French speaking Montreal has everything: an amazing eating out scene, a scenic waterfront, stunning stone buildings, magnificent cathedrals, cobble-stone streets and charming cafes. It’s also a destination that knows how to let its hair down – particularly this year as Quebec’s largest city celebrates its 375th anniversary. And, at less than seven hours flying time from the UK, Montreal is closer than you think. TNT shows you the way to go…
Marvel at The Notre Dame
The neo-gothic Notre Dame basilica - where the late, great Luciano Pavarotti rec-orded his celebrated Christmas concert - is a masterpiece in itself. However to celebrate the 375th anniversary of the city’s founding, its grand interior will be the site of a multi-billion dollar laser show which will light up the columns, stained glass windows, statues and crazily ornate ceiling of the basilica for a whole year.
Most tourists make the Old Montreal neighbourhood their first port of call and for good reason. The scenic waterfront, stunning stone buildings, magnificent ca-thedrals and churches (Mark Twain famously called Montreal “a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window”) and cobblestone streets of Montreal’s Old Town could keep you contented for days.
For the TNT team, much of Montreal’s appeal lies in losing yourself in the Bo-hemian enclaves of Little Italy, The Village and Plateau Mont-Royal. The latter, home to Montreal’s media and creative folk, captures the imagination like no other neighbourhood. So much so that it was even the star of its own show - Les Bobos - which looked at the life and loves of the Plateau's hip residents and ran from 2012-2013. It’s fun to browse the vibrant boutiques along Boulevard St Laurent, before retiring for a cafe au lait in one of the Plateau’s quirky pavement cafes. (Unlike other Canadian metropolises, Montreal has yet to be Starbucks-ified).
When you want to escape the hustle and bustle of Montreal, go to the city’s green lungs - aka Mont Royal Park. This leafy expanse was designed by Frederick Law Omsted, the architect behind New York’s Central Park, and holds a special place in the hearts of Montrealers. (Whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of calling Montreal’s ‘mountain’, a hill as Oscar Wilde once did in the 1880s). You can reach Mont Royal Park by taxi, public transport or by BIXI - the super affordable public solar powered bicycle system, that served as the blueprint for London’s Santander Cycles (nee Boris bikes).
The Eastern Townships are only an hour's drive from Montreal down the Autoroute 10, but the contrast between Quebec’s cosmopolitan capital and the sleepy ‘Cantons d l’Est’ (as the Eastern Townships are known by its French inhabitants), couldn’t be greater. The Townships’ sparkling blue lakes, quaint villages and rolling hills are reminiscent of New England (indeed the area was initially inhabited by New Englanders who moved north after the American Revolutionary War in the late 1700s) - and provide the perfect backdrop for some serious R and R.
Arch at the entrance of Montreal's La Petite Italie credit: NicolasMcComber
Food glorious food
Make no mistake: Montreal has a love affair with food. The star of this gourmet getaway, is smoked meat sandwiches. Montreal’s best known bastion of brisket is Schwartz’s smoked meat emporium (owned by the Queen of the power ballad, Celine Dion) but be prepared to queue: expect to see a line snaking out of the door regardless of which hour you visit.
Need a break from brisket? Fill your boots with a Montreal bagel, which tend to be smaller and sweeter than their Big Apple counterparts. (There’s a fierce, yet friendly, rivalry between Montrealers and New Yorkers, as to which city serves up the best bagel). Two of the best places to try the Montreal bagel are Fairmont Bagel (www.fairmountbagel.com) and St Viateur Bagel (www.stviateurbagel.com) - look out for the newspaper articles from around the world, on the walls.
Another Montreal must try is poutine - French fries drowned in gravy and cheese curds that are surprisingly satisfying. You’ll find poutine on menus all over Montreal.
Get lost in the underground city
There’s no bad time to visit Montreal: spring sees maple saps rising, summer is all about blossoms and autumn is harvest time while in winter, there’s snowmen. Sure it can be numbingly cold as temperatures plummet (often as low as -20), but this is when ingenious inventions such as Montreal’s Underground City - 20 miles of subterranean pedestrian tunnels packed full of shops, schools, offices, restaurants and concert halls - come into their own. Discover more at www.montrealundergroundcity.com
Yum - poutine credit: LauriPatterson
Got a couple of extra days to kill? Escape to Quebec City. The 400 year old UNESCO World Heritage site - a quick and easy, if unattractive, three hour drive up the road from Montreal - is a remnant of an older, miraculously unspoilt world. Case in point? Despite being the capital of Quebec (and the only North American fortified city whose walls still exist), the pretty city’s half a million inhabitants still refer to Quebec City as a ‘village’.
Montreal is a place of parades, festivals and year round raucous concerts and shows, including those by home grown companies such as Cirque du Soleil (www.cirquedusoleil.com). A fan of jazz? Aim to coincide your visit with the world famous, fantastic Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (www.montrealjazzfest.com) which, this year, is taking place from 28 June-8 July. Alternatively if you want to catch the next Arcade Fire, check out Casa del Popolo (www.casadelpopolo.com) and Sala Rossa (www.lasaladelrosso.it) in Mile End, or Divan Orange (www.divanorange.org) on the Plateau where, for just a few dollars, you can hear indie acts any day of the week.