Here are the top five things that I loved about the city of Montreal.
1.) Notre-Dame Basilica
If you see one thing in Montreal, make it the Notre-Dame Basilica in the old town. I honestly had no idea that churches that looked like this existed outside of Europe.
Built in the gothic revival style, the church was originally erected in 1672 in stone, but eventually became too small, so was rebuilt. Rather than depicting religious tales, the stained glass windows show important events from Montreal’s history, which is no surprise given that the building plays such a central role in the city’s heritage. The Basilica has two towers with the names Temperance and Perseverance, a bell built by the makers of Big Ben and enough space for 3,200 people.
It also has several claims to fame — it hosted that famous Pavarotti concert that went on foreverrrr and Celine Dion got married here — but mainly it is renowned for its own dramatic beauty. The light pours in through the ceiling, casting light on the stunning altar piece and the congregation facing it. Go and see it and be amazed.
2.) Canadian Old Fashioneds
When the rain is pounding so hard that it bounces off the sidewalks and up your trouser legs, there is surely only one thing to do…
Go to a bar. A gorgeous bar. A bar like the Dominion Square Tavern, where everything glows warmly in the candlelight and people fold themselves into leather booths. Make yourself at home and the snappily dressed waiters will mix Canadian Old Fashioneds for you to take comfort in. They will warm you through gently without scorching you and boost you immediately out of any weather-related funk.
In case you’re wondering: rye, sugar cube, angostura, lemon zest, triple sec and morello cherries.
3.) The Plateau
On my last day in Canada before I headed to the airport I wanted to see something of Montreal away from the downtown and historic parts of the city. I headed over to the Plateau, which has been named one of the hippest neighbourhoods in North America to see what the vibe was like in residential Montreal.
I am so glad I did. It transformed Montreal in my mind from a North American metropolis into the kind of city I could imagine myself living in. Awesome little bars, cool delis and crazy architecture — duplexes and triplexes characterised by wrought iron external staircases and colourful Victorian houses.
As I was strolling down Rue St Denis, I decided to pop into the first bar I liked the look of to grab a drink. I ended settling for Quai des Brumes, which appealed to me because the old arched windows were open and there was a little crowd of people looking out onto the street — a bit like the kind of bars I love in Brussels and Barcelona. Inside it was small and dark with velvet drapes, wooden booths and a stage. For 3pm on a Wednesday afternoon it was pretty lively, with most people either gathered near the front window, or around the circular bar at the back. I ordered a blanche and made myself at home.
4.) Jet boating on the Saint Lawrence river
Just before the St Lawrence river reaches Montreal something unique happens. The water starts to get rough and foamy as the water gushes downhill and rapids spring up. They are the only set of rapids on the river’s journey between Lake Ontario and the mouth of the sea. And where there are rapids, there’s fun to be had.
Now I’ve been rafting in Canada before (on the Ottawa river), but this time we weren’t in inflatable dinghies — we were in jet boats. Almost the moment that we climbed aboard, the dreary overcast sky cleared and blue sky started to appear for the first time since we arrived in Montreal.
Leaving the cityscape behind, we cruised up to the rapids, before turning around and letting the boat slip over the waves at all sorts of angles time and time again. Despite wearing two fleeces, a giant plastic onesie, wet shoes, a life jacket and an even bigger yellow poncho — we looked like minions from despicable me — we returned all having swallowed a good gallon of river water, giggling with excitement and drenched to the skin.
It didn’t have quite the same fear factor as rafting, as we were all pretty secure in the boat, but if you experience any kind of joy from theme park rides, you will love this. You also get a fantastic view of Montreal from the water.
5.) Art and culture
I’ve written a separate post about discovering the beauty of downtown Montreal, but the truth is that there was art and culture wherever you looked in the city — another reason I think it would be a great place to live. When I visited the Plateau, there was lots of street art on display too.
And then there was Cirque du Soleil.
Just wow. Montreal knows its entertainment and entertainment doesn’t come much better than this. I’ve already written a separate post about seeing Cirque’s new Show Kurios, so check it out if you want to get a full flavour of exactly how good it was.
I could have spent so much longer in Montreal, eating my way around the city and exploring all of the neighbourhoods. There was a time at university when I had the chance to spend sometime studying at McGill. I didn’t go because I couldn’t have afforded it back then, but I know now that I would have loved it if I’d gone. That’s a rather bittersweet thought, but I’m still so grateful that I had the opportunity to get to know the city just a little bit.
Thanks again to KLM, Air France and Tourisme Quebec for showing me around.