Known as the cultural centre of the Québec province, Montréal is European in character with a generous dose of North American influence. It’s one of the largest francophone cities in the world as well as the second most populated city in Canada, not to mention it’s home to 120 distinct ethnic communities. From Old Montréal and Plateau Mont-Royal, to Little Burgundy and Saint-Laurent Boulevard, I felt as though I’d been around the world and back… in just one week. The city is (was?) also my dad’s birthplace, and when asked where he was from, he would proudly reply “Montréal, je suis Québécois”. Though I would often cover my face out of embarrassment, I see now that this not only speaks to my dad’s character, but also reflects Montréalers as a whole. That is, Montréalers are culturally engaged individuals who take great pride in their city and its history. Needless to say, the Island of Montréal (yes, it’s an island!) has an identifiable cultural personality and a vibrant culture scene that lends itself well to self-proclaimed cultural beings such as myself. Ready to explore?
Le Vieux-Montréal | Old Montréal
Meandering around old towns is one of my favourite pastimes, not only for their inherent charm, but also for the unique origin stories that lie within. Dating back to 1642, Old Montréal is laced with artisanal boutiques, inviting cafés, and trendsetting restaurants. Two of my favourite discoveries were Crew Collective & Café and Tommy Café + Apéro. Situated in the original Royal Bank of Canada headquarters built in 1928, Crew is a co-working space that fosters both creativity and community. Tommy, on the other hand, is a neighbourhood coffee shop and bar with three locations – Café, Brunch, and Bagel – to satisfy all those sweet and savoury cravings. Other noteworthy mentions in the historic district of Old Montréal include the Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Old Port of Montréal. In short, the Notre-Dame Cathedral is a jewel of Québec’s religious heritage and a masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture, whereas the Old Port of Montréal offers all sorts of activities both day and night.
Le Plateau-Mont-Royal | Plateau Mont-Royal
Known as the cultural epicentre of Montréal, Plateau Mont-Royal exemplifies the art of urban living through its array of traditional and trendy eateries, unusual yet photogenic spiral staircases, and endless collection of street art. Within the famed enclave of Mile End, boundless creativity flows through the colourful buildings and quirky streets. It is here that Fairmount Bagel and St-Viateur Bagel Shop compete for the city’s best bagels, a rivalry which has lasted more than half a century. In addition, the area boasts a high concentration of independent cafés, from which I visited Les Impertinentes and Belém Café. Les Impertinentes is a feminist café located within a ballet studio that aims to empower the female spirit, while Belém Café is attached to a yoga studio and serves delicious açaí bowls. Both of these health-focused establishments are conveniently situated on the iconic Saint-Laurent Boulevard, otherwise known as the cultural artery of Montréal’s Plateau Mont-Royal.
Le Boulevard Saint-Laurent | Saint-Laurent Boulevard
A cultural destination that’s overflowing with original art galleries, spectacular theatres, cozy coffee shops, and renowned fashion boutiques, Saint-Laurent Boulevard runs through the boroughs of Mile-Ex, Little Italy, Mile End, Little Portugal, and more. Here I browsed through vintage shops such as Ex-Voto and Empire Exchange, and stumbled into a handful of upscale boutiques like Lowell. Ex-Voto values handmade and sustainable products from local and international artists, Empire Exchange is Montréal’s only dedicated buy/sell/trade store for vintage and modern clothing, and Lowell specializes in leather goods which are proudly made in Montréal. I also popped into Juliette & Chocolat, a chocolate restaurant with origin chocolates from different countries and vintages from specific plantations. I paired the 72% vegan Aztec chocolate drink with the double chocolate vegan brownie, a welcomed chocolate overload indeed.
La Petite-Italie & Le Petit-Portugal | Little Italy & Little Portugal
Among the many diverse neighbourhoods branching off from Saint-Laurent Boulevard, both Little Italy and Little Portugal are outwardly rich in cultural heritage. Locally known as Piccola Italia, Montréal’s Little Italy came about in the early 20th century when Italian immigrants settled in the area. What drew me most to this neighbourhood was the Jean-Talon Market, a four-season public market that was inaugurated in 1933 and is bursting with multicultural flavours. Montréal’s Little Portugal, on the other hand, is perhaps most famous for being the beloved neighbourhood of Leonard Cohen, a Canadian songwriter and poet. This is also where the original Café Névé first opened its doors in 2009, offering the Plateau community a welcoming space to enjoy third-wave coffee. I stopped by this rue Rachel location on a Monday morning to soak up the local atmosphere, holding a hot cappuccino between my hands.
La Petite-Bourgogne | Little Burgundy
On the other side of town, Montréal’s southwest borough of Little Burgundy has undergone several phases of gentrification in recent years and is now a so-called cultural hotspot. From boutique pastry shops like Patrice Pâtissier and premier concert venues such as the Corona Theatre, not to mention the famed Atwater Market and the popular Lachine Canal, Little Burgundy is bursting at the seams with arts and culture. Similar to the Jean-Talon Market in Little Italy, the Atwater Market has also been in operation since 1933 and is open year-round. Both of these markets are run by Public Markets of Montréal, or Marchés Publics De Montréal in French, a corporation which strives to give Montréalers access to local produce while also prioritizing sustainable development. After admiring the Art Deco architecture of the market as well as the serene waters of the canal, I settled into a hipster coffee shop called September Surf Café. Weekends here are laptop-free to encourage conversation and the exchange of creative ideas, or you can cozy up with a beautifully handcrafted latte and watch the world go by.
Le Centre-Ville de Montréal | Downtown Montréal
Stretching 11 kilometres from west to east through Montréal’s downtown core, Sainte-Catherine Street is not only brimming with commerce, but it’s also a perfect destination for culture and history. We’re talking department stores and shopping centres, coupled with art museums and theatre venues, plus countless lively cafés and nightlife hotspots. At the intersection of it all is HI Montréal, an affordable accommodation option that combines a bit of European influence with North America’s laid-back living. As part of Hostelling International Canada, this homey hostel cares about building a community of conscious travellers while also making it possible to backpack through Canada without breaking the bank. From bike rides and urban walks, to pub crawls and hockey games, the options for budget-friendly exploring are endless! Speaking of which, I went to see my first professional ice hockey game at the Bell Centre – Montréal Canadiens vs. San Jose Sharks – with three friends I’d met at HI Toronto the week prior. Sadly the Canadiens lost 4-2, but it was a fun experience nonetheless, especially since hockey plays such an important role in Canada’s cultural identity.
Le Parc du Mont-Royal | Mount Royal Park
Last, but certainly not least, on this culture lover’s list is Mount Royal Park, a so-called cultural oasis that towers over the city and its inhabitants. In the summertime, this outdoor playground is popular among runners, hikers, bicyclists, families, you name it. In the wintertime, the snowy hills lend themselves to sledding, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. While many Montréalers will tell you that Mount Royal is a dormant volcano, the more appropriate term for the urban park is an igneous intrusion, which means that there’s no chance of future eruption. During my week-long stay in Montréal, I found myself in Mount Royal Park on three separate occasions. I hiked up the backside to Belvédère Outremont from the Plateau neighbourhood, where I took in my first views of the city from above. I found my way to Beaver Lake on the west side of the park, where I made a little one-legged friend that’s seen in the photo below. I weaved through the affluent suburb of Westmount on my way up to the Summit Circle Look Out, then ventured into the designated bird and wildlife sanctuary known as Summit Woods. Je t’aime, Montréal.
With ♡, Julia Elizabeth