Once a remote fur-trading post, Montreal is now a thriving modern city brimming with Old World charm.
Author Maura Egan Photography Peter Frank Edwards
DAY ONE | Wake up in a four-poster bed at the very posh Hotel Le St-James (1) feeling like an Industrial-era trade baron. The St. James is in the former Merchants Bank, in what was once the hub of the city’s fur trade. As soon as you step outside, you picture 19th century tycoons parading by the imposing limestone façades whose grand columns line Rue Saint-Jacques. In fact, you notice a bit of swagger in your own step. But before you leave the hotel, put on your Sunday best, because you’re off to church. And not just any church. The Notre-Dame Basilica (2), a five-block stroll from the hotel, rivals the great cathedrals of Europe. Established in 1829, the church was built by an Irish Protestant architect imported from New York. He converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, perhaps so that he could be buried in his creation. Montreal was once a very Catholic city— count the steeples dotting the skyline—with the clergy having as much influence as elected officials. Like hairstyles, hemlines and pop music, that all changed in the ’60s, when the Quiet Revolution led to the secularization of government and education.
From the church, walk toward Place Jacques-Cartier (3)—a pedestrian square that was once the entrance to the city’s port, now thick with street performers and souvenir shops—and wander the cobbled alleyways off Rue Saint-Paul. Amid 18th century stone buildings such as the Chateau Ramezay, a former governor’s mansion that now serves as a repository of Quebec history, you’ll find lofts for a growing creative class. Be sure to stop by the three-year-old DHC/ART Foundation of Contemporary Art (4). Local visionary Phoebe Greenberg has created a platform for Canadian and international talent to stage exhibitions, workshops and lectures. After you’ve had your fill of highbrow culture, relax at Cluny Artbar (5), a former warehouse that’s been converted into a café. Take a seat at one of the establishment’s communal tables and order yourself a smoked salmon panino and extra-leaded espresso.
You’ll need the fuel for zipping around Montreal’s Old Port in some the city’s many bicycle lanes—just swipe your credit card at one of the 300 Bixi (think “bike” meets “taxi”) cycle-sharing kiosks all over town (open May through November). Wending your way along the Lachine Canal (6), lined with ferry terminals, quays and a huge concrete silo, you’ll get a glimpse of the city’s industrial past. Across the river, you spot Habitat 67. Designed for Expo 67, Montreal’s world’s fair, as a prototype for aff ordable housing, the structure looks like something dreamed up by Antoni Gaudí and built with Legos.
You continue pedaling along the leafy Rue Notre-Dame and pass through Antiques Alley to Marché Atwater (7), a European-style foodmarket housed in an Art Deco building, complete with charcuteries, cheese shops and flower stalls. After a serious afternoon of bike riding and window shopping, you’ll want to sit down for a proper meal. Restaurateurs Frédéric Morin, Allison Cunningham and David McMillan have turned the neighborhood known as Little Burgundy into a culinary mecca. Settle on Joe Beef, the name of which belies the upscale fare inside, where you order such classics as Dungeness crab and seared scallops. The menu changes often, but the dishes are simple and bold, so the seafood flavors shine through.
Before you call it a night, head to Altitude 737 (8). In a city known for megaclubs, this is the swankiest, an ideal place to hobnob with Montreal’s most glamorous residents, enjoy a champagne cocktail and take in views of the city.