I often find myself traveling like I picture Robert Frost would: choosing the road less traveled. So when I began considering a recent trip to Montréal, I knew one of the biggest draws of the “most European city in North America” was Old Montréal, the historic, French-influenced neighborhood on this Canadian city-island, but I wanted to go beyond its cobblestoned streets. From cute boutiques to urban kayaking, and even an eco fashion museum, it turns out (unsurprisingly, of course) that there’s a lot to see and do in Montréal that doesn’t involve getting sucked into the tourist traps near the city’s port. Here’s what you should check out:
Experience the Lachine Canal
The city’s canal opened in 1825 – the purpose was to introduce a waterway that linked the Atlantic with the heart of the province for commerce and industry. For years the Lachine Canal saw thousands of ships pass through it, but when the St. Lawrence Seaway was built, the Canal fell into disuse; it was closed in 1970 and the city even filled portions. In 2002, the canal reopened as a National Historic Site with a major facelift – multi-use paths were added along the water (you see people walking, roller-skating, cycling…really any mode of transportation is seen here but cars), as well as picnic spots. If you want try something a bit different though, rent a kayak, motorboat, canoe, or paddleboat from H2O Adventures and explore the canal on the water. The current isn’t too strong so you can go upstream or sit back as you float down the canal. (Rates from about $10 for 30 minutes)
Taste the Atwater Market
Do like the locals and grab a snack at the less-traversed Atwater Market. While Little Italy’s Jean-Talon Market is much more well-known, older (it opened in 1933), and bigger (the biggest in Canada), Atwater is pretty amazing in its own right. With indoor and outdoor space, you’ll find fresh produce like ground cherries (yellow cherries without pits that are like the tangier, but still sweet version of typical red cherries) and figs, along with fresh cheeses (Québec is known for producing over 300 different kinds of cheese) and meats. There are plenty of spots to sit back and enjoy the ambience (you’ll find plenty of locals here and will rarely hear English spoken unless you start speaking it). Two musts are La Fromagerie Hamel which has been making cheese for over 50 years, and Première Moisson, which is a franchise bakery, but you’ll understand why it deserves a stop as soon as you walk into the market – the smell of croissants, fresh-baked breads, and other pastries fill your nose.
Learn at the Economuseum at Harricana par Mariouche
“Eco-friendly” and “fur coat” aren’t often uttered in the same sentence. But at Harricana par Mariouche in Montréal’s Little Burgundy neighborhood, they live harmoniously in a single mission statement. Started by Mariouche Gagné when she was just 23, Harricana is celebrating 20 years in business. Gagné buys used fur coats, cashmere, and other high-quality materials and transforms them from drab and unwearable to chic and modern. She features everything from hats to purses, backpacks, and coats. The best part? Nothing goes to waste – even the silk linings of coats are re-used. The result is that no two pieces look alike, which has made them sought-after in high-end stores in Tokyo, Europe, and the U.S. While you can stop in to her boutique just to shop, you can also tour their in-house museum (lasts about 45 minutes), where you’ll learn about the brand’s history, see mood boards for next season’s lines, and watch as employees hand-brush each piece for fullness. (They can spend eight minutes just brushing one piece of a coat.) (About $8 for adults, $5 for kids)
Visit the Mile End
Back in the 19th century, the Mile End neighborhood got its name for it’s placement literally where the Golden Square Mile – where the 80 percent of the richest people in Canada lived – ended. It’s bordered by various ethnic neighborhoods (Jewish, Italian, Portuguese, etc.) and therefore features an equally eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, and businesses producing a hip vibe.
While there’s plenty to do in the neighborhood, you’ll want to focus in on a few streets – I recommend Rue Bernard Oest, where you’ll find chic jewelry shops like Charlotte Hosten‘s (they craft everything in-house), and a smattering of other shops including record stores (the community is known for churning out artists and musicians), book stores, and plant and spice shops. Not far away on Rue St. Viateur Oest, you’ll find galleries and design shops like General 54 with a collection of accessories, clothing, and household trinkets. After exploring, be sure to stop for a coffee like the locals do. Cafe Olimpico often has a line out the door (but it moves fast); Italian flags, soccer propaganda, and crown molded ceilings decorate the cafe. Grab your coffee (the latte’s are a crowd favorite) and head out to their garden area where you’ll find locals lounging on the wooden benches; it’s a delight especially during the summer and fall.
Go Park Hopping
One of the first few things you’ll notice in Montréal is how green the city is – and how clean it is. Back in 2005, the city instituted a policy that included action for planting new trees, maintaining the green nature of the city, and ensuring that when new buildings were erected, new trees were planted around it. While you can get a feel for this just about anywhere in the city, it’s especially evident in the over 450 parks of Montréal. Most well-known, and one of the largest is the Parc du Mont Royal, which was inaugurated in 1876 and designed by Frederick Law Olmsted who co-designed New York’s Central Park. While a picnic is a perfect way to experience the park like the locals, if you can’t sit still, take either the 51, 166, or 165 bus up to Saint-Joseph’s Oratory (Queen Mary stop). The basilica sits on top of the Mount Royal and is home to the third largest dome in the world. It is also the most popular pilgrimage site in Canada. (Guided tours only suggest a $4.85 donation)
For a different dose of the outdoors, head over to the Botanical Gardens – and the Biodome. The 1976 summer Olympics in Montréal left the dome structure (which was used for the bike competitions) and it has since been converted into an exhibit that showcases the many ecosystems of the Americas including a tropical rainforest, a maple forest, and sub-antarctic islands. (Entrance $18.20/adults, $9.20/kids)