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Maybe it’s the accents. Maybe it’s the restaurants — more per capita than any city in North America except New York. Or maybe it’s the joie de vivre that makes it different from any other city on the continent. Montreal’s easy to fall in love with, but doesn’t reveal itself easily to visitors. These 10 tips will get you a little closer to the beating heart of Canada’s second-largest city.
1. Board a ‘747’ From the Airport
Skip the taxi line at Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (YUL). For just $10 Canadian (~$8), the 747 shuttle transports you nine miles straight to downtown Montreal. You’ll still have to deal with traffic, but there’s a bonus: since the bus is part of Montreal’s public transit system, your ticket also buys 24 hours of unlimited travel on the city’s extensive subway and bus network.
2. You’ll Find the Biggest Ideas in the Smallest Museums
The city’s big museums, mostly located along Sherbrooke Street, showcase world-class exhibitions all year round. But Montreal’s smaller, less-trafficked arts institutions offer singular takes on local culture. A former garment factory houses the new Museum of Jewish Montreal, whose in-house café, Fletcher’s, has become a neighborhood hotspot; the ultra-smart Musée Des Ondes Emile Berliner — a “Museum of Soundwaves” — spotlights radios, recording equipment and TVs.
3. Beware of the 15% Sales Tax
For visitors spending greenbacks, Montreal can feel like a shopper’s paradise — that $100 CDN dress you’re caressing is only about $75 in US dollars. Before you go crazy though, make sure you factor in a sales tax of nearly 15%, thanks to Quebec and Canadian levies, which often undoes your gains from favorable currency-exchange rates.
4. Get Out of (Down)town
One of Montreal’s poshest neighborhoods is also one of its most walkable — and it remains blissfully untrafficked by tourists. The retail strip in Westmount, about two miles west of downtown, includes upscale shops like accessories emporium WANT Apothecary and made-in-Quebec fashion label Envers Design. Detox at The Standard, a happening café named for a long-defunct local daily, or Brasserie Central, with its border-hopping mashups of bistro classics — think salmon tartare with jerk spice and green onions.
5. Meet Up With an Ex in Montreal
Everyone you know has probably raved about Mile End, Montreal’s homier answer to the Lower East Side. But Montrealers have moved on to Mile Ex, an amorphous area north of downtown, west of Little Italy and — at the moment — ground zero for coolness. Restaurant Manitoba keeps wowing locals with rustic-chic plates like elderberry-lacquered guinea fowl with Indian celery. Nearby, Never Apart gallery promotes edgy art about “social change and spiritual awareness.” And Notre Dame des Quilles might be Quebec’s only bowling alley/bar with a raucous karaoke scene.
6. When It Comes to Poutine, Old School Rules
Quebec’s best-known culinary export might be the curious concoction of fries, gravy and cheese curds called poutine. And while you can find elevated versions in kitchens from Tokyo to Tallahassee, poutine’s done best down and dirty. For maximum poutine realness, head to Montreal spots like Chez Ma Tante in Montreal North, which some locals call the city’s best; Gibeau Orange Julep, a retro-cool snack bar housed in a giant orange; and Nouveau Systeme, slinging poutine in the Petite-Patrie quarter for half a century.
7. When Montreal Warms Up, Hit the Terrasses
Montrealers work hard to minimize their time outdoors in winter; its downtown core sits atop an interconnected underground city. But in summer, Montreal busts out big time, and terrasses — outdoor dining and drinking spaces — mushroom. Some of the best sprout above eye level, like Old Montreal’s rooftop Terrasse Nelligan, which features knockout skyline and monument views. The sprawling terrasse at gay venue Complexe Sky draws an everything crowd with its hot tub, tiki huts, and downtown views, while Alexandraplatz Bar in Mile Ex is basically an improvised street terrasse, open in warm weather only, and a major see-and-be-seen spot.
8. There Are Festivals All Year, Including Winter
While the massive Montreal International Jazz Festival, held every summer, might be its best-known cultural fest, the city hosts more than 100 festivals year-round, and it’s often worth timing your trip to experience them. There’s the manic Igloofest dance-music festival in January; a children’s film festival in February; the Barbegazi winter sports fest in March; Les FrancoFolies de Montréal, a French-language comedy extravaganza, in June; Jardins de Lumière, a celebration of beautifully lighted gardens, in September; and many, many more, so don’t miss out.
9. Montreal’s a Rock ‘n’ Roll Town
Montreal’s always been a serious rock town. These days, it’s one of North America’s most exciting cities for new music — Besnard Lakes, Plants and Animals, We Are Wolves and many more call it home. You can catch a great show any night of the week at classic bars like Foufounes Electriques, unchanged in a relentlessly gentrifying downtown, and Casa del Popolo, an indie bastion in the tres bourgeois Plateau neighborhood. Newer music hotspots include Bar Le Ritz P.D.B. north of downtown, and Turbo Haus in west-end St.-Henri.
10. Speaking of Rock, Arcade Fire Owns a Restaurant Here
No guarantees you’ll see them busing tables, but Arcade Fire’s power couple, Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, own Agrikol in downtown’s Gay Village. It’s one of Montreal’s few upscale Haitian restaurants, with specialities like griot — crispy pork — and serious rum cocktails, like a dark and stormy.
Have you ever been to Montreal? What are your favorite things to do there?
Featured image of the Montreal Biosphere courtesy of Tourisme Montreal.
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