Wednesday, October 10, 2012

What should a couple of twentysomethings do in MONTREAL?

Dear ESB,

So I hesitated sending this... after all you are a wedding advice blog and I have no business reading you everyday (read: not engaged). But everyone else is getting travel suggestions and I haven't had time to research my upcoming trip to Montreal with my brother since these pesky boards are occupying my time and we leave as soon as I put down my number 2 pencil.

Have any great can't miss places/food/activities for two mid-twentysomethings exploring Montreal for 3 days?


I immediately emailed Anna (former wedding blogger, current PROFESSOR!), the coolest and only Montrealer I know.

She typed this up for you while riding the bus:

So here's the deal with Montreal: if you ask a local to tell you what "to do" while you're here, you will inevitably get a long list of places to eat. That is our conception of "to do" here. Following in that grand tradition, let me get the non-food-related items out of the way:

1) Walk to the top of the "mountain." The "mountain" in the middle of the city that serves as our namesake is actually pretty puny, so you can stroll up one of the winding and not very steep trails (ideally starting from the Parc Avenue side of it) in about an hour. At the top, there is a big chalet with a lookout that gives you a great view of the city. The mountain is also nice for picnicking, and jogging and stuff, if you're one of those people. (On Sundays there's also this spontaneous drumming shindig at the base of the mountain on Parc called the Tamtams that inevitably gets recommended to out-of-towners: proceed with caution. This is only for people with a high tolerance for the hemp-clad.)

2) Walk around the city's Old Port. It's pretty. In recent years it has been transformed into somewhat of an upscale hangout destination, so it is replete with douchey cocktail bars and sometimes quite cute boutiques.

3) Hip neighbourhoods to wander around in (notice my constant use of the word "wander"? Basically, what there is to do in Montreal, other than eat, is WALK. The two have a wonderfully symbiotic relationship) include: the Plateau (formerly hip now just about fully gentrified), the Mile End (fully gentrified but somehow miraculously still hip), and Villeray (the newest destination for the city's young and haircutted). These neighbourhoods will generally be great places to find cute boutiques, cafes, bars, etc. If you like art books and comic books, I will highly recommend Drawn and Quarterly (the infamous indie comic publisher's) shop on Bernard Street in the Mile End.

(Drawn and Quarterly via The Montréal Buzz)

It is a block away from the bagels you have to eat, which I'll get to in a bit. In terms of neighbourhoods, downtown Montreal is pretty generic and not worthy eating, shopping or hanging in much, although Simon's is a mostly-clothing-oriented department store downtown that is good for getting some inexpensive and on-trend schmatas.

4) For cultural events, theatre, dance, music, art shows, etc., check out the listings at CULT Mtl. There is always cool shit happening in the city, and a lot of it is teeny and grassroots and fun to explore. I don't think that our big museums, for example, are where the interesting stuff is at. If you like contemporary art, then I would recommend our Musée d'art contemporain as your one big museum stop because it has a great collection of 20th century québécois artists, who are genuinely important and worth seeing, but otherwise, nose around smaller galleries and shows that you find in the above listings.

5) If you get tired of walking, our bus and metro system are great, and people who are not afraid of city cycling (I cannot claim to be one of them) love our bike-sharing system, Bixi, for getting around.

Ok, now let's talk about food.

Iconic Montreal food places, where you MUST eat (special dispensation given on some of these if you're a vegetarian):

St-Viateur Bagel: The city's most famous bagel spot and the best bagels in the world (yes, New Yorkers, I just said that.) Open 24 hours, always fresh, amazing. Buy one fresh from the wood-burning oven and you don't need any cream cheese or anything to eat it with; it will be hot and doughy and delicious all on its own.

Schwartz's: The city's famous smoked meat place, it is tiny and packed and really no frills but it is a landmark. Order a semi-lean smoked meat sandwich with a pickle (sour or half-sour) and a black cherry soda. Listen to me on this one. Roll home.

(Schwartz's smoked meat sandwich via Wikipedia)

There is ALWAYS a line up outside this place but it moves fast and is worth it. Go during off peak hours (for a late lunch, for example) and you won't have to wait as long. Your only excuse for skipping this place is if you're a vegetarian. I was a vegetarian for fifteen years and the first time I ate one of these sandwiches I immediately regretted all of them.

Au Pied de Cochon: If you have one splurge meal, do it here. And if you decide to do that, call and make a reservation IMMEDIATELY; this place books up fast! This is probably Montreal's most famous restaurant right now, and reinvents traditional Québécois cuisine in a funky, slightly upscale context. It is in line with the general trend of upscale comfort food, but it is so, so much more, and really uniquely Montreal. SHARE YOUR DISHES (the portions are huge, and so splitting is really the way to do). My favourite dishes are the foie gras balls (they're this teeny amuse-bouche that you MUST try, as I have never seen another place prepare foie gras this way), the duck carpaccio (another starter that I feel is overlooked!), and the duck in a can (duck compressed in a can in a traditional French method with foie gras, cabbage and other goodies; literally the best duck I have ever had).

(Duck in a can! from Au Pied de Cochon via urbanspoon)

But everything is amazing; the pig's foot which is the restaurant's namesake is also an iconic dish. This place is the opposite of vegetarian-friendly and you should probably pop a Zantac preemptively if you want to feel ok afterwards. (I always tell couples heading there on a date that the key is to have sex BEFORE dinner. It is impossible to get any kind of laid afterwards.)

Poutine: You should try some. The most well-known place in the city for this is La Banquise, which is open 24 hours, and thus a great place to hobnob with drunk students. I think the poutine at Frite Alors! or Poutineville (both local chains) is better. But really you can get it anywhere. [Editor's Note: You really do need to try poutine. But you know that, right?]

Jean-Talon Market: This is my favourite of Montreal's city markets. It is probably quieting as the weather cools down, but it's still a beautiful place to gawk at gorgeous produce, and sample some of Montreal and Quebec's incredible charcuterie and cheese. (Seriously, try our local cheeses. We don't pasteurize shit here. It's awesome.) Wander around and get lunch there.

If you're still hungry, you SHOULD TRY:

French food: Predictably, Montreal has a tonne of really good French food. I actually really recommend the restaurant where we got married, Au Petit Extra. It is classic French bistro style and very affordable for the quality of the food (pretty midrange pricewise). Montreal also has a lot of good BYOB restaurants, many of them French, which also helps with cost. Le P'tit Plateau is one of these; it is pricy (even with the BYOB) but really delicious. Les Trois Petits Bouchons is a wine bar/bistro that is also awesome for a splurge. I would get a reservation for all three of these places.

Portuguese: Montreal is the land of Portuguese roast chicken. I love Jano on Saint-Laurent, but there are lots of good places.

Sandwiches: Santropol is a Montreal institution, it is hippie-ish and has weird sandwiches with lots of cheese in them. It has a nice garden in the summer and I totally recommend it. Service is slow, but it is much beloved by anyone who has ever been young and crunchy in this city.

Vegan food (it only seemed fair after all the meat talk): Aux Vivres is a fucking awesome Montreal vegan food institution. It used to be run by sketchy hippies; my husband always tells the story of eating there back in the day, and peering into the kitchen only to see a dude stirring a pot of soup with a single dreadlock hanging down into it. (I KNOW). The good news is it's a very nice, seemingly hygienic place now, and the Mekong sandwich (on chapati!) is my favourite thing there. And the creamsicle smoothie. But my friends and I regularly come to blows re: what their best menu item is, because they're all pretty delicious, which is more than you can usually say for a place like that.

French pastries: I am partial to a little hole in the wall called Fous Desserts (who also happened to be the folks who did our wedding cake), but there's also a really great place called Patisserie Rhubarbe around the corner from them that is also excellent, as well as Les Copains D'Abord. On the not-just-French-bakery front, there is also a relatively new little place near my house that I am totally in love with  it's called De Farine et de L'Eau Fraiche and is just the cutest bakery/cafe in the world with awesome cookies and stuff.

(Ice cream sandwiches from Fous Desserts via Montreal Best Food Ever)

Bars: Ok I am going to suck at recommending bars, since I only really ever go to brewpubs anymore (the side effect of being married to a brewer). If you like brewpubs, then you must hit up Dieu Du Ciel  (by far the best brewpub in town) and Cheval Blanc (my favourite bar all around, for quality of beer, atmosphere, music, etc.  It is cool without being intimidating and a chill place to hang for a while. I also love it because it's within stumbling distance of my house, which is not super helpful for you). If you prefer dive bars, I am partial to the Copacabana on St-Laurent, and if you want "cool" bars, then there are a number in the Mile End and Villeray that will probably satisfy you and that I know nothing about.

Brunch: Montreal is hardcore into brunch. Reservoir (also a brewpub, but their brunch is much better than their beer) has my favourite, but it's pretty heavy, so only do it if you're up for it. Also gets crowded. Around the corner from there is Laika, which also has a great brunch that is a bit more traditional but still very creative. Lawrence is reputed to have the best brunch in town, but I have yet to try it and find it a bit pricy; that said, everyone else raves.

If you are hanging out in the old port, you will likely end up surrounded by tourist traps for lunch. Check out Olive and Gourmando, they have excellent sandwiches and other lunch foods and baked goods.

If you want another food splurge, the other very talked about elevated-rustic-food restaurant in town is Joe Beef. It is like the English-speaking cousin to Au Pied de Cochon. I have never been there, but people love it.

Here's the thing though: Montreal has become a fancy food city in recent years, with the rise of foodie culture and all that, but this is fundamentally a city of immigrants and therefore immigrant hole in the wall restos. That is what I love about food in this city – some of my favourite places are dirt cheap little mom and pop hole in the walls, and they are what makes this a great food city. So if there is a specific cuisine you love or are looking for, feel free to comment and ask for recs. We have a lot of great, teeny tiny little places here.

Also, I assume that you've already booked a place to stay, but if you haven't, or if anyone else who is planning on visiting here needs recommendations:  several friends have stayed at this place in my 'hood (which is extremely central) called Victorian Heritage B&B and they've loved it. PLUS IT HAS A SECRET PASSAGEWAY!!! I am not joking! If boutique hotels are more your thing, there are a tonne of those too, but they won't have SECRET PASSAGEWAYS!!!

Man, this is already long enough. I could go on. I hope the recommendations help, and enjoy the best city in the world. (We can be kind of an arrogant bunch.)

Photo at top by Photography and More

p.s. You guys, I have so many requests for city guides: Barcelona, Paris, London, São Paulo, Bermuda, Buenos Aires. Vegas. Email me if you wanna write one.


  1. As a Montrealer - this is spot on. I couldn't have said it better myself, and I have been to almost all places listed, great choices. Though I tend to favour Fairmount bagels.

  2. Depending on when you go, dress warmly! The last time I went, in the dead of January, we would pop into bars to do shots to warm our blood. I am not a big drinker, but it worked.

  3. on joe beef: there's a less-expensive sister restaurant, mckiernan's, beside it; i had one of the best sandwiches of my life (a vegetarian muffaletta) there. absolutely life-altering.

    on bars: i'll second the rave for dieu du ciel, and note that they have fine beer-accompanying nachos. i'm mostly a beer gal as well, but i fell hard for the friendly bartenders at baldwin barmacie, where one can order both excellent cocktails and old-school grilled cheese sandwiches.

    on lodging: we visited in the off season, so we decided to splurge on a swanky hotel room; we stayed at the hotel st. paul near the old port, which did not have a secret passageway but did have posh and comfy digs at an extremely reasonable price.

    on la banquise: order la mexicaine. also kinda life-altering.

    if you're still hungry and/or plan to picnic: atwater market, for the love of god. as indoor/outdoor foodapaloozas go, it kicks the shit out of san francisco's ferry building (sorry, san francisco).

  4. oh, montreal! Anna is spot on, eating and walking are basically the two best things in Montreal. I would like to add biking, as it's my favorite thing to do there.

    If I may suggest...
    on your first morning there, take a metro from your hotel to Jean-Talon station. You can walk from there to the Jean-Talon Market. Take your time to look around and get a cannoli from Motta bakery. When you're done, rent a couple of bixis and bike around the jean-talon/parc/st-laurent/beaubien block. Some of the city's most contemporary architecture is around there. Slowly make your way down Clark street (there's a bike path) until you get to Bernard. Park your bixis & walk around Mile-End. Get some bagels, check out the cute shops and when you're done, get back on the bixis to go to the Plateau area. Park bikes, repeat. There are a lot of bike paths around montreal so it's quite easy to get from neighborhood to neighborhood by bike. Make sure to get the biximo app so you can easily find bixis stations.


  5. What the hell is poutine? Sounds like a nasty word in another language!

    1. chips with gravy

    2. sorry, chips = fries!

    3. AND CHEESE CURDS, JEEZ. The cheese curds are what make it poutine!

      Welcome to Canada.

  6. i want poutine. now. and that duck in a can business has got me all in a tizzy.

  7. I want to go to Montreal now. Mostly, I want to try poutine.

    Some day someone will ask for a Jackson Hole/rural Wyoming guide. I just know it.

    1. I plan on a jackson hole snowboard vacation soon ;)

  8. Thanks for the kind words guys. Poutine is fries with gravy and cheese curds, and it is magic, particularly for the inebriated.

    Terreur, thanks for chiming in on the bixi front. It is indeed a great way to explore different neighbourhoods, if you're not a wuss like me.

    And Bee, the no 1 thing my dad does to rile me up is to claim Fairmount is better than St-Viateur. Fighting words! But I'll admit their bagels are ok too. :)

  9. ESB - dude. Can I humbly suggest that you launch a side blog to deal with these travel requests? Or at least start putting them behind jumps or cuts? With the love of a reader that's been here since 2010, I like the wedding stuff! The travel stuff is sort of...boring.

  10. I'm in Montreal right now! We've spent the day walking around, and enjoyed still super hot bagels from St. Viateur with some fancy goat cheese from a market. We maybe even got a ridiculous picture holding the giant paddle they use to take bagels out of the oven, because they were being amazingly friendly and misinterpreted what kind of picture we intended to take (say, just of the bagels).

    I found Olive et Gourmando when I was staying nearby for a... spatial statistics workshop.... and it was so so good. They make a grilled cheese sandwich with homemade ketchup, and have piles of croissants, and really good salads. Perfect lunch material.

    Up by the bagels, Jeans Jeans Jeans is a fairly fun place to drop in and check out. They have a literal warehouse of jeans, do fittings, help you find good jeans to try on, and do hemming there while you wait.

    Lastly, we're about to go to dinner in Chinatown, at this hot pot place called Little Sheep. Chinatown is fun to walk around in in general, but the hot pot is really good on a cold rainy day.

    Have fun! And thank you Anna for all the recommendations, I'll have to check some of these out! ESB, I like all the travel guides, I'm just figuring I'll have to check to see if there's one whenever I go on vacation.

    1. Yes, both Jeans Jeans Jeans and Little Sheep rule and are impressive finds for a tourist!

  11. WARNING: my husband had the worst restaurant experience of his life at Au Pied de Cochon about four months ago. Everything- the service, the food, the ability to pay -was horrific. I would go into details, but I would do it no justice. Suffice it to say that if you are insulted by your waiter, given the wrong order repeatedly, ignored for 45 minutes and finally told you can't go because all of the debit/credit machines are down and they have no idea how to use an old fashioned card swiper

  12. (sorry, iPad hiccup)

    ...then you have just had the "Au Pied de Cochon" experience.

    Also, be forewarned that rotten restaurant service/surly waitstaff are just part of the Montreal experience.

    That being said, Montreal is a beautiful, fabulous place. Have fun and enjoy exploring!

    1. Cannot agree with rotten restaurant and surly waitstaff in my city! A little general perhaps??

  13. As a born & bred Montrealer I agree with this all. I'd also add that the Chinese lantern festival is on right now at the botanical gardens and it's worth a nighttime visit (with or without a small flask of whiskey in your pocket). I'd also recommend Chantelle's food guide to MTL:

    Bon appétit!

    And if you're going to BIXI, for the love of god bring a helmet. We have the #1 cyclist death & injury rate in N. America.

  14. la banquise and poutineville are pretty whatever, i still say lafleur's is it.

    joe beef is unbelievably good and au pied is possibly even better.

  15. Any demand for a Hobart/Tasmania guide? Can totally do you one!

  16. love this guide! the only thing i would add is patati patata - it's my favorite little hole-in-the-wall spot for burgers and poutine!

  17. This was great! I spent five days in Montreal in June, and this makes me wanna go baaaaaack.

  18. What a great guide, look forward to checking out the city! Any suggestions for Montreal NYE (for a handful of 23/24 year old girls form NYC)?

  19. Happened to stumble up on this article, just loved it. Not usually the kind of guy to comment on these things, but this was extraordinarily well written. Not to mention that I am in love with brewpubs, so it almost felt like the article was written for me! Thank you!!! Cannot just be a coincidence that ESB also stand for Extra Special Bitter.. yum!