Last fall after an action-packed weekend in Vancouver, I decided to head back to Canada for more, but this time with my French dictionary in hand and a ticket to Montréal. I crossed a couple of time zones, but it was still an easy overnight flight from San Diego via Chicago. Joining my travel companion upon arrival, we set off for the second largest city in Canada with our appetites and curiosity ready to explore this cosmopolitan, island city.
Founded in 1642 by French settlers, Montréal sits at the base of its namesake, a three peaked hill called Mont Royal. This French speaking, dynamic city boasts charming enclaves like Vieux-Montreal, Little Burgundy, Griffintown and Little Italy. Our accommodations at the 19th century Hotel Place d’Armes put us in the heart of Old Montreal across from the stunning Notre-Dame Basilica and walking distance to the metro.
The Opus metro card provided us easy and efficient transportation throughout the city with our first stop at the famous Schwartz’s Deli where we bellied up to some mean looking brisket.
Quintessential dill pickle in hand, we devoured the first of many savory meals to come. The smoked meat, (marinated in herbs and spices for ten days) came wrapped in a sandwich brushed with mustard and proved to be just the right amount of protein to fuel our long walk through Mont Royal park.
The month of October had ushered in bursts of burnt orange, lemon yellow and rusty red foliage that shrouded the city streets, shores of the St. Lawrence and bountiful parks, so a saunter through Mont Royal checked the box for a perfect Montreal moment. We wound through tunnels of Sugar Maples, Red Oaks and White Pines, leading to the peak where Mont Royal Chalet provides a glorious view of Montreal and the river below from its Belvedere Kondiaronk. An autumn brocade framed the skyline along with the Olympic Park, Biodome, and outlying suburbs in the distance.
If time permits, try to check out Saint Joseph’s Oratory, an iconic Montréal treasure, and the Mont Royal cemetery. A Roman Catholic minor basilica, the oratory boasts one of the largest church domes in the world and stands taller than all other buildings in Montreal. The cemetery spans 165 acres peppered with over 100 tree species alongside obelisks, ornately carved gravestones and elegant statues.
After walking off our hearty sandwich, we taxied to the Museum of Fine Arts for a dose of Canadian culture. Founded in 1860 and housed in several pavilions, the museum highlights Canadian painters, First Nations artifacts and classical painters as well as modern art, international exhibits and a sculpture garden. Our favorite exhibits were the Inuit art on the fourth floor of the Claire and Marc Bourgie Pavilion and the art installations in the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace. Whale vertebrae carvings of wildlife and Inuit dwellings gave a porthole view into the daily lives of the First Nations communities, while lifesize statues of seemingly swaying blue, mushroom-shaped anemones in the contemporary art gallery suggested more of the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. These architecturally rich buildings along the “Golden Square Mile” also encompass a concert hall and auditorium all of which you can reach using an underground passage.
A day rich in nature and culture earned us an evening of trendy grub at some of Montreal’s foremost establishments. Bar George took us back in time with its high, intricately carved ceilings and paneled walls, large stained-glass windows and a black onyx fireplace. A former Victorian mansion turned boutique hotel, we relished the lavish interior while mingling with the Friday night crowd.
On to Liverpool House restaurant where we went to dine at this chic gastropub located in the Southwest District. I chose a tasty trout with herb and crème sauce while my travel partner unleashed on a foie gras breakfast sandwich plated eggs benedict style, (note how the foie gras becomes a theme here). Topped off with some French red wine and baguette, we toasted to the delightful treasures Montreal showed us on our first day.
The next morning, at the recommendation of the concierge, we strolled through the charming streets of the old town to the Marché de la Villette for breakfast. Reminiscent of the typical Parisian bistro in decor, their dishes were a far cry from the croissant and coffee breakfast of champions. The “all in one” cassoulet arrived in a single hot skillet filled with potatoes, sausage, eggs, cheese and yes, foie gras. I’m pretty sure that horse drawn carriage parked stealthily outside the window lie in wait of post-cassoulet patients needing a ride to their next destination.
Fortunately for us girls, waddling through boutiques with a French flair, stylish shoes and winter wear provided the perfect decompression from breakfast. We strolled through the quaint streets and pondered the many fur salons that, as a Californian, I didn’t think still existed. A pair of John Fleuvog boots, a dress from St. James and a few fancy soaps later, we ventured down to the St. Lawrence to take in the rich fall colors and inhale a crisp, northeast air that simmered with apples, woodfired smoke and wet leaves.
Sticking with French tradition, we stopped for petit cupcakes at Les Glaceurs for our 3 PM sugar rush. The pink and yellow floral frosted treats looked almost too pretty to eat.
After a little more window shopping and a cat nap, we set off for dinner at Le Club Chasse et Pêche in the Little Burgundy where we dined on foie gras, duck and filet mignon. This French restaurant with dim lighting and dark wood felt like an old hunting lodge with walls that could tell tall tales of fur trappers, new world explorers and French soldiers.
Sunday morning began with a short metro ride to the Marché Jean Talon farmers market. Towering mountains of vegetables and bundles of yellow flowers lined the wide rows adjacent to stands selling flavored honeys, maple syrup and apple jam. And then there was the butcher shop. I almost collapsed in sheer stupefaction at the size of gargantuan meat cuts, including a porterhouse steak the size of my small dog. If I didn’t leave Quebec soon, I would surely become a candidate for a heart transplant.
Another quick ride on the metro led us to the Jardin Botanique, a gorgeous property featuring rose gardens, tree groves, and greenhouses spread out over 185 acres. The thematic tree spaces fall into geographic schemes such as the Alpine, Pyrenes, Caucasus and First Nations, ideal for a mini tour of the world’s great forests. Though we were there in the fall, there is still plenty to see including medicinal plants, toxic plants as well as the Chinese and Japanese gardens.
Though we were only there for three days, Montreal left a place in my heart and a desire to return and see more of this most royal mountain city. Au revoir et a tout a l’heure!