4 Days in Montréal: Brasseries, Bagels, and Bienvenues

I finally checked off another major Canadian city off my list! I decided to extend my most recent trip back East and fly from Toronto to Montréal for three nights. Wanting to avoid the chaos of Pearson Airport, I instead opted to take a small propeller plane out Billy Bishop airport, which saw me flying over farmland and along the St. Lawrence river before descending into Montréal. I enjoyed noticing how in Toronto the announcements were in English first followed by French, but that the order was reversed as we landed in Montréal. A perfect primer for how my consequent interactions would go!

Pointe-des-Cascades on my flight from Toronto to Montréal

Le Plateau & Mile End

I stayed in the Le Plateau district, which was kind of like a Montréal version of Kitsilano here in Vancouver. Lots of vibrant shops, cafes, brick buildings, and boulevards abound, which were all very inviting to walk around. My hotel was nicely nestled amongst residential housing, which I much preferred after being in the concrete jungle of downtown Toronto for three nights beforehand. I quickly made friends with some locals when I went searching for my first glimpse of the aurora borealis (which I saw…mostly through my iPhone), and met an older couple also gazing into the night sky. I would highly recommend staying in this neighbourhood, as it had a lot of character…and brasseries and bagel shops. Walking around you’ll also see lots of excellent graffiti art adorning the sides of buildings, with a colourful surprise around almost every corner.

I also enjoyed some great food here, including the best coffee I’ve had since my trip to New Zealand, notably an adorably-named Italian coffee called a “Freddo” at Café Olimpico. Upon recommendation, I also enjoyed pastries at Hof Kelsten, gnocchi-in-a-box from Drogheria Fine, fresh bagels at St-Viateur, and Sammi & Soupe dumplings. For dinners, I tried classic steak frites at classic French bistro L’Express – which offers a very Parisian atmosphere in a fairly narrow restaurant with checkered floors – and fancy cocktail and pasta at Miracolo. I began to dream of vegetables at night. Unfortunately for me, I don’t really enjoy smoked meat or poutine, so those are notably absent from my culinary adventures, but I’m sure you’d find them amazing there were you so inclined.  There are also a lot of people lined up at ice cream shops, but I didn’t get around to trying them amidst my already-decadent dining experiences.

Mont Royal 

I woke up on the Saturday morning feeling super tired. I’d been battling a mild cold and it finally caught up with me and compounded with the jetlag and stress of travel. But, I still managed to rally and zombie-walk over 4 miles around town. Mont Royal was number 1 on my list of places to go, so I decided to start my day by taking an Uber to the Kondiaronk Belvedere viewpoint rather than walk up. It was absolutely beautiful up there as I lucked out with a warm, blue-sky day, and it was nice to see some undulations in the distance after a few very flat days in Toronto. From there, I walked down the 339 steps and headed to Old Montréal and Old Port. As a warning, my calves were absolutely killing me the next day from all the impact of the steps, so be forewarned to do some post-stair stretching.

Kondiaronk Belvedere

Old Port & Old Montreal

Walking down from Mont Royal into the downtown area, there were lots of police and road blocks, which made me wonder what I was walking into. I later learned that it was due to Lionel Messi being in town to play the Montréal Impact. I don’t think my chances of seeing a 5’7 man over the masses would have been very good, anyways.

I sat in a park for a while (it was a day I felt like napping everywhere) and watched some tour groups going through in French. Then I went to Olive & Gourmand and enjoyed their homemade ricotta and honey, before being drawn towards the Port of Montréal Tower and the St. Lawrence River – the latter of which I was delighted to see after having its importance drilled into my in every Social Studies class in high school. I walked to the water’s edge and looked out at Habitat67 (reminiscent of a Star Wars Jawa hide-out), the floating Bota Bota Spa (my would-be preferred habitat), and the Biosphere across the water. Then back along to see Notre-Dame Basilica (which was having a facelift) through narrow cobblestone streets that harken back to Europe. Finally, a quick peer down at Vieux-Port de Montréal before heading back on the metro to Le Plateau.

Espace pour la vie/Space for Life

I went up to the Espace pour la vie/Space for Life area twice as it has five natural museums: the Biosphere, Biodome, Planetarium, Botanical Garden and Insectarium. I went to the Botanical Garden, which had sections of good flowers, but felt that perhaps it was still too early in the season to have visited. Still – it was worth the price of admission to see four little fox cubs frolicking in one of the areas, seemingly undisturbed by the masses watching them.

The Biodome, which features 5 different habitat zones, was a fun, quick visit. I particularly enjoyed the Tropical and Polar sections, which had capybaras, macaws, monkeys, Emperor penguins (I swear if you listened closely you could hear one whisper “Aidez-moi” through the glass) and puffins. Moving from habitat to habitat was a sensory experience as well, as you shift from the humidity of a tropical jungle to the cool temperatures of the polar regions within a few feet. Wear layers.

French Immersion

I haven’t spoken any French in probably 20 years, so I was hesitant to try. I like to think that watching shows like SKAM France have helped me keep whatever meager skill I once possessed active in my brain. And to some degree it did. I was surprised that I could understand the signage and basic questions and found myself starting to “think” in French more and more as time went on. I wish I was less of a chicken to try to speak more, but it was only when the Metro worker only spoke French (or, she insisted that I try) that I was emboldened to give it a go.

One Quebecois French aspect I didn’t appreciate was that when you say “Merci” a typical response is “Bienvenue”. The first time it happened, I as was like “What – what, why are you saying ‘welcome’?” but then realized it is the equivalent of “You’re welcome” DUH. I really would like to think if I spent more time there my French could blossom. However, my Quebecois “Oui” and “Bonjour” must have been believable enough that often people would keep talking to me in French, but then that sometimes led to a quick reply that I couldn’t grasp in time. Although, even speaking English led to some funny scenarios, including a server asking “Just to check was it a panna cotta or a pina colada?” I joked “Maybe both.” Sadly, only the panna cotta came. A great place to attempt to flex your bilingualism should you wish – servers/staff interchange easily between both French and English.

Much like my trip to New York, I imagine that I saw Montréal in some of its very best conditions (i.e. when it wasn’t freezing or hot and humid). I very much enjoyed its walkable boulevards, bagel-shop dense districts, and fun, friendly people who are perhaps a bit more ready to banter than the rest of Canada. I look forward to my next trip back!