Am I crazy for going to Montreal in the winter? Maybe, but luckily this city warms my heart in a big way. This French/English-speaking city is partly Canadian, partly European, and entirely its own. This bustling melting pot of a city is a great escape for foodies and culture vultures alike–anytime of year (but if you’re going around this time of year, make sure to pack a scarf!). Here were some of my favorite things to see, do, and eat in Montreal.
For a mid-sized city (Greater Montreal has about 4 million people, making it roughly the size of Greater Seattle), Montreal has some amazing attractions; spots that many larger cities would be jealous of. Here were some of my favorites.
The Underground City
What do you do when temperatures routinely drop below freezing in the fall and winter? You build an underground city! Many cold-climate cities have similar subterranean developments, but Montreal boasts the world’s largest. Built in the 1960s as a way to help Montrealers (or Montrealais, if you prefer the French) stay warm while going about their business. The underground city is a 20-mile-long network of tunnels and passageways, interspersed with shops, restaurants, offices, and hotels. Located just below the city’s center, The Underground City is worth checking out, even in nice weather.
Nowhere in Montreal feels more European than Old Montreal, the historic neighborhood (dating back to the 17th century) on the west bank of the St. Lawrence River. I absolutely fell in love with this neighborhood, and it’s good to know that I can experience a taste of old Europe with just a bus ticket, instead of a plane ticket (though I certainly have the miles). Here you’ll find cobblestone streets, charming French architecture, shops, cafes, lively nightlife (more on that later), and restaurants. If you visit, be sure to check out the Notre-Dame Basilica, one of the most beautiful churches I’ve seen this side of the original Notre-Dame in Paris.
While in Old Montreal, I also visited Pointe-à-Callière: the site of the city’s original European settlement. Today, the site contains a museum dedicated to Montreal’s architecture and history (including its indigenous or “First Peoples” history), as well as the city’s first Catholic cemetery. It’s a wonderful spot to learn about how this beautiful city came to be.
“Mont-Royal” refers to both the peak that gave the city its name, and the massive park that contains it. You’ll find breathtaking views of the city from the peak of Mont-Royal, as well as a crowd of tourists and locals to share them with. But the rest of the park – Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted of Central Park fame – makes for a wonderful stroll as well. Yes, even in the winter, though I was bundled up from head-to-toe a la Ralphie in A Christmas Story.
In Montreal, you’ll find some of the best French food this side of the Atlantic. You’ll also find plenty of dishes that are completely Quebecois, like the poutine I covered in an earlier article. But there is so much more to the city than that. For example, did you know that Montreal has some of the best kosher cuisine in North America? It will take me several trips to enjoy all that this culinary capital has to offer. Here was my first attempt:
Montreal’s historic and robust kosher food scene surprises many visitors, but word seems to be getting out. Montreal has long been a haven for Jewish immigrants, many of whom settled in the city’s historic Mile End neighborhood. And the city has a few unique dishes to show for it. Montreal-style bagels differ from their New York counterparts in that they are finished in a wood-fired oven after being boiled. St-Viateur and Fairmount Bagel – both in Mile End – are far and away the city’s go-to spots for Montreal’s unique contribution to bagel making. Try both, see which you prefer.
Likewise, Montreal-style “smoked meat” is similar to an (American) East Coast pastrami, but with a slight twist. Whereas pastrami is typically cut from the more marbled navel area, smoked meat uses the entire brisket. The result is a looser, stringier take on pastrami. For decades Schwartz’s Deli has been the quintessential spot for smoked meat, but there are plenty of other great options as well. The somewhat newer Jarry Smoked Meat serves the classic dish several imaginative ways, including over poutine. It doesn’t get more Montreal than that.
Middle Eastern Food In Montreal
Montreal is also home to a sizable Arab-Canadian community, with many immigrants hailing from Lebanon, Morocco, and Algeria. As I’ve probably mentioned about a hundred times, I love Middle Eastern food, in part because it’s so accommodating of vegans like myself. One of my favorite spots was Darna Bistroquette, in the centrally located La Petit Patrie neighborhood. “Darna,” means “our home” in Arabic, and I truly felt like I had been welcomed into someone’s home. The North African menu features several vegan standouts, like roasted cauliflower with labneh and an oyster mushroom shawarma. It’s the kind of warm, cozy spot I love to walk into on a cold winter’s day.
I also loved Damas, a high-end Syrian restaurant cooking up creative takes on one of the world’s oldest cuisines. This splurge-worthy restaurant features a 10-course tasting menu, so come hungry! Or you can order a la carte dishes like my delicious moujaddara (Braised lentils with bulgur and caramelized onions). For something quicker and cheaper, head across the street to Damas’ more casual offshoot, Folfol. Here, the menu is Syrian street food and funky fusion dishes like sumac fries (yum… sorry, still dreaming about those).
You didn’t really think I would skip out on French food in one of the world’s largest Francophone cities? Whether you want a more casual bistro or full-on French fine dining, this city has you covered. For the former, I highly recommend Au Petit Extra, a lively bistro where the daily specials are scrawled out on chalkboard (a sure sign of a great bistro, IMHO). For the latter, check out La Chronique, known for its extensive collection of French wines, its exquisitely fresh ingredients, and its commitment to classic French technique. I don’t go fancy often, but when I do, this is my kind of spot.
Nighttime is by far my favorite time in Montreal. While Torontonians might object, I think Montreal has the most exciting nightlife in Canada. Some of the best in North America, in fact. Mark Twain once called this town the “City of a Thousand Steeples,” but I think the “City of a Thousand Nightclubs” might be just as fitting. So where did I go on my nights out in Montreal? Let’s see if I can remember…
Montreal has long been known as a hotbed for indie bands. Several acclaimed bands came out of the Montreal music scene, most notably Arcade Fire. I thought I would try to catch some of the next rising rockstars at Montreal’s most iconic venues. Casa del Popolo in Mile End is a rather small watering hole that showcases big musical talent, as well as spoken word. Nearby, La Sala Rossa is a tapas bar that plays host to jazz and indie acts. It’s totally eclectic, in the way that I have come to expect from Montreal. I ended my Montreal musical tour by heading over to the hip Plateau neighborhood – just east of Mile End – to check out relative newcomer The Diving Bell Social Club. This self-described “multimedia performance venue” plays host to music, comedy, film screenings, drag shows, art installations, and just about any other form of artistic expression you can think of. I’ve never felt so hip.
Old Montreal, Redux
After visiting Old Montreal during the day and walking by all the bars and clubs, I promised myself that I would return at night. I’m happy to report that I kept that promise. My first stop was Flyjin, an underground (literally) Japanese restaurant and bar that plays host to some of the city’s top DJs. My next stop was Coldroom, a low-lit speakeasy serving elevated cocktails. If, like me, you think a well-made cocktail can be as flavorful and complex as haute cuisine, this is the spot for you. In true speakeasy fashion, it’s a little difficult to find. You have to ring a bell next to an unmarked black door at the corner of St. Vincent and St. Amble streets. Sketchy? Maybe a little. But your efforts will be totally rewarded.
I ended my evening out in Old Montreal with a nightcap at Pub Wolf & Workman, a classic British pub housed in a historic 19th-century building, complete with a beautiful courtyard (which I admired from my much warmer spot indoors). This is a great spot for a pint of ale as well as a late-night snack: the kitchen churns out locally sourced artisanal takes on classic pub food. And while the bar closes at 1 am (an ideal time for this aging clubgoer), last call in Quebec is 3 am, giving you young bucks plenty of time to party in a town that is famous for it.
Au Revoir, Montreal!
Since Montreal is about a seven-hour drive from my place in New York, I am tempted to say that I can return to this lively, charming, very French city during the many times that I miss Paris. But that’s not really fair. This very cosmopolitan, yet proudly Quebecois city is brimming with a style, attitude, and cuisine that can’t be replicated. Instead, I think I’ll come back during the many times that I miss Montreal.
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