Forget the “Paris of North America” cliché — Montréal, QC has always sashayed to its own unique Latin beat. Roaring back to life after more than a decade of economic woes and separatist turmoil, the 21st century has seen the city’s distinctly Québécois melange of the traditional and the hip blossom. There are buzzy new bohemian enclaves. The fashion, food and music scenes are on fire. Chic boutique hotels have upped the romantic ante. What hasn’t changed is Montréalers’ focus on leisure and their penchant for long afternoons and evenings over wine or coffee. Sound like a population hankering for endless weekends? Mais oui!
Summer’s the time to visit, when the city is unleashed from a long winter and shifts into overdrive with a frenzied outdoor itinerary. Downtown sidewalks are crowded till the wee hours as the annual Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (www.montrealjazzfest.com) spills free jazz onto the sweltering pavements, and Just for Laughs, the world’s biggest comedy festival, lets you yuk it up in both official languages (www.justforlaughs.ca). Add a side trip to Québec City, celebrating its 400th anniversary with great fanfare throughout 2008. Celine Dion is scheduled to be there, as well as Cirque du Soleil. And the world’s biggest outdoor multimedia architectural projection — dreamed up by Robert Lepage and Ex Machina — will be splashed across giant grain elevators nightly at the Old Port. www.myquebec2008.com
But back to Montréal. Start your weekend with a bowl of café au lait and a croissant or a bagel with cream cheese and lox — Montréal’s cross-cultural breakfast specialties — on an outdoor terrace while you make your plan.In Montréal, it’s all about neighbourhoods, and each has its own distinct character. Pick a boulevard, pick a theme (traditional, hip, funky, chic, ritzy, sporty, gay), then explore the collage of villages that make up Canada’s second-largest city.
Ignore the touristy overtones and head for the gas lamps and classic cornices of Old Montréal. It’s a cobblestoned warren of tiny galleries and boutiques. Get your history at the stylish Pointe-à-Callière Museum of archaeology and history perched atop the original settlement’s ruins: 350 Place Royale, 514-872-9150, www.pacmusee.qc.ca. Linger outdoors to enjoy the buskers and painters or head indoors for wearable art at the eclectic Reborn: 231 rue Saint-Paul West, 514-499-8549, www.reborn.ws. A fave for casual lunch is Olive et Gourmando, an inspired deli/bakery gone affordably gourmet: 351 rue Saint-Paul West, 514-350-1083, www.oliveetgourmando.com.
Montréal is a walking town in the true European sense, and the best stroll is down French-flavoured rue Saint-Denis. Eavesdrop on the locals’ twangy, slangy peppered-with-English lingo at the very Left Bank L’Express over steak frites or duck confit salad: 3927 rue Saint-Denis, 514-845-5333. Shop at hip Dubuc, HQ for Montréal’s high-profile men’s and women’s wear designer, Philippe Dubuc: 4451 rue Saint-Denis, 514 282-1424, www.dubucstyle.com; or hunt the latest French styles at bargain prices at Paris Pas Cher:4235 rue Saint-Denis, 514-848-9478.Arthur Quentin’s is the mother of all lavish French kitchenware stores: 3960 rue Saint-Denis, 514-843-7513 www.arthurquentin.com; and Bleu Nuit across the street stocks decadent bedroom and kitchen linens from France: 3913 rue Saint-Denis, 514-843-5702.
Pub crawl through the fashionable Plateau District by following Mont-Royal Boulevard. Start at Billy Kun, with live music from classical to jazz, in an unpretentious “tavern chic” environment that includes stuffed ostrich heads mounted on the walls: 354 Mont-Royal East, 514-845-5392, www.bilykun.com. Dine at one of the city’s popular BYOB (bring your own wine) neighbourhood bistros; for example, intimate La Colombe, where chef Moustapha cooks up a fabulous French chalkboard table d’hote menu with influences from his native North Africa: 554 Duluth East, 514- 849-8844.
St. Laurent Boulevard/Mile End
Funky Saint-Laurent Boulevard is the city’s east/west, French/English divide. This busy lifeline between Chinatown and Little Italy is a jumble of Old World and edgy side by side. It runs north into once-decrepit real estate undergoing a renaissance called Mile End, a vaguely defined area of everything from retro furniture to local designer boutiques. Wallpaper magazine recently dubbed it Montréal’s hottest neighbourhood. The Ex-Centris theatre is a hotbed of Indie film screenings where ticket agents’ heads are surreally projected onto video screens: 3536 boulevard Saint Laurent, 514-847-2206, www.ex-centris.com. Casa del Popolo is a vegetarian café that morphs into an indie music Mecca at night: 4873 boulevard Saint-Laurent, 514-284-3804, www.casadelpopolo.com. Then there’s down-to-earth Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, the high temple for lined-up devotees of Montréal smoked meat: 3895 boulevard Saint-Laurent, 514-842-4813, www.schwartzsdeli.com.
Old Port/Lachine Canal
Want to burn off all those foie gras and crème brulée calories? Rent a bike at the Old Port at Montréal on Wheels: 27 de la Commune East, 877-866-0633, www.caroulemontreal.com. Follow the leafy bike path along the Lachine Canal that has gone from gritty-industrial hub to red-brick, factory-loft-lined park. Pass the geodesic dome and block-shaped Habitat 67, vestiges of Montréal’s Expo 67, and watch for one of the city’s best farmer’s markets, the 1930s Atwater Market, where you can pick up a baguette and cheese for a canal-side picnic.
Old Montréal has, in recent years, become the city’s hotspot of boutique hotels with some of the most original accoms in town.
106 Saint-Paul West, 514-877-788-2040, www.hotelnelligan.com.
The classic feel of Old Montréal lingers in the very modern, brick-wall, loft-style rooms, each unique.
449 Sainte-Hélène, 866-904-1616, www.hotelgault.com.
Minimalist, spacious and very de rigeur. Concrete and modern designer furniture make this a hipster magnet.
Le Petit Prince
1384 Overdale, 877-938-9750, www.montrealbandb.com.
A B&B with quirky style in a renovated house, each room colour themed. Funky and different with a great breakfast included.
Le Club Chasse et Pêche: 423 Saint-Claude, 514-861-1112, www.leclubchasseetpeche.com.
High-end French cuisine, one of the city’s best in what The New York Times called a “Gothic-minimalist hunting lodge.”
Toqué: 900 place Jean-Paul-Riopelle, 514-499-2084 www.restaurant-toque.com.
Chef Normand Laprise has become a Montréal icon thanks to his market-based contemporary cuisine.
Au Pied de Cochon: 536 Duluth East, 514-281-1114 www.restaurantaupieddecochon.ca.
Hardcore Québécois cuisine from pigs’ feet to poutine, taken upmarket by renegade chef Martin Picard.