Despite the fact that Montreal is one of the closest and most easily accessible cities from Toronto, I had really only been there once, for a couple of days ten years ago. We also did stop in a couple of times for lunch in Montreal on our way home from our ski trips in the Eastern Townships, Vermont or New Hampshire. But I knew Montreal deserved a much longer visit. So I set off to plan a four-day extended weekend over the Canada Day festivities to explore this city.
Both Tourisme Montreal and Tourism Quebec were extremely helpful in making suggestions as to what to see and do and I really started to look forward to my urban explorations. On June 29, 2006 I headed off in the comfort of a first-class Via Rail train – no traffic, no stress, just an opportunity to relax. Following a bucolic ride through the green countryside of Ontario we entered Quebec and shortly after I arrived at Montreal’s Gare Central. Following the check-in at my extremely centrally located hotel I set off on my first personal encounter with Montreal: a driving tour of the city with a personal guide which gave me a great idea of the lay of the land. We visited all the key sights of Montreal and had a delicious lunch in a well-known French Bistro. After several more hours of exploration I had a comprehensive overview of the city and was ready for a stroll through Old Montreal. On my first evening I also enjoyed a memorable dinner with jazz music in the background at Modavie, a historic restaurant in Vieux Montreal. My knowledge of Old Montreal and insight into the early French settlers got even better as a result of taking the Old Montreal Ghost Tour which brought me up close to some interesting characters from Montreal’s history.
Day Two introduced me to the architectural jewels of Old Montreal and our local walking tour guide Louis impressed our group with his knowledge of social history and architecture (that extended way beyond Montreal). Stimulated by this educational outing I then had a delicious lunch at the Caf du Chteau and just as a major thunderstorm unleashed its fury I decided to explore the Chateau du Ramezay, a museum featuring diverse artifacts from more than 350 years of Montreal’s history. In the evening I took a relaxing stroll through the beautiful Latin Quarter and finally settled for an extremely satisfying dinner at La Iguana, one of Montreal’s premier Mexican restaurants, where I had a chance to chat with the owner and find out what this restaurant is all about. A packed day of exploration was capped off by a walk along St. Catharines Street to get a glimpse of Montreal’s Jazz Festival – the largest festival of its kind in the world, attracting hundreds of thousands of revelers every year.
July 1 – Canada Day: The festivities were unbelievable. I got an early start and explored Vieux Montreal before I participated in the Official Montreal bicycle tour where a certified tourist guide took our entire group through various neighbourhoods of Montreal. Bruno introduced us to the major sights as well as to the beautiful and unique living areas of this diverse city. As an avid bicyclist I was delighted when I was able to keep the bike after our tour finished and I continued on my own on the extensive bicycle trail network along the Lachine Canal. I enjoyed a re-energizing lunch at the historic March Atwater and had a nice chat with a local. After I returned my bike I sat down and talked with the owner of the a Roule bicycle shop about his business and about bicycling opportunities in Montreal.
All this physical exercise had stimulated my appetite and I enjoyed a wonderful dinner at Galiano’s right in the heart of Old Montreal, and the owner gave me a first-hand overview of this popular and historic restaurant. The streets of Montreal were just absolutely packed with revelers. The Old Port of Montreal was buzzing with activity which included concerts, street performers, a huge entertainment area for children, even acrobatics on skis. The highlight of the evening was a concert that featured a variety of performers, from flamenco, to Cuban rhythms to Brazilian percussion and other world music. Finally the star of the show appeared: Gregory Charles, a multi-talented singer, piano-player, actor and media personality. The crowd simply went nuts and thousands of people kept streaming into Old Montreal even at 11 pm at night. This city knows how to party!!!
My third day in Montreal was a little quieter. I started off with an exploration of the Olympic Stadium and took the funicular to the top of the world’s highest inclined tower. Then I explored the critters at the Insectarium and a variety of flowers, plants and trees at the Montreal Botanical Gardens. In the mid-afternoon I took a quick jaunt to the Jean Talon Market in Montreal’s Italian neighbourhood and followed it up with a delicious late lunch at Maana, a Mexican restaurant just across from beautiful Square St. Louis. In my chat with the owner I heard a heart-warming, inspiring immigrant story that has seen a simple man from Peru who came to Canada with hardly any French or English language skills, become a restaurant owner in one of Montreal’s most popular entertainment districts. I then had a bit of extra time to relax in the park where I made a connection with other out-of-town travelers and explored the beautiful neighbourhood around historic Square St. Louis.
My evening program was also packed: I got to explore the Casino de Montreal, located on an island in the St. Lawrence River. My personalized two-hour tour educated me about casino operations and brought me up close to one of Montreal’s big attractions. This special evening continued with a gourmet meal at Nuances, the Casino’s fine-dining restaurant, which offers the most amazing view across the river of downtown Montreal. The crowning touch was the international fireworks competition at La Ronde, which featured a team of Argentinian pyrotechnical experts who combined music and fireworks in a breathtakingly choreographed performance.
Unfortunately my extended weekend was rapidly coming to an end. On July 3 my train was scheduled to leave shortly before noon, but I managed to squeeze in a few more hours of exploration. I went on a walk downtown and got a chance to admire some of Montreal’s architectural jewels, including several stunning churches and cathedrals, an Art Deco skyscraper, a historic department store and a Richardsonian Romanesque train station that has today been converted into a hotel and office complex. I was in awe of the architectural richness that I saw in such a small area.
Montreal truly enchanted me with its European flair, the gorgeous and diverse residential areas, and the stunning sights in Old Montreal and Downtown. I connected with some interesting people in Montreal: expert tour guides, hospitality entrepreneurs and travellers from other places. Having had the chance to explore Montreal by car, on foot and by bike was a phenomenal introduction to this unique city and I can’t wait to get back to take in more of Montreal’s special charm.