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Montreal Spotlight

by

By: Natasha Hall

The world’s second largest French-speaking city, Montréal presents a captivating mélange of old-world charm infused with the up-to-the-minute energy of North America’s most modern cities. Set on the St. Lawrence River, this Canadian metropolis comprises an easily accessible patchwork of lively neighborhoods, each with its own unique joie de vivre. Visitors can still get their fix of Old World Europe without crossing the Atlantic, but a clutch of trendy new hotels, restaurants, shops, and clubs are the latest indication that this city will never become a stodgy artifact of past triumphs.

Indeed, much has changed since explorer Jacques Cartier first climbed to the top of Mont-Royal in 1535. From this central outcropping, now part of the rambling Parc Mount Royal, modern visitors can survey the imposing stadium built for the 1976 Olympics, the gleaming high-rises of downtown Montréal, and the city’s sprawling array of neighborhoods. Just south of downtown, on the banks of the St. Lawrence, Old Montréal beckons with narrow cobblestone streets, quaint shops, and vibrant jazz clubs. For a taste of hip bohemia, head northeast from Old Montréal to the gentrified enclave of Plateau Mont-Royal and burgeoning Mile End, a laid-back community that’s fast becoming the city’s latest bar and restaurant hotspot. Further afield, unexpected attractions, like the world’s second-largest botanical garden, a flashy casino, and the only Grand Prix circuit in North America beckon as well.

An action-packed three-day visit will give you time to check out Old Montréal and downtown, with enough time for a boat ride on the St. Lawrence, while a more leisurely five-day stay will allow for unhurried museum-going, and a thorough sampling of the city’s best shops and restaurants, and still leave time to spend your afternoons people-watching over café-au-laits and nights out listening to live music and bar-hopping.

Attractions

Divided between east and west by Boulevard St-Laurent, known affectionately as The Main, much of the island of Montréal can be covered on foot. Failing that, the city’s public transit system, the easily navigable underground métro system (C$2.75/ride; C$9/day; C$17/three days, www.stm.info), will get you to most points of interest. Just look for the big blue signs with the white arrows.

City tours are plentiful and range from the usual bus tours to more specialized options like horse-drawn carriage rides and river cruises. For an initial orientation, Gray Line Montréal (C$36; www.grayline.com) runs a popular three-hour bus tour that covers over 200 points of interest throughout the city. Catch it in front of the Infotouriste office (see below). Of course, a calèche ride (horse-drawn carriage) is a more romantic way to see the city, especially in Old Montréal. While the buggies are easy enough to find and hire on your own – they line up in front of Notre-Dame Basilica (see below) – you can also book in advance through Lucky Luke Carriage and Sleighs (514/934-6105; C$65/hour). If you’re here during peak summer season, boat cruises along the St. Lawrence River are a pleasant way to see the city. Hop aboard our preferred company, Le Bateau-Mouche (Jacques-Cartier Pier; mid-May to mid-Oct; C$17.95+; www.bateau-mouche.com), to admire the skyline from a glass-enclosed boat modeled after those made famous on the Seine in Paris.

The local tourist office, Infotouriste (1001 Square Dorchester, corner Peel; 514/873-2015 or 877/266-5687; www.tourisme-montreal.org), stocks an abundance of free brochures and city maps, as well as the Montréal Museums Pass (C$45), which covers unlimited public transportation plus access to 32 museums and attractions over a three-day period – a great buy if your visit involves an ambitious sightseeing plan. Passes are also available through the Old Montréal Tourist Welcome Centre (174 rue Notre-Dame E; 514/873-2015; www.tourisme-montreal.org), which specializes in information specific to this historic district.

Old Montréal and the Old Port
Established as a trading post by French settlers in 1611, the port area comprising Old Montréal (www.vieux.montreal.qc.ca) and the Old Port is still a vibrant commercial hub, though now money is changing hands at tacky souvenir shops and bustling sidewalk cafés rather than at fur outposts. It’s true that tourists far outnumber locals here, but you’ll forget about the crowds and glaring commercialism the minute your feet hit the cobblestone.

Start your tour with a crash course in Montréal history at Pointe-à-Callière (350 place Royale; late June-Labor Day Mon-Fri 10am-6pm & weekends 11am-6pm, Labor Day-late June Tue-Fri 10am-5pm & weekends 11am-5pm; 514/872-9150; C$12; www.pacmuseum.qc.ca), also known as the Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History. This vast complex of six buildings includes an archeological crypt where you can view remnants of the city’s 17th-century fortifications. The permanent exhibition, Where Montreal Was Born, encourages you to relive a typical market day from 1750 via an interactive installation that recalls daily life as it once played out in the city’s main public square.

When you tire of the museum’s faux public squares, head to a real one: a block north of the museum, and 10-minutes east along rue St-Paul, lies Place Jacques-Cartier, a granite plaza anchored by a statue of English naval hero Horatio Nelson and lined with 17th-century stone buildings. On warm days, sun-seekers fill the square’s numerous café terraces and it bustles with street performers and artisans. At the top of the square, kitty corner to the grandiose Second-Empire City Hall is the Château Ramezay (280 rue Notre-Dame E; June-Sept daily 10am-6pm, Oct-May Tues-Sun 10am-4.30pm; 514/861-3708; C$8; www.chateauramezay.qc.ca), the site where Benjamin Franklin failed to convince Québec to become part of the United States back in 1776. These days, the colonial mansion houses a charming museum filled with art, manuscripts, and artifacts from the 18th and 19th centuries.

A block southeast of here stands the city’s most enduring and endearing chapel, Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours (400 rue St-Paul E; Mar-Apr 11am-3.30pm, May-Oct 10am-5.30pm, Nov-mid-Jan 11am-3.30pm, mid-Jan-Feb closed; 514/282-8670; C$6; www.marguerite-bourgeoys.com), also known as “the sailor’s church,” thanks to its role as a beacon to sailors returning home from the sea. Presiding over the Old Port (see below), with delicate wooden model ships hung from the ceiling and beautiful frescoes decorating the vault, this 1771 chapel is in fact the second to stand in this spot; the first, a stone building dating from 1675, was destroyed by fire in 1754 (vestiges of the foundation have only recently been discovered).

A few blocks away reigns the grande dame of Montréal churches, the twin-towered Notre-Dame Basilica (116 rue Notre-Dame O; Mon-Fri 8am-4.30pm, Sat 8am-4.15pm, Sun 12.30-4.15pm; 514/842-2925; C$4; www.basiliquenddm.org), erected in 1829 – and the largest Catholic church in North America at the time. Adorned with dazzling stained-glass windows, intricately carved wood, and a dramatic cobalt ceiling emblazoned with gold stars, the basilica is a gorgeous example of neo-Gothic architecture.

As fascinating as grandiose old churches may be for adults, it’s smart to have an escape plan if you’re traveling with children. Lying south of Old Montreal, directly along the St. Lawrence River, is the animated Old Port, a waterfront district where horses, boats, rollerbladers, cyclists, and street performers provide plenty of distractions for tiny travelers with short attention spans. For a rainy day activity, make a beeline for the Montréal Science Centre (King Edward Pier; Mon-Fri 9am-4pm, weekends 10am-5pm; 514/496-4724; C$10; www.montrealsciencecentre.com), on one of the piers, makes science fun for kids and parents with stimulating exhibits and interactive installations ranging from robotics to energy to natural phenomena; it’s also home to an IMAX theater.

Downtown
Just a short walk north from Old Montréal, downtown (also known as centre-ville) is representative of the city’s pulsating cosmopolitan heart but, unlike most North American cities of its ilk, its make up combines appealing – and grand – 19th-century greystone buildings with gleaming skyscrapers, many of them housing the city’s best cultural institutions and hotel and restaurant scenes. Connecting them all are two of the city’s best one-stop shopping streets: rue Ste-Catherine and rue Sherbrooke (see Where to Shop for our preferred addresses).

Downtown’s most upscale enclave, known as The Golden Square Mile(www.goldensquaremile.com), is home to several heavyweight institutions, of which the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des Beaux-Arts, 1380 rue Sherbrooke O; Tues 11am-5pm, Wed-Fri 11am-9pm, weekends 10am-5pm; 514/285-2000; free for permanent collection, special exhibits C$15, half price Weds 5-9pm; www.mmfa.qc.ca) founded in 1860, ranks as Canada’s oldest art institution. The Louvre it is not, but the MMFA does feature an eclectic assortment of more than 30,000 international works from all eras and an exceptional collection of Canadian and Inuit art.

Due east, the substantive McCord Museum (690 rue Sherbrooke O; Tues-Fri 10am-6pm, weekends 10am-5pm; 514/398-7100; C$12; www.mccord-museum.qc.ca) is also strong on Canadiana, with an emphasis on artifacts and photography. Some of the best exhibits are those related to Native Canadian heritage – beaded headdresses, a delicately carved Iroquois baby carrier, and wampum trading beads are just some of the highlights, and they’re of such exceptional caliber, they surpass what you’d find at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Outside of the Golden Square Mile are two additional downtown institutions that are worth seeing for their superb temporary shows: The imposing Montréal Museum of Contemporary Art (Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal, 185 rue Ste-Catherine O; Tues-Sun 11am-6pm, Wed 11am-9pm; 514/847-6226; C$8, free on Wed after 6pm; www.macm.org), showcases a permanent collection of work from 1948 to the present, including pieces by well-known Canadian artists such as Jean-Paul Riopelle, Guido Molinari, and Claude Tousignant, but is best known for its special exhibits – so do check ahead. A few blocks west, architecture buffs will go gaga over the Canadian Centre of Architecture (CCA, 1920 rue Baile, Wed-Sun 10am-5pm, Thurs 10am-9pm; 514/939-7026; C$10; www.cca.qc.ca), where conceptual studies, drawings, prints, and models showcase past, present and future architectural endeavors; past exhibits have focused on Mies van der Rohe, Expo 67, and local green-energy projects, to name a few.

Lying beneath most of downtown is Montréal’s infamous underground city (look for signs marked RÉSO), but don’t expect to discover an entrancing subterranean labyrinth. Built as a convenient way to avoid lousy weather, it’s a purely functional network of pedestrian passageways lined with boutiques and restaurants beneath the central core of the city – think of it as a giant shopping mall with over 20 miles of tunnels and close to 2000 stores. Still, one building you may want to access via this route is the Centre Bell (1260 rue de la Gauchetière O; 514/925-5656; www.centrebell.ca); the venue hosts big-name concerts (like Madonna and Justin Timberlake) and serves as home ice for the 24-time Stanley Cup champions, the Montréal Canadiens (www.canadiens.com; $25+); hockey fans shouldn’t miss the guided tour (Mon–Sun 11.15am & 2.45pm; $8) that includes a behind-the-scenes peek into the team dressing room (in off-season).

Plateau Mont-Royal
A hip enclave of narrow tree-lined streets and brick walk-ups with winding staircases, Plateau Mont-Royal is chock-a-block with design stores, funky bistros, offbeat boutiques, and cozy cafés perfect for people watching. This trendy neighborhood is an amalgam of cultures, characters, and class-levels, with a little bit of grit thrown in for good measure. Before you lose yourself among the neighborhood’s many shopping, dining, or clubbing options (see the shopping and nightlife sections for specific destinations), saunter along St-Denis, St-Laurent, Prince Arthur, Duluth, and Mont-Royal and listen to the mix of languages spoken in the street – from French to Spanish to Portuguese. One place to stop and take it all in is Carré-St-Louis, a serene park with a stately fountain at its center that separates rue Prince Arthur from rue St-Denis.

Overlooking it all is Parc Mount Royal (www.lemontroyal.qc.ca), a mountainside oasis designed by Frederick Law Olmstead of Central Park fame, complete with his trademark meandering paths, lush woodlands, and verdant meadows. A cherished place of leisure for Montrealers since 1876, this green retreat buzzes with joggers, hikers and cyclists on warm days. In wintertime, cross-country skiers and toboggans take over the snow-covered hills while Beaver Lake, a small man-made basin, becomes an artificial skating rink. For stunning views of the city and the St. Lawrence Seaway, follow signs and climb the stairs to one of three lookouts, and if you’re here on a summer Sunday, check out the popular “tam-tam,” a drumming circle that pulls in a mixed dancing crowd around the monument to Sir George-Étienne Cartier at the base of the mountain.

Outlying Attractions In the east end of Montréal, near the Olympic Stadium, the Botanical Gardens (Jardin Botanique, 4101 rue Sherbrooke E; Nov-mid-May Tues-Sun 9am-5pm; mid-May-Aug daily 9am-6pm; Sept-Oct daily 9am-9pm; 514/868-3008; C$9.75; www2.ville.montreal.qc.ca/jardin) beautifully cover 185 acres with more than 22,000 species of plants and flowers, 10 greenhouses and 30 themed gardens. Don’t miss the orchids and the bonsai collection, as well as the largest Chinese garden of its kind outside of China.

For an enticing walk through four different ecosystems, head next door to the Montréal Biodôme (4777 ave-Pierre-de Coubertin; Jan daily 9am-5pm, Feb Tues-Sun 9am-5pm, Mar-Jun daily 9am-5pm, Jul-Aug daily 9am-6pm, Sept-Dec 9am-5pm; 514/868-3000; C$12.75; www.biodome.qc.ca) which features a lush tropical rainforest, typical Northern Québec woods that change with the seasons, the St-Laurent marine ecosystem and the Arctic and Antarctic, complete with penguins.

Despite being just another gambling den complete with slot machines, blackjack tables and Keno, the Casino de Montréal (www.casino-de-montreal.com) located just off the island of Montréal, on Ile Notre-Dame (www.parcjeandrapeau.com), a man-made island constructed (along with Ile Ste-Hèléne) for Expo ’67, remains an ever-popular tourist destination. Also home to Canada’s only Formula One racetrack, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, the normally idyllic, peaceful island becomes noisy and chaotic for a few days each June as thousands of spectators from around the world attend the Montréal Grand Prix.

Hotels

Whether you’re looking for the lap of luxury, boutique chic, or a humble abode, you’ll find it in Montréal. Recent years have seen a slew of boutique hotels open throughout the city – especially in Old Montréal – that are full of charm and panache, and make for a special treat. We’ve reviewed our favorite hotels for every budget.

If only the very best will do, book yourself a room at Montréal’s most expensive hotel, Hotel Le-St-James (355 St-James; 514/841-3111; www.hotellestjames.com), occupying an 1870 building in the heart of Old Montréal; its 61 lavishly decorated rooms are already a splurge, but you can up the ante by following the Rolling Stones and Madonna’s lead by booking the Terrace Apartment for $5000/night. Another fine choice for treating yourself is The W (901 Square Victoria; 514/395-3100; www.starwoodhotels.com/whotels), also in Old Montreal but famous for its minimalist approach to its 152 rooms and dirty martinis at the hotel bar (see Nightlife). In contrast to these newcomers, the Golden Square Mile’s tony Ritz-Carlton (1228 rue Sherbrooke O.; 514/842-4212; www.ritzmontreal.com) has attracted the old guard to its downtown location since 1912; its 229 Edwardian style guest rooms are complemented by a palatial ballroom, picturesque garden restaurant, and old school bar worthy of a Sean Connery-era James Bond film.

For midrange budgets, try the 1000+ roomed Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel (900 boul Réné-Levesque O; 514/861-3511; www.fairmont.com/queenelizabeth) located downtown, directly above the central train station; its most famous guests, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, staged their weeklong bed-in peace protest here in 1969. For something a little more intimate, try the darling boutique Hotel Nelligan (106 rue St-Paul O.; 514/788-2040; www.hotelnelligan.com); its 63 rooms are flooded with natural light and overlook the cobblestone streets of Old Montréal. If you prefer sleek to dainty, book a room at the streamlined Hotel Godin (10 Sherbrooke O.; 514/843-6000; www.hotelgodin.com), right on the edge of the Plateau; its 136 units are high on style and cachet, and just a stone’s throw from the hottest nightclubs and trendy restaurants, making it the perfect place to crawl back to after a night of tearing up boulevard St-Laurent.

When it comes to budget accommodation, you needn’t resort to a hostel, since Montréal has a handful of charming bed & breakfasts to choose from. We especially like Aux Portes de la Nuit (3496 ave Laval; 514/848-0843; www.auxportesdelanuit.com), occupying a Victorian house across from Carré St-Louis; its five fetching rooms are each equipped with a private bathroom. Slightly more rustic is Angelica Blue (1213 rue Ste-Elizabeth; 514/844-5048; www.angelicablue.com) on the cusp of Old Montréal. If you prefer more privacy, a good no-frills bet is the Novotel (1180 rue de la Montagne; 514/861-6000; www.novotel.com) right downtown, within walking distance of the Bell Centre and the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts. For a full list of city B&B’s, www.bbselect.com or www.bbcanada.com.

Restaurants

Eating out in Montréal is an art to be savored. Locals dine late, lingering over crème caramel and bottles of Beaujolais in candlelit bistros. The biggest problem is how to choose from the over 5000 restaurants that serve everything from haute French cuisine to smoked meat on rye. Bring-your-own-wine restos are the perfect way to dine out without dropping big bucks but whatever your budget, there’s something to fit the bill. We’ve covered our top picks in every price range.

On the expensive end, the crème de la crème is Toqué! (900 Place Jean-Paul Riopelle; 514/499-2084; www.restaurant-toque.com), where a minimalist decor provides the perfect backdrop for chef Normand Laprise’s artfully created dishes made of market-fresh Québec products; give in to the seven-course tasting menu and be sure to reserve well in an advance. A sense of secrecy and exclusivity prevails at Le Club Chasse et Pêche (423 rue St-Claude; 514/861-1112; www.leclubchasseetpeche.com) – the hunting and fishing club – which serves up roast bison, braised venison and seared scallops in a dark setting worthy of a private men’s club; the menu changes frequently, but braised suckling pig risotto with foie gras is a mainstay. Another great find, the intimate Joe Beef (2491 rue Notre-Dame O; 514/935-6504), is a tiny 25-seat eatery high on taste but low on pretention; its delectable daily-changing menu usually features freshly shucked oysters, lobster spaghetti, and succulent sirloin for two.

When it comes to mid-range restaurants, Montréal proves you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy fine dining. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped into an authentic 1940s Parisian bistro at L’Express (3927 rue St-Denis; 514/845-5333); it’s always packed and the service can be perfunctory, but dishes like tender octopus with lentils, traditional steak frites, and duck confit delight the palate. For a bolder, more inventive approach to French fare, try Leméac (1045 av Laurier O; 514/270-0999; www.restaurantlemeac.com), where locals savor escargot portobella ragout and braised short rib in a setting that’s much less formal than its crisp white-tablecloth setting suggests (the late-night prix-fixe menu, available as of 10pm for C$22, is exceptionally good value). You’ll also find two good bets in Old Montréal: Holder (407 rue McGill; 514/849-0333; www.restaurantholder.com) caters to a younger, more boisterous crowd in an expansive Old Montréal building; while not the best choice for a romantic dinner, it’s a sure bet for French standards like Niçoise salad and beef tartare. Nearby Garde-Manger (408 rue St-François-Xavier; 514/678-5044) occupies a diminutive stone-and-wood building and serves sumptuous seafood platters to a trendy clientele below a massive vintage candelabra.

If cheap eats are in order, you won’t go hungry here, either. Everyone goes to Schwartz’s (3895 boul St-Laurent; 514/842-4813; www.schwartzsdeli.com) where the smoked meat never disappoints, but equally authentic – and certainly more off the beaten path – is Wilensky’s (34 rue Fairmount O; Mon-Fri 9am-4pm; 514/271-0247; cash only), whose decor hasn’t changed much since 1932; their famous special, a grilled salami and bologna sandwich on a mustard-smeared bun paired with an authentic fountain cherry coke, costs under $5 – and no tips are allowed. Right near McGill University, quaint and cozy Amelios (201 rue Milton; 514/845-8396; www.ameliospizza.com) a popular bring-your-own-wine place, serves up heaping bowls of home-made pasta and delicious pizza all for under $10.

No trip to Montréal is complete without a steamy or a toasté and poutine – a steamed or toasted hotdog and french fries covered in gravy and cheese. La Belle Province (1216 rue Peel; 514/878-8020) is a chain of greasy spoons that has mastered the art: hotdogs come all-dressed (mustard, relish, onions and coleslaw) and the poutine is made with cheese curd – nothing fancy but it’s the real deal for only a few bucks. Another Montréal mainstay, bagels, also makes an affordable snack: head to Fairmount Bagel (74 rue Fairmount O; 514/272-0667; www.fairmountbagel.com) to watch them being rolled by hand and baked in a wood-fired oven, and walk out with a dozen; poppyseed and sesame are the most popular.

Nightlife

Once the sun sets, the city’s joie de vivre turns to delirium and the streets become filled with revel-seekers, looking to dance, drink, and bar-hop into the wee hours. A typical night on the town might kick off with a live show, a late dinner, or drinks at a local bar, and boogie on until last call at 3am – the latest in the country. Wherever your evening takes you, you’ll easily see why the city lives up to its reputation as Canada’s party capital.

Live Music
Much attention has been paid of late to Montréal’s thriving alternative music scene, and rightly so; it’s original and it’s gaining in global renown, as orchestral rock bands like The Stars, The Dears, and Arcade Fire become critical darlings in the US and abroad. Still, there’s a lot more to Montreal’s music scene than alt rock: On any given night, you can catch everything from jazz to pop to French rock at a multitude of venues. Check local listings like the Mirror (www.montrealmirror.com) or Hour (www.hour.ca) to see what’s on.

Cabaret-style The Spectrum (318 rue Ste-Catherine Street O; www.spectrumdemontreal.ca) became legendary for booking performers like The Police, Bruce Springsteen, Miles Davis and David Bowie who went on to become legends themselves; the venue, which has long held a soft spot in the heart of Montrealers, is a favorite stage for guests of the Montréal International Jazz Festival, and has been graced in recent days by the likes of Cat Power, Keane, and The Bell Orchestre (an Arcade Fire side project). Another homegrown institution, House of Jazz (2060 rue Aylmer; www.houseofjazz.ca), is, as its name suggests, a jazz venue; at just 120 seats, the place has an intimate vibe and great acoustics. More jazz still is served at the mellower Upstairs (1254 rue Mackay; www.upstairsjazz.com) where top-notch acts can be enjoyed while supping on haute cuisine. Cool kids of the Plateau and Mile end favor Sala Rossa (4848 boul St-Laurent; www.casadelpopolo.com), an inviting venue of hardwood floors and velvet curtains; you never quite know what to expect at this joint, which has booked everything from reggae to jazz to pop, alternative rock, and even flamenco dancing.

Bars & Clubs
Montréal’s bar scene justly earns the city its reputation as Canada’s nightlife capital. Whether you want to sample microbrewed ale at a local watering hole or sip Kir Royal at a chic lounge, you’ll be able to do both here – in one night. While out-of-town visitors often head downtown to rue Crescent for mainstream, touristy fun – people in the know head to the Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood, where a bounty of options offer the greatest variety for your loonie, and Old Montreal, where posh hotel bars attract a sophisticated, well-dressed crowd.

For one-stop bar-hopping, it’s hard to beat boulevard St-Laurent, especially the stretch between rue Sherbrooke and avenue Mont-Royal. Whether it’s the ‘scene to be seen’ at slick resto-clubs like Globe (3455 boul St-Laurent; 514/284-3823) and Buena Notte (3518 boul St-Laurent; 514/848-0644) or the dive of all dives, Le Bifteck (3702 boul St-Laurent; 514/844-6211), there’s something for everyone along this strip. It may be cheesy, but it’s hard not to have a good time at Gogo Lounge (3682 boul St-Laurent; 514/286-0882), where day-glo decor, non-stop ‘70s and ‘80s music, and martinis that match your astrological sign are just some of the highlights. Or, head further north and either slide into the round booths at retro-inspired Blizzarts (3956A boul St-Laurent; 514/843-4860) or soak up the latest sounds from local DJs at sleek and sexy Laika (4040 boul St-Laurent; 514/842-8088; www.laikamontreal.com).

Microbreweries are popular in Montreal and two Plateau-area bars pull excellent local beers: Réservoir (9 Duluth E.; 514/849-7779), a dark inconspicuous saloon with an Eastern European flavor, and relaxed-but-cool Bily Kun (354 av Mont-Royal E.; www.bilykun.com), which matches a great selection of microbrews with live jazz and a good-looking, unpretentious crowd; get there early if you want a seat.

Further north, on the edge of the Mile End, is Baldwin Barmacie, (115 rue Laurier O.; 514/276-4282) a tiny unpretentious club that caters to an upwardly-mobile thirty-something crowd with a beautiful white-and-gold design, sunken bar, and barrel chairs. But for the utmost in refined drinking, make a reservation at hisky Café (5800 boul St-Laurent; www.whiskycafe.com), a high-end cocktail lounge with high ceilings, leather armchairs, an extensive drink list, and a cigar lounge.

You can also leave the Plateau far behind and head to Old Montreal to mingle with beautiful people in swank hotel bars; our favorites this far south are the W Hotel’s ultra-modern Wunderbar (901 Square Victoria; www.starwoodhotels.com) and the slick Suite 701 (701 cote Place d’Armes; www.hotelplacedarmes.com) in the Hotel Place d’Armes; the latter’s smashing rooftop terrace makes putting up with a bit of attitude worth your while.

Shopping

Shopping easily qualifies as its own attraction in Montréal. What with original French-Canadian designs, brand-name fashions that arrive here before just about anywhere else in North America (save New York), and lower retail prices than you’re likely to find back home, you’re bound to come home with something no one else has (yet) – and for a lesser price to boot. So grab your wallet and get ready for some retail therapy.

Serious shoppers should start downtown where every kind of shop, from chain store to small boutique, can be found along the stretch of rue Ste-Catherine between Bishop and Union streets. For upscale name-brands and old-fashioned service, head to opulent Ogilvy’s (1307 rue Ste-Catherine O; www.ogilvycanada.com), where the air of tradition, curving staircases and a grand chandelier transport you to another era, one in which a bagpiper might march through the store – which he does, in fact, everyday between noon and 1pm. Cours Mont-Royal (1455 rue Peel) is a small but stellar shopping center focused on cutting-edge fashion and the hottest designer names. To pick up the latest in trendy outfits at reasonable prices, stop by Québec’s most popular department store, La Maison Simon’s (977 rue Ste-Catherine O; www.simons.ca). For high-end Canadian labels, head north to rue Sherbrooke to find Canada’s finest department store, Holt Renfrew (1300 rue Sherbrooke O; www.holtrenfrew.com); its exceptional collections of cosmetics, accessories, fragrances, and designer fashions for men and women are both high-end and highly civilized – in short, a fashionista’s utopia.

For quirky designs and smaller boutiques, The Plateau is ground zero, especially so rue St-Denis and boulevard St-Laurent, between Sherbrooke and Mount-Royal streets. “Take a new look at objects from the past” is the slogan at Couleurs (3901 rue St-Denis; www.couleurs.qc.ca), a wonderful little shop filled to the brim with furniture and items from the 1940s to 1970s. Dubuc (4451 rue St-Denis, www.dubucstyle.com), the flagship store for Montréal designer Philippe Dubuc, is the go-to spot for simple, sophisticated lines for men and women. Shopping at Lola and Emily (3475 boul St-Laurent; www.lolaandemily.com) is akin to rooting through a chic friend’s closet full of up-and-coming designer clothes, accessories, and knickknacks. The striking original designs make for almost too much eye candy at Freitag Concept (3762 boul St-Laurent; 514/845-1788), a jewelry boutique devoted almost entirely to sterling-silver items. Further north, in the Mile End, hotshot local designer Denis Gagnon is turning heads with his stark and dramatic garments; take some home from his studio-boutique, Espace Denis Gagnon (5392A boul St-Laurent; www.denisgagnon.ca).

With its tacky souvenir shops, Old Montréal can be quite a tourist trap unless you head to treasure troves like Betty’s Bazaar (218 rue St-Paul O; 514/285-2212), one of our favorite local gems for clothing and everything pretty; Rooney (395 rue Notre-Dame O; www.rooneyshop.com), which sells cool t-shirts, great jeans, sneakers, and even the art on the walls; and sleek Boutique Reborn (231 rue St-Paul O; www.reborn.ws), which mingles vintage and ready-to-wear clothing from local and international designers in its minimalist shop.

An array of shops known as Antique Alley lines rue Notre-Dame between Atwater and Guy streets, with more than 50 shops retailing everything from fancy, stuffy and expensive pieces, to junky, chaotic and cheap tschotchkes; Deuxièmement (1880 rue Notre-Dame O; 514/933-8560) is the kookiest of the bunch, with a wild assortment of memorabilia from days gone by.

When To Go

Montréal sees all the extremes – with lows of 6F in January to highs of 83F in July – but it’s most alive during the hot, breezy months of June, July, and August, when the days are long and the city brims with tourists and Montrealers alike soaking up the sunshine and the sights. Traditionally, the Montréal Grand Prix (www.grandprix.ca) in June marks the onset of high season (June-September), while low season coincides with winter and icy-cold temperatures; if you’re brave enough to visit in January through March, bring your down-filled coat, proper boots, a hat and mittens to keep warm. To get the best bang for your buck, plan a trip in early fall or late spring when rooms are reasonably priced and easy to come by; the fall foliage is astonishing and there’s a palpable sense of making the most of the last warm days before the winter freeze sets in, while the city’s spring fever is positively addictive, as outdoor cafés become crowded – with snow still on the ground – by locals rejoicing at the onset of sunny skies and festival season.

Seasonality aside, the city’s superb festivals, celebrating everything from film to new media, African culture, French music, electronic music, pop music, documentary film, and fireworks, make equally enticing reasons to visit. Two of our summer favorites are: the International Jazz Festival (www.montrealjazzfest.com), in late-June to early-July, and the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival (www.hahaha.com) in mid-July. Even winter doesn’t stop Montrealers from having a good time:La Fete des Neiges (www.fetedesneiges.com), in late-January to early February, and the Montréal Highlights Festival (www.montrealenlumiere.com), in late-February to March, both feature outdoor events and activities during the coldest months of the year.

Getting There

Getting to Montréal is a breeze. There is only one passenger airport, Pierre Elliot Trudeau International (YUL; www.admtl.com), located about 14 miles (23km) from downtown Montréal. Most airlines, including Air Canada (www.aircanada.com), Delta (www.delta.com), Continental (www.continental.com), United (www.united.com), and American Airlines (www.aa.com) offer direct flights from major cities across the USA and Canada; count on flight times of about one hour from New York and about six hours from Los Angeles.

Arriving by train lands you right downtown, at the Gare Central (central station) below the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, with direct subway access. Via Rail (1-888-VIA-RAIL, www.viarail.ca) services Canadian connections; travelers coming in from America arrive on Amtrak (1-800-USA-RAIL, www.amtrak.com). Getting into and around Montreal
Getting into Montréal from the airport by public transit is possible but unwise – connections are both complicated and time-consuming. Fortunately, taxis and limos have a fixed rate (C$35 and C$50 respectively) for the 20 to 30-minute drive downtown. Another option, L’Aérobus (514/842-2281; C$13+), departs from the airport every 20 to 25 minutes and makes several stops before arriving at the Central Bus Station (505 boul Maisonneuve E) 40 minutes later.

Barring the lack of airport subway stop, Montréal in fact has one of the world’s most efficient public transit systems, with four subway lines, 65 stations, and 165 bus routes run by the Société de Transportation de la Communauté Urbaine de Montréal (www.stm.info; C$2.50). Known as the Metro, the 40-year-old service is quiet, quick, and clean, with subway platforms decorated with murals, glass panels and sculptures – making it something of an underground gallery.

Aboveground, taxis can be flagged on pretty much every street corner; alternatively, call Taxi Champlain (514/273-2435), Taxi Co-op (514/725-9885) or Taxi Diamond (514/273-6331).

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