When a friend of mine recently asked my opinion about how to spend a morning in Montreal, I realized I was finally ready to write this long overdue post. I think it’s reasonable to claim that Montreal is among the most interesting and beautiful cities in North America. It is easily on par with New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, or Guanajuato, some of my other favorites.
I lived in Montreal nearly two full years, experiencing each of the four seasons twice. I didn’t have a car and rarely biked, so I toured the city almost entirely on foot. (Also by bus and subway.)
The following list consists of my favorite spots Montreal. It’s not meant to imply they are the best of some category, but merely that I spent a lot of time at each one and have fond memories that I want to share with you.
The top of Mont Royal
My overwhelming emotional feeling in Montreal was that of loneliness. I’m used to living in smaller cities in California where people smile at me as I walk down the street while the sun shines brightly behind the trees. Montreal, not so much. But, it was good for me. I learned how to be on my own. It took me awhile to figure this out, but when I was feeling down or bored or lonely I would just walk up to the top of Mont Royal, the hill that the city is named after. From the top you get an amazing view of downtown Montreal as well as other examples of the Monteregian hills that make up the local geology.
I’m not sure what it was about the Jean-Talon market. Perhaps I just loved it because the wide array of produce made me feel like I was home in California. No matter the reason, I made it a habit to visit the market, which was a few mile walk from my house, on a regular basis.
The market is surrounded by restaurants and other shops in the Little Italy section of Montreal. One of the main reasons I liked to visit was to shop at the Mexican market El Rey de Taco for supplies. [I missed Mexican food intensely while I lived in Canada and started making it at home nearly every week.]
In the winter the market encloses itself in a tent-like structure and stays open for business. Maple syrup, fresh bread, an amazing cheese market, a gelato place, and a gourmet cooking supply store make visiting in the winter totally worthwhile.
Saint Joseph’s Oratory
It took me a long time to finally make my way to Saint Joseph’s Oratory. The first time I visited was quite by accident. I was biking home from work, got a bit lost in the windy, hilly side streets of Westmount (the town where my school was located, just West of Montreal proper), and suddenly came upon the huge church from behind. Only later did I realize that it is in fact the largest Church in Canada.
A few months later as I started to walk to work instead of bike or ride transit, I found myself passing the basilica on a regular basis. Words and pictures really don’t do justice to the immensity of the structure. It is awe-some.
Cafe Olimpico was located a block from my house in Montreal. I would stop in on my way to the subway once or twice a week, and hang out there when I had time off. The same four or five baristas worked there the entire two years I frequented the place, including one guy with a super awesome definition-of-hipster curly-at-the-end mustache. After nearly a year of visiting, the staff started to recognize me and were super friendly. I made a few friends hanging out there, including a man from Senegal who piqued my interest in traveling to Western Africa.
Part of what makes Olimpico special is what I call the In-N-Out model: having a short menu of low-priced items and focusing on quality over quantity. You can have a latte, an allonge (Americano), or a cappucino. They have other things on the menu for kids, and biscotti and such, but the majority of customers are ordering one of these three standard drinks. You stand in line along a long counter while the baristas are making drinks while taking orders 5 or 10 people down the line. It’s genuinely impressive.
Finally, when it’s warm enough to hang out there, the terrace is really amazing. I really enjoyed being in Quebec when it came time for spring outdoor socializing. [Surprisingly, the snowy picture below was actually taken in April, weeks after the sunny picture above right was taken in March.]
Kouign-Amann is quite simply the best bakery I’ve ever visited. The girl I shared an office with the first year I taught at Marianopolis College recommended it to me and said their signature dish was one of the best pastries she’d ever had. I’m ashamed to say it took me over a year to take her advice and stop in at the patisserie even though I passed it walking from my daughter’s school to the the subway station multiple days per week. When I finally visited, I realized my coworker was not exaggerating. The last month I was in Montreal I squeezed a visit to the cafe in my weekly schedule. Sometimes I wasn’t even planning to stop in until I walked by and the scents coming from inside were irresistible. [To think I was stopping at Cafe Noir for over a year. Sheesh.]
Have you ever been to Montreal? What would be your top 5 list?