City Guide: Montreal
A couple of weeks ago, we took a forty-eight our trip to Montreal to celebrate Christine's birthday. Our main reason for going was to see Aura at Basilique Notre-Dame, a stunning clash of modern technology and ancient architecture that is a must-see (more on that below). For me, it was my first time visiting Montreal, or any of French Canada. I had my own assumptions of what it would be like, but our trip surpassed my wildest dreams! And as we drove from Montreal back to Connecticut, I couldn't help but feel prouder than ever to be Canadian.
One thing about Montreal that surprised me was that the price of hotels and accommodations are surprisingly cheap for such a nice city. We opted for an Airbnb because, when visiting charming cities in the past, we've had such good experiences. And we weren't disappointed by this cozy 5-star apartment close to downtown on a quiet and quaint street in Montreal's Verdun neighborhood.
As is customary whenever we travel to a new city, we first search out great coffee shops and then build our itinerary from there. Why? Because quite often we get solid recommendations from baristas that allow us to explore that parts of the city that locals love. During our two-day trip, we visited three great Montreal coffee shops, all of which we would highly recommend.
Located in Montreal's artsy Mile End district, Dispatch was the first shop we visited. Its entrance is located on the corner of Boulevard St-Laurent and Avenue Duluth. Both of us ordered hand brewed coffee which was prepared using an Aeropress. The barista who brewed our coffee was fantastic and took the time with us to explain about each of our coffees and gave us information cards with farm information. For coffee nerds like ourselves, this was great. Dispatch's minimalist interior is a wonderful respite from bustle of Mile End.
On our second day, we started out at Paquebot Coffee's Bélange location. This company is a Montreal staple, with multiple locations across the city. Bélange is their original shop, with a relaxing, rustic-retro design. I had heard that their nitro-cold brew was a must-order, and it definitely didn't disappoint. The barista that helped us was super attentive, and anticipated our needs. We felt cared for while we were there, spending half our time sitting at the bar and the other half at one of the tables. This was great for first taking in the coffee process behind the bar before getting some work done on our computers.
Crew Collective and Cafe
We didn't set out looking for Crew Collective and Cafe. We only stumbled upon it while looking for washrooms downtown. Ironically, we had been looking for coffee shops downtown earlier in the day, but didn't come up with much from our cursory online search. Our visit to Crew Collective ended up being one of the highlights of our trip. The coffee shop itself is truly magnificent, located in an old bank with vast ceilings and vintage chandeliers, providing lighting to the building's stunning architecture. It is probably one of the most impressive shops we have visited. The bar is long and has a good offering of coffee and light meals/snacks. There are a number of seating options inside of the cafe space, with additional options in the co-working space located behind the bar (for additional fee).
As Montreal is one of the greatest food cities in the world, we knew that we had to be intentional about each meal, after all, we were only in the city for a few of them. We relied mainly on food lore, chance, and Anthony Bourdain in our search for succulent bites, and we weren't at all disappointed.
We spent our first night dining at Boris Bistro. The weather was perfect and so we opted to dine outside, which was spectacular as their outside seating is set inside the ruins of an old building. We dined over candlelight, enjoying great local-fare at surprisingly reasonable prices. Boris Bistro is definitely a place you will want to try out to get the dining experience you dream of when visiting a French city like Montreal or Paris.
St. Viateur Bagels
A visit to Montreal wouldn't be complete without Montreal-style bagels. They are delicious, perfectly chewy and so different from New York-style bagels. The two renowned bagel establishments are St. Viateur and Fairmount. We were hoping to hit up both, but alas, we only made it to St. Viateur. If you go, bring cash because they don't accept credit or debit. Bagels are super affordable (less than $1 per bagel!), so get a few different flavors.
Another classic Montreal food is the mighty smoked meat sandwich. Just smoked meat, mustard, and bread. So simple, yet so amazing! There are plenty of venerable establishments that serve these sandwiches, but Schwartz Deli is one of the most renouned. The place was packed when we went but we didn't have to wait too long. As per the recommendation of the owner, you should get smoked meat sandwiches with black-cherry soda to drink. It was perfect! Other sandwiches and sides are available if you don't like smoked meat, but we choose to keep it classic. Bring cash to this place as well as they also don't accept cards.
Chinese Crepes and Bubble Tea
At the end of our most action-packed days in the city, we found ourselves downtown, tired, and hungry. Not a good mix at 9:00pm at night. Thankfully, we came across Montreal's Chinatown which was wide awake and ready to serve up fast, delicious food to curb our hunger. We opted for Chinese crepes at the La Cabane de Danny located next to Chatime. It was awesome! Christine got a plain bubble waffle, which normally has ice cream and other delicious toppings. I chose to go savoury and ordered a crepe that had egg, sausage, crackers, cilantro, lettuce, spring onions, a couple of sauces, and other toppings that I can't remember. It totally hit the spot! To accompany our crepes, we popped into Chatime and each got bubble tea. Glorious!
Ma Poule Mouilée
If you want very affordable, delicious food you absolutely must visit to Ma Poule Mouilée. We came across this Portugese chicken restaurant quite suddenly when searching for a good restaurant nearby. At first glance, we wanted to order Portugese chicken with sides, but then they delivered an order of poutine to a nearby table, and we immediately changed our order. If you don't know what poutine is, you need to find out and try it because it is one food that is truly Canadian and probably the worst thing for you to eat. Ma Poule's poutine goes the extra mile with the addition of a half of a chopped chicken and a generous helping of chorizo and a pimento sauce that elevated the entire poutine experience. It was so big, we opted to split the dish and enjoyed it with a side salad, and we were both stuffed. All for $20 CAD including drinks.
At least one of your meals or snacks simply must come from a local Montreal farmers market. We stopped into Marché Jean-Talon after a little shopping trip to the nearby restaurant supply shop and Bourdain recommendation, Quincaillerie Dante. By this point in our trip, we were craving fresh produce and so we stopped by one of the fruit stands where we bought the best strawberries I have ever eaten (Quebec-grown) and delicious blueberries.
Aura: Basilique Notre-Dame
So, at the top of the city guide, we said that Aura was our real reason for going to Montreal. The show takes place at the iconic Basilique Notre-Dame, in Old Montreal. It is a marriage of old-world architecture and modern day laser and projection technology set to music, making the cathedral come alive. Part of the show even includes the church's massive organ. As you enter, you are given the option to explore the sanctuary, where there a different displays to be seen. At this point, however, most people are focused on getting the best seat for the show, which I would say is about two thirds back in the center. If you opt to sit down immediately, there is plenty of time after the show to explore the smaller displays and get pictures. You can get tickets online before, which is recommended because we saw people trying to purchase tickets on site get turned away. Tickets are currently available through the end of 2018, with an adult ticket costing $24.50.
Montreal's Mile End district is a must visit for great eats, fantastic boutique shopping, and to take some very interesting French architecture. We spent a good amount of our time in Montreal in the district, which in addition to food, comprised of exploring many lifestyle shops, a thrift shop, and a silk-screeners where bought a fantastic print for our future apartment in Turkey.
This small volcanic mountain provides a large park for visitors to enjoy and sweeping views of the city, where you can see Montreal's downtown skyline and even the iconic Olympic stadium in the distance. If you are visiting by car or Uber, put in 1260 Remembrance Road as the address. That will take you to the parking lot at the top of the mountain. On your drive up or down, be sure to stop off at the lookout point along the road. Oh, and be sure to bring good walking shoes to get to the main lookout point at the top.
Le Grand Roue de Montreal
We capped off our trip to this spectacular city with a ride on Le Grand Roue, Montreal's large observation wheel circa 2017 located at the Old Port of Montreal. We purchased tickets online beforehand which were $17.40 per adult. Cabins are shared, unless you opt to pay for a private one, and the entire journey was about 30-minutes, which consisted of four rotations. We rode the wheel at sunset which was simply stunning as the rays shone through the clouds onto the downtown skyline. The perfect end to a great 48-hours in Montreal.