Canada’s been great so far, but coming from London I do miss being constantly surrounded by history. That’s not to say that Toronto doesn’t have interesting history; it’s just a little more recent and takes some seeking out. But I do miss the history of Europe, so when El booked a Christmas gift trip to Montréal, a city known for its European feel, I was all “Oui!” and in appreciation made a saber arch of baguettes for him to walk through.
When we landed at Montreal airport, I headed downtown while El made his way to the distribution center to meet some work folks. On my drive, my driver taught some French to help me around the city….most of which I promptly forgot. I definitely got a European vibe, and I was excited for what the city had in store. It was too early to check into our room, so I dropped off my luggage and decided to get a famous Montreal bagel for breakfast. The walk from the hotel to Old Montreal was pretty much all downhill, not normally a big deal, right? Well it had warmed up (to a balmy 35 degrees), and the snow had melted to a lovely slush, so walking on the sidewalks a sloppy mess. I thought Montreal would be like Toronto, where businesses seem to catch the snow on their shovels as it falls, and left my Sorel boots at home. Within fifteen minutes of being outside my normal boots were soaked through, and I was sloshing around in wet boots and socks.
Prior to moving to Canada, I didn’t know that Montreal style bagels were a thing, or what made them so different from New York, but I freaking love bagels and wanted to try them out. The bagel factory recommended by Lonely Planet, St. Viateur, was much farther north in the city than I was willing to walk (didn’t have any cash to do public transport), so I walked to Montreal-Style Bagel Factory on St. Jacques street in Old Montreal. Despite it being boiled in sweetened water, I didn’t think the bagel tasted differently than a NY one, just less doughy. It was only 9:30 in the morning, so I game planned my day over coffee. After our road trips, where we crammed so much into such short amounts of time, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to spread things out and not do everything at once.
The original Bank of Montreal, built in 1847, was my first stop. Across from Notre Dame Basilica, the pantheon style building has an impressive and richly decorated interior. Not quite up to snuff was the snoozer of a bank museum that occupied two rooms of BMO. If you’re someone who’s really into old currency, it might be worth a visit, but the only thing of interest to me was a super rare BMO issued $3 bill.
The streets of Old Montreal were quiet on account of stores not opening until 11, so I walked down to the Historical Centre of Montreal to give my slushy feet a break. Much to my dismay, the centre was closed until the end of January, so I walked along the riverbank to the Museum of Archaeology and History. The visit to the museum starts with a cheesy, but informative and interactive, eighteen minute video that chronicles the history of Montreal. The rest of the museum is spread across several buildings, and the best place to start is the basement. That’s where stone pillars from original frontier buildings still stand, and a 17th century cemetery is located. What’s impressive about the cemetery is there’s an interactive screen nearby that lists the name and year of death for all the people buried there. Also in the basement is information on the Iroqouis and Huron tribes and timelines chronicling the history of the city. The rest of the museum has different displays devoted to different periods of Montreal history, which I really found interesting.
One of the more impressive exhibits is a new one that starts on the exact spot where Montreal was founded and details the Great Peace of Montreal between the indigenous peoples and the settlers. Both groups did gestures that were respective of customs of the other side: the settlers made beaded wampums for the North American Indians, and the N.A. Indians put their signatures to a document to agree to terms. What’s really incredible is that each chief used a different animal drawing to represent their tribe and community interests. Each “signature” is catalogued and explained in detail in the exhibit. It’s awesome. There was a special exhibition on the “Passion of Hockey” that was heavy on the Montreal love (Wanderers!). The exhibit was cool but paled compared to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. There was, however, a folksy country kids’ song about hockey playing overhead, which was…odd. And it was in French, which actually made me laugh out loud.
It had started to lightly snow, but I wanted to walk along the pedestrian friendly Promenade and quays. I passed by the Ferris Wheel and ice skating rink and saw workers busy setting up for that evening’s Igloo Fest, an outdoor rave party. L’Horloge Quay has an impressive clock tower memorial dedicated the sailors of WWI and erected by the Prince of Wales. Worth a visit. I walked down Old Montreal’s famous Rue St. Paul (or RuPaul as I kept accidentally calling it), the oldest cobblestoned street in Montreal. After all that walking in the slush, I had to get a pair of boots or be miserable the rest of the weekend. Leaving my boots back in Toronto was both an inconvenient and expensive mistake.
Elliot met me back at the hotel, and we walked down to Old Montreal to explore. We stopped at Nyks, a cozy spot stylistically influenced by English pubs, to hang out before dinner. We took an Uber to Bistro Brasserie Les Soeurs Grises, a trendy brewery dedicated to the Grey Nuns of Montreal, a religious order founded by one of Montreal’s socialites who decided to dedicate her life to God. While there, we had a delicious amber that our Meghan Markle lookalike waitress recommended. Part of my Christmas gift was a Groupon to a microbrewery located on Montreal’s southwest side, L’Annexe St-Ambroise. The mac ‘n cheese included in the Groupon was really good, and although the beers were pretty awful, we were able to watch the Caps play the Canadiens (I dared to wear my Caps shirt), always a plus. Because we couldn’t even finish our beers, we decided to find another sports bar to finish watching the game. Moose Bawr (click on the link solely for their super jacked moose logo) was definitely not our scene: sticky floors and rammed with young college aged kids getting totally blasted. It was the kind of place where I didn’t end up taking off my coat b/c I was nervous that drunk asses would give me shit about my Caps shirt. Especially after the Caps lost. Womp womp.
I took El to the Montreal bagel place in the morning, and he didn’t see the fuss about the bagel style either. Our first stop was Notre-Dame Basilica, where the architecture was so impressive that we sat in a pew and just looked around. Everything was incredible, from the architecture to the history of Montreal portrayed in the stained glass windows to the details of saints portrayed in the petals of flowers on the ceiling.
The day before, I passed by a vintage poster shop around the corner from the Basilica and made a mental note to visit with Elliot. We love vintage posters, having bought several from Poster Felix by the Catedral de Sevilla, and were intrigued by what we saw in the windows. Visiting L’Affichiste was my favorite part of visiting Montreal, and Karen, the shop owner, was incredible. Not only did she show us all of her posters, but she also took the time to teach us about what to look for in vintage posters. She told us about the lithographic process, how Soviet era posters have the number of posters produced stamped on them, how to look for the printer and artists, and the different styles of posters produced throughout the wars. Her collection, particularly the travel and propaganda posters, was incredible, and there were so many that caught our eye. We ended up leaving the store with a really cool contemporary Swiss Grand Prix poster from a Danish artist and an original, turn of the 20th century, advertisement poster for a French liquor called Quinquina.
Satisfied with our purchase and time in the store, we walked east on St. Paul street, discovering that Montreal is a much bigger city than we expected. We were starting to get hungry and had to try one of Montreal’s other food staples, poutine. We made our way north to La Banquise, apparently a Montreal institution for poutine. Because we got there a little after lunchtime, the line outside wasn’t too long and only took twenty minutes before we got a table. It reminded us of Breakfast Club in London, lots of crammed tables and the smell of fried deliciousness permeating the air. I got classic poutine, and El tried the bacon, onion, and sausage version. Even though we got the “regular” portion size, it was super filling but oh so delicious. After lunch, we checked out two craft beer spots a bit further north in the Mile End district. As we drove there, we noticed the staircases outside of Montreal that’s unique to the city. The two spots, Isle de Garde and Dieu du Ciel, had great selections and are definitely worth a visit.
Another part of my Christmas gift was a Groupon for a four course dinner show at the House of Jazz. The restaurant is really opulent, decorated with chandeliers and photos of jazz artists who’ve played there, and has a retro feel to it. Our seats were right next to the stage, and the piano, bass, and drums players played a really great set. Watching the bass players’ hands move was so hypnotic it was like a religious experience. The food was pretty good, but the music and ambiance are what really made the night. High fives to Elliot for the idea.
The next morning, we stopped at La Petit Dep, a cute coffee/candy shop that’s been on St. Paul street since 1822 before getting lunch at 3 Brasseurs down the street. The food was really good, but the service was soooo slow and we had to scarf down lunch to make our flight back to Toronto. If you’re looking for a cool sports bar with a good atmosphere though, it’s a great spot.
Montreal was the perfect cure to my history “homesickness”. Not only did it satisfy my inner nerd, but also my inner hunger monster with its delicious food offerings. It’ll definitely be a repeat visit while we’re in Canada, but we’ll probably save the next one for the summertime. Even then, I’m not leaving my Sorels at home…
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