When you live somewhere southern and fairly warm most of the year, what better place to spend Thanksgiving than somewhere northern and fairly cold most of the year? Also, I was homesick for a bit of Europe. So off we went to Montreal. We had enjoyed a splendid adventure in the frozen-solid town of Quebec City a couple of years ago at the same time of year, so we happily bounced off the plane, through customs and into our rental car.
We were going “to AirBnB it” as usual (surely as much of a verb as “to google” these days?), but there was nothing available in the heart of ye olde town, and we wanted to be walking distance from most of the museums and restaurants. Instead, we picked the Hotel le Saint-Sulpice in the old city, right next to the Basilique Notre-Dame-de-Montreal. The Basilica should be high on your must-visit list (#1 attraction on some internet sites). In the daytime, you can walk right in and see the gorgeous interior. It is sumptuously decorated in intricate detail on every possible surface area. I was truly impressed — and this from a gal who has spent a significant percentage of her life visiting the best churches in Europe. I would have liked to see the sound-and-light show there at 7pm on many evenings, but it was completely sold out — hint: book your ticket before you arrive in the country. Many classical music concerts are also held inside.
The basilica is not by far the only church in town, but it’s the only one that should be considered a destination. If you pass another, do pop in. Notre Dame de Bon Secours, for example, merits a visit if you are doing a bit of gift-purchasing at the next-door Marché Bon Secours. At this indoor market, you can go into any one of two dozen stores to buy colourful sleepwear for yourself or your kids (my new pyjamas with moose on them are still a big hit months after our return); mixed quality arts and crafts (such as framed dead beetles and spiders, quite macabre); and some interesting jewellery items. There are also many galleries along rue St. Paul Ouest, such as Metiers d’Art with its highly expensive Canadian art pieces and highly rude staff. We failed to make any purchases this trip, which is highly unusual for us.
If you want schlocky crap, wander down Rue Notre Dame (straight down from the basilica) to find your fill of t-shirts and cheap souvenirs with Canada written on them in any colour and font you could possibly desire, if you do inexplicably desire such things in the first place. There is actually a fabulous pottery shop, Centre de Ceramique on rue St Gabriel, but it is only open every third Wednesday from 3–3.30pm or whatever bizarre hours it says on the door, so walk past it once to check out that week’s hours and then come back when you have a better chance of it being open.
If you want to look at good art that you can’t actually purchase, don’t go to the Museum of Contemporary Art. Better named the Museum of Crappy Art, this November, its entire three floors were devoted to the music of Leonard Cohen. I like his music, people! I find I can listen to any of it that I want on itunes due to my monthly $10 Apple Music subscription. I don’t have to travel all the way to Canada for that. And the experience is most certainly not enhanced by hearing other folks’ interpretations of his words set to their own weird howling musical accompaniments or artistic photography shows. We left almost as soon as we arrived, having seen the entire exhibition at record speed. If I had been warned, as I am indeed warning you, I would have left before we had arrived. They didn’t even have a single room of actual contemporary art. I am going to petition the good-looking Trudeau to cancel its license for false advertising and inability to deliver.
A much better choice for artistic viewing is the Musée des Beaux Arts which is totally incredible. There are multiple floors of top notch Canadian art as well as international contemporary pieces. You could easily spend several days in this museum. I tried to but the kids meanly only allowed me several hours — like one and a half.
To learn more about the country rather than just the artists who reside in it, head to the superb Pointe-a-Callière, a.k.a. the Museum of Archaeology and History. The historical significance of this spot, on which Montreal was founded over a thousand years ago, was only realised in the 1980s and it is most appropriate that it was chosen for the then-new museum. Your adventure begins with a ten-minute film describing the history of the city, available by headset in the language of your choosing and complete with 3-D special effects. Next, head downstairs and experience life in the old town spanning a thousand years of history. Maquettes of the city from its beginnings as a few huts between two rivers through to its urbanization and 19th century life are laid out in the basement among the genuine ruins of the old mansion house of Montreal of 1695. There is a special display of life aboard a pirate ship with lots of buttons to press and activities (such as balancing on a bouncy rod) for children to enjoy. No one was around to stop me having a go at everything either. It is quite rightly the most-visited history museum in Canada, interesting and intriguing for both adults and offspring.
For more learning fun (and what is the point of a holiday without that?), head to the Science Museum located on the harbour front. While your kids watch an hour-long IMAX film (several choices), you can catch up with your old Canadian friend, Denise, whom you met twenty-five years ago when you were both working in Moscow. Oh no, wait that’s just me. Instead, you can get a coffee at their food-unoriginal small café and wait for the kids to come rushing down the stairs telling you it wasn’t that interesting after all. Family pricing works very well when you are a combined unit of two mums and three kids under 12, so make sure you get that special deal as it will save you serious Canadian dollars. We headed into the main museum area to further explore, starting with a floor full of Inuit (native Canadian, these days only native Alaskans are eskimos apparently) activities. The kids were fully occupied for over an hour in this area, building teepees, practicing archery and taking multiple-choice quizzes about life on the ice. There was state-of-the-art technology in every area. Exhausted as we were from watching our kids do stuff, they weren’t at all worn out from actually doing it, so we headed upstairs to the massive second floor of continued learning through action. There was even a room where you can build any or all of six special projects (such as wrapping a bouncing ball that must not have its light activated when dropped six feet) with instructors to help you along. However, the best thing must be the giant wall poster of a bum with a word bubble coming out that says, “We produce 15 farts a day!” That would be a serious understatement in our family. Yes, that was probably TMI for you, but I feel it is important feedback for the museum.
If you would like lighter faire than museums for the kiddos, try the Insectarium, located in Montreal’s Space for Life centre. The same area also houses the planetarium (did not see), botanical garden (winter not ideal time though there are some greenhouses) and Biodôme (more on that in a minute). This is Canada’s largest natural museum science complex and, along with all the other #1s, the top attraction to see in Montreal according to that omniscient source, the internet. The Insectarium, as its name might lead you to believe, is basically two floors of mostly-dead insects. The sheer number and variety is overwhelmingly cool, though the spiders made my flesh creep, as did the tree branch structure of a living ant colony, separated from the viewer not by glass but a small trough of shallow water all round. There must have been thousands of specimens, including many different brightly-coloured beetles and butterflies, all clearly visible and so easy to admire, even if you are young or just a very short adult. This was one of the best $50 CAD we spent — throw in another tenner for a jar of edible spicy grasshoppers that my husband purchased from the vending machine on the way out. He declared them delicious, but this did not give sufficient motivation to our daughter to have “a grateful bite”. Younger son gave it a shot but was not as impressed with the flavour as his dad. I am not really convinced said-parent liked them as much as he said he did as the still-almost-full jar continues to sit on our kitchen shelf, months after we are back.
The Biodôme is superb. Four different kinds of forests — woodland, rain, maple and arctic, including tamarin monkeys, puffins and penguins and even a sleeping sloth (oxymoron?) high up in one of the rainforest trees. Like the Insectarium, a family of five is about fifty Canadian dollars, which, considering the upkeep of a place like this, does not seem unreasonable. The warmth of the tropical forest was particularly welcome, given the freezing temperatures outside in November.
Just a short walk from the Space for Life centre is the Montreal Tower. This is a short ascending funicular ride to a view over Montreal. It is the tallest inclined tower in the world, at a 45-degree angle. But what really is most interesting is that it was built to allow the 1976 Olympic stadium roof to open and close through cables attached to its high point. It never worked. Don’t remember Canada ever winning prizes in engineering so perhaps they bit off a little more than they could chew. The view is quite nice at night, seeing the lights of the city twinkle in the distance, but definitely not worth the entry fee. For another kind of view, you can go up the Ferris (“Observation”) Wheel in the old town area on the harbor. This gives nice views (obviously lower than the tower) over the old town and you can “observe” the quaint buildings along the riverfront and the activity on the river (which appeared inactive to us). You get to experience five rotations in twenty minutes for 25 CAD per adult and 20 per kid. Also not worth it. I did it with my ten-year-old since she was begging to do this from the first night, probably due to the bright constantly-changing neon colours with which it is lit every night. Even she was bored after rotation three and tried to text on her phone, but I threw it out the window shrieking “I didn’t pay twenty bucks for this.” #GreatParenting
Our final attempt at a view was an equivalent disaster — having tried funiculars and wheels, we thought we would drive directly to a view ourselves this time in our rental car. We headed for Mont Royal, the gentle hill on the outskirts of the city. We drove around looking for the famous terrasse from which we would see over the river, the old town, the new town, the smoking factories and beyond. We couldn’t find it anywhere. There is no helpful signage in any language. So we stopped where many other cars were parked, admired the view from there, and then climbed for ten minutes over slippery icey stones to the very top of the hill behind us. At least from the highest point, you must get a good view, right? Wrong. No view at all from the stone posts at the top due to the surrounding tree cover. Never mind, the bleak wintry view from the car park wasn’t that interesting anyway. From then on, following the “three strikes and you’re out” policy, we no longer tried to elevate ourselves during the trip.
To watch sports (and who can truly call themselves American if they don’t? Certainly not me, I would never call myself American), head to the Bell Centre for a game of ice hockey. I wasn’t going to pay $120 for the cheapest seats for myself, but I sure was for the boys. When I heard the price, I did say, “Oh are all the cheapest seats sold out?”, but the kind lady at the box office pointed to where the lads would be sitting and I think it was practically above the flood lights. Of course, our two sons had the best time ever together and even managed to buy poutine (the traditional Canadian post-game nourishment of greasy fries slopped over with cheese curds and thick brown gravy) from a vendor outside, before taking an easy Uber back to our hotel. The arena is right by the posh shopping area of Rue de La Montagne, hockey fans being known for their extravagant luxury purchases from Gucci and Yves St. Laurent. However, I myself don’t need a sweater for $275 and so contented myself with just window-shopping. If you do need some posh bling, Chateau l’Ivoire and Kauffmann are waiting for you.
After all this reading, you must be hungry — I know I am — so let’s talk food. There are many great restaurants and they are not insanely expensive, just expect to spend two and a half hours over dinner. Food here is a social occasion, not a functional activity where you want time do something else afterwards like it is in its American neighbour to the south. I recommend Maggie Oakes (great vegan soup, also steak and trout) for lunch; Modavie for dinner with its succulent lamb chops and enormous salade nicoise or duck risotto; and Gibby’s, my favourite choice, not so much for the food (though the bread with bacon bits and famous garlic pickles were tasty, and husband enjoyed a massive sirloin steak with Canadian lobster as their surf-and-turf specialty) but because our waitress was so much fun and the dining room is a former eighteenth century stable, quite stunning with its exposed brick walls and long-beamed ceilings. The production of our Irish coffee was a sight to see — fire brought to the table, glass lit aflame, whisky added, coffee added, huge dollop of whipped cream on top — extra dollop of whipped cream placed on ecstatic daughter’s plate because her ice cream just did not have enough on it already. Cheers all round.
If you want Indian food in Montreal, Restaurant Gandhi is a popular choice with the locals. We had excellent food with not-too-spicy curry for our youngest and everyone was sated for a mere $110 CAD (less than one third the price of Gibby’s, for example). Skip Verses, even though you will read wonderful reviews, because the food is too good, and you will like it so much that you will over-eat and find yourself vomiting in the freezing cold passageway outside. Trust me, I know. If you fail to follow my instructions, book yourself a table and order the sixty-pound ounce steak, make sure you share it with your fellow diners. Just a small tip.
For cheaper meals, there is Kreste Pizzeria, which is near the Museum of Contemporary Art and only costs fifty bucks or so for the whole gang to eat. Even though the pizza was not wood-fired (practically a requirement for my husband to enter a pizza place), the margherita with anchovies was very decent as was the prosciutto y funghi.
L’Usine de Spaghetti is an easy downtown choice for a kid-friendly pasta lunch, though adults will not be particularly impressed. However, after four hours in the science museum, even cardboard would taste good, and I thought my pasta plate was perfectly acceptable — though what was truly an enjoyable surprise was the serve-yourself salad bar with lots of interesting and artful mixed salad offerings. No limp lettuce or soggy tomatoes at this establishment.
You can always skip a real meal and do the Old Montreal Food Tour for $65 CAD per head, which will leave you with a “full, happy stomach” as per the marketing brochure.. Since my daughter would not have eaten anything on this gourmet tasting tour (and nor would I), hubby and the boys set off for six little meals at restaurants around town. They had a fun time but were ironically still very hungry afterwards when they met us in the Spaghetti Factory.
That covers lunch and dinner and walking food. Now for breakfast. Maison Christian Faure is the only place worth going in the old town because it has many different pastries (raspberry passion fruit cake, yum), even macaroons, and a super-fresh fruit salad bowl. Amazingly, unlike the other less impressive places we went, and even though it is small, we were always able to get a table for five. Olive et Gourmando, which has a massive line to get in, even before the tiny place was open in the morning, is just not worth it. We waited patiently, and then did not complain when all five of us were seated around a table for two, as we had great expectations. However, there wasn’t much choice in menu, and the plates were small (such as spicy poached egg sandwiches). The pastries, chocolate or almond croissant et al, were good but not substantially better than any other bakery. Marché de la Villette serves large plates for breakfast or lunch. This does not help when the food is not good. The waffles were almost rock-solid, and the sandwiches had little taste. The fake-touristy style setting of a French café brings in the unsuspecting foreigners like us, but I’m sure fails to win repeat visits.
For an artisanal coffee, try Xavier Artisan on the square in front of the Basilica. Great coffee and a small variety of pastries that taste as good as Olive et Gourmando, but you have space to eat them and they cost much less.
As with any good meal, I shall end with alcohol. The hotel bar at Saint-Sulpice was fine but too small and too brightly lit and simply not cool enough for us. On the food walking tour, my husband had been told of two great breweries, but on arriving at each in turn, was told he could not go in with the boys. So he and I set off in search of “the duck”, which was the tour guide’s final recommendation. This is a former speak-easy, which you can only get into if you know where the secret door is under a neon red “exit” sign (haha, not “entrance”, you are tricked if you’re not in the know) with a small white duck symbol lit up on the pavement in front. The place is full of locals but not so crowded that it’s unpleasant. It met my bar requirements — not too loud to talk, not too full to sit, and really interesting well-made cocktails. A fun evening adventure away from the kids, hooray.
So this brings me to that final all-important question that must be put: In the Montreal vs. Quebec City selection, what’s the winner, and I don’t mean in ice hockey? For tourists, I must admit that Quebec City takes the biscuit (along with a steaming cup of coffee topped with whipped cream). QC is simply more quaint, more compact and has better shopping (including jewellery, not that that matters 😉). Also, the views are better. So pack up, bundle up, call up and book your trip.