I picked Montréal as the first feature in my #Cities series because of the space it occupies in my heart. When I think of all the cities I’ve inhabited over the course of my life, I’m often tempted to compare them to relationships—but the truth is I’ve never had a bad “break-up” with a city. The better analogy is to compare them to versions of myself; each shaping my life in its own, unique way.
From this perspective, selecting Montréal as the beginning seems appropriate. I didn’t grow up in Montréal, but it is the first place I lived away from my family and it’s where I became independent. Many of my formative experiences are inescapably connected to Montréal: I went to university there; I got my first apartment; I met many of my closest friends. It’s a place I cannot help loving, a place that will always feel like home.
As a city, Montréal is a curiosity, a strange combination of North American pragmatism and European charm. It’s one of the few truly bilingual cities I’ve ever encountered—either French or English can get you around. Like many major Canadian cities, it has a diverse immigrant population and boasts a thriving arts & culture scene—gaining recognition in the wake of Arcade Fire’s Grammy win. Its deserved reputation, as one of the best places to live as an aspiring artist or musician, is partly a result of Montréal’s low living costs, but also due to the fact that Montréal is just freaking cool.
Located on an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence river, Montréal’s many bridges and highways can be a nightmare for traffic during the winter. But once you reach the downtown, almost everything is within easy walking distance. Just make sure you bring a decent pair of boots and a warm jacket during the winter! The city also boasts an excellent Metro system, considering its size, making those few out-of-the-way destinations accessible. In the middle of the island is the unmistakeable shape of Mont-Royal—colloquially referred to as “the mountain” or “la montaigne” by the locals—with the glowing cross on its summit easily visible at night, making orientation a cinch.
There’s always something interesting to do in Montréal—even in the winter—and usually it’s easy to find. Montréal is a gourmand’s paradise, with amazing diners and ethnic restaurants tucked around every corner. You’d be hard pressed to get a better selections of bars and indie clubs outside of New York, and the city’s reputation for grassroots music is unparalleled. If someone invites you to a show for a “cool, new band”, it’ll probably be good. For the winter months, it’s best not to be overambitious. Most of the suggestions listed below will get you indoors and warm—the best place to be during these months.
But if you’re looking to get outside, I suggest going for a wander through the picturesque streets of the Old Port or taking a visit to Mont-Royal itself. At the summit, you can rent cross-country skis or snowshoes to take advantage of the mountain’s many trails. Or you can get a pair of skates and spend the afternoon on Lac-aux-Castors, before warming up with a hot chocolate. With these day activities out of the way, the many food, drink and music suggestions should provide ample opportunity to fill your evenings and nights!
The Bagel Factories: St. Viateur & Fairmont
Of all the Montréal delicacies on this list, there is no doubt that the Montréal-style bagel is the most iconic. Traditionally served with cream cheese, lox, red onions and capers, these bagels come straight out of wood-fired ovens and into your arms. The two main bagel factories of St. Viateur and Fairmont are both located in the hipster Mile End neighbourhood, northeast of the mountain. Locals may argue that one or the other is better, but the truth is you can’t go wrong. These aren’t your New York-style bagels either—soft and puffy—they’re chewier and sweeter than their southern cousins, usually covered in sesame seeds. Get a dozen fresh and you don’t even need to put anything on them—they taste delicious by themselves!
Bagels Etc. — Breakfast/Brunch
The pinnacle of Montréal brunching, Bagels Etc is located on the main St. Laurent strip in the Plateau neighbourhood, just below rue Marie Anne. It’s a hipster’s paradise, specializing in breakfast foods, with decor that looks like it’s been pilfered straight out of an antique warehouse. As befits the name, almost everything comes on a fresh Montréal bagel with delicious home fries on the side. Try their many variations of Eggs Benedict (my personal favourite) for best results. Vegetarian options also available. Lines are a possibility on the weekend.
La Banquise — Poutine
When it comes to poutine, a local dish of fries, cheese curds and gravy, La Banquise is the undisputed king. A 24-hour diner located on the edge of Parc La Fontaine, the spot has over 30 different types of poutine available, as well as microbrew beers. You’ll find crowds there at all times of day, particularly in the late hours of the morning when the bar-goers will trickle in for a drunken 4am feast. FYI: poutine is the best drunk food. There is no argument here.
Patati Patata — Gourmet Poutine
Despite my reverence for La Banquise, my favourite spot for poutine is Patati Patata, a tiny diner on the corner of St. Laurent and Rachel. With seating space for maybe a dozen people at max capacity, the restaurant is your classic, exclusive Montréal hangout—doing most of its business in take-out service. Their poutine can almost be called ‘gourmet’, coming with an olive perched on top like a maraschino cherry, and the option to order salads or sliders on the side. Pick your time to visit or you’ll be waiting for a while to get your food.
Romados — Portugese Chicken
One of the other classic dishes for Montréal is Portugese-style barbecue chicken. You’ll find Portugese restaurants scattered throughout the city, but pay no heed: Romados is where you want to go. Located at the intersection of Rachel and De Bullion in the Plateau, it’s rare to go by without seeing a squad car parked outside. Montréal cops love Romados. The meals are greasy and heavily-spiced, with huge portions of fries. I recommend taking them home, as there’s not much seating space. Ordering ahead is a good pro-tip.
Le Main — Smoked Meat Sandwichs
The final dish on the list is Montréal-style smoked meat, whose most famous representative is Schwartz’s Deli. As someone who’s waited in the long line outside, trust me when I say it’s not worth it. Located just across the street on St. Laurent, Le Main is open late and specializes in the same, while also serving passable steaks and poutine. If you’re looking to experience the original thing, get a smoked meat sandwich with rye bread, gobs of mustard, and a giant dill pickle. Order a Cherry Coke to chase.
La Distillerie — Cocktails
I’m not a big fan of fruity cocktails, but I’ll make an exception for La Distillerie. This Montréal hotspot—now in three locations, but originally on 300 Ontario—serves giant, colourful Mason jars full of crushed ice, fruit juices and liquor. These cocktails are dangerously delicious—and boy, do they pack a punch! A full-sized drink will be as much as a lightweight can handle. Also, err on the side of caution and go early if you want a table. The lines here can get ridiculous after 9pm on weekends.
Reservoir — Microbrewery
Located on the busy corner of St. Laurent and Duluth, in the heart of the Plateau, Reservoir is one of Montréal’s many microbreweries. This one is a great place for after-work drinks. The venue’s rooftop terrace is less than desirable in the winter, but the indoors has a cozy, welcoming vibe. Check out the brewing vats on display, the tasty snacks on the menu, and the wide selection of fantastic beers. Close to local restaurants, so it’s easy to transition from drinks here to dinner elsewhere.
Benelux — Microbrewery
Another of the microbreweries on the list, Benelux is located closer to downtown core, on the corner of St. Famille & Sherbrooke (one of Montreal’s busier streets). It has a classier feel to it, with dark leather booths and high-backed stools around the bar area. Like the other places, you can get some food here too—mostly paninis and hot dogs—but the focus is definitely on the beer. This place can fill up with university students on some nights, while at other times it will have an older crowd (for cask-opening events), so choose accordingly.
Dieu du Ciel — Microbrewery
Translated into English as “god of heaven”, Dieu du Ciel is the third and (arguably) the best of the microbreweries on my list. Located a little farther from the city centre, on Avenue Laurier in the Mile End district, this bar is a true “watering hole” for regulars and features an amazing selection of house-crafted beers: everything from novelty chocolate-flavoured stouts to classic IPAs and pilseners. It’s kind of place with a diverse following, so you’re always bound to encounter a mixed set of patrons. Get off at Laurier Metro and make the trek if you’re a true beer connoisseur.
Big in Japan Bar — Whiskey & Cocktails
If you’re also looking for fine dining, Big in Japan doubles as both restaurant and bar. Situated on St. Laurent, the restaurant (on the corner of rue des Pins) gets mixed reviews, but the bar (just a few blocks up at Rachel) leaves nothing to be desired. A very nondescript door on the street leads down a long, curtained corridor to a shadowy space of glass surfaces and candle-lit tables. The bar itself boasts an amazing selection of expensive liquors and fantastic cocktails, served by waiters wearing tuxedos. This is the place to go if you want to feel extra swanky.
The Blue Dog Motel — Electronic
As far as dive-style clubs go, The Blue Dog Motel is the dream. It’s a small venue located midway along St. Laurent, just below Duluth, with its signature “blue dog” logo and usually a crowd of smokers out front. Somehow managing to consistently host great weekly events after years of existence, Blue Dog draws a mixed crowd of university kids and Montréal locals—depending on the night. A solid backup option in any scenario and readily accessible due to its location.
Le Belmont — Electronic
Set on the busy corner of Mont-Royal and St. Laurent, Le Belmont is at the heart of the underground electronic scene in Montréal. Like Blue Dog, the crowd will vary wildly depending on the night—everything from high school punks to older patrons—with the added advantage of drawing some well-known DJs too. The long-running Bass Drive Wednesdays, hosted by Montréal’s own Vilify, is one of the most popular events in town. Do some research beforehand about the event and you can have a great time here. If not, you may feel out of place.
Foufounes Electriques — Punk/Metal
A little apart from the rest of the places on this list, Foufounes Electriques is located in the midst of downtown on St. Catherine’s, closer to the Gay Village. Most famous as a venue for punk/metal shows, Foufounes also hosts a decent house/electro-pop night on Thursdays. It’s a huge space, with bar and pool tables downstairs and a dance floor upstairs. You can’t go wrong with Foufounes, but this place is really for the hardcore lovers. Come on the weekend and thrash your head out! Free entrance on Fridays, small cover charge for the rest.
Sala Rosa & Casa del Popolo — Indie
These two spaces, located on upper St. Laurent in the Mile End district, are best-known as venues for popular indie bands—although they host more than just that! On any given night, you could see a jazz set, spoken word poetry, cabaret, flamenco, or just about anything in between… Sala Rosa is the larger space, also featuring a tapas restaurant downstairs. The byword here is eclecticism—if that’s what you’re looking for, then you’ve found the right place.
Igloofest — Outdoor Electronic
For a month during the winter, the quayside of Montréal’s Old Port gets transformed into a massive outdoor venue for electronic music, every weekend from Friday to Sunday. But Igloofest is more than just a music festival: you’ll find games of shuffleboard, ice sculptures, frozen slides and a popular onesie competition. Over it all, the beat of bass music and the flash of lasers is a constant hum, as hundreds of strangers in snowsuits dance through the crowds. Come for the crazy costumes and the international DJs, some hailing from Europe and South America, who provide the most spectacular event of the winter season.
For every place on this list, I’m sure there are two to add. That’s the truth of Montréal: there’s an endless variety of restaurants and bars available. But I’ll leave you with a couple of sites I use for recommendations in this awesome city.
MTL Blog — This is the quintessential Montréal blog (can you guess from the name?), publishing your typical “11 Types of Blah Blah” posts and other city-related news. You can also follow their Instagram page for some great photography from local Montréalers.
Mook Life — A lifestyle blog revolving around graffiti, smoking weed, and partying, this is your doorway into the underground Montréal scene—even deeper than the posers at Vice. Don’t kid yourself either, these guys may be degenerates, but they’re also talented writers, visual artists, chefs and photographers.
The Main MTL — A higher-calibre version of MTL blog, giving you more in-depth articles on the Montréal scene: everything from foodie reviews to features of local Montréalers. Great coverage of music, photography, arts & culture, etc.
Midnight Poutine — Also featuring a podcast, this blog caters more towards locals than casual visitors. Here you’ll find reviews of film, literature and theatre (in short supply on the other blogs) and get into the nitty gritty of the Montréal community.