FESTIVALS AND ALL THAT JAZZ
Montreal hosts one of the world’s best jazz blowouts (the next Montreal International Jazz Festival is from June 29 to July 9). The program features everything from large-scale outdoor concerts to theatre shows and intimate gigs in cosy jazz clubs such as Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill and Diese Onze. Not a jazz aficionado? Not to worry. At the 2015 festival, non-jazz drawcards included a performance troupe paying homage to the films of Baz Luhrmann and a gig from American rock veterans the Steve Miller Band.
Visiting at another time? Check the festival’s Jazz All-Year Round concert series. The 2016 schedule features nu-jazz artist St Germain (April 6), blues rocker Ben Harper (April 12), boogie-blues outfit George Thorogood and the Destroyers (May 7) and pianist Brad Mehldau (May 27).
Catch up on past festival performances by dropping in to the Maison du Festival where there’s a jazz resource centre on the third floor. It’s free to flip through hundreds of magazines and thousands of videos, concerts, photographs and audio files.
For something a whole lot crazier, wriggle into your quirkiest winter outfit to dance to the beat of DJs under the stars. Igloofest unfolds at the city’s Old Port over four weekends (January 16-February 8).
Foodies, rejoice. Eating your way around Montreal is one of life’s most delicious pleasures. The city offers everything from retro diners to haute French cuisine and playful contemporary dining. Graze your way around the art-deco Atwater market (in summer there are buckets of fresh berries). Deli counters also feature dishes such as pate Chinois (we’d call it shepherd’s pie).
For poutine, head to La Banquise in the bohemian Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood to sample one of its 31 varieties. Montreal also takes great pride in its distinctive bagels (different to the New York variety). Locals are divided on which of two Mile End bakeries – St-Viateur or Fairmount – does them better. For the ultimate retro diner experience, sit at the counter at Wilensky’s Light Lunch and order the special with a drink from the soda fountain.
Of course, this is a city that executes French food with flair. Chef Chuck Hughes serves up a decadent lobster poutine at his fine-diner Garde Manger. Or throw yourself into the happy buzz of Lemeac. It does classic bistro fare such as steak frites, blood pudding, duck confit and calf’s liver, and offers a bargain night-owl menu from 10pm (entrée and main for $25).
Minimalist Mile End restaurant Manitoba puts intriguing wild ingredients front and centre: think hare with huckleberries, seafood with seaweed, and venison with reindeer moss.
IT’S GOT THE LOOK
One of Montreal’s nicknames is La Belle Ville: the beautiful city. While strolling around neighbourhoods such as Little Italy, note the distinctive staircases leading to second-storey apartments (one writer has described them as “twisting their way up facades like wrought-iron rattlesnakes”).
In Old Montreal some buildings date back to the 17th century, making this area one of North America’s oldest urban areas. Explore its narrow cobblestone streets by taking a seat in a horse-drawn carriage known as a caleche. The grand interior of the 19th-century Notre-Dame Cathedral is also a must-see.
Part of the city’s enormous charm is its easy blend of old and new architecture. On a manmade peninsula jutting into the St Lawrence River is Habitat 67 – a ground-breaking housing project in which concrete “boxes” appear to be randomly stacked on top of each other. Moshe Safdie’s design was realised as part of Expo 67. Montreal Tower is another striking legacy project, this time from the 1976 Olympic Games. Built at a gravity-defying 45-degree angle, the 165-metre tower is the world’s tallest inclined tower.
Montreal has more drawcard projects in the pipeline. In 2016, an observatory will open at the top of Place Ville Marie – a cross-shaped skyscraper co-designed by I.M. Pei (creator of the Louvre’s famous pyramid). Cirque du Soleil is involved in the transformation of the building’s upper four floors.
A SPRING FLING
When Montreal thaws at the end of winter, it’s not only the streets that come alive (pedestrians use the “underground city” to travel around downtown during winter). Sap also starts to flow through maple trees, leading to what’s known as the “sugaring off” season when workers tap the trunks for the sap that becomes one of Canada’s most famous products.
Quebec’s sugar-shack feasts are a hearty banquet of traditional dishes – think pea soup, meat pie with fruit ketchup, omelette soufflé, baked beans, pancakes and the like – which are usually doused in maple syrup. Look for a “sugar shack” – they’ve now sprung up in urban locations – during March and April.
Spring temperatures can be brisk but Montreal offers intriguing ways to stay warm. Point yourself towards Bota Bota – a spa located within an old ferryboat docked at the Old Port. Plunge into the Nordic water circuit that includes a dry sauna, cold-water dip and a soak in a warm whirlpool with views over the St Lawrence River. The spa’s signature massage includes a live harp concert.
Within the Biodome (the repurposed velodrome from the 1976 Olympic Games) are re-creations of ecosystems from throughout the Americas, including a warm and humid tropical rainforest.
Montreal has its share of familiar chain hotels – Fairmont, Sheraton, W, Hilton and more – but it’s also home to charming, character-filled boutique properties.
The Gault, on the edge of Old Montreal, is a study in contrasts. Behind the imposing 19th-century greystone façade are just 30 suites featuring a modern, minimalist aesthetic. Filmy curtains temper the natural light streaming in through large French windows while the stark bathrooms channel a scientific laboratory vibe. Statement pieces of 20th-century furniture are strategically located in rooms and public areas while the reception desk, with its blond timber benchtop and stools, doubles as a bar and coffee counter.
Staying at the 23-room Chez Swann is like stepping into the Baz Luhrmann film Moulin Rouge: think lashings of scarlet velvet, drapes dramatically swept aside, bathroom mirrors framed with extravagant swirls and bedheads so tall that you laugh out loud. Dine at the neighbouring brasserie, Le Pois Penche, similarly decked out with velvet chairs, padded sofas and gilt-framed mirrors.
LHotel Montreal calls itself a museum hotel – its striking pop-art and contemporary art collection includes pieces by Warhol, Lichtenstein and Chagall. There’s no cookie-cutter approach here: each of the 56 rooms within the 1870 French revival building features a different look to showcase the original art.
The Quebecois phrase for after-work drinks – cinq a sept or 5 a 7 – just might become your favourite expression as you journey around Montreal’s fabulous drinking holes.
Fans of craft beer should point themselves towards bustling Mile End brewpub Dieu du Ciel! – famed for creations such as a cocoa and vanilla black ale (Aphrodisiaque), smoked hot pepper stout (Mean Aphrodite), a beer brewed with spruce, pine, cedar and fir branches (First of May) and a ginger wheat beer with mustard seeds (February White).
Le Saint-Bock in the Latin Quarter has 40 taps pouring intriguing homemade, local and imported craft brews such as a smoked ale framboise, a double breakfast stout and an Irish red ale.
Want a cool cocktail bar instead? Try the Intercontinental’s Sarah B absinthe bar, named after the Parisian stage actress Sarah Bernhardt who performed in the building next door in the 1880s. Order an absinthe prepared the traditional way, with cold water dispensed from the art deco fountain on the bar, or try an absinthe cocktail (the Sarah La Divine mixes the spirit with limoncello, vodka and lemon juice). Sip your libation in one of the cosy Green Fairy alcoves.
ARTS, CULTURE AND SCULPTURE
Cirque du Soleil, which had its beginnings in Baie-St-Paul north of Quebec City, develops its phenomenally successful theatrical circus shows at its international headquarters in Montreal. It’s only fitting, then, that its newest show Luzia, inspired by the richness of Mexican culture, will debut in Montreal’s Old Port under the big top from April 21, 2016.
Circus is also part of the wide-ranging Montreal en Lumiere annual winter festival (February 18-March 5). The program combines the arts with gastronomy and outdoor family fun – think icy toboggan rides and large-scale lighting spectaculars – in the heart of downtown Montreal. Concerts by the Shenzhen Symphony Orchestra and Toronto singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith are two of the highlights of the 2016 festival.
Montreal’s contribution to the music world includes talents as diverse as Leonard Cohen, Arcade Fire and the Wainwright family. This is also where John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged their 1969 bed-in for peace and recorded the song Give Peace a Chance. Fans can stay in the very same room at Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth (the hotel is closing for a year from June 2016 for renovations) or climb Mount Royal, looking for the multi-lingual Give Peace a Chance sculpture embedded in the ground on the way up.
SUMMER IN THE CITY
What do you do when you live on an urban island hundreds of kilometres from the nearest beaches of the Atlantic coast? You go right ahead and build your own beach. Clock Tower Beach made its debut in the summer of 2012. There’s no swimming – instead the faux-beach in Montreal’s Old Port is designed as a place where people enjoy the sunshine with a cold drink in hand. Sprawl on the sand or sit under a beach umbrella in a brightly coloured chair. Soak up views of the Jacques Cartier Bridge and Ile Sainte-Helene or cool down under the mist stations. In 2015, the beach was open from late May to late September.
Ile Sainte-Helene’s Parc Jean-Drapeau hosts the multi-day Osheaga indie-music festival each summer (the 2016 festival takes place from July 29-31). The 2015 line-up included Florence + The Machine, Ben Harper and Hot Chip – plus a strong Australian presence with Chet Faker, Hermitude and Angus and Julia Stone.
Montreal also hosts the world’s largest comedy festival each summer. Just for Laughs started in 1983 as a modest two-day, French-language event. Now it’s estimated the festival, which in 2016 will take place from July 13-31, generates $80 million for the city’s economy.
CHEER THE HABS
Locals are fanatical about their ice hockey team (tip: just call it hockey). The Montreal Canadiens – also known as the Habs (long story) – play from October to April. It can be tricky to nab a ticket to see a Bell Centre home game but the team releases tickets monthly, so persistence can pay off. Your hotel concierge can also help with tickets that suit a range of budgets.
If you can’t score a stadium seat for love or money, the next best way to soak up the atmosphere is to head to a venue screening the game. Make like a local and head to one of the La Cage sports bars where you can cheer the Habs while devouring duck confit poutine, chicken wings, a Cuban sandwich or brie with pecans and honey. There’s also a great buzz at Boston Pizza outlets during games.
A few blocks from the Bell Centre is m:brgr – a burger bar that tellingly offers a PK 76 burger in homage to star defenceman P.K. Subban. Chasing a sports dining experience that’s more refined? Reserve the chef’s table at Pastaga in Little Italy and you’ll find yourself in the kitchen right next to a plasma screen. Score!
NOSE AROUND THE NEIGHBOURHOODS
Montreal is a city just made for walking. Pull on your most comfortable footwear and strike out to explore the charming neighbourhoods that add so much colour. Most visitors start by walking the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal. Pop into the Notre-Dame Basilica to gape at its astonishing interior, with its dazzling palette of deep-blue and gold. Window-shop at boutiques and galleries or hitch a ride on one of the horse-drawn carriages.
South of Old Montreal, next to Griffintown, is Little Burgundy, home to some of the city’s most talked-about restaurants. Le Boucan Smokehouse serves BBQ with a Quebecois twist (try the pulled pork poutine). On the same block is the minimalist Code-Ambiance: its intriguing haute French dishes include seared foie gras on an apple tart. Keep wandering past the antique dealers of Notre-Dame West Street to find Joe Beef – an unpretentious eatery that sits at Number 81 on the World’s Best Restaurants list.
North-west of downtown is the bohemian Mile End neighbourhood. Drop in to Chez Boris for the Russian doughnuts, which also feature in the café’s famous beignewiches (doughnut sandwiches). Fillings include pulled pork belly with sprouts, spring onions and hoisin sauce. The breakfast beignewich is stacked with bacon and eggs.