A couple of days before we left Toronto, we picked up the car that was to take us all the way to Nova Scotia on Canada’s Atlantic coast. By then I was already getting itchy feet and was really feeling the urge to hit the road. The drive up to Montréal takes around five to six hours, one of the shorter legs on our journey, and so we stuffed everything into the back of the Ford Focus and went on our way.
Driving into Montréal, we noticed an immediate contrast with what we’d seen of Canada so far. First of all, Montréal is a very green city, with its tree-lined boulevards and plentiful parks and smaller green spaces. The verdant Mont Royal (Montréal’s namesake) dominates the city’s skyline as it stands proud like a lush green wave waiting to crash onto the concrete blocks below. Secondly, the city has a very European feel compared to Toronto. The façades are more orderly, the architecture more familiar and the old core of the city seems plucked straight out of northern France.
Montréal also has a different character from Toronto. Despite being home to nearly four million residents, Montréal is much quieter and feels more laid-back than Canada’s largest city. Our Airbnb apartment was well-located and super cosy, so we felt at home right away.
We spent the first couple of days exploring the oldest part of Montréal. There were a few pedestrianised cobbled streets, which we had not seen elsewhere so far, and even a few zebra crossings! It was refreshing to be in a slightly more pedestrian-friendly city. We stopped and had breakfast and sat on an outside enclosed terrace, like the ones they have in continental Europe with the umbrellas and wooden chairs, which was the best I’d had so far.
After breakfast, we continued our stroll and took an obligatory stop at the Notre-Dame Basilica. Although not the oldest church in Québec, Notre-Dame was constructed in 1672, it is certainly the most famous and iconic. Although I’m generally not one for churches, I coughed up the $6 entry fee and was amazed by the detail of the interior decoration:
The next day, we were lucky with the weather and decided to spend the day up on Mont Royal. It’s basically a forest on top of a large hill in the centre of the city, and offers spectacular panoramic views over all of Montréal. It’s also a popular spot with runners and exercise freaks (the kind of person who stops in front of you in the street and starts doing squats).
The next day, we took a drive over the Cité du Havre area, which is the old port of Montréal. It is famous for a brutalist housing complex known as Habitat 67, which is a truly stunning piece of architecture reminiscent of London’s Barbican, although arguably better maintained.
Behind Habitat 67 is a secret path, which cannot be accessed without walking across a strip of grass with lots of signs warning you not to trespass. The path offers great views of Habitat 67, but unbeknownst to us, is also the access point to a little surf spot in the Saint Lawrence River.
On our third day, we headed to the botanical gardens. We saw tropical and desert plants in the greenhouses, bonsai trees and all manner of insects. The gardens are also home to a vegetable patch, where multiple cannabis sativa plants have grown metres-tall with gay abandon. This is Canada after all!
Montréal had some of the best eats we’ve had so far in Canada. Corneli’s Pizza (St Laurent Blvd) in Petite Italie is highly recommended for authentic Italian food and there is a gelato place next door too! Continuing the Italian theme is Café Olimpico (Rue Saint Viateur Ouest) in Mile End, a Montréal institution still going strong. I had a vanilla doughnut that was one of the best I’ve ever had.
Montréal is the indisputable capital of poutine. We had ours at La Banquise (Rue Rachel Est), another legendary Montréal eatery. It’s open 24 hours a day and is loud and busy which just adds to the atmosphere. They have almost infinite varieties of poutine, and burgers and hot dogs too. I had pulled pork and coleslaw on mine. The regular size is definitely more than enough for one.
On our last day, we wanted to try some “fine dining” so we had lunch at the aptly-named Manitoba (Rue Saint Zotique Ouest). The place is clearly inspired by the new Nordic food trend sweeping the world right now. I had chicken with courgettes and cream. The food is pared-back and minimal but very tasty. We also had two desserts, one an almond cake and the other some sort of apple Swiss roll, both excellent. The lunch menu is definitely the way to go if you’re on a budget like us, it worked out about $30 per person (with two desserts and a hot drink).
So far, Montréal has been our favourite city. It has a great vibe, not as lively as Toronto, but that’s how we like it. We had great food and great weather, and wouldn’t hesitate to return in a heartbeat.