Food is a great way to explore the diversity of any city, and in Montreal, a great place to start is Jean Talon Market in . A former bus station, Jean Talon is now a sprawling farmer’s market with enough fragrance, flavor and color to fuel Montréal’s best chefs. Try the sweet and savory buckwheat galettes at Creperie du Marche – asparagus with is an unctuous favorite. Don’t miss Olives et Epices, a great resource for spice hunters, and La Fromagerie where tasting the wares is de rigueur.
Get the epicurean backstory from sophisticated food historian Ronald Poiré, whose tasting tour is a gossipy hybrid of history and humor. The earth moved when I tasted my first sugar pie at Jean Talon laced with Quebec’s signature maple syrup. Merci, Ron.
Gourmet food shops pack tasty surprises from the chewy sesame bagels at St-Viateur served warm in a brown paper bag, to Fleur de Sel caramels at Chocolatiere Grandbois, and O&g Bakery’s “Not A Red Velvet Cake.” Design your own poutine at Poutineville, perfect hangover fare, or savor the city staple, a messy smoked meat sandwich from Schwartz’s.
Au Bon Gout
Or go high-end with tastes from some of the best Montréal restaurants and bistros. I love “L’Express,” a classic old-world bistro with jars of cornichons and coarse mustard on every table. Try the duck and chicken liver paté with chewy baguette. There is no exterior sign, so be sure to remember the address: 3927 , the heart, soul, and saveur of Montréal.
Arrive early at Au Pied de Cochon for foie gras served nine ways, including tarte, poutine, or tout nu. Or explore Montréal’s culinary tradition at Le Club Chasse et Peche, Hunting and Fishing Club, for flavorful venison, fish, duck or pheasant. In summer, “Le Club” moves into the historic Chateau Ramezay garden, a green oasis, and the fare gets a bit lighter. Le Club, c’est magnifique!
Montréalers speak with unique twangy expression — imaginespoken by a pirate. They may sound gruff but are astonishingly friendly, and almost everyone speaks a bit of English whether they cop to it or not. They like it when you make an effort to speak French, even if it’s a struggle. I use a reliable one-two of high school French, “merci beaucoups!” and a smile.
Dante kitchen supply & hunting store in Little Italy is one of Montreal’s greatest and weirdest treasures. Local culinary legend Elena Faita runs the kitchen supply and affiliated École de Cuisine Mezza Luna with her telegenic son, Stefano. Her husband runs the guns and ammo side. This shop is beyond eclectic.
Explore Montréal’s fashion-forward spirit in boutiques and upscale shops from the bustling city center down to the Old Port. Enchanting regional creations include handmade pandas at Galerie Zone Orange to trendy fashions along the “Soho” waterfront. Get your street-style on with bespoke bicycle seat covers from Viviane Myette, above, and be the first of your friends to have a funky fur “fantaisie” to keep you warm all winter.
From art galleries to museums, Montréal is a creative metropolis. My go-to is the Contemporary Art Museum with iconic “Lips” on the roof in the lovely Quartier de Spectacles. Don’t miss their first Friday “Nocturnes,” First Friday Art Walks, with live music and bar service. We wandered through Pierre Dorion’s haunting exhibition enjoying music from Esmerine. Grab a bite at Le Bistro Contemporain where artisanal fare is created with the sanest of molecular gastronomy. Chef Mousseau-Rivard’s steelhead trout topped with herbaceous dill “cake,” crème fraiche and caviar was exquisite, tasting of sun and sea.
Celebration and Revelry
Nightlife goes to the wee hours and after-hours clubs are booming, so rest up and pace yourself. We honed our drinking chops at Globe whose late-night menu features a great BBQ pork sandwich – and on Thursdays, $1 oysters.
We reveled in absinthe bar Sarah B. at the posh Hotel Intercontinental and explored the “true” absinthe experience. This historically illegal ritual involves sugar cubes, drippy silver absinthe spoons, and loads of candles – mysterious, intoxicating and highly recommended.
The winter Montréal en Lumière festval brightens the winter darkness with luminous performances from stars like Diana Krall, along with spectacular tasting and toasting opportunities in a winter wonderland. “Nuit Blanche,” the last night of the festival, is an all-night party. Fortunately, local transport is also aglow and runs 24 hours during this spectacular event.
Montréal rocks from minus temperatures right through to warm summer sun. We never miss the annual Jazz Festival where we’ve enjoyed talent like Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, beloved Montréal native son Leonard Cohen, and festival favorites Melody Gardot, Madeleine Peyroux, and Sophie Hunger.
Walk It Off
You can see almost everything in this urban jewel over the course of a few days without ever setting foot in a car. Walk till you drop or bike the urban bicycle network, BIXI, Montréal’s groundbreaking public bike-sharing system. Grab a cycle at one of many conveniently located BIXI stands with the swipe of a credit card. Montréal’s abundant bike paths are used by residents all winter. Or ride the Metro and explore underground, miles of shopping and walking beneath the city streets – great in nasty weather.
Fortresses and Fleur de Lis
Montréal’s architecture spans the centuries with colonial French landmarks, grand Victorian mansions, prim English row houses, and quirky exterior staircases. Contemporary low-rise developments coexist with the texture and grandeur of Gothic churches and Art-Deco government buildings.
Montréal’s lovingly restored waterfront and downtown are an inspiring blend of hip and history, saveur et savoir, grit and glamour. Could this international urban oasis be the future of urbanism? •