ok, it wasn’t a million middle schoolers. but it was about 50, which is basically the same loud, crazy, cat-herding thing. i was a school field trip chaperone. it was insane. it was great.
our jam-packed itinerary took us to a lot of montreal’s key touristy highlights and gave us some unique opportunities for local flavor too. we learned a lot about montreal’s history, and the kids got to practice some french. based on this trip and a previous one with my dear husband, i have some insight to share.
and while you may not find yourself in a similar situation surrounded by 12 and 13 year olds, you absolutely should plan on a trip to montreal soon, because:
- the exchange rate is amazingly good for us americans with $.75 USD = $1 CAD.
- the location is easily accessible especially to northeastern/mid-atlantic folks.
- there’s no jet lag like going to europe, but…
- the culture there feels different enough to feel like you’ve traveled to someplace unique and almost-european (new france!) and…
- while everyone speaks french first, they also all speak english so it’s not out of the comfort zone for us no parlais francais americanos.
- also, poutine.
so what are the go-to things to do in montreal?
basilique notre dame (aka notre dame basilica)
this amazing historic church was built in the 1800s, for a congregation with roots dating back to montreal’s earliest days in the 1600s. when it opened, “Notre-Dame Church was the largest house of worship of any religious denomination in North America,” according to its website, and it really is massive. while it is beautiful and impressive even from the outside, you should pay the price of admission to peek its interior. it is like being enveloped in a warm welcoming embrace with beautiful intricate art. the stained glass windows that line the sides are unlike many other churches because they depict scenes from montreal’s history as opposed to moments from the bible. and the original pulpit that winds up a staircase on the side is not only a work of art but functionally designed to amplify the voice of the priest in the era before microphones and electronics.
bonus art find: out in the public square just outside the basilica (the place d’armes) to the left, there are two statues at the corners of the bank highrise — one of a masked englishman (known by his pug) with his nose turned up at the basilica and one of a frenchwoman (known by her poodle) with her nose turned up at the Bank of Montreal’s historic headquarters. symbolic of montreal’s history. learn more about these sculptures. that bank building (with its dome and columns) is also fun to pop into and reminds me of harry potter’s gringotts bank.
vieux port and rue st. paul (aka the old port area)
montreal’s old port area apparently reached its heyday in the 1800s and in the past 30 years, a lot of the old buildings and waterfront started getting preserved and revitalized to create this prime tourist spot. as a result, it is a very charming mix of industrial revolution era architecture, cobblestone streets, open space, hotels, souvenir shops, restaurants and biking/walking paths. it’s a great place to wander and find tchotchkes during the day. you’ll find night clubs and bars at night.
while in this hood, check out:
pointe-a-calliere, a museum of montreal history that is built on top of an archaeological site with the remnants of constructions from the 1600s and 1700s through the early 1900s. this museum provides a really good deal of background information on the city that is useful as you play tourist. i recommend making this an early stop on any montreal trip and taking one of the guided tours if possible. we started with a “we are montreal” film that is semi-cheesy but i would still recommend it.
little stalls and booths with the wares of local artisans (and maple syrup purveyors) both in place jacques cartier and along the waterfront promenade. the maple syrup stall ladies were especially nice and allowed us to sample all sorts of maple goodness – syrup, jelly, butter… and yes we ended up picking up little jars of all three…
the promenade du vieux port, a pretty walkable and bikeable area by the water. there’s a science center and imax theater along the promenade, as well as ziplining, an indoor maze, horse and carriage rides, and lots of other activities, if you choose to do them (and pay for them)… but in my opinion you could pass on those things and just enjoy the open air and browse the converted shipping containers turned artisan stalls.
cafe olimpico, a tiny coffeeshop tucked next to an alley on rue st. vincent with really friendly baristas, a bare bones but well-executed menu of espresso drinks and a few pastries. the lattes were very very good. there’s not much seating inside but it’s perfectly fine to take a cup to go and stroll the streets.
jardin nelson, a restaurant right on the place de jacques cartier that has a gorgeous back patio with flowers and interesting rain-catching canopies. do not sit inside – i repeat, do not sit inside. only sit in the back patio, which sometimes offers live jazz. the food is decent, but the ambiance is exactly perfect for vacation-mode dining.
2 pierrots, a rowdy bar with live music for your weekend party scene without the pomp or pretense. don’t take kids here, obviously, but if you want a fun and loud night out, i highly recommend. when we went, some of the songs were in english, some were french, the crowd sang along fiercely, and it was all good fun.
beavertails, because who doesn’t like fried dough topped with all the sweet things? there are two locations within spitting distance of each other (one in the science center’s food court along the promenade and one on rue de la commune) that offer these very-montreal sweet snack with your choice of toppings ranging from nutella to apple pie filling.
mont royal (aka mount royal)
mont royal is literally a mountain (or hill) in the middle of a city. sounds weird, except it’s basically montreal’s version of central park — a dedicated public green space in the midst of a well-developed city. in fact, the park was originally designed by frederick law olmstead, the designer of central park, but his plans were never fully realized. we “hiked” (walked up a paved path) to the belvedere kondiaronk (the main lookout). there, you get a great view of the city from a wide open patio next to a chalet building. i’ve heard that in the winter months, it is brutal because of the cold and snow, but i imagine it could be especially scenic then too.
biodome and planetarium
the biodome is basically an indoor zoo. it was made in one of the olympic park buildings and showcases different ecosystems of the americas… so you walk through a “rainforest,” a “maple forest,” etc. if you like to see animals in natural-looking habitats, this can be a fun place to visit.
and while you’re there, i highly recommend getting a ticket for a show at the planetarium as well. instead of auditorium-style seating, this planetarium is outfitted with adirondack chairs and big bean bags. the most relaxing experience ever. we watched a show with a live narrator with a soothing voice and basically felt like we were hanging out and looking at the stars on a country field. i would tell you more but i don’t really remember because my mind basically entered the zone, it was so peaceful.
any nearby convenience store or grocery store
i love visiting grocery stores in new places because you can often find unusual and fun everyday things that make for good souvenirs and gifts back home, or snacks as you’re touring. and while canada is not soooo culturally different from america, you can still find gems especially in the snack and candy aisle.
like contraband kinder eggs.
why is america so concerned with the deadly threats of kinder eggs? i don’t know. but i’ve read news stories and heard tales of kinder eggs getting confiscated at the border, people getting hit with thousands of dollars in fines, the black market for kinder eggs in the states, and lots of general fearmongering about these little chocolate shells filled with joy. but they are so fun, kids love the little toy prize inside, and i love the quality of the chocolate… so rich and creamy… anyway, pick some up at a grocery store or pharmacy, especially if you have kids.
and don’t forget the ketchup chips.
while america has biscuits and gravy chips, pickle chips, wasabi chips, and jalapeno chips, we don’t really ~do~ ketchup chips.
but you can try them in canada! i am partial to the ketchup doritos myself.
another thing we did that you probably can’t do, unless you’re in a tour group: cbc/radio canada tv workshop
one of the coolest experiences these middle schoolers got to do was to run an entire CBC news broadcast. CBC/Radio Canada is canada’s public broadcasting company and runs its own major tv and radio news networks. in this tv workshop perfectly designed for student or tour groups, the kids didn’t just sit at an anchor desk and read off a teleprompter. some kids did that while others operated cameras, ran switchboards, set up microphones, gave a “live report” from a separate green screen… it was really neat to see and experience.
ok, so where’s a good place to stay in montreal?
obviously i can’t give a comprehensive comparison but what i can say is that the two hotels i’ve been to = two thumbs up.
the holiday inn centreville is located on the edge of chinatown and just two blocks from one of montreal’s major attractions, the notre dame basilica, as well as a walkable distance from the cute and touristy vieux port (old port) area, and across the street from a subway station. in other words, this is a great location, and the pricing is not bad. our tour group had breakfasts included at the hotel and it was VERY good. if you recall my excitement at the asian breakfast additions at the waikiki hyatt place, then you should know this hotel had congee with fixins and chow mein alongside eggs, ham, french toast, fruit, pastries and other standard breakfast fare. i loved it. the french toast was also an amazingly light and delicious french toast, not the frozen/sticks/superprocessed kind. the hotel also has a huge koi pond, a small indoor pool with grungy-looking hot tub and sauna.
the auberge du vieux port is a much more luxe and romantic option. this hotel in a building from the 1800s overlooks the st. lawrence river from its front side and overlooks the touristy-and-cute rue st. paul from the back side. we stayed in a room with exposed brick walls where you could open the old historic-looking window and prop yourself on the ledge looking down on the cobblestone street. it is really lovely.
what’s the best way to get around montreal?
for a place that spends half the year in perpetual winter, montreal is an amazingly bike-friendly city. the bixi bikeshare program makes renting a bike possible for almost anyone and there are places to park and lock a bike literally everywhere. and so many bike lanes! there’s a really nice path that runs along the st. lawrence river in vieux port that i would have loved to ride (if i had time and didn’t have all the middle schoolers and if it wasn’t raining), but there are plenty of other routes as well.
the montreal metro (subway) system is not bad either. if you choose to stay at the holiday inn centreville mentioned above, there is a station just across the street. you have to get a card and swipe your way through the gate, a lot like new york city’s subway system… except noticeably less grimy. a fun side note about montreal’s system is that there is a section where a few stations are connected via an “underground city” with miles and miles (or should i say kilometers) of shops like one gigantic underground mall. so if you want to take advantage of the exchange rate and get some shopping in while avoiding the elements, this is the way to do it. as for me, a mall is a mall is a mall and i’d rather be somewhere else less generic, in general.
as for whether you should drive around the city yourself or not, i’d go with not. driving and parking around montreal in my experience can be a tremendous pain. like driving around in any other major city, it can get very congested, there always seems to be construction going on on some major arteries, and the parking signs are confusing as hell–even more confusing than the multiple conflicting signs often seen in d.c., and that is saying something. all the road signs are in french, which is not that big of a deal (e.g. the Arret sign looks like a stop sign) but just provides one more small reason to ditch the car for the duration of your stay.
and don’t forget to eat poutine
french fries topped with savory gravy and cheese curds is the classic version of this dish (pictured here with smoked meats and cole slaw from a restaurant called brisket montreal). but there are tons of variations from bacon/cheddar toppings to brie/red peppers. check out one of poutineville‘s many locations for a wide variety of poutine in heaping huge portions. or if you see it on the menu somewhere, just order it and try it. you can’t leave montreal without trying it at least once.
but what’s this about justin trudeau?
in a serendipitous crazy coincidence of time and place, we met the prime minister of canada justin trudeau on the streets of old montreal. actually, more accurately, i should say we screamed and waved like stereotypical american lunatics on an otherwise quiet street with a handful of calm canadian onlookers. and he waved back to us.
we had just found cafe olimpico as i was starved for good coffee, and found several suits with earpieces hanging around with a few black cars with tinted windows lining the narrow street. curious, my co-chaperone asked the barista what was going on… “oh the prime minister is having a meeting next door.” um what. JUSTIN TRUDEAU??! we went outside the coffee shop and then literally two minutes later, he was next to us, going for a jog. there was basically no one around except his security detail, some restaurant workers across the street and me, my co-chaperone and four girls.
i tried to explain to our group that this was the equivalent of being an overseas visitor walking around doing touristy things in washington, d.c., and happening upon the most popular president in recent history.
we should have gotten a picture but it was so unexpectedly quick, all i have is this story to tell. some of the other chaperones in the big group thought we were making things up… but trust, we know who justin freaking trudeau is, and it was really effing him! this was also during the time that the house had just voted to repeal the aca. sigh…
so there you have it. an ode to montreal and trip report and guide all in one. and here’s a collage of moules frites, an exit sign, the olympic pool and a radio canada studio.