As the gallant Canada goose glides southward to evade the biting frost of its motherland, students from the College, rendered irrational by our Winter Study-induced freedom, can often be found migrating in the opposite direction, towards the glacial but fun-packed streets of Montreal.
A place of adventure and merriment (read: legal inebriation) with a distinctly European flare, Montreal is well worth the trek. Should you and your compadres find your way northward this Winter Study, the following article will provide important direction and tips; it will not keep you out of trouble, but it will allow you to milk my hometown for all it’s got.
Though the cobblestone streets of the Old Port may feel like Paris, Montreal sings to its own tune – and it sounds more like Arcade Fire, the homegrown local indie band, than Edith Piaf or La Marseillaise. For those keen to hear upstart bands in the Montreal indie tradition, check out the venues at Divan Orange (4234 Boulevard St. Laurent) or Il Motore (179 Rue Jean-Talon Ouest) in the city’s Mile End district. For listeners more receptive to electronic music, Igloofest, a massive outdoor rave on the Jacques Cartier pier of the Old Port, is a must-see. In January, a different DJ is featured each weekend, and this year’s roster includes the London dubstep pioneers Digital Mystikz, along with other prominent DJs (see full roster at www.igloofest.ca).
If dancing is your thing, the downtown area around Crescent Street near McGill will not disappoint. Local DJs spin mostly hip-hop, and one rarely faces cover charges for entry. Lively sports bars are only a five-minute walk away on De Maisonneuve Boulevard, and if the Montreal Canadiens – the local professional hockey franchise – are playing, the bars are invariably packed with people and brimming with hometown pride. For a trendier night scene, head to St. Laurent and walk north from Sherbrooke into the Plateau area. The restaurants and bars that line the street are all fun, but I particularly recommend Tokyo Bar or Club Rouge.
For those seeking pleasures of the culinary sort, Montreal offers an endless stream of delectable fixes. Beyond the poutine – a local creation made up of fries, cheese curd and hot gravy that is available at most fast-food joints – Montreal is renowned for top-quality bakeries and pastry shops. Chains like Première Moisson and Au Pain Doré supply the city with fresh baguettes and croissants, and the pastries at Patisserie de Gascogne (4825 Rue Sherbrooke) rival any that I’ve had in Paris. L’express, an elegant restaurant in the Plateau neighborhood (3927 Rue St-Denis), offers mouth-watering steak frites, although a meal without drinks will run you at least 25 Canadian dollars.
The city’s best smoked meat can be found at Schwartz’s (3895 Boulevard St. Laurent), a family-run Jewish delicatessen that dates back to 1928. The tender and juicy smoked meat is well worth the wait, and the long line tends to subside after 8 p.m. And while Montreal’s Chinatown may be half the size of New York’s, what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality – and affordability. A plate of fresh Sichuan string beans and mapo tofu at Le Jardin du Nord (78 Rue de la Gauchetière) will only run you 15 Canadian dollars.
Breakfast – the most important meal of the day – presents a range of scrumptious choices. Lox and cream cheese are best at Beauty’s (93 Avenue Mont-Royal), where one can sample the Montreal bagel, a very different creation from the New York variant. Cosmos Diner in West Montreal (5843 Sherbrooke) has heavenly omelets and challah French toast, and Chez Suzette is famous for its creative renditions of savory French crêpes (3 Rue Saint Paul). For a more refined taste, try Café Holt (1379 Sherbrooke) – the bread pudding served warm with peaches and dark chocolate is a perfect start to the day.
Between the numerous daily food comas, I recommend taking a stroll around the Old Port, the cultural and historic soul of Old Montreal. French fur traders began using the area as a trading post in 1611, and the cobblestone streets and time-honored buildings conjure images of the city’s humble mercantile origins. For a glimpse of the city’s historical blend of homegrown and French imported architecture, check out the Notre-Dame Basilica, a Gothic Revival church that was briefly the largest church in North America upon its completion in 1843. The interior of Notre-Dame is grand and colorful: The ceiling is deep blue and decorated with golden stars, while the rest of the sanctuary is a polychrome of reds, purples, silver and gold. The colors create a dazzling effect, and the five-dollar admission fee is well worth it.
In sum, go to Montreal. It’s more European than Boston, more affordable than New York and a whole lot closer than Paris.