is just a few hours’ drive up the Northway.

The 380-year-old city that is home to nearly 2 million is the second largest French-speaking city in the world. (Don’t worry if you don’t speak French; English is spoken everywhere.) Montreal also has the highest number of restaurants per capita in Canada, and in North America is second only to New York City. In other words, leave your diet plan at home. With restaurants featuring the cuisines of Algeria, France, Haiti, Iran, Italy, Korea, Lebanon, Morocco, Portugal, Thailand, Tibet, Vietnam and more, visiting Montreal can be a mini global cuisine tour.

Old Montreal and Old Port are must-see parts of any visit, with blocks of narrow, cobblestone streets reminiscent of Europe. One of the top spots to visit is Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal, a Gothic Revival-style church whose beauty is renowned. You can take a tour of the church alone, but it would be a mistake not to also try to take in AURA, a multimedia extravaganza video, light and music show that defies description. The show occurs twice daily in the evening. Tickets are available for the church or show individually or as packages.

To get another perspective of Old Port, consider checking it out from the air—specifically zip lining via the MTL Zipline. The zip line, which is 1,200 feet, gives a bird’s-eye view of Bonsecours Island.

Saint-Paul and de la Commune streets in Old Montreal are home to historic buildings as well as boutiques, restaurants and nightclubs. The Pointe-à-Callière Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History Complex is the perfect place to get familiar with Montreal’s history. Located on the site where Montreal was founded, it includes a glass floor overlooking the remains of Fort Ville-Marie as well as traces of an Aboriginal hearth. The museum also features new exhibits annually.

Walking tours, of which there are many options, are another way to explore Montreal. Take a historic tour through Old Montreal or consider a nighttime ghost walking tour. Art lovers might consider the two-hour street art tour along Montreal’s Saint Laurent Boulevard to enjoy over 100 works of art.

Need an arts fix? Downtown Montreal offers plenty of action as well, from the theater to the symphony. The cultural epicenter is the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts in downtown with concerts, events and shows.

AURA at Notre-Dame Basilica
The AURA experience at Notre-Dame Basilica. Photo by Moment Factory.

Venture into the neighborhoods

Montreal has vibrant, unique neighborhoods full of personality and worthy of visits. Mile-End, with its bookstores, cafes and murals, is reminiscent of Brooklyn’s hip Williamsburg section. Plateau-Mont-Royal is more bohemian, featuring colorful houses with outdoor staircases, vintage shops, boutiques, and great finds like cool $5 earrings, scarves and more. With the plethora of restaurants and coffee shops, you won’t go hungry.

For an artistic vibe, check out Mont-Royal, home to many of the city’s artists. Mont-Royal Park features 400 acres of park space and 600 acres of cemetery. In the winter, it’s a prime locale for ice-skating, and in the warmer months, cycling and jogging. The Outremont neighborhood is all about mega mansions, with parks and upscale shopping.

Saint Laurent Boulevard is the place to be and be seen for shopping, dining and profiling in this fashion-conscious city. Saint Denis Street is home to some of Quebec’s home-grown designers’ clothes, while Laurier and Bernard avenues are for all things French—clothes, gourmet shops, bakeries and more.

Other gems to check out include Ex-Voto in Little Italy where you can find candles, jewelry, and vintage clothing; and Boutique Stockmarkt, a shop in Little Burgundy that carries quality seconds, like last season’s to-die-for items. If you want some quiet time, Place Kate-McGarrigle, a small park and public square near Querbes Avenue on Laurier Avenue, is a good place to chill. The PHI Centre is a VR (virtual reality) cinema where reality, artistry and surprises come together for a unique experience.

No need to rent a car when visiting Montreal. You can go just about everywhere on the Metro, by taxi or by renting a bike. Nor do you need to worry about visiting Montreal in the winter. Life bustles in its Underground City with more than 1,000 stores, spas, restaurants, and movie theaters all located underground.

Where to eat

In a city of thousands of restaurants, how do you begin to choose where to eat? Taking a food tour to get a rich sampling of the good eats is one option. Here are some favorites to consider as well. Fleurs et Cadeaux (1002 Rue Saint-Urbain) serves up Japanese cuisine in a former flower and gift shop. Feast on temaki (hand-rolled sushi), creative bento boxes, artisanal sakes, natural wine and more.

For more than 40 years L’Express (3927 Saint Denis St.) has been one of the city’s go-to French bistros. Try the steak tartare, duck foie gras, chicken liver pate, grilled salmon, frites and other French delights. Like wine? The collection has some 11,000 bottles.

Moccione (7495 Saint Denis St.) is a favorite for Italian food. It was the Eater Montreal Restaurant of the Year in 2019. The gnocchi and tiramisu are among the dishes that get rave reviews.

In Old Montreal, consider Monarque (406 Rue Saint-Jacques), known for its lobster thermidor, escargot, and fish and seafood bouillabaisse. Toqué! (900 Pl. Jean-Paul-Riopelle) keeps a spot on the Top 10 in Canada’s 100 Best list. Order the scallop ceviche, heirloom tomatoes with goat cheese, almonds, currant dressing and basil or the duck confit and you’ll know why. Joe Beef (2491 Notre-Dame St. W), beloved by Anthony Bourdain, is another must-eat restaurant. The lobster spaghetti and foie gras are winners.

Where to stay

This November, Hyatt Centric Hôtel Gare Viger (621 Notre-Dame St. E) opens in the historic Place Gare Viger that was built in 1898 in the traditional British railway hotel style. Anticipate stately rooms and lounging on the rooftop pool in the heart of Old Montreal.

Vogue Hotel Montreal Downtown (1425 Rue de la Montagne) is newish to the hotel scene. It’s on the elegant Golden Square Mile, near shops, museums, and parks.

The Ritz-Carlton, Montreal (1228 Sherbrooke St. W) is the only AAA Five Diamond property in Quebec. A bonus is the restaurant Maison Boulud on-site, and pets are allowed at the hotel.

The stylish Hotel William Gray (421 Rue Saint-Vincent), in a former 18th century greystone in Old Montreal, is another option. Everything about it is chic and sophisticated.

Also high on the elegant meter is Hotel Place d’Armes (55 Rue Saint-Jacques), situated in four 19th century neoclassical buildings across from the Notre-Dame Basilica, and near the Old Port. I felt like royalty staying there. Enjoy the spa and the rooftop terrace for panoramic city views.

Old Montreal photo, iStockphoto.com/R.M. Nunes.

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