THERE’s a good reason why Montreal is known as Canada’s party town. Quebec’s capital – the capital of French Canada – bills itself as the festival capital of the world. Every year there are dozens of festivals celebrating anything and everything. But it’s not just the likes of the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Anarchist Book Festival and the Comedy Festival. There are sports events – the Canadian Grand Prix and the Montreal Marathon, and a circus festival too. There are more music festivals than you can shake a stick at – the Igloo Festival, Picnic Electronique, MEG, M For Montreal, Francofolies, Pop Montreal – and more.
Truly, this is a city to let your hair down in. I lost my Montreal virginity one year ago when I was sent to cover the Osheaga music festival for a magazine. That meant I spent most of my time at the festival site, watching bands like Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys and local lad Rufus Wainwright, on a gorgeous forested island in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River. The Parc Jean Drapeau was a lovely place to spend a weekend, but the glimpses I caught of Montreal sliding past through taxi windows left me hungry for more.
This time I was going to see how much fun I could squeeze out of the city itself.
This biligual city is ambitious – its “grands projets” include hosting the 1967 Expo and the 1976 Olympics. There are wonderfully overblown buildings dating from both these events – the latter famously bankrupted the city. Seb Coe has no doubt read the history books. And the city centre, linked by walkways, underpasses and Metro station tunnels, is one giant living building in its own right. The legacy of the Olympics, the Expo and indeed of hundreds of years of colonial showmanship and Catholic church building has left a muscular architectural legacy. Don’t believe me? Look at the bizarre grain elevators (silos) by the docks – huge concrete monstrosities into which the grain from Canada’s breadbasket – hundreds of miles to the west – was tipped before being exported around the world from Montreal’s port. The Farine Five Roses sign (Farinefiveroses.ca) is an unlikely but intoxicating landmark, and there’s now a project that local artists are working on to preserve the decaying letters and maybe even spell something else out with them – “J’aime Montreal” perhaps?
You should check out the old town and the mountain, but the real revelation is the cool young neighbourhoods up north. This is a bohemian city, and in the Mile End district you can sip coffee from cafes like the trendy La Cagibi (5322 St Laurent). I had a smoothie here while I watched the pretty Francophone population shooting the breeze in typically Eurpoean style. There are dozens of shops selling vintage furniture, vintage clothes and the latest fashion up here and down in Plateau Mont-Royal. Hipster bible Vice Magazine was founded near here and cool Montrealers are never less than well-turned out. Take a pew and do some people watching – make the most of the weather because in February it can drop to a pretty chilly minus 20C in the city.
There are all kinds of cultural festivities in Montreal happening on a regular basis. Place des Arts is the centre of everything – this is where the museums and galleries congregate and al fresco concerts happen, like Francofolies, the annual party to celebrate French language music.
BARS AND CLUBS
Montreal was once known as Sin City and Americans still cross the border to drink here, because you only need to be 18 to get legless. We went to see a band in Il Motore (Ilmotore.ca, 179 Rue Jean Talon), a converted car showroom in Little Italy that hosts live indie. It’s a place that reminds you of Dalston or New Cross in London. For a more grown-up evening there’s swish wine and cheese bar La Montee de Lait (5171 St Laurent, lamonteedelait.com) on the Plateau. All along St Laurent there are masses of cool bars with brilliant decor. Stereo is a downtown nightclub (Stereo-nightclub.com, 898 St Catherine West) that has hosted Tiga, Damian Lazarus and local hero A-Track, who opens for Kanye West. St Catherine Street has rock bars and the jumping clubs of the Gay Village too. Many clubs are around this area in Downtown Montreal. St Denis St, up in Plateau Mont-Royal, has a swathe of drinking dens too. Avoid boozing in Old Montreal as it can be tacky and touristy at night. See right for more on the city.
MONTREAL | NEED TO KNOW
French is the official language of Quebec but Canada is officially billingual. In practice almost all Montrealers are billingual, though you’ll hear much more French on the street than English. But that’s part of the fun of being here. Very nearly everyone you meet will be nice though – it's the Canadian way – and will explain anything to you in English if your GCSE French is rusty.
Denizens of this city love their Metro. They give it a Francophone moniker rather than the more usual North American “Subway”, and they even bought those weird trains that run on rubber tyres rather than tracks – yes, just like the ones they have in Paris. It’s cheap – a couple of dollars to get around, and there are stations in all the places you need them. The stations are linked in the central city area by the underground city, “ville souterrain” or RESO. This is a bizarre circuit of subterranean shopping malls, stations and underpasses that keeps people off the freezing streets in winter. Before it gets too cold, try and cycle round on a BIXI bike. The new London cycle hire scheme is an exact copy of Montreal’s bike hire programme – rent from one stand, cycle around and deposit at the end of your journey. Bike-friendly Montreal has plenty of paths – though the slog up Mount Royal will give your calves a work-out and a half. We cycled from Mile End down the hill into Old Montreal and over the bridge to Parc Jean Drapeau.
WHERE TO STAY
Le Petit Prince
In a trendy downtown gentrification zone, Le Petit Prince is a small four bedroom boutique hotel tucked down a side street in a handsome brownstone where an executive of the Candian Pacific Railway lived in the 1890s. Rooms have a jacuzzi and a balcony and are decorated in a way your kooky aunt who’s been to Goa would approve of. Lovely and larger than life owner Pam asks you take off your shoes at the door, but she'll make your delicious breakfasts and tell you all about Canadian politics. It’s basically like going home to your parents’ house for the weekend. The hotel is just across the road from the Lucien L'Allier Metro station.
£150 per night, 1384 Overdale, Montrealbandb.com
WHERE TO EAT
The ultimate romantic dinner a deux location in Old Montreal, brand-new Borocco is a small but perfectly formed modern European eatery located in a historic building. Décor is dark and masculine – black, with retro photos and brick walls. Dishes like whole rack of lamb served on a bread board with orzo and grapes are to die for. Dress up.
312 Saint Paul St West, Barroco.ca
Sit out in the courtyard of another historic Old Montreal building. Relaxed brasserie fare like confit duck and lamb, or Canadian specilaities like bison are the best choices here. Though after finishing my bison steak I could hardly walk. Reasonably priced and friendly too.
465 McGill, Borisbistro.com
The local snack in Quebec is the odd but endearing poutine. Montrealers emit profound embarrassment if you ask them about it, saying, try it “if you must”. It consists of chips slathered in beef gravy, and topped offwith cheese curds. It’s the perfect post-drinks snack at 1am and is served in takeaways across town, but most memorably in the micro-diner Patati Patata, on the corner of Rachel and St. Laurent. There’s only 13 seats but the poutine is a killer.
4117 St. Laurent
HOW TO GET THERE
Air Canada and British Airways both offer daily direct flights from Heathrow to Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport