Montreal bewitches any visitor with its striking mix of Canadian charm accented with European flair. Yes, French is the official language and yes, cafés, croissants, and fashion creativity abound. But to simply classify this eclectic city as North America’s Paris doesn’t fully acknowledge all of its riches.
From the beauty of Mount Royal, right smack dab in the middle of the city, to the funkiness of the vintage shops, or fripperies, that line cobblestone streets, Montreal is a city of contrasts and complexities.
I admit I wasn’t quite prepared for all the architectural beauty, the vibrancy of the neighborhoods, or the dazzling array of culture. I was swept up and thrown off balance like a teen girl who realizes that the quiet boy next door is actually rather yummy.
Hence, I felt compelled to delve beneath the surface and discover Montreal’s true beauty.
Montreal International Jazz Festival
It didn’t take long to pinpoint. Montreal is a city that worships culture in all forms. So it’s not surprising that Montreal, not Chicago or New Orleans, hosts the largest jazz festival in the world, the Montreal International Jazz Festival.
For more than 30 years, this mind-blowing event has served up live music that includes about 800 concerts from noon to midnight for 10 straight days during the last week of June and first week of July.
If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. I attend scads of music festivals all over the world and I’ve never witnessed anything like it. The main site, Quartier des spectacles, teems with free outdoor shows, and a series of other venues scattered around the city host ticketed events.
What I like about this jazz fest is that while it celebrates the traditional jazz art form, it also features jazz-influenced acts so that even if you think you don’t like jazz, there will be something to pique your interest.
This year’s acts included acclaimed bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spaulding and jazz super trio David Sanchez, Nick Payton and Stefon Harris, as well as Brazilian bossa nova singer Ceu and alt/funk/pop singer/songwriter Me’shell Ndegeocello.
Last year’s fest hosted Sade, The Roots, and Dianne Reeves, as well as jazz icons Kenny Garrett, Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke. So the diversity of acts is clearly a Montreal Jazz Fest staple. Besides the sheer number of concerts, what struck me about the festival was the non-stop activity at the festival site.
A pair of hula hoopers performing a manic routine greeted my first steps into the fest. Then I spotted two aerialists swinging in the middle of the street. Stilt walkers and mimes were close behind.
If you ever forget that Montreal is the city that birthed Cirque Du Soleil, you have only to look down any busy street. Circus performers are everywhere and not just at the jazz festival. Montreal takes its circus arts very seriously.
Considered the world headquarters for circus arts, you can always watch an energetic selection of performers any time your ears need a rest from all of the music.
With celebrity chefs whipping up gourmet treats on every other street and sprawling outdoor food markets open most days, Montreal is a nosher’s nirvana.
My first foodie stop was Brasserie T, an offshoot of Toque!, Montreal’s most popular and highly distinguished restaurant.
Set along a terrace of fountains and the stage for the Quartier des spectacles in downtown Montreal, Brasserie T hops with crowds before, during and after shows. There was a line snaking down the street when I arrived to the sleek, glass encased structure splashed with a bright orange interior.
The menu features seasonal ingredients and contemporary presentation. I sampled lightly grilled salmon with a tangy dill fennel salad. It tasted fresh and expertly seasoned so that the natural flavors shone through.
I topped it off with a glass of ice wine, an iconic Canadian drink that’s created when grapes are frozen on the vine and picked at the coldest point of a winter’s night. The fermented juice is extra sweet because the freezing and thawing of the grapes concentrates the sugars and acids. The flavor is luscious and addictive – I immediately plotted the best methods to pack bottles in my suitcase.
Other popular dishes include chicken liver mousse, a couscous lamb skewer and Parmesan fondue, all decidedly French, but with a North American twist.
Next, I hightailed it to the food shopping Mecca, Jean Talon Market. The biggest outdoor market in North America, this colorful emporium has served up fresh produce since 1933.
Located in the landmark Little Italy neighborhood, the market brims with old world character. Unlike typical American farmer’s markets, this sprawling food fest cannot be experienced with a quick jaunt through the aisles.
With over 300 vendors and free samples everywhere you look, Jean Talon requires stamina and an empty stomach. Along rows of live seafood and insect-devouring plants, I found typical Quebecois products.
I tasted maple syrup lollipops, maple syrup tea, locally produced honey in blueberry and raspberry flavors, mustard spiked with mushrooms and fresh goat cheese from the famed fromagerie.
I could barely move after tasting all of that so I people watched and listened to Peruvian wind pipe musicians (everybody comes to Montreal to play music) performing at the market’s entrance. I spent two hours at Jean Talon just skimming the highlights, but you need at least three hours and good walking shoes to really shop.
You cannot visit Montreal without nibbling the quintessential Quebecois dish of poutine. It’s so much a part of the culture that even McDonald’s serves it. But what is it exactly?
Well, it’s a gloppy concoction of fries, cheddar cheese curds and gravy that tastes a little better than it sounds. Poutine literally translates to mess in French and it is served in both fine restaurants and dives.
I spotted dozens of variations with chicken gravy or bacon thrown in, but I was determined to try the classic version. I plopped down in a food court for a late night taste and it was interesting.
The cheese curds add an unusual texture to the fries and the gravy gives it flavor. Poutine is an essential Montreal experience and I felt a little closer to the city after trying it.
Museums, Monuments and Old Montreal
Montreal is an art and history-loving city, so museums occupy a significant part of the city landscape.
A visit to the huge Montreal Museum of Fine Art is a must, with collections covering everything from contemporary fashion to Inuit drawings. With 35,000 pieces of art in six distinct categories, you cannot breeze through this multi-level museum, as I expected to.
Instead, take a few hours to browse the rare Napoleon collection, Chagall prints and the edgy DesignSpace boutique.
The Montreal History Museum offers the historical perspective of the city on a smaller scale. Three floors of exhibits range from a panorama of the early French and English settlers to videos exploring the modern architecture that Montreal is noted for.
Public art and sculptures fill almost every block in Montreal, but the city’s most famous landmark looms 764 feet above all of the man-made spectacles.
Mount Royal is the highest point in the city and the best place to grab panoramic views. It’s a steep climb, but well worth the effort. Telescopes are scattered around the lookout point and the view is heavenly.
My memory of Mount Royal will always be tied to the vibrant Tam Tam Festival – or Les Tam Tams du Montreal – which unfolds at the foot of Mount Royal. Tam Tam means “drum” in French and all summer through September, you’ll see every kind of drum and percussion instrument at this weekly gathering.
I can’t even describe the energy that flows through hundreds of random people playing drums and percussion and the dancing that it inspires
Locals and tourists drop all inhibitions and dance to the beat from noon until sunset. The quirky Montreal spirit erupts during the Tam Tam Fest and I felt like I uncovered another important aspect of the city.
Old Montreal’s elegant old structures are usually the first images that pop into people’s minds when they envision Montreal, and for good reason. Dating back to 1642, no area symbolizes Montreal’s blend of old world sensibility and big city energy quite as aptly.
Covering 0.4 miles along the edge of the St. Lawrence River, the Old Montreal neighborhood, or Vieux Montreal, provides an enchanting backdrop of cobblestone streets and 17th and 18th century architecture.
The imposing Notre Dame Basilica, with its dazzling light and sound show, is the most famous attraction and the lines winding around the entrance prove that.
My favorite Old Montreal activities were experiencing the café culture, sampling local specialties like salade de crevettes poires (or shrimp salad with saffron pears), people watching along the Place Jacques-Cartier, a public square filled with buskers and sidewalk art vendors, and meandering down the colorful Artist Alley, browsing through paintings and drawings.
Stepping through the narrow streets and receiving hearty “bonjours,” I embraced Montreal the way it embraced me, like a new friend.