Free Week? Explore Montreal, Canada: A Beginner’s Guide


No need to trawl an exhausting list of sights or tick off must-sees. Rather, it’s a place for the flaneur, where one multicultural neighbourhood melts into another



Montreal, just seven hours’ drive from New York, is the best kind of city as it’s unburdened by the weight of expectation. No need to trawl an exhausting list of sights or tick off must-sees. Rather, it’s a place for the flaneur, where one multicultural neighbourhood melts into another, each with its own appealing character.

And like London, it’s a food-obsessed metropolis, a former underdog that has ascended to gastro superpower status – making it the perfect Kentishtowner holiday. Better still, it’s where our old friends Fiona and Dan have lived for nearly a decade, so a visit was mightily overdue.

A downside? The Canadian dollar is strong against the pound, so eating out feels more expensive than you might expect (especially wine, which averages around $45+ a bottle; even two pints can hit $20 with service). And get there quick unless you are happy for it to be pretty chilly, or even minus ten. Yikes. We were fortunate: in late October it even reached 21 degrees on a couple of days.

For all you Montreal dwellers and aficionados, this guide is, inevitably, only a snapshot, so add your own recommendations beneath.

Five Neighbourhoods To Explore

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Old Montreal

For the visitor, the best place to start is Old Montreal, a little like the Marais in Paris, or, to be honest, any European cobbled old town. Main vein Rue Saint Paul is lined with galleries, designer boutiques (check out Reborn for upscale men’s and women’s fashion), stylish hotels and good restaurants, a classic tale of urban regeneration, its 80s dilapidation leading to a 90s rebirth as ‘Old Montreal’. After checking into Le Petit Hotel (see below), we enjoyed a negroni at the Philemon Bar opposite, a simple industrial-tinged space with scuffed floor and smiley barman. Notable places to eat include Olive and Gourmando for a quality lunch stop, Le Gros jambon on rue Saint Jacques for a burger, and romantic candle-lit Italian joint Bocata, whose sardines escabeche and lobster tail were spot-on. And the port is just behind, its promenade and industrial quays an atmospheric spot to watch sunrise or sunset over the St Lawrence River. Take a daytime peek into Basilica Notre Dame, the largest church north of Mexico, which crams in 3000 worshippers. And just beyond, a mini but vibrant Chinatown lurks through the arches.

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Latin Quarter & Village

Rue Saint Catherine is the central artery east, firstly to the Latin Quarter, centred around the main university, with its highly visible gothic steeple, and then on to the gay village (known as The Village). In the 19th century, the neighbourhood was an exclusive residential area for rich Francophones; whilst many buildings burnt down in a fire in 1852, there are still art-nouveau buildings to admire. For the hedonist, Saint Denis is the street to head for, with its outside terraces, steep incline and studenty buzz. There’s a theatre, vintage shops and plenty of bars to get a reasonably cheap beer (around $7-8). You could check out the Chappelle Notre Dame de Lourdes for some winning frescoes, too, before continuing down Saint Catherine to find one of the longest and biggest gay areas in any city we’ve ever come across: a sea of rainbow flags, shops, and bars, and home to Divers/Cite, the enormo annual gay Pride celebration. It’s perhaps worth adding that out of all the districts we wandered, we felt the Latin/Village one was most notably the poorest, and in and amongst the parks and street corners homelessness is quite prevalent.

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Le Plateau & The Mountain

Now take a hike. Many neighbourhoods reach out to the tip of Parc du Mont-Royal, or the ‘Mountain’ as it’s known to Montrealers. It’s a surprisingly big park, with winding paths stretching for miles, and unmissable views at the summit. Le Plateau lies just east, an arty and highly gentrified quarter centred around Blvd St Laurent; way back when it was as bohemian as Hampstead would have been in the 1920s.

But let’s climb the 232m summit first. A good starting point is at Avenue De Pins Ouest, where a steep staircase takes you up to the top in its steepest incline, only 15 mins or so to reach the top, although it’s quite a workout. Alternatively, or if you have a pushchair, wind along the sloping paths, which will take an hour or so. Either way, the very autumnal view (main pic) from Chateau du Mont Royal is wonderful, stretching over the Downtown area to the St Lawrence River and the Canal de Lachine; even better in early evening when the skyscrapers are lit up.

Continue along the well sign-posted trail marked Chemin Olmsted to Le Croix, a vast illuminated cross that marks the point where, allegedly, city founder Maisonneuve planted a cross to save the city from flood. And make a day of it with an $8 set lunch at cafe-museum Maison Smith (right, around half an hour further on the same path), which dishes up a superior smoked salmon, capers and rocket sandwich with hearty soup and salad. If you venture north from the cafe, you’ll reach the cemetery, which makes an atmospheric cut-through to millionaire’s row, Outremont, and then to Mile End and the Plateau (see below).

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4. Griffintown & Downtown

Griffintown is what many Montrealers term the Next Big Thing in the hip stakes. Just at the bottom of the hill which leads up to Downtown, it was an early 19th century home for the Irish immigrants who arrived to build canals and bridges, named after Mary Griffin, who apparently stole the deed to the land. Follow Notre Dame Ouest until you reach a parade that begins with the Griffintown Cafe, an all day brasserie. The strip is a colourful mix of antique shops, galleries and foodie hangouts, although there are no bars (that we could see) so it’s definitely an eating-only kinda place. Most notable is Nora Gray (see below).

Wind your way down towards the Canal de Lachine, a 14km stretch of national park, where the smell of manure fills the air, and cranes tower amidst graffiti and fire hydrants. In short, it makes Hackney Wick look like Bond Street. As well as the excellent Arsenal Gallery (see below), there is the inconsistent but charming Montreal Art Centre, whose maze of rooms are dotted with both artists live-painting and room after room of variable art (it’s inclusive rather than curated); lots to admire, however, including some Picasso lithographs. Finally, check out Gallery Ertaskiran (1892 Rue Payette), a stylish corrugated shack opposite a row of working class condos, whose contemporary and cutting edge exhibitions change every few weeks.

Up the hill are the bright lights of Downtown, a more generic North American mesh of skyscrapers, flashy restaurants, some excellent art galleries (we preferred the Musee de Beaux Arts, more like the National Gallery, over the Musee D’Art Contemporain), and expensive designer shops, including department store Holt Renfrew.

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Mile End

Save the best till last. The very long, hilly Boulevard Saint Laurent is known as the ‘Main’ in Montreal. Historically, it kept the English to the West, French to the East, and it’s always been a multicultural gathering place for every type of Montrealer; now it’s lined with shops, restaurants and bars that become increasingly hip as you reach The Plateau and Mile End.

Mile End is, quite frankly, where Kentishtowners would live if they were to move to Montreal; although, to be fair, it’s akin to what would happen if Kentish Town and Shoreditch had an ambitious offspring. Yikes. Yet it’s this very vibrant social and cultural mix that works. There are so many places to recommend, it’s worth doing some research before you go, but worth a visit is the Sparrow (which has no name, just a picture of the bird) at 5322 Rue Saint Laurent), its back-bar an old dispensing dept; and Chez Serge, an old school (but ironic) joint complete with mechanical bull opposite at 5301.

Mile End’s epicentre is Rue St Viateur, Ave Laurier and St Laurent. Try Brooklyn, a cafe-cum-vintage furniture showroom on Saint Viatur for an achingly cool saturday brunch, but there are also numerous old-school bagel cafes and excellent coffee shops – many think their only rival is New York – like Wilensky (34 Fairmount). For smoked meats, another Montreal classic dish, head to Schwartz (3985 St Laurent) or Lester’s (1057 Bernard Ouest). To try Poutine, the signature studenty take-out of chips, cheese curds and gravy, try Frite Alors (5235 Ave. du Parc), where you can even sup a pint as you await your order.

Five Good Places To Eat

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Au Petit Extra (Latin Quarter/The Village)

Au Petit Extra occupies an obscure corner site opposite the Esso garage on a charmless stretch of Rue Ontario. A large, almost austere dining room is the backdrop for a lively lunchtime crowd, and the $18.50 set lunch menu something of a bargain: we gushed over a celery apple soup followed by bavette and frites with wonderful rosemary gravy and salty fries. A bottle of Bourgogne was the right side of $40 too. 1690 Rue Ontario Est.

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Nora Gray (Griffintown)

Nora Gray just won the #10 spot in Canada’s Top 10 New Restaurants awards in Enroute Magazine (a big deal apparently), so lofty things are expected. Plus it’s run by former employees from the fashionable Liverpool House restaurant (like Joe Beef, another one to try if you have time). It’s located on a random parade between Downtown and the condos of Griffintown, and has the feel of a candle-lit speakeasy. We lingered over perfect negronis, stuffed sardines, grilled mackerel, wild mushroom cavatelli, and some great Sicilian reds like Ella Rosso. Arrive early (6pm) on a weekday without a booking and you should be fine. 1391 Rue St Jacques

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Sardine (Mile End)

Sardine is another tiny hipster joint (hell, it even shares some of its staff with Nora Gray) but a deserved recommendation too. It has the feel of our very own Polpo, especially as it’s all about candlight and sharing plates, but the food is much better: mackerel with cucumber and mustard, ling with cauliflower, daurade with rocket and almonds, duck egg with mushrooms. Faultless but a tad pricey. Soon, apparently, they’ll be decapitating eels live in their open kitchen. Yuck. Plates around $11+ 9 Fairmont East

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Le Quartier General (Le Plateau)

BYO’s are popular in Montreal, unexpectedly perhaps in glam neighbourhood Le Plateau, and you can’t do better than this diner, which charges around $40 for four courses (or $31 for a main and soup). Rabbit soup was thick and deeply flavoursome, and our courgette with veal starter followed by some particularly marshmallowy beef, served rare with potato and fennel. Packed with a good looking, young crowd (many of whom seemed to be on dates), this one needs a booking upfront. 1251 Rue Gilford

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Le Pois Penche (Downtown)

Adjoined to the Hotel Chez Swann (see below) in the centre of bustling Downtown is a perfectly executed grande brasserie, complete with Toulouse Lautrec-style oils, scuffed Harlequin flooring, a huge counter of oysters on ice and even a maitre d’ of a certain age chalking up specials on a blackboard. Yet it’s great fun and the food is unfussy and delicious. Starters of golden beets and goat’s cheese and a spicy salmon tartar and avocado were faultless, and a signature steak frites ($32) came rare with a creamy bearnaise. We washed it all down with an excellent Burgundy. A welcome lunch stop after a shopping stint in this designer-y part of town.

Don’t Miss

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Arsenal Gallery

After a hike up the mountain, this Griffintown newcomer is our top tip in Montreal. A vast former industrial boatyard (dating back to 1846) it’s now a 4200 square metre space packed with an impressive canon of contemporary art, including German artist Kiefer, Montreal artists like Dominique Gaucher and the odd British name like Julian Opie. We thrilled at standing alone in such a vast empty space (we get the feeling it’s under-appreciated by locals); and upstairs yields more excellent work including Taxidermie, a startling stuffed hen in a fur coat, by Parisian Sarah Garzoni. Our personal highlight was A Good Dinner In Hell by New Yorker Eteri Chkadua (right). 2020 Rue William

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2. Le Marché Jean-Talon in Little Italy

Little Italy is half an hour’s walk out of Mile End; not the most inspiring meander, but pause at its heart for an espresso at lively Caffe San Simeon (Rue Dante meets Saint Laurent). And five minutes’ beyond is Montreal’s biggest and most vibrant market: open even in winter (when it’s fully covered), expect alien-sized squash and pumpkin, dangling rows of chillies, bright yellow courgettes, heritage carrots, and the strong scent of flowers, fish, and fromage. All along the southern side are cafes, outside which buskers sing, mariachis play, and the general bonhomie infectious.

We enjoyed lunch at Pubfestif & Gourmand, a quite hip pub on the northern edge of the market: pulled pork sandwiches and chips, local ale, all reasonably priced. You simply can’t visit Montreal without making a trip here.

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Accommodation

Le Petit Hotel
This is the ideal hotel for a stay in Old Montreal: it’s right on Rue Saint Paul, the heart of the historic district, and the large warehouse-style rooms have polished floors, contemporary design, big windows, and old stone walls. Breakfast wasn’t bad either, with a choice of quality espresso, fresh orange juice and fresh-baked croissants and breads. Small Doubles from $159 low season. 168 rue saint-paul ouest. T: 514 940-0360. More info here.

Hotel Chez Swann
Chez Swann is a very different affair, right near Holt Renfrew, the big public art galleries and the Ritz Carlton; a stone’s throw from the Mountain. Designed by Mary Moegenburg, each room is individually-designed: ours was wonderfully camp, like a stage set from Beetlejuice (with a touch of an Ian Schrager), complete with central glass double shower encased in velvet drapes. Racy. Not to mention a sensuous astroturf rug, black lacquer wardrobe, and vast window seat with view up to the mountain and onto bustling Boulevard Maisonnoeuve below. Double Rooms from $180 a night. Breakfast is $15. 1444 rue Drummond. T: 514.842.7070 More info here.

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Getting There

Air Canada offers more daily flights from the UK to Canada than any other airline, with up to 63 non-stop flights per week to seven major Canadian cities scheduled this winter. The airline operates daily services to Montréal, Calgary, Vancouver and Ottawa. Reservations: 0871 220 1111.

Words & Photography: Stephen Emms

Don’t forget to tell us your Montreal tip below…


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  • Joanna

    We move from Kentish Town to Canada (not forever) – and the Kentishtowner follows us! (Actually we’re in Toronto, but still…).

  • Sam

    It’s a great city. Casa del Popolo is good for a drink. Dépanneur le Pick Up is good for the morning after. Leméac is good for food (better onglet than Kentish Canteen, even). And I agree that Jean-Talon is brilliant, something I miss in NW5.

    Still not sure how this is hyper-local to Kentish Town…

  • Kentishtowner

    Sam, the simple answer is that this feature is part of our travel section, which has always been a weekly slot on The Kentishtowner (click the tab on the menu above to see the full list).

    As you’ll know, most daily features we publish relate in some ‘hyperlocal’ way to living in north London, but on Friday we leave the patch and report on somewhere else, whether it’s Sardinia out of season (last Friday), a coastal walk in Essex, a weekend in Lille, or trip to Rwanda (all of which ran earlier this year). Sometimes we just visit another part of London.

    We hope the mix of features makes for a more balanced read. And now back to the topic in hand: Montreal…

  • Han

    I was in Montreal in July and I can vouch for Sardine being just gorgeous. The food was superb and our waiter was super- attentive and explained the rationale behind every dish. All of the dishes use Quebecois produce or are inspired by the region in another way. Go.