Not long ago – when the city was in full International Jazz Fest mode – our friend and travel writer Sarah Deveau took to the streets of Montreal, Quebec.
She returned home from the world’s second largest French-speaking metropolis with her ten favourite moments – offering us a personal snapshot of one of Canada’s most European and culturally vibrant cities.
1. We chose to avoid the 100,000 strong crowd for the opening night of the world’s biggest jazz festival (which hosts over 1,000 performances – 60 per cent of them free – for ten days each summer.) Instead, we dined outside on mussels and frites at Le Balmoral – a warm summer’s breeze carrying with it the crooning of local sensation Rufus Wainwright from Place des Festivals as we sipped on muddled raspberry mojitos.
2. For more than 30 years, sunny Sunday afternoons are celebrated at the Tam Tam Jam at Mount Royal Park. From noon until dusk, an ecclectic mix of drummers and dancers gather to perform for locals and visitors gathered in the park. A friend and I rented public Bixi bikes and headed up to the park, where we were nearly lulled to sleep by the rhythmic beat of dozens of hand drums.
3. Tucked away in Little Italy, the Jean-Talon Market is Montreal’s oldest and largest public market, and one of the biggest outdoor markets in North America. Hundreds of vendors sell everything from fresh veggies to artisan cheeses. Before shopping for perfectly ripe, locally-grown fruit, I indulged in a market breakfast which included a delicious and crispy sour dough baguette from Premiere Moisson bakery.
4. At the Trapezium – an indoor recreational trapeze gym – amateurs and professionals alike hone their flying skills. This aerial art form is physically demanding and it took several attempts before I could properly execute a basic knee hang which involved propelling my legs up towards the apex of the swing. Finally, I nailed the maneuver and found myself, gulp, swinging 50 feet high in the air by my legs.
5. Rue Saint-Catherine, a.k.a. Le Village, is closed to traffic during summer Sundays – making it the perfect location for the Festival International Montreal en Arts. The festival features block upon block of artists selling original work. At night, the street transforms into party central and we took in a Scissor Sisters show at the historic Olympia de Montreal theatre, built in 1925.
6. “Big in Japan” bar (not to be confused with the resto of the same name) is an underground speakeasy hidden behind a red door marked only with two small Japanese characters on Rue St. Laurent, the most high intensity party street in Montreal. Hipsters sip Japanese whiskey surrounded by mirrors and candlelight. And if you don’t finish your bottle, it’s marked with your name and screwed into a fixture in the ceiling for your eventual return.
7. Yes, it’s fatty and greasy but smoked meat sandwiches from Schwartz’s, the original Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen founded in 1928, are a divine culinary experience. I didn’t want to wait two hours to get a restaurant table, so I bought a medium fat sandwich (made of cured smoked meat and served on rye bread with mustard) at the take-out counter next door. Of course, I made sure they added a sour pickle for good measure.
8. During a walking tour of Old Montreal, our guide led us into the Bon Secours Market to view the work of local designers at Boutique Lily Ka. I was instantly smitten with a whimsical LBD (little black dress!) that was created by designer Eve Lavoie and featured a roller skate motif. While others in my group window shopped, I had the sales associate ring it up.
9. Montrealers move by bicycle, and the city is easily the most bicycle-friendly I’ve ever visited. I rented a bike from Montreal on Wheels on the waterfront and I headed out for a four hour expedition across the bridge through Parc Jean Drapeau. The park spans the two islands of Ile Notre Dame and Isle Sainte-Helene, and is also home to the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. I biked the 4.3 kilometre long Formula 1 racetrack that is home to the Grand Prix Montreal each June.
10. Poutine tastes best after midnight, and Dunn’s Famous 24 hour restaurant downtown is the perfect place to rendezvous with friends after the clubs close at three a.m. Our cab driver dropped us off at Dunn’s for a ward-off-a-hangover meal of squeaky cheese curds and gravy-smothered fries before we stumbled back to the hotel a block away. (The perfect nightcap to a memorable stay.)
Other Toque & Canoe approved Montreal hotspots?
– The always delicious Ferreira Cafe (Brilliant atmosphere buoyed by great service and even better food.)
– Chez L’Epicier (Located on a cobblestone street in the heart of vieux Montreal – this resto has a charming and authentically Quebecois feel.)