Saturday, January 30, 2016

Top 10 Can't Miss Montreal

Any trip to Montreal will be defined not be the number of things you check off a list, but the people you meet and the memories you make! A good starting point, though, are the 10 things below. If you leave Montreal without experiencing the items on this list, you might just have to go back for round two! 

Here is my list of Top 10 Can't Miss Montreal!

1. Smoked Meats (and other culinary experiences)

To be honest, I could have just hopped from cafe to restaurant to bar my whole trip. Quebec is a culinary wonder, and Montreal is the meeting point of traditional French Canadian cuisine and modern creativity from the cadre of international chefs who call the city home. In my opinion, the pièce de résistance of Montreal's food scene is smoked meats (locals usually say it in plural, but I've heard "smoked meat" as well). Wikipedia describes it as "a type of kosher-style deli meat product made by salting and curing beef brisket with spices. The brisket is allowed to absorb the flavors over a week, and is then hot smoked to cook through, and finally steamed to completion."
I don't know the details of the recipe, but I can vouch for the necessity of including smoked meats on your edible tour of the city. The pleasures of the taste buds never end- find my list of the most important culinary experiences in Quebec, here
Smoked meats sandwich from Main Deli, Montreal

For the best smoked meats in the city, you'll find online that Schwartz's is the place to be, but the Main Deli, just across the street, is just as good, less crowded, and has the most incredible, garlicky coleslaw (and I don't even like regular coleslaw!), and has my favorite poutine in the city. 

2. Wander around Vieux Montreal
Old Montreal (vieux means old) is a handful of shop-lined streets clustered around the viuex-port on the St. Lawrence River. This is the most European part of Montreal, with cobblestone streets, 17th-19th century buildings such as Marché Bonsecours and the Notre Dame Basilica, and delicate classic French restaurants. Around the port, there is an ice skating rink in the winter, and in the summer you can rent bikes, skates, and even Segways! The paths are popular among runners and dog walkers. Don't miss the beautiful Montreal Clock Tower
In the summer, Place Jacques-Cartier overflows with tourists enjoying restaurants' outdoor terraces and enthusiastic street performers. In the winter, the area is quiet and rather empty, but the tableau of four-foot long icicles glittering in the yellow street lamps, snow crunching underfoot, and antique window panes glazed with ice is unforgettably lovely. 
St Lawrence River, Montreal, January 2016
Montreal Clock Tower
Ice skating at Vieux-Port
Vieux Montreal
The hostel I stayed in was located in the heart of Old Montreal, on Rue St. Paul, about a block from the port. 
Auberge Saint Paul
3. Experience the Nightlife
Montreal can mean charm, beauty, classic French refinement, but it can also mean wild, rambunctious fun. The city's nightlife is extremely diverse, there's something for everyone! 
You can find great energy somewhere nearly every night of the week- use this list as a starting point- there's something for everyone in Montreal!

4. Enjoy Downtown 
Downtown Montreal is where the French and English meet, it is tall buildings, headquarters of international companies, "Cafe Starbucks Coffee," glamorous people, and a mix of expensive 5-star restaurants and fast food chains. You can't miss poking your head into Taverne Square Dominon, a restaurant/bar that maintains the same rich elegance as when it first opened in 1927. The menu is quite pricey, but it's worth stopping in for a ($9-13) cocktail- I recommend the Rye & Ginger!

5. See McGill's Old World Grandeur
McGill University is one of Canada's elite universities, with the most rigorous admissions process in the country. It is an English-language university located a 10 minute walk from Downtown in the direction of Mount Royal. Founded in 1821, the oldest remaining building is the central Arts Building, built in 1843. The main campus is compact, you can tour the whole thing in less than 20 minutes, and it is absolutely stunning. The 19th century neo-gothic architecture is perfectly suited for an icy winter, and in the warmer months, the wide green lawns are filled with students throwing frisbees, reading, and picnicking. A stroll through campus is definitely worth your while. 

6. Mile End
This is the coolest neighborhood in Montreal. According to me...but I have a strong argument. 
Mile End is 10 of the most artsy, hipster (and non-hipster) friendly blocks in North America. There are little hand drawn maps of Mile End that many business hand out to customers, placing businesses into categories such as lunetterie (glasses shop), designers Quebecois (Quebec designers), magasin de chaussures (sneakers shop), and magasin de curiosite (shop of curiosities). Vintage shopping is particularly fun here, with at least 8 stores that sell high end and low end vintage clothing and furniture. 
Don't miss...
  • St. Viateur Bagel
  • Cafe Olimpico 
  • Annex Vintage
  • Dieu du Ciel beer pub
Mile End offers hours of gleeful wandering, discovering new treasures on every corner, as well as radiant night life. Check it out!

Cheese sampler at Dieu du Ciel

Cafe Olimpico, Mile End
7. Mount Royal

A big hill in the center of Montreal, for which the city is named. Mount Royal Park is a popular place for outdoor activities. You'll see women jogging behind baby carriages, families taking walks, and dogs playing. In the winter, people cross-country ski, snowshoe, and sled here. The autumn foliage is beautiful, and it is a great green escape from the concrete, steel, and glass of Downtown. 

8. Elaborate cathedrals
Some of Montreal's prettiest architecture come in the form of the dozens of cathedrals all over the city. In colonial times, only Roman Catholics were allowed to settle in New France, making Quebec unique among Canadian provinces with 84% of the population claiming Catholic heritage (2001 census). Some of the most stunning churches are...

Notre-Dame Basilica, Old Montreal

Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, Downtown Montreal
Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, Old Montreal

Church of Saint-Pierre-Apotre, The (Gay) Village, Montreal
In addition to its 1850 elegance, the Church of Saint-Pierre-Apotre is also home to the Chapel of Hope, dedicated to victims of AIDS. 

There are also over 100,000 Orthodox Christians living in Quebec, worshiping at the Byzantine style St George Antiochian Orthodox Church and the 109-years-old St. Peter and St. Paul Russian Orthodox Cathedral, among others. With even more Muslims than Orthodox Christians (108,000 in 2001, but that number has shot up in the past 5 years due to asylees and refugees), there are a few mosques, but none of particular architectural significance.

9. Markets
Taste testing your way through several of the city's best markets is the perfect way to spend a Saturday morning. Gaze at mountains of fresh fruit and vegetables and display cases with dozens of varieties of cheese. Sample different types of maple syrup (yes, there are different types!), and grab lunch at one of the small restaurants where you can watch shoppers as you eat. While you won't have the adventure of seeing the shocking cuts of raw meat or unknown fruits of markets in less developed parts of the world, the markets of Montreal are clean and organized, and provide a very pleasant (window) shopping experience. You might even see some unusual local products, like bee pollen! I recommend Marche Atwater and Marche Jean-Talon.



10. Practice Your French

Québécois is the mother tongue of 22% of Canadians (7.3 million people), about 80% of Quebec's population are native francophones, and 95% of the population speak French as their first or second language.
Once outside of Montreal (or when you get pretty deep into the residential neighborhoods of the east side), there are plenty of people who don't speak much English, but within the city people are generally bilingual. Many shop assistants, bartenders, and waiters will address you in French first, and if you respond in English, they usually switch over with you- but not always!
If you speak French and want to practice, this is the perfect place to do it. Just remember, Quebec French is quite different from French in France. If you don't speak French, you'll be fine, and probably pick up a few phrases- qui lait cru!

Go forth to Montreal with this list as a guide, but don't be afraid to stroll away from the "highlights" and find your own top 10!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Flying vs. Driving into a City

I was riding the metro in Montreal and I noticed a girl sitting in the corner seat, carrying two large neon yellow suitcases. I was suddenly hit with that strange feeling you get when you see someone in a window and don't immediately realize it's your own reflection. I have been that girl so many times. She was (probably) heading to the airport, a visit to Montreal behind her, and I realized it was rather strange that I wouldn't see the airport on my trip. 
I drove into Canada from New York City with my friend Dylan, we drove a day trip to Trois Rivieres and Quebec City, and would drive out back to New York, never seeing the city from above. 
suitcase girl

The feeling of driving into a city vs. flying in is quite different. 

When you fly in, you see the whole city from above. You get a sense of  it in relation to the land around it- but only the land you were able to see from the time you descended low enough through the clouds. 

When you drive in, you understand how the city connects to other cities, to the land; how the outskirts and suburbs bleed out, gently rising from farmland or tundra up to the city center. 

When you fly in, you drop into the city quickly and suddenly, it's like...teleporting (but not quite as exciting). Then you get to move from the airport to the center, usually seeing a gritty suburb, usually on public transportation, letting yourself join the fray and noise of the people, melting into the crowd.

When you drive in, the atmosphere builds slowly. It wraps around you, slithers in through the air vents, slides over the windshield. Your license plates betray your foreignness, but you've worked a little harder to be there, so the city is yours more immediately than if you had flown. 

Overall, the choice to dry or fly is often made for you- cost analysis, distance, availability, etc. 
Driving keeps the string connected, from departure to destination, where flying severs that cord.
One method is not necessarily better than the other, but they're different, and the different psychological/emotional feelings should be considered when planning your next trip! 

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Pre-Canada Thoughts

I think of the whole of Canada the same way I think of those American fly over states and the American midwest: quiet, slow, basically the same as the rest of the US apart from maybe a slight accent and an outsized interest in local agricultural products (corn, cheese curds, maple syrup).

Here are 10 Things I Expect from Quebec:

2. French
3. Nice people
4. "Paris without the jet lag" -The New York Times
5. Poutine 
6. Hostel fun 
7. Quaint charm 
8. Great bar/music scene   
9. Meats
10. Cold... 

Now, let's break that down.

I hate being cold. I love winter, I like cold weather in general, but the actual feeling of being cold is the absolute worst. I also tend to feel cold more often and more quickly than other people thanks to poor circulation, so I'm pretty nervous about spending 4 days in Montreal in January. The forecast is 5 degrees Fahrenheit the day we arrive...yay...thankfully it will climb back up to around freezing for the rest of the week, but Monday will definitely be a day of indoor activities.  
me in Montreal

2. French 
It's Quebec. People will speak French.
Québécois is the mother tongue of 22% of Canadians (7.3 million people), about 80% of Quebec's population are native francophones, and 95% of the population speak French as their first or second language.
I can introduce myself and count to 14...thanks, 3rd grade French class!
I'm planning on studying some Québécois phrases on the road to hopefully win some local favor, even with my embarrassingly poor pronunciation.

3. Nice people
That's the Canadian stereotype, right? 

4. "Paris without the jet lag" -The New York Times
I don't really know what this means, exactly, but it's raised my expectations. 
I hope there are croissants. 
5. Poutine 
Speaking of food...I'm not convinced I will like this concoction of french fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds, but I'm definitely looking forward to giving it a try!
6. Hostel fun
We're staying in the coolest and best hostel in Montreal, according to my careful, in-depth research (credit:
While Montreal might be a bit tame, and Canadians might just be less interesting Americans...I am counting on this hostel to provide some much-anticipated international flavor to the trip! Hopefully there will be some hip young travelers looking for adventure that we can swap stories with.

7. Quaint charm
We plan on taking a day trip up to Quebec City- just look at this place!

8. Great bar/music scene
I have a list of about 10 "must go" places. Clearly I can't hit all of them, but I'm excited to check out the nightlife!
9. Meats
Montreal is famous for its meats
Anyone who has been to New France at Busch Gardens, Williamsburg- that's basically how I'm imagining it... 

10. Cold...
I know that we were all complaining about the absurdly hot winter, but now that the cold is actually here, I'll say that I'm a bit apprehensive. I'm sure it will be fine...if worse comes to worst, I'll just huddle in a cafe all week with a big cup of cafe au lait and a plate of smoked meats.

Overall, I'm honestly thrilled to be going to Montreal. I've heard nothing but good things about the city and I can't wait to get out and explore a new part of North America! The challenge of French is particularly exciting. 

Yesterday my friend and traveling companion, Dylan, took me and another friend up in a little Cessna airplane! Dylan is an Air Force pilot-to-be, so we flew over the Hudson River and got a view of the NYC skyline before a quick field trip to New Jersey to drop off our friend at home. Even just that short air tour and brief sojourn to the local rural Jersey airport began to rev the engine on my travel impulses and get me really excited for the trip to Montreal! 
Tomorrow we embark- adventure (or at least good food) awaits!