The switching from English to French mid sentence, the knowledge that there is a secret city underneath my feet, an all-night market and a whole area of the city dedicated to festivals; there can be no denying that there was something truly special about Montreal. Indeed the city left a lasting impression on me thanks to its eclectic neighbourhoods, its cycling culture – it’s the birthplace of the Bixi public bike systems we now see all over the world – and some slightly unusual local foods that it is fiercely proud of.
With Frencher than French road signs (“Arrêt” and “Le Stationnement” instead of “Stop” and “Le Parking” as you see in France) and a mysterious accent that often confused my best efforts at speaking la belle langue, Montreal is a city to be seen and experienced and here are ten reasons why…
1) Street Art
As a street art nut I was bowled over by the many varied offerings that Montreal boasts on main roads, side streets and even on private property. The city has been known to assign many areas over to the talents of local street artists and Montreal is a more colourful and vibrant city for it. Here are more of my photos of Montreal’s street art.
2) Underground City
When temperatures drop to below freezing for many months of the year, it seems obvious that a city would do something about it. Montreal’s solution was an underground network encompassing businesses, shops and restaurants so the cold wouldn’t stop residents going about their daily routines along a network of subways measuring over 20 miles. Believe it or not but you will find almost every outlet imaginable down there including a car lot, museums and universities.
I assume that we can thank Montreal’s French roots for the wonderful markets that sell fresh farmer’s produce and local products at Montreal’s lively markets that take place across the city, the most famous of which is arguably the market at Jean Talon which can be found in Little Italy. With delicious cheeses, organic olive oil, seasonal vegetables and flowers all on offer from stalls that are open 24 hours of the day during the kinder months, Jean Talon is well worth a visit as there’s a good chance there’ll be local musicians busking for those who stay a while.
The purpose built and fabulously named “Quartier des Spectacles” (which badly translates as “The Festivals Quarter”) is an area close to Downtown Montreal dedicated to both council and privately organised events as well as impromptu festivals and entertainment. The multiple open spaces and indoor and outdoor stage like arenas are there to be used by the local people for any reason and throughout the city there are parks and open spaces used regularly for concerts and festivals.
I was lucky enough to be in town for Pop Montreal a non-profit music festival featuring the upcoming international and local bands with many free concerts open to the public events in local parks and pubs. One of the most popular seasonal free festivals is the Tam Tams a drum and beats festival that hundreds flock to enjoy every Sunday during warm enough months up on Mont Royal, which is worth walking up just for the views alone.
5) Vintage shopping
Some cities require you to seek out the vintage shopping as its tucked away in tourist free neighbourhoods, but Montreal boasts its vintage shops proudly and obviously, no doubt encouraged by the young and creative people that give Montreal a lot of its character. The best places to find vintage treats were along Boulevard Saint-Laurent stretching up from Chinatown to the Mile End neighbourhood which is also home to many vintage shops.
Make sure you look out for Eva-B, a flea market within a shop and a store front that looks like a wall of street art. The good news is that there are bargains to be found inside the chaos.
6) The food
While in Montreal there are three things you have to try; Poutine – a cholesterol raising dish of French fries, gravy and cheese curd (the best ones are to be enjoyed in the middle of the night at La Banquise which is open 24 hours a day), smoked meats from Schwartz and a Montreal bagel which tastes tellingly different from your traditional bagel. While these delicacies aren’t for everyone Montreal’s thriving restaurant scene definitely is with French inspired restaurants mixing along side international foods from every corner of the globe. This is a foodie’s city.
After spending three months living in Amsterdam I’m always keen and grateful to discover a city that prioritises cycling and cyclists. Bikes were everywhere in Montreal and I was informed that many of the city’s cycle lanes are cleared by the council come the winter snow. With Bixi bikes available throughout the city too and pretty bike routes running along the waterfront, this is a city for cyclists too.
Our first mistake was trying every beer on the menu at Dieu du Ciel. Our second mistake was not having enough time to go back and do it again. With beers, ales and lagers of all colours, textures and alcohol percentages stretched out in front of me, I learnt that microbreweries in Montreal are wonderful warm and relaxed places where locals wind down after work and the best part was they seem to be often overlooked by tourists.
9) Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal
From the outside the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal doesn’t even hint at the splendour inside. But inside you can’t help but be wow-ed. The dramatic and elaborate curved altar is a real visual treat and don’t forget to seek out the modernist chapel to the rear of the church. Also take a moment outside at the Place d’Armes to spot all the different layers of architecture that has shaped the city from the Normandy style French buildings of the 17th century to the grey stoned 19th century British architecture and the art deco of the early 20th century North America.
10) Coffee shop culture
There are many cool coffee shops dotted around Montreal’s eclectic neighbourhoods, where locals take time to talk or simply watch the world go by, their bikes propped up outside. Unlike many North American cities this is a place where time is to be enjoyed not rushed. In the Old Town there is a popular coffee shop called Olive et Gourmando that serves delicious brews and tasty meals and cakes and it is perfectly placed to rest legs that have grown weary thanks to sight-seeing.
Bonus Tip: If you want to sip on something a little stronger be sure to seek out La Distellerie bars which serve huge cocktails in hurricane jars in moodily lit bars that play a real mix of pop and rock music. The bar men are almost certain to have beards, tattoos and be wearing plaid shirts! Now that’s my kind of bar!
This post was written by Frankie Thompson who was a Travelette from 2012 – 2015. Originally from London, UK, Frankie was nomadic for several years before settling in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where she lives with her Australian partner and baby boy. She spends her time buying vintage dresses, riding a rusty old bike around the canals and writing books inspired by her travels. Frankie blogs about travel, writing and motherhood at As the Bird flies blog.Tweet