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 TWO | Now that you’ve gotten the lay of the land, it’s time to indulge in the city’s cultural offerings. Grab breakfast at Olive + Gourmando (1) then board the STM, Montreal’s efficient public system, at Victoria Square and ride three stops to the Canadian Centre for Architecture (2). This 30-year-old museum is housed in a 19th century graystone mansion straight out of a romantic novel, which has been expanded with surprisingly harmonious slick limestone façades. Its founder and consulting architect, Phyllis Lambert studied under Mies Van der Rohe and has made the center one of the country’s most important cultural institutions, with a vast archive of architectural sketches, photographs and models dating back the Renaissance.
After wandering the halls and taking in the archives of Ernest Cormier, the city’s preeminent architect of the early 20th century, enjoy a 10-minute stroll along Rue Sherbrooke, one of the city’s swankiest thoroughfares, which leads to The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (3), a neoclassical structure that sits regally among boutiques and blue-chip galleries. There are pieces by Rembrandt, Monet and Picasso within, but you’re more interested in the homegrown talent. The dark, moody portraits by Frederick Simpson Coburn (1871–1960), who grew up just south of the city, evoke the Dutch masters, while Quebecois painter Marc-Aurèle Fortin (1888–1970) created watercolor landscapes inspired by French Impressionism. Before you hop over to the modern annex across the street, take a whirl through the decorative arts section, which features an eclectic mix of furniture, textiles and other objects, from a Marius Plamondon stained-glass window to an amorphous fan, courtesy of Maarten Baas.
Next, take a cab across town to explore the Plateau district (4). A working-class neighborhood in the ’60s and ’70s, the Plateau has become a magnet for creative types, who live and work alongside a mix of Italian, Portuguese and Greek communities. This is also the epicenter of Montreal’s Francophone population, particularly along the Rue Saint-Denis. The bustling street is crammed with shops, jazz clubs, cafés and friperies (vintage clothing stores carrying, among other things, an impressive stock of ’70s skiwear).
You can only wander so long, though, before you work up an appetite.
L’Express (5) is a classic brasserie that feels as if it’s been airlifted from Paris; it’s outfitted with a gleaming zinc bar, bow-tied waiters and a black-and-white tiled floor. The food is sturdy bistro fare—croque monsieur, steak frites—but the real draw is jumbo cornichons and grainy mustard that come with every order. After an espresso, detour off Rue Saint-Denis and wander through some of the residential neighborhoods lined with Victorian row houses, many featuring mansard roofs and the peculiar spiral exterior staircases unique to Montreal (evidently, recently arrived immigrants wanted front doors to call their own, even if they were in second-floor apartments).
Invigorated by the walk, you’re ready to see another side of the city’s nightlife. You duck into Casa del Popolo (6), an unassuming vegetarian restaurant that doubles as a stage for the area’s promising young musical talent, and order a pint of Belle Gueule ale, one of the strong local brews. You may also want to check out La Sala Rossa, Casa’s sister joint across the street. Started as a cultural center by the city’s left-wing Jewish community back in the ’30s, La Sala Rossa hosts acts ranging from flamenco performers to freestyle breakdancers. Given the strong beer, a midnight snack seems prudent. For an inexpensive serving of poutine, you walk 15 minutes to Resto la Banquise (7), a 24-hour diner. Meanwhile, die-hard carnivores will line up at Schwartz’s on Rue Saint-Laurent, an old-style Jewish deli with heaping portions of viande fumée, a.k.a. “smoked meat” (just don’t call it pastrami).