Okay, okay... I get it. This is supposed to be an adventure travel blog, but my very first destination post is the city in which I was born. In my defence, I haven’t lived in Montreal since I was six years old, and I've only visited a couple of times since my parents moved back. When I did visit, I didn't explore much of the city... so, this time with my Scottish girlfriend in tow for her first ever trip to Quebec, I vowed that this trip I would finally see what this awesome urban jungle has to offer.
Montreal is, after all about as dope as a concrete jungle can get. As one of the oldest cities in Canada, it’s got cobblestone sidewalks and a very old-world European vibe, but it’s also super stylish and contemporary. Canada in general, and Montreal specifically, is very welcoming to other nationalities (my own father immigrated from Egypt), so the city is a veritable mosaic of ethnicities and cultures (note: a melting pot is where other cultures are expected to assimilate into one *cough USA cough* whereas a cultural mosaic celebrates multiculturalism and diversity.) The province of Quebec has a really different vibe than the rest of Canada; it’s Francophone, and has a strong sense of identity (rooted in maple syrup and poutine). In short… Montreal is a city I can definitely get down with.
This turned out to be a long post, so if you're interested in one particular topic, click the shortcut below!
where we stayed
My parents live on the outskirts of Montreal, so my girlfriend and I decided to get our own place right in the heart of the city. We knew we'd mainly be with my parents during the day, and wanted easy access to the city’s vibrant nightlife. I found this awesome apartment on AirBnB and it was the perfect choice for us. The apartment itself suits the Montreal vibe perfectly, with creaky wooden floors, gorgeous stained glass windows, and that old-school style. The location was also ideal… we were nestled in between the trendy neighbourhoods of Saint Henri and Little Burgundy, and could walk to every other happening part of town. Montreal has an excellent transit system, and we were steps from the metro and bus stops, making it ultra easy to visit my parents, or head further than we wanted to walk.
I prefer to use AirBnB anytime I’m in a city for more than a couple of nights; I always choose places that reflect my own personal style so I feel like a local rather than a tourist. Plus, the places on AirBnB are way more affordable & spacious than hotels, and come with kitchen facilities (necessary for long stays in expensive cities) and sometimes even laundry (this place had a washer & dryer which was a huge bonus). If you’ve never tried AirBnB before, here’s a discount code to save you some cash on your first stay (I’ll also get credit to use, so thanks!) If you're only passing through Montreal for a night or two, check out Agoda for great hotel & hostel deals (this is a commission link!)
Where & What to eat
It had been 2.5 years since my last trip to Canada, so, like the stellar daughter I am (JK... I’m not), I was most excited to see my parents, of course… but my enthusiasm to eat allllllll the food came in a close second. My parents always say that “you can starve to death in Montreal, just trying to decide what to eat” which is a lame parent joke but also sort of true. There are restaurants serving every imaginable cuisine… but, I just wanted some legit Quebecois (and Canadian) eats. Starting, of course, with Tim Hortons. Tim Hortons is a very large chain of coffee shops that have an extremely loyal following throughout the country. Unlike Starbucks, which is the overpriced sugary sewage of the coffee world, the brew at Timmies is cheap and delicious. Canadians keep it real - the fanciest you’d go for is a double double (2 creams 2 sugars) but I keep my coffee black, to match my outfits, and my soul. Pair it with some Timbits (delicious donut holes) and you’ve got yourself a true taste of Canada… one that I had every single day… sometimes twice a day…
After my first breakfast of coffee and donuts, it was time for true sustenance… brunch! My girl and I weren’t looking for any bougie brunch places. We got our fair share of that in Australia earlier this year, and there’s even some spots on Koh Tao that will happily overcharge us for some mashed avocado on bread. No, no… what we wanted was somewhere that served us too much food, had maple syrup on free-flow, and refilled our coffees without being asked. Fortunately, Montreal has a shit-ton of diners offering just that, and my dad knew them all. Eggsquis, Cora’s, and Eggspectation were some of our regular spots.
Bagels are a big deal in Montreal (much like in New York), and Bagels on Greene quickly became our fav spot for a freshly baked carb coma loaded with toppings. It’s a cafeteria-style eatery that specializes in bagels but also has a salad bar, Indian takeaway, desserts, and loads of vegan options.
When we got peckish from skipping dinner, we were always in luck cause Montreal has loads of lush dessert restaurants. We checked out Cocao70 for a banana split (only okay) and a white + dark chocolate fondue (yum), but preferred Juliette et Chocolat and their decadent fondant cake with ice cream and caramel sauce. I really love ice cream and was happy to check out La Diperie, where you customize your ice cream cone with your choice of dip (I tried salted dark chocolate) and toppings (I got caramel crunch).
So, clearly, good nutrition wasn’t a top priority when choosing eats in Montreal. I do generally stay healthy when I travel, but it was really nice to just flip health the bird and eat whatever I wanted for two weeks of my life. I highly recommend it, especially if you’re in a city with so much deliciousness on offer.
Full disclosure: at home on Koh Tao I’m usually asleep by 10pm. But, seeing as how I was in the city that arguably has the best nightlife in all of Canada, and since my blood sugar levels were constantly spiked from all those goddamn Timbits, I actually stayed up past my bedtime on several occasions!
Jo and I hit Blizzarts for their Wednesday Dub Lounge, and danced all night to dope reggae and dancehall beats (then went for 3am poutine at La Banquise… thank you, Montreal). The little club had friendly staff, no dress code, good vibes, and cheap drink specials till 11pm. We also checked out Maison a Vinyles, where some friends of friends, Voyage Funktastique, were DJ-ing for their Fly Ladies soul/R&B night. Let me say, this is the first club I’ve ever been in that smelled really good (shoutout to Nag Champa incense). The night was poppin’, music was hot, people were chill and had great style.
One of our fav finds was L’Escalier, a tiny bar on Saint Catherine’s, just across from the Berri metro, and marking the start of Montreal’s epic gay village. We stumbled upon it when we heard the sweet sounds of live jazz playing from what we initially thought was an apartment, but after climbing a narrow set of stairs (hence the name, I assume), realized was actually a bumping bar. Entrance is free (at least every time we went), and they’ve got 3 live bands repping various genres every night at 5pm, 7pm, and 10pm. They serve drinks at very reasonable prices and snacks like hummus and tortilla pizzas that looked great. We stopped by a few times and always had lots of fun.
Montreal’s got a well-known comedy scene, and hosts the Just for Laughs comedy festival every year. We weren’t there at the right time for the festival, but did stop by the Comedy Nest for a show one evening. It was only $10, for 5 or 6 comedians, and I definitely LOL’d. Totally worth the experience... which was in English, by the way.
One of the best nights we had in Montreal was at the House of Jazz, which is decked out in New Orleans style and has live music every night. We made reservations online in the morning and they booked us a table right in front of the band, who were amazing. In addition to smoking jazz music, this spot serves up great southern food; my girlfriend and I loved our hers’n’hers meals of steak and rotisserie chicken (we're very classy...).
what to do
Montreal offers something for everyone, and there's tons to do 365 days a year! The Montreal blog is a great resource for finding activities that suit you; it also highlights special events occurring throughout the year.
We spent lots of time exploring downtown on foot. If you’re into shopping, Rue Saint Catherine has most of the high-street stores, as well as loads of bars and restaurants. Alternatively, if you're a geek like me, head to the McGill University campus, which is legit beautiful (I also tried to sneak into a science lecture but Jo wouldn't let me...), and maybe stroll all the way to the top of Mont Royal for some sweet city views. Head up Rue Saint Denis or Rue Saint Laurent, you’ll come across a bunch of vintage stores that Jo and I loved pawing through, and which made us wish we had more room in our already overstuffed luggage. Eva-B was particularly epic: part-cafe, part-vintage store, it had an amazing selection of literally everything you can imagine. There were a few random pianos being played by what I assume were other customers (but with more musical talent than I), and I also crossed paths with an ancient Golden Retriever, which was obviously a highlight for me.
Quartier des Spectacles is the area where you’ll find museums, theatre productions, ballet, performances, and other classy things. We didn’t take in any shows while we were in town, but did see some sort of street art (?) involving amusement park rides made of shopping carts. I regret not getting a photo.
Our apartment was a short walk away from Atwater Market, which is one of my mom’s favourite places in Montreal. It’s a large indoor/outdoor market offering fresh produce, artisan foodie things, and specialty products. They’ve got food stalls if you’d like to grab lunch, and cafés serving good coffee and delicious baked goods.
We also took my mom to iconic Vieux Montréal (that’s Old Montreal, for the diehard anglophones among you). It’s the oldest part of Montreal, and filled with beautiful churches, cobblestone streets, and old-world vibes. If you visit here, take your time roaming the streets… you’ll see buskers and street performers, local artists selling jewelry or offering to draw your picture, and horse-drawn carriages giving rides to tourists (the horses are well-treated, but I still have mixed feelings about horses tasked with pulling people through the streets all day long). There’s lots of cute little spots to grab a drink or meal, and tons of boutiques to browse through.
the mountains are calling
As much fun as we had in Montreal, one of the highlights of our trip was when we left town to head to the Laurentien mountains. Jo and I, along with my mom and aunt, headed to Mont Tremblant, which is only about 90 minutes out of Montreal (including a stop for coffee and donuts of course). In the winter, Mt Tremblant is Quebec’s #1 ski destination… the rest of the year, it’s a great place to enjoy other outdoor activities, like hiking or canoeing. We stayed at Sommet des Neiges hotel, in a two bedroom suite backing onto the mountain. The hotel was lush, with a great gym, hot tub, and reading room... we also got a sweet deal since it was the off-season. Some of the attractions were closed for the season, such as the gondola that runs up to the mountaintop casino. But, we still had a great time wandering through the little village, checking out boutiques, and eating ice cream covered in maple butter. We even had a few deer come hang out by our balcony at sunset, and Jo and I reunited with them in the morning when we went for a sunrise hike up the mountain, which was very cold (-3 degrees!) and extremely beautiful. We just spent one night, but wish we’d had a few more to enjoy the natural beauty around us (and the lush hotel room).
Well, I really hope you enjoyed this (very thorough!) blog about our two weeks in Montreal. I had an absolutely amazing time visiting my parents, showing my girlfriend my hometown, and discovering it for myself. In fact, I loved it so much that I’ve already booked my flight to return!
Did I miss anything I should take in during my next visit?
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