1. * ENJOY: THE BIRTHDAY FROLICS
Never shy of throwing a party, Montreal is ramping up the festivities in 2017. As well as marking Canada's 150th anniversary, the city is celebrating its 375th birthday with a calendar of cultural events and adrenaline-boosting activities. Over 19 weekends between May 12 and September 17, each of Montreal's 19 melting-pot boroughs take their turn in the spotlight, with neighbourhood exhibitions, street eats and treasure hunts.
2. * WALK: OLD MONTREAL
Many of the so-called Alive 375 revelries will fill this partly cobble-stoned quarter wedged between downtown Montreal and the St Lawrence River. Dating back to the first French missionaries –who came to convert the indigenous tribes to Christianity – Old Montreal has witnessed sweeping changes in recent decades. Ambling its streets and squares, you'll be tempted by bars, bistros, galleries and boutiques housed in restored warehouses, factories and banks built in the 18th and 19th centuries when Montreal boomed (thanks, in part, to the lucrative fur trade, which was largely sustained by trapping beavers).
3. STAY: HOTEL LE ST-JAMES
Of all the boutique hotels to mushroom inside Old Montreal's heritage buildings, few are more opulent than this former merchant's bank, which has hosted Madonna, U2 and the Rolling Stones. The 60 rooms and public areas are individually designed, and blend original period decor such as wood-panelling and marble with fabrics and furniture sourced from across the globe. In-house restaurant, XO, lures gourmets, while the spa boasts a stone fortification wall (a relic of the city's ancient ramparts, which were razed in the 19th century).
4. SEE: BASILIQUE NOTRE-DAME
Not as striking from the outside as its Parisian namesake, Montreal's Notre Dame excels behind its twin-towered facade. The eclectic fusion of carved wood, gilded sculptures and stained glass windows was the backdrop for Celine Dion's 1994 wedding to Montrealer Rene Angelil (his funeral took place here in 2016). Next door, dodge the horse-drawn carriages and peek at Saint-Sulpice Seminary, Montreal's oldest standing building, constructed in 1685.
5. EAT: TOQUE
Cross the bustling Place d'Armes facing Notre Dame and you'll soon sniff out this delectable eatery, a pioneer of Montreal's foodie renaissance and often touted as Canada's best restaurant. Made with farm-fresh Quebecois ingredients, and inventive touches, its wine-paired tasting menus and a la carte dishes include fois gras terrine, rack of suckling pig and Arctic char, with the likes of king oyster mushrooms, miso crumble and herring roe creme fraiche.
6. DESSERT: DELICES ERABLE ET CIE
Pop into this smart cafe-boutique on rue Saint Paul, Old Montreal's quaintest thoroughfare. As well as instant gratification sugar hits – try the maple brownie ice-cream – it sells souvenirs infused with organic erable (maple), of which Quebec is the world's largest producer. Tea, coffee, pretzels, muffins and mustard are all given a maple twist here.
7. DO: A RIVER CRUISE
From the revitalised Old Port area, where new boardwalks hum with joggers, cyclists and in-line skaters, hop on a horizon-broadening cruise of the St Lawrence River. You'll drift past several Montreal landmarks: its abandoned grain silos, Habitat 67 (a Brutalist Lego-like housing complex) and Pont Jacques Cartier, a huge steel bridge named after the French explorer who "discovered" Quebec. All summer, as part of Alive 375, the waterfront will display multimedia projections tracing Montreal's relationship with a river that connects the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean.
8. SHOP: MARCHE BONSECOURS
Facing the port, this silver-domed beauty – formerly Montreal's main public market – has been reborn as a hub of Quebecois handiwork with boutiques selling provincial crafts, fashions, furniture, art work and jewellery. Don't be surprised to see products embossed with "Je me souviens" ("I Remember", it's Quebec's motto, and often seen as a rallying cry for French-Canadians to cherish their origins, traditions and language). Quebec was colonised by Britain in the mid-1700s and is a francophone minority in largely English-speaking Canada. Many Montrealers, however, are bilingual (or even trilingual); while some, particularly those with British roots, get by on English alone.
9. DRINK: MONTREAL MICROBREWS
One of the most enduring British influences in Montreal is a love of beer. Founded by an Englishman in 1786, Molson still brews at its original riverside site, and its lagers and ales are still widely supped. But a slew of new brewpubs, bars and microbreweries have transformed Montreal's beerscape. For a hoppy insight, try Montreal Craft Beer Tours or drink somewhere like Pub BreWskey, which has Quebecois tipples on tap and an ace people-watching terrace at Marche Bonsecours.
10. * LISTEN: MONTREAL JAZZ FESTIVAL
The highlight of Montreal's jam-packed annual festival scene draws an estimated 2 million visitors, including a roster of star names (BB King, Ray Charles and Michael Buble are among previous performers). Over 10 days (in 2017, June 28-July 8), live tunes reverberate through the city's jazz bars, concert halls and streets, with the biggest (free) alfresco shows held downtown, in the Quartier de Spectacles entertainment district.
11. SEE: WORLD-CLASS ART
Arty types will enjoy the variety on offer in Montreal, from quirky street murals and sculptures, to some of North America's best museums and contemporary galleries. Spread across five pavilions, the recently revamped Fine Arts Museum (MMFA) is the pick, mixing European heavyweights like Picasso and Monet with dreamy Canadian landscapes, First Nations (indigenous) artefacts and Quebecois abstract art.
12. STAY: IN JOHN AND YOKO'S SUITE
Big chain hotels dot Montreal's skyscraper-strewn business core, but arguably none can match the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth's allure. This is where, in room 1742, John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded Give Peace a Chance while staging their second bed-in (the first took place in Amsterdam). The hotel reopens in June (2017) after a $140 million overhaul. New features will include pop-up shops and an urban market with seasonal fare from local producers and artisans. Central Montreal's boutique accommodation scene is getting a boost, too, with slick duo Hotel Monville and Boxotel slated for summer openings.
13. SHOP: UNDERGROUND CITY
Montrealers use this vast maze of interconnecting malls, food courts, offices, hotels and metro stations to shop, eat, play and shelter from the elements. Toasty in winter (when outdoor temperatures can plummet to minus 10 degrees), Underground City or RESO (for reseau, French word for network) also offers airconditioned bliss during hot, humid summers. The 32 kilometres of tunnels span subterranean spaces, street-level and skywalks. A good place to enter is beside the copper-roofed Anglican Cathedral.
14. PLAY: PARC DU MONT ROYAL
For fresh air, you can't top "The Mountain" – a 200-hectare hilltop playground designed by the architect of New York's Central Park. Depending on the season, you can expect to see horse riders, hikers and picnickers, or ice-skaters, cross-country skiers and tobogganers. The park's lookouts afford marvellous panoramic views of Montreal, a city of 1.9 million people nestled on an island nine times bigger than Manhattan (which has a similar population).
15. DO: NEIGHBOURHOOD HOPPING
East of the park is the Plateau, one of Montreal's most gentrified neighbourhoods. Its tree-lined streets sport trendy sidewalk cafes, Parisian-style bistros like Restaurant L'Express and old-school Jewish delis (Schwartz's has done a roaring trade in smoked meat sandwiches since 1928). Head south down bustling, multicultural Boulevard St-Laurent, or rue St-Denis, towards Old Montreal, and you'll be on the cusp of other absorbing, strollable districts: Chinatown, boho-chic Quartier Latin and the LGBT-friendly Village.
16. WATCH: MONTREAL CANADIENS
"Montrealers are born with skates on their feet." It's a quip tourists often hear. And nowhere is the obsession with blurring pursuits more pronounced than on the hockey rink. If they're not playing it, they're watching it, especially when the Montreal Canadiens are in action (usually October-April). North America's oldest – and most successful – hockey franchise gets pulses racing at the Centre Bell, though you may prefer some of the other events at this 21,000-capacity venue. Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil also perform here.
17. SEE: AN OLYMPIC LEGACY
Mention the 1976 Summer Olympics and you'll get a mixed response. The city didn't pay off the debt for staging the Games until 2006. But the former Olympic site has morphed into Space for Life – a family-friendly haven of science, leisure and culture. As well as the beautiful Botanical Garden (the world's largest after London and Berlin), there's a planetarium, insectarium and, best of all, the Biodome. Occupying the former velodrome, it showcases the landscapes, climates and wildlife of the Americas' diverse ecosystems (including maple forests, sub-Antarctic islands and tropical jungles).
18. PLAY: PARC JEAN-DRAPEAU
The world's eyes were also on Montreal in 1967, when it hosted the Expo in this leafy oasis, which spreads across two islands in the St Lawrence River. Although the park's iconic Biosphere – a Buckminster Fuller-designed geodesic dome – is now a museum dedicated to the environment, the primary raison d'etre here is fun and games. Sign up for sports, from canoeing to ziplining, hit Montreal casino, and board exhilarating rides at La Ronde, an amusement park that hosts a month-long international fireworks competition each July.
19. * EAT: MARCHE JEAN TALON
Everyone from Michelin-starred chefs to working Montreal mums fossick for fresh produce at this aromatic covered market in the Little Italy district (next to Jean-Talon Metro station). Open seven days a week, its stalls and stores teem with Quebecois fruit and vegies, flowers, jams, meats, cheeses, chocolate and baked goods, including hand-made Montreal bagels (they're sweeter and tastier than New York's, say locals).
20. DO: RURAL DAY TRIPS
Canada's second largest metropolis has some enchanting countryside on its doorstep. West of the city are the Laurentian Mountains, a gently rolling region of pristine lakes, kayakable rivers and cute, alpine-tinged villages. The Eastern Townships, in the opposite direction, ooze pastoral prettiness, with family-owned, visitor-friendly retreats like Domaine Pinnacle, which does tours and tastings at its apple orchard, cider mill and maple grove.
Steve McKenna was a guest of Collette
Collette's eight-day Best of Eastern Canada tour starts in (and includes a two-night stay in) Montreal (tourisme-montreal.org), before visiting Quebec City, Ottawa, Toronto and Niagara Falls. Running from April to November, with more than 40 tour dates in 2017, it's priced from $2499; gocollette.com