Montreal offers a a mix of the natural and the urban
One moment, I was standing 233 meters above Montreal on Mount Royal, looking at the city spread out before me. Not long after, I found myself in the middle of a historic re-enactment in the 18th century Montreal public market. An actor playing a priest was poking fun at my "sinful" dress (a tank top and shorts) and decrying the indecency of the tourists who have stopped to stare. That night, I tasted Quebec beer in a chic bar. These contrasting experiences seem to be the essence of Montreal: a mix of history and culture, the natural and the urban.
For those who want a taste of Europe without the price tag, Old Montreal, which dates back to the establishment of New France, has cobbled streets, low-lying architecture and a traditional village square called Place Jacques-Cartier (between Saint-Paul and Notre Dame streets). In this neighborhood, check out City Hall (275 Notre-Dame St. E., 514-872-0077), the Gothic Revival Notre-Dame Basilica (110 Notre-Dame St. W., 514-842-2925, basiliquenddm.org, $5 for adults) and the foundation of the city's former walls at Champ-de-Mars (next to City Hall). Make time for a leisurely stroll down Saint-Paul Street, the oldest in the city.
Just south of Old Montreal is the Old Port (oldportofmontreal.com), which stretches for over 1 1/4 miles along the St. Lawrence River. The port offers boat tours, the Montreal Science Center (King Edward Pier, montrealsciencecentre.com) and the historic Montreal Clock Tower. Venture out on the river in a pedal boat ($19.95 for half an hour) or ride along the pier in a quadricycle ($19.99 for half an hour with three people).
While Montreal's hilly streets may not be ideal for walking, you'll appreciate that topography from the top of Mount Royal. The Chalet of Mount Royal and the Mount Royal Cross, a 31-foot steel crucifix that lights up in different colors at night, are the main sights at the summit in Mount Royal Park (514-843-8240, lemontroyal.com). Pack a lunch, since the park has tables, grassy lawns and the scenic Beaver Lake.
Although I'm not the biggest sports fan, the Olympic Park combined athletics with something I did appreciate: nature. The Botanical Garden (4101 Sherbrooke St. E., 514-872-1400, ville.montreal.qc.ca/jardin, admission $17.75) is home to plants from around the world, including curated Chinese, Japanese and Alpine gardens. The Biodome (4777 Pierre-De Coubertin Ave., 514-868-3000, ville.montreal.qc.ca/biodome, admission $17.75) recreates five different ecosystems -- tropical rain forest, Gulf of St. Lawrence, Laurentian maple forest, Labrador Coast and sub-Antarctic islands -- for visitors to experience. Afterward, explore where Olympians competed in the 1976 Summer Games and climb the Montreal Tower (4141 Pierre-De Coubertin Ave., 514-252-4141, parcolympique.qc.ca, admission $16) atop the stadium.
For avid walkers, four major streets are worth a stroll -- all have countless shops, restaurants and cafes that are bustling with activity. Saint-Laurent, right in the middle of the city, is home to Chinatown and Little Italy.
The hip and youthful Latin Quarter, on Saint-Denis Street, has plenty of students, bookstores and affordable restaurants. The Gay Village, located on Saint-Catherine Street East, offers a glimpse into gay pride, Montreal-style.
And to explore the Plateau, a former working class neighborhood turned chic, Mont-Royal Street is the road to be on.
"Guess that dish's influence" was a game I liked to play while sampling Montreal's copious culinary offerings. The city's staple is poutine, a French Canadian dish that consists of French fries, gravy and cheese curds. Other ingredients, like peppers and beef, are often added. The place to go is La Banquise (994 Rachel St. E., 514-525-2415, labanquise.com, poutine $6.25-$9.75), which has more than 28 types and even allows you to make your own.
Next, try the smoked meat. This kosher-style deli meat -- salted and cured beef brisket -- is typically served on rye bread with mustard. Schwartz's Deli (3895 Saint-Laurent Blvd., 514-842-4813, schwartzsdeli.com, sandwiches from $6.30) has served celebrities such as Celine Dion, Tim Allen and the Rolling Stones.
Yes, Montreal even has its own bagels, which are smaller, sweeter, chewier and have bigger holes than their American counterparts. Plus they're often made in wood-fired ovens. No matter what day or what hour, St-Viateur Bagel Shop (263 St. Viateur W., 514-276-8044, $3.25 for a plain bagel with cream cheese) is open. A city landmark and legend, this shop offers many varieties, including sesame, poppy and "all dressed" bagels (the equivalent of our "everything" bagels).
Finally, Jean-Talon Market (7070 Henri-Julien Ave., 514-937-7754, marchespublics-mtl.com) is the place to go if you want to cook your own meal, grab some food for a picnic or try Montreal novelty foods. Open daily, year round, the market has more than 300 vendors offering every kind of produce, from succulent tomatoes to colorful berries and giant heads of lettuce. You can try local maple syrup, chocolate from the Maison du Chocolat (from $4.50 for a box of 4) and crepes from Creperie du Marché ($6.25 for a banana-Nutella crepe). Wines, olives, bread and even ketchup are also easy finds.
Having been spoiled by New York City's diverse nightlife choices, I feared that Montreal would disappoint. But I quickly learned that, as in the Big Apple, location is key. The downtown area, Latin Quarter and Plateau offer specialty beers on tap, thumping dance floors and -- my favorite -- open terrace drinking.
In downtown Montreal, there's a three-story brewpub called Brutopia (1219 Crescent St., 514-393-9277, brutopia.net, from $4 for a half pint) that's open until 3 a.m. every day. The pub, which has three terraces, serves traditional ales that they brew in-house. Traditional bar food and tapas are served until 11 p.m. and there's typically live music every night.
In the heart of the Latin Quarter is an old hotel-turned-bar, which has three floors with terraces, called St. Sulpice (1680 Saint-Denis St., 514-844-9458, lesaintsulpice.ca, from $4 for a half pint). It's been the backdrop for many cultural happenings, including news conferences, recitals and McGill University student events. The bar, which offers a wide variety of wine, beer and spiked coffee, has a restaurant that serves everything from nachos to poutine.
For a traditional Quebecois bar in the Plateau, check out Dieu du Ciel! (29 Laurier West, dieuduciel.com, 514-490-9555, from $6 for a 10-ounce beer), a famous brewpub that makes more than 150 different beers. On any given day, the place will have eight to 17 different beers on tap and you can sample all of them if you'd like for under $3 a sampler.
If you go
$3 a ride, $7 for a day pass, $16 for a 3-day pass
Montreal's bike share system, Bixi, is great for getting around; $7 for 24 hours; montreal.bixi.com.
For maps, information on local events and food suggestions; 255 Peel St., Suite 100; 877-266-5687, bonjourquebec.com.
Gouverneur Hotel, Place Dupuis, 1415 Saint-Hubert St., 888-910-1111; gouverneur.com, from $152.10 for a double.
Hôtel de l'Institut, 3535 Saint-Denis St., 514-282-5120, ithq.qc.ca, from $129 for a double.
Auberge Alternative, 358 Saint-Pierre St., 514-282-8069, auberge-alterna tive.qc.ca, from $22 for a dorm room.