Montreal: what not to miss

A host of unwritten rules await uninitiated visitors to Montreal. For instance, crosswalks mean nothing to the city’s drivers. Never lift a hand while out walking unless you want several taxis to screech to a halt beside you. And, always refer to the subway as the metro and the corner store as the dépanneur.

Most important of all, you mustn’t leave town unless you have:

    1. Eaten smoked meat at Ben’s Delicatessen or Schwartz’s
    2. Taken afternoon tea at the Ritz
    3. Consumed a bagel hot from the wood-burning ovens at the Fairmount Bagel Bakery or the Saint-Viateur Bagel Shop.

In a city fabled for its cuisine, these are beloved institutions. They serve up signature Montreal fare (as anyone here will tell you, the bagels are better than those of New York). And they’re filled at all times with Montrealers doing what they do best in both official languages-socializing and eating.

You’ll also find many Montrealers on the mountain. If Old Montreal is the tourist heart of this city, Mount Royal is its soul.

Mount Royal
Not so much a mountain as a sprawling hill, it’s an oasis of peace and beauty inhe centre of the city, a natural refuge that has scarcely changed in centuries.

Most of the mountain is protected by Mount Royal Park, designed more than 100 years ago by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect responsible for New York City’s Central Park.

It’s home to:

  • Deep, wild woods laced with trails
  • Man-made Beaver Lake where you can rent paddleboats in summer and skate in winter
  • Two lookouts with stunning vistas – “one of the most wonderful views in the world,” as a visiting Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once put it.

Le Plateau
At the foot of the mountain, conveniently, there’s another of Montreal’s must-sees, a neighborhood known as Le Plateau. Home to a kaleidoscope of people and cultures, the Plateau has emerged as ultra-trendy, by dint of recently being named by an offbeat U.S. magazine as fourth on a list of the top 15 hippest places to live in North America.

Rich and poor, English and French, young and old, locals and tourists, all meet and mingle here. You might even have to queue up for a table at the latest trendy eateries to open along Saint-Laurent Boulevard.

Prince Arthur and Duluth streets provide another opportunity to do as Montrealers do – pick up a bottle of wine at a dépanneur and head for one of the many bring-your-own wine restaurants.

Next page: Old Montreal

Old Montreal
Having explored the quartier du jour, you should also explore the quartier du passé. With weathered, centuries-old stone buildings and the clip clop of horses’ hooves echoing down narrow cobblestone streets, Old Montreal is colonial New France brought to life.

Delights lie around every corner, starting with the fascinating Pointe-à-Callière Archeology Museum. Artfully designed to incorporate archeological excavations on the spot where the city was founded more than 350 years ago, the museum lets visitors literally look back through layers of Montreal.

A few blocks away, the magnificent Notre-Dame Basilica, a study in blue and gold, is widely viewed as one of the most beautiful churches in all of North America. This is the church for the funerals of Quebec’s most notable citizens, including, recently, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau, former Prime Minister of Canada.

One block north, on Saint Jacques Street, the stately old Royal Bank building, with its soaring, vaulted ceilings, is another architectural gem.

Old Port
Some say that you haven’t really seen a city until you’ve seen it from the water, so hop a harbour tour from the Old Port’s busy waterside promenade at the edge of Old Montreal, or take the ferry to Île-Ste-Hélène and the adjacent Île-Notre-Dame. Formerly the site of Expo ’67, these islands now offer tranquil parks, charming gardens, the Montreal casino and a smashing view of downtown across the water.

Botanical Gardens
Off in the East End, only 10 minutes from Old Montreal by metro, lie two attractions you really shouldn’t miss — both turning the spotlight on nature.

1. With treasures such as an exquisite Chinese garden, a rose garden that goes on forever and the largest collection of bonsai trees outside Asia, the vast Montreal Botanical Gardens require at least half a day to properly explore.

2. Across the street, the extraordinary Biodome transports visitors through, in succession:

  • A lush tropical forest
  • A Laurentian forest
  • The Gulf of St. Lawrence
  • The polar climes.

Re-created with astonishing authenticity, the four mini-ecosystems teem with animals, from alligators and beavers to penguins and brilliantly coloured poison-arrow frogs.

The rainforest section, heavy with heat and humidity, is the largest and most ‘inhabited.’ On a recent visit, the first animals I spotted were a sloth, pondering life from high up a towering tree, and two golden-headed tamarins nuzzling and jabbering together on the lower branches.

Biodome spokeswoman, Claudette Lalonde, explained that the male was a recent arrival, following the unfortunate demise of the female’s previous mate, and that the new duo had taken some time to adjust to each other.

“But now they make love all the time,” she added with a smile, “and there should be babies soon.”  Somehow, in Montreal, it’s toujours l’amour.

Felicity Munn is a Montreal-based freelance writer.