Montreal for Nouveau-bies

by Brian Westbye /
Brian Westbye's picture
Jun 30, 2008 / 3 comments

Je ne parle pas Francais.
I knew it wouldn't be a huge deal. Montreal is famously bi-lingual, and if I learned nothing else in high school French nineteen years ago (and I didn't), I at least learned how to say "I don't speak French" (Je ne parle pas Francais). Still, as my wife and I cruised up Rt. 89 out of Burlington, VT, headed for our first visit to Montreal, the thought of going into this provincial town knowing only how to tell the French-speaking natives that I don't speak French was a bit of a nagging concern. Would we have issues? Would we be ignored with snorts and have red wine tossed at us? What would we find north of the border?

What we found was an incredibly warm, inviting city that accommodated speakers of every language, and encouraged us to stay a while and fall in love.

Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve statue: Place d'Armes

Being on a budget, we searched for deals at the Official Montreal Tourism Site, and found a buy-two-nights-get-one-free deal at L'Appartement Hôtel, 455 Rue Sherbrooke (800-363-3010). For under $450 American, we got a suite with kitchen for three nights, including parking, continental breakfast and a gift bag featuring local snacks and coupons for major savings. Not bad. And the staff was very friendly and helpful, and yes, bilingual.

Factoring in driving time, we only had two full days to explore. Fortunately, it is absolutely possible to get a comprehensive overview of Montreal in 48 hours. As I always say, in order to get to know any city, start where the city started and work your way out and off the map.

Day One: Vieux-Montreal.
Take an Orange Line train on the Metro to the Place d'Armes station and wander around the Place d'Armes. From the statue of Montreal founder Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve to the twin spires of Basilique Notre-Dame

Notre Dame 

and the 1847 Bank of Montreal, the sense of a city founded in 1642 is prevalent, even in the presence of modern skyscrapers such as the 1932 Art Deco Aldred Building and the 1968 Banque National. $5.00 gets you into Notre-Dame, and I dare you to find a more incredible church interior. I dare you.

Check out the Pointe-à-Callière, the Montreal Museum of Archeology and History. The museum is located on the spot where the original founders of Montreal landed in 1642, and offers an amazing look at the history and archeological layers of Montreal.

From the Pointe-à-Callière, walk along Rue Ste-Paul through Vieux-Montreal. This is the original town, and you can really feel it, even with all the souvenir stores. Walk to the Place Jacques-Cartier

Place Jacque Cartier 

and linger for a bit over an ice cream, or grab a patio table for some great people watching.

Keep walking over to the Marche Bonsecours,

Marche Bonsecours 

a stunning monument to history and trade. Spend some time soaking in the route. This is history. This is Montreal.

For dinner, go for the Smoked Meat flamm and a pitcher of Blonde at Les 3 Brasseurs, 105 Rue Ste-Paul (514-788-6100). It's a chain in Montreal, but they don't have them where you are. You will rue this fact after dinner.

Day Two: Mont-Royal, the Plateau to St-Louis Square and the Latin Quarter.
Get your most comfortable walking shoes on; you’re gonna need 'em. Day Two starts early with a walk to the peak of Mont-Royal, the crown jewel of Montreal.

At 764 ft., it ain’t Everest. But Mont-Royal is held up with equally reverent pride by Montrealers. Opened in 1876, the park was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (you may be familiar with some of his other public parks: Volunteer Park in Seattle; the Emerald Necklace in Boston; Prospect Park in Brooklyn; and one in Manhattan called Central Park), on land called Hochelaga by the native Iroquois. In 1643, Paul de Chomedey erected a cross at the summit. This feature would be prominently recreated in 1924 with a metal cross rising 102 feet by 30 feet wide. The cross is illuminated nightly and is visible throughout the city.

The climb begins as you ascend Rue Peel to the park entrance at Avenue Des Pins Ouest. If you’re in really good shape and in a hurry, jog up the stairs to the Grand Chalet and observation deck. If you’re like the rest of us, wander up the wooded Olmstead Road. It takes about an hour, but there are distractions along the way, such as Beaver Lake, and switchbacks off the trail allow for some short-cut action.

Take in the view from the Grand Chalet.

Grand Chalet: Mont-Royal 

All of Montreal and the St. Lawrence River lie underneath you close enough to touch. (But of course, don’t try it.) It’s a stunning vista. Continue up the Olmstead Road to the summit, if you’re feeling up to it. Either way, take the stairs back down to Rue Peel. You’ve earned it.

Time for a pint! Take a right on Rue Sherbrooke, walk over to Rue Crescent, and grab a table at Brutopia (1219 Rue Crescent – 514-393-9277). This is a great neighborhood joint with a huge list of geographically diverse appetizers and some fabulous craft brews. Try the Maple Rousse or the Smoked Porter and congratulate yourself for not going in the Hard Rock Café across the street.

After resting up a bit, it’s time to start the evening.  Why not get off the map in your guidebook and live like a Montrealer? Take a stroll through the Plateau neighborhood. The Plateau, roughly between Boulevard St-Laurent and Rue St-Denis, is a quirky mix of college-age bohemia, young families and long-time residents. Cafés seem to line every street, and the people-watching is fabulous. Head over to Square St-Louis, a lovely European-style neighborhood square bordered by Rue St-Denis. Chill for a bit by the fountain as the sun fades and the neighborhood ebbs and flows around you. It’s almost time for dinner.

For a true Montreal culinary experience, throw out the guidebook and eat good in the neighborhood. Right around the corner from Square St-Louis is Le Boeuf Gourmand, at 3666 Rue St-Denis (514-849-8910). This is truly a neighborhood hole-in-the-wall type of place; no frills, no “concept”, and definitely no obnoxious wait-staff re-filling your glass after every tenth sip and asking if “we’re” enjoying the food.

Le Boeuf Gourmand 

And the food? Oh-la-la! Get the special: steak frites with soup or salad. The steak swims in a clarified butter sauce, and the fries are limitless. Sure, you’ll be going for an angioplasty in the morning, but it will be worth it. Besides, you’re on vacation. Live a little.

Continue down Rue Ste-Denis into the heart of the Latin Quarter after dinner. You’ll find no shortage of bars and clubs to keep you busy all night. Take advantage of a unique Montreal experience and find a BYOW (Bring Your Own Wine) restaurant for dessert and a self-induced nightcap. It’s a great way to save some dough. Eat, drink, walk, be merry. Fall in love. You’ll sleep very well tonight.

Montreal is truly a unique city: much like New York and Chicago in chic style; much like Seattle or San Francisco in topography; much like Boston in history; and overall very much like the French fatherland that informs the modern whole. Overall, it is a city that successfully melds old and new and ensures that you’re never more than a few blocks away from a point of interest and some great grub. It’s a city that gently lulls you in and makes you want to return.

And did I mention that it’s a bilingual city?

Les 3 Brassuers

Comments (3)

  • Dr. Jessie Voigts

    14 years 9 months ago

    Brian - you set the standard for travelogue here at! Thanks! we NEED to go..


    Jessie Voigts


  • Ed Forteau

    14 years 9 months ago

    Great tour of
    Montreal. Your words adn photos would cause anyone to make travel plans to this beautiful city.


    Ed Forteau


  • monacake

    13 years 11 months ago

    excellent tour - makes me want to go back as soon as possible. and next time you go, be sure to take in some traditional quebecois music - there are many clubs in and around montreal that are throbbing with it every weekend.

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