French flair meets North American panache in Quebec's biggest city, writes David Whitley.
The Studios Quartier Latin (2024 Rue Saint-Hubert, 845 0916, studiosquartierlatin.com, from $80) have something of a student feel, but the apartments are en suite and come with kitchenettes, internet and cable TV. Abri du Voyageur, pictured (9 Rue Sainte-Catherine West, 849 2922, abri-voyageur.ca, from $64.85 share bathroom/$84.90 private), uses the character of the building to excellent effect and each room houses part of the owner's art collection. B&B Le Cartier (1219 Rue Cartier, 917 1829, bblecartier.com, from $60) is a good, homely bet too — the furnishing is of a higher quality than it needs to be for the price.
Le Dauphin (1025 Rue de Bleury, 788 3888, hotelsdauphin.ca, from $131) is exceptionally good value; the rooms are big, bathrooms have heated floors and large walk-in showers, while all manner of extras, including a free computer in the room, are thrown in. Le Relais Lyonnaise (1595 Rue Saint-Denis, 448 2999, lerelaislyonnais.com, from $125) is a real looker, with dark woods, exposed-brick walls and leather chairs complemented by amenities such as bathrobes. Auberge Bonaparte (447 Rue St-Francois-Xavier, 844 1448, bonaparte.com, from $150) is a good option in the old part of town — most rooms have whirlpool baths, a classic sense of style and huge king beds.
Montreal does small stylish hotels very well. Le Petit (168 rue St-Paul West, 940 0360, petithotelmontreal.com, from $138) is a classic example, with exposed brick and stone walls, furniture straight from the hip lifestyle magazines and all the mod cons with a flourish. The Nelligan (106 Rue Saint-Paul West, 788 2040, hotelnelligan.com, from $235) is slightly bigger and oozing timelessness although all the technology is there. The rooms feel like the sorts of places a great author would hunker down in. For facilities, the gigantic studios, full kitchens and luxury residential feel at Le Square Phillips Hotel and Suites (1193 Place Phillips, 393 1193, montrealhotelsuites.com, from $173) are the way to go.
The W (901 Square Victoria, 395 3100, starwoodhotels.com, from $353) has the swanky swagger and supercool furnishings of the W chain, while being more relaxed than some of its stablemates. Best in town is the gloriously lavish Le St-James, pictured (355 Rue Saint-Jacques, 841 3111, hotellestjames.com, from $256), which combines bathrooms drenched in marble with genuinely striking individuality; one room might have a leopardskin-style carpet, the next will look like a miniature Italianate palace. Hotel Le Germain (205 Rue Mansfield, 849 2050, germainmontreal.com, from $210 for a deluxe king) is less exciting but is a great high-end option with far more panache than your average business hotel.
SHOP + PLAY
You feel Montreal's distinctive European influence through the number of markets that are found dotted around the city. They all lean towards the food side of things, rather than arts and crafts. Marche Jean-Talon, (7070 Avenue Henri-Julien), is the biggest of the markets, ablaze with colour from the scores of fruit and veg stalls. But Marche Atwater (138 Rue Atwater) is arguably the best for foodies who want their eyes lit up by gourmet meats, cheeses and other quality delicacies. Marche Bonsecours (350 Rue Saint-Paul East) straddles a hazy line between market and boutique mall but the stall/shops specialise in Quebec-made goodies.
Rue Sainte-Catherine is widely regarded as Canada's top shopping strip, stretching through downtown and beyond with a mix of department stores, famous chains and the odd high-end designer. There's more of the latter on Rue Sherbrooke, with a few local fashion labels thrown in. But Montreal has too much flair to stick to the tried and trusted. Boulevard Saint-Laurent tends towards hip boutiques, while Avenue du Mont-Royal is edgier with some grungy, gothy stores and fashions designed to stick out from the crowd. Rue Saint-Paul morphs from galleries and crafts to souvenir tat halfway down.
The hometown of Arcade Fire has a justifiably great reputation for live music. La Sala Rossa (4848 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, 284 0122, casadelpopolo.com/contents/node/20) hosts touring bands, many veering towards indie music but with regular departures from the theme. Le Divan Orange (4234 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, 840 9090, divanorange.org) is little more than a bar with a stage at the end but it has that all-important welcoming vibe and a tendency to catch the next big thing before the world finds out. Meanwhile, Upstairs (1254 Rue MacKay, 931 6808, upstairsjazz.com) is a key venue for one of the world's major jazz festivals and flies the flag for jazz in the city when the festival-goers depart.
The line between a bar, restaurant and nightclub is somewhat blurred in Montreal — that place you had a coffee and cake in earlier can often be still going 12 hours later with a rowdy dance floor. Boulevard Saint-Laurent is the best spot for a club hop. Tokyo Bar (3709 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, 842 6838, tokyobar.com) has that right blend of fun and credibility, plus a rooftop bar for anyone wanting a breather from the heaving dance floor and an amiable crowd. Parking (1296 Rue Amherst, 282 1199, parkingbar.com) attracts a largely gay crowd and is one of the best places in town to rip it up - often to big name DJs.
SEE + DO
The Old Montreal district is the pretty, historic area that a lot of visitors don't bother to leave. It has European-style cobbled streets, numerous gorgeous buildings and the Notre-Dame Basilica, (211 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest), is justifiably seen as a city symbol. A new icon is emerging north of the main tourist areas too — La Tohu (2345 Rue Jarry Est, 376 8648, tohu.ca) is a distinctive, circular circus performance space next to a former landfill site that is gradually being transformed into a giant park. It's a truly heartwarming project. The eye-catching Biosphere (Chemin Tour-de-l'Isle, 283 5000, biosphere.ec.gc.ca) — a relic from Expo 67 — now houses a museum focusing on environmental sustainability.
Montreal launches itself into seemingly millions of festivals every year. The International Jazz Festival (montrealjazzfest.com), and Just For Laughs (hahaha.com) are the biggies in July but there are also numerous film festivals, a Fashion Week (montrealfashionweek.ca) in February and September and an anything-goes Montreal High Lights (montrealhighlights.com) in February. It's also the world's premier circus city — and Cirque du Soleil (cirquedusoleil.com) will regularly stage shows in a specially constructed port-side big top during the summer months. For museums, Pointe-A-Calliere (350 Place Royale, 872 9150, pacmusee.qc.ca) offers a brilliantly presented look at Montreal's history and archaeology. It could be a dull topic but it's excitingly and innovatively handled.
Two islands in the St Lawrence River make up Parc Jean-Drapeau. They're full of parks and walking trails, while a lot of the remnants from Expo 67 are still there to gawp at. On Ile Notre-Dame, you can walk around the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix circuit (providing Mark Webber and co aren't practising at the time). There's many an atmospheric ramble to be had through Old Montreal, while those wanting some peace and quiet can brave the incline up to Parc du Mont-Royal. The city's mountain — really a hill, but don't let the locals catch you calling it that — has some great lookouts.
Follow the leader
Ca Roule (caroulemontreal.com) runs two separate cycling tours — one concentrating on the city highlights, the other heading out to the islands, focusing on the city's skyline and architecture. Both cost $63 and you're allowed to keep your bike for the rest of the day for further exploration. For a somewhat hokey, but good fun if you're in the right mood, exploration of the city at night, Fantomes Montreal (844 4021, fantommontreal.com) offers guided ghost tours for $12.50. For a boat trip along the river, around the islands and alongside the port, AML Cruises (+1 866 856 6668, croisieresaml.com) runs 90-minute jaunts for $34.18.
EAT + DRINK
In Old Montreal, Olive & Gourmando (351 rue Saint-Paul Ouest, 350 1083, oliveetgourmando.com) is buzzy and does some of the best sandwiches, pastries, salads and coffees in town. Bistro Le Porto (1365 Rue Ontario East, 527 7067, bistroleporto.com) in the Latin Quarter shows that there's far more to Montreal than French and English — it's a loveable community hub that opens on to the street and serves delectable Portuguese dishes. Juliette & Chocolat (1615 Rue Saint-Denis, 287 2555, julietteetchocolat.com) should make sweet-toothed travellers drool — chocolate comes presented in just about every imaginable form. Savoury crepes balance out the brownies and boozy choc drinks.
The city is renowned for three specialties, the first being the bagel — which even New Yorkers concede Montreal does best. Saint-Viateur Bakery (263 rue Saint-Viateur, 276 8044, stviateurbagel.com) is the best place to tackle that perfect mix of fresh, crisp and doughy. Smoked meat is also big and Schwartz's, pictured (3895 Saint-Laurent Boulevard, 842 4813, schwartzsdeli.com), does it so well that a hit tribute musical has been set there. Then there's poutine, the artery-clogging slop of fries, gravy and cheese curds that the Quebecois won't hear a word against. La Banquise (994 Rue Rachel Est, 525 2415, restolabanquise.com) does it best — but expect queues.
Top of the town
The main man at Garde-Manger, (408 Rue Saint-François-Xavier, 678 5044), is the sort of TV chef that is everywhere — but he won Iron Chef in the US, so he's got the skills to back it up. The emphasis is on fish and lobster, with the monster seafood platters being the best splurge. Au Pied de Cochon (536 Avenue Duluth Est, 281 1114, restaurantaupieddecochon.ca) is leading the charge on rich foods such as foie gras and nose-to-tail piggy plates. Toque (900 Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle, 499 2084, restaurant-toque.com) is widely regarded as the top table in town. It's colourful and relaxed for a fine dining venue but Normand Laprise's degustation menu demands to be taken seriously.
By the glass
Saint-Laurent Boulevard and Rue Saint-Denis are the two main party strips. On the former, A Go Go (286 0882) at number 3682 combines tongue-in-cheek Austin Powers kitsch and killer cocktails. The outdoor terrace is a giant Twister mat. Beer lovers should try Le Saint-Bock (1749 Rue Saint-Denis, 680 8052,lesaintbock.com), which has a young, up-for-it crowd and a big range of microbrews. For a more sophisticated drink, Pullman (3424 Avenue du Parc, 288 7779, pullman-mtl.com) offers tasting flights as part of a large wine list. The huge chandelier made from wine glasses makes for a spectacular centrepiece.
This is a city that works best when you don't have too many fixed plans. There's always something going on and Montreal is an absolute treasure when you just stumble across something and run with it. There are excellent attractions and museums scattered throughout the city but charging between them goes against what the city is about. The memories of random concerts in parks, drinking companions you end up latching on to and unexpected discoveries will be the ones that stick.
The cheapest flights, from about $2300, tend to be multi-stop nightmares. One-stop routes are available with Air Canada (aircanada.com) via Vancouver or a combination of Qantas (qantas.com.au) from Sydney to Los Angeles and then Air Canada from LA to Montreal. Expect to pay at least $2600 for the convenience.
Visas and currency
You don't need a visa to visit Canada, but you will need to go through the ESTA process (https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta) at least 72 hours before departure if you're transitting via a US airport. The currency is the Canadian dollar — $C1 = 98¢.
Most Montreal numbers you need will have a +514 dialling code. Canada's country code is +1. Add +1 514 to any seven-digit number listed here if calling from Australia. Other numbers are listed in full.