MAKE no mistake: visiting Montreal is not like going to Paris. True, the brooding facades and crooked streets of Old Montreal feel distinctly European, and yes, the locals take their French seriously. But don’t confuse this cosmopolitan Canadian port city for a fusty, Old World wannabe. Freshened up by a wave of trendy new hotels, shops and restaurants, Montreal sings its own tune — and it sounds more like Arcade Fire, the homegrown indie band, than La Marseillaise. With the city’s debilitating 1990’s recession behind it—and the specter of Québécois secession all but forgotten — a lively patchwork of gleaming skyscrapers, bohemian enclaves and high-gloss hideaways now outshines the city’s gritty industrial past. Given the weak American dollar (off about 9 percent against the Canadian dollar over the last two years), Montreal is not the bargain it used to be. But it’s still cheaper than Paris. And a lot closer.
1) DODGING MIMES
Start in Old Montreal, and ignore the Wish-You-Were-Here postcards, skyline refrigerator magnets and street performers that clog the eastern end of Rue Saint-Paul, the area’s main drag. Instead, focus on the gas-lamped streets lined with rustic limestone buildings: this is the Montreal of romance. While you’re exploring, do a little shopping at Appartement 51 (51, rue Saint-Paul Ouest, 514-223-7648; www.apt51.com), a boudoirlike boutique filled with jewelry, stylish parlor furniture and crocodile bags, and Reborn (231, rue Saint-Paul Ouest, 514-499-8549; www.reborn.ws), another new shop that sells très chic labels like Bless, Preen and Alexandre Herchcovitch.
2) FIELD AND STREAM
The food is just one excuse to find out why everyone is talking about Le Club Chasse et Pêche (423, rue Saint-Claude; 514-861-1112; www.leclubchasseetpeche.com). Behind this young boîte’s unmarked door — save for an enigmatic coat of arms — the fashion flock joins forces with local tycoons and ladies in pearl necklaces in a cavernous interior that might be described as a Gothic-minimalist hunting lodge. Just as tantalizing are the Kurobata risotto appetizer (15 Canadian, or about $13 with $1 equaling 1.16 Canadian dollars) and lobster tail with sweetbreads (30 Canadian dollars).
3) ARCHITECTURE on WHEELS
Time to work off last night’s dinner. Head to the Old Port and rent a bicycle at Montreal on Wheels (27, rue de la Commune Est, 877-866-0633; www.caroulemontreal.com; 7.50 Canadian dollars an hour). Follow the waterfront to the Lachine Canal, a former industrial corridor transformed into a well-manicured park. one of the last great world’s fairs was Montreal’s Expo 67. Hold onto your handlebars because you’re about to whiz past its most spectacular icons: Habitat 67 (2600, avenue Pierre-Dupuy; 514-866-5971; www.habitat67.com) and the Biosphère (160, chemin Tour-de-l’Isle, Île Sainte-Hélène; 514-283-5000; www.biosphere.ec.gc.ca). Habitat, designed by the architect Moshe Safdie, was an exhilarating experiment in modular housing: it looks like an enormous pile of building blocks. Across the Concorde Bridge, on the Île Sainte-Hélène, is the equally sensational Biosphere. Built as the American Pavilion for Expo 67, it houses a museum of hydrology, though the star attraction is the geodesic dome. Allow two to three hours for the entire excursion.
4) A MILE OF HIPSTERS
Follow the hipsters to the Mile-End neighborhood, and bite into a Montreal bagel — it’s a less doughy, but equally delicious, cousin to its New York counterpart. one of the best, with lox and cream cheese (4.79 Canadian dollars), can be found at Fairmount Bagel (74, rue Fairmount Ouest; 514-272-0667; www.fairmountbagel.com). This hole-in-the-wall has been churning them out from its wood-burning oven since 1919, an act of baking that becomes almost performance art when practiced by the quick-wristed chefs. Nearby, discover the well-heeled boutiques and restaurants of the Avenue Laurier, and then turn north onto the Boulevard Saint-Laurent, where the vibe becomes a bit more on the edge. In recent years, Mile-End has become a hotbed for Montreal’s young creative types, and the vanguard shops have followed. Make sure to visit Commissaires (5226, boulevard Saint-Laurent; 514-274-4888), a gallery of experimental furniture and design, and browse the deconstructed frocks of the local it-boy Denis Gagnon (5392A, boulevard Saint-Laurent; 514-272-1719; www.denisgagnon.ca). Most stores close at 5 p.m. on Saturdays.
5) FORGET PARIS
Who needs the Left Bank when you can have L’Express (3927, rue Saint-Denis; 514-845-5333). With crimson walls and checkerboard floors, this bistro-style institution in the fashionable Plateau neighborhood is a longstanding favorite among, well, pretty much everyone. one bite of the steak frites (20.75 Canadian dollars) or croque monsieur (9.10 Canadian dollars), and you’ll be a convert.
6) POPCORN AND HEGEL
Hollywood loves to film in Montreal, but you won’t find any Tinseltown blockbusters at the Ex-Centris theater (3536, boulevard Saint-Laurent; 514-847-2206; www.ex-centris.com; admission is 10 Canadian dollars), a futuristic temple to independent film where the ticket agents appear on video screens as disembodied heads (think Max Headroom). If you feel like talking Hegel, join the bespectacled cineastes who pontificate in the dimly lighted cafe.
7) IS THAT CELINE DION?
Ready to rock out? Continue north to Casa del Popolo (4873, boulevard Saint-Laurent; 514-284-0122; www.casadelpopolo.com), a vegetarian cafe that moonlights as an epicenter of Montreal’s thriving indie music scene. (Come earlier to hear the bands play, or just hang out afterwards at the bar.) Or, if you’re feeling lazy, Ex-Centris shares the block with several stomping grounds for the designer-label crowd. Start out at Globe (3455, boulevard Saint-Laurent; 514-284-3823; www.restaurantglobe.com) or Buonanotte (3518, boulevard Saint-Laurent; 514-848-0644; www.buonanotte.com), where scantily clad waitresses squeeze past dinner plates autographed by George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio and other celebrity patrons. Many Montrealers dismiss these venues as overheated feeding grounds for fashion victims and their star-gawking friends. But, heck, you’re on vacation.
8) PAIN COUTURE
Nurse your hangover at Café Holt (1300, rue Sherbrooke Ouest; 514-282-3750), but don’t forget your sunglasses. Set within the venerable Holt Renfrew department store, its interior is bright and airy with glass walls. Order the bread pudding served warm with peaches and chocolate (8 Canadian dollars), or the poached eggs and smoked salmon (16 Canadian dollars) — both using bread flown in from the Poilâne bakery of Paris.
9) MUSéE OR MUSEUM?
Ah yes, culture. A block from Café Holt, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montreal (1379-80, rue Sherbrooke Ouest; 514-285-2000; www.mmfa.qc.ca; admission is free for the permanent collection, 15 Canadian dollars for special exhibitions) has a strong collection of modern design, Old Masters and contemporary Canadian artists, including Jeff Wall and Ken Lum. A 10-minute walk away is the Canadian Centre for Architecture (1920, rue Baile; 514-939-7026; www.cca.qc.ca; admission is 10 Canadian dollars). This pre-eminent institution, which holds regular exhibitions on architecture and urbanism, was founded by Phyllis Lambert, the Seagram heiress best known for landing Ludwig Mies van der Rohe the commission to design the Seagram Building in New York City. Housed in a 19th-century mansion with a modern stone addition, it’s a striking contrast of old and new—much like Montreal itself.
From New York, travel time to Montreal is about one hour by air, seven hours by car. Round-trip fares from LaGuardia Airport this month start at about $153 on United. The Montreal-Trudeau International Airport is just a 20 minute cab ride from downtown. Taxis within the city center generally run from 7 Canadian dollars (about $6 at with $1 equaling 1.16 Canadian dollars) to 15 Canadian dollars, but the subway is also excellent.
Stay in grand style at the 61-room Hôtel Le Saint-James (355, rue Saint-Jacques; 514-841-3111; www.hotellestjames.com) in Old Montreal. It’s only four years old, but you wouldn’t know it. Occupying a former bank building from 1870, it’s dripping in heavy curtains, dark-paneled walls and gilt chandeliers. Enjoy afternoon tea or predinner cocktails in the elegant atrium. Rooms start at 400 Canadian dollars.
It’s not the city’s newest boutique property, but the Hôtel Gault in Old Montreal (449, rue Sainte-Hélène; 866-904-1616; www.hotelgault.com) is arguably the most sophisticated, with hushed concrete walls and off-white floors, lightly dusted with mid-20th-century furniture. The 30 rooms are similarly spartan and spacious. Rates start at 199 Canadian dollars; 235 Canadian dollars in summer.
Le Petit Prince in downtown Montreal (1384, avenue Overdale; 877-938-9750; www.montrealbandb.com) is a bed-and-breakfast that excels on both counts. Its six color-themed rooms are souped-up with Wi-Fi, flatscreen televisions, boat-size whirlpool tubs and, in some cases, a terrace. The young staff is attentive and makes a mean breakfast. Rates start at 150 to 250 Canadian dollars.(NYTimes)