Montreal is the largest city in Quebec, Canada’s renegade Francophone province, which means everywhere you look you’ll be confronted by Canada’s second official language. That fact alone is reason to check out Montreal, since it makes the city feel at least an ocean away — when in fact it’s just a quick hop across the St. Lawrence River, about an hour’s flight from New York City.
Why else is Montreal worth visiting right now? You’re going to need some brief and terribly bastardized Canadian history: for years, Montreal was Canada’s largest and most prosperous city. It was the country’s financial core, home to the banks, the Bronfmans (who built the Seagrams liquor dynasty) and the Molsons (who did it with beer). There was culture — no doubt you’re familiar with the work of Mordecai Richler or Leonard Cohen — and a really, really good hockey team. Also, the Olympics showed up in 1976, right at the tail end of the city’s boom time.
Then Quebec’s Frenchness kicked in and a series of oppressive language laws and referenda (secession is kind of a thing in Quebec, still) shifted a lot of the city’s power to Toronto. Thirty years later, some of the brutalist buildings and concrete infrastructure projects from the good times are literally crumbling. The French-English divide remains.
And yet out of those ashes has grown a city that’s understated and Bohemian and fun. Montreal is a place where creative people thrive by doing their creative things. There’s music and art, sure, but there’s also food — more good, interesting, creative food than almost anywhere else on the planet — and great bars and beautiful parks to hang out in. In short, it’s a city that’s become really cool again. And a good excuse to learn some French.
|Where to Stay
Montreal is an exceedingly accessible city, especially if you’re walking. Right in the middle of everything — equidistant from Old Montreal and the trendy, student-filled neighborhood of the Plateau — is Sherbrooke Street. At the western end of its line of mostly faceless hotels, you’ll find The Ritz-Carlton, the first of its kind in the world when it opened in 1912. In 2008 it underwent a four-year renovation, and it is once again the finest lodging in the city. If, however, you want to stay in the colonial grandeur of Old Montreal, you can’t go wrong with the Hotel Nelligan, a modern and masculine space with lots of exposed brick and leather in every room. Or, if you’re on more of a budget, the Hotel Zero 1 sandwiched between Chinatown and the shops and restaurants on Saint-Denis offers small and tastefully spare rooms that are perfect for a romantic getaway.
|Where to Eat
There’s more destination-worthy food in Montreal than you’ll have time to eat, even if you plan your meals carefully. You could, for example, start with a not-so-light lunch of smoked meat and pickles at Schwartz’s, then hope you have room for anything else later on. You’ll also want to hit Joe Beef, a favorite of David Chang’s that serves hipped-up versions of Quebecois soul food (the real backcountry stuff; no poutine to speak of here). Or Maison Publique, the new hotspot in the Plateau that serves upscale British food, which makes sense, since it’s owned by Jamie Oliver. And we’d be remiss not to recommend L’Express, a classic bistro on Saint-Denis that is a model of everything a restaurant should be: simple and well-executed bistro fare, extensive and affordable wine list, beautiful art deco room that’s always loud and often filled with off-duty chefs.
|What to Do
You could plan your stay in Montreal down to the minute, but we don’t recommend it. Why tie yourself down in a city that’s remarkably accommodating to the free of spirit? Even the major art gallery, the tremendous Musee des Beaux Arts, is free, so you can pop in unannounced and unplanned on a rainy afternoon. Instead, take advantage of Bixi, the extensive bike share system, along with Montreal’s equally extensive set of dedicated bike lanes, and see where you end up. You could, for example, start your morning at the Atwater Market for a breakfast of incredibly fresh fruit and, after a few more food-and-drink pit-stops along the waterfront, in Old Montreal and along Saint Laurent, end up in Mile End. There, you can pop into Frank and Oak, the online menswear brand’s only brick-and-mortar outpost, and then continue on to Lawrence, Hotel Herman or Dieu du Ciel, where you can eat and drink long into the night. And if you’re there on the right weekend during the summer, you’re more than likely to encounter a festival of some kind along the way — including the venerable Montreal Jazz Festival and Just For Laughs, the largest comedy festival in the world (this year’s headliners include Amy Schumer, Seth Rogen, Andy Samburg, and lots of other people you’ve seen on TV).
One of the best reasons to go to Montreal is to get the hell out of Montreal. Rent a car, point yourself north on the TCH and drive for about two hours until you reach the prettiest damn place in the world. In winter, Mont Tremblant is a bustling ski destination (or a corporatized, miniaturized version of Whistler, depending on who you ask). In the summer, the mountain is the centerpiece of the area called the Laurentians, a leafy, lake-filled paradise on earth. Once there, you can camp, hike, bike, or any other outdoorsy thing you might be into. Or you can just breathe in the fresh Canadian air and marvel at the scenery — then grab yourself a BeaverTail and meander back to the Fairmont Mont Tremblant for some spa action. Your choice. Don’t forget to check out the surrounding townships on the way to and from the city, including Oka, home of some seriously delicious cheese.