Paris is a dream destination for many travelers, but for those in North America, Montreal is a much closer destination that gives one an introduction to French culture at a fraction of the cost.
I visited Montreal and Quebec City five years ago, but decided to take a return visit since the value of one American dollar is approximately 1.3 Canadian dollars and there were things that I was unable to see on my last trip. Also, the Montreal Film Festival was running during Labor Day weekend, so as a film impresario, it seemed like an ideal weekend to visit.
Quebec is a fascinating province with a deep history. It is the only majority French-speaking region of Canada, and as a result there has been a segment of the population that favored separation. There have been two independence referendums that failed, one in 1980 that was lopsided, and another in 1995 that was razor-thin. Since the second referendum, interest has waned and current surveys state that there is not much interest in a third referendum. Also, as of now approximately 25% of Montreal’s population does not speak French, so the idea is definitely not popular with those who have emigrated to the area for work.
I actually made the trip via Toronto, as this gave me an earlier arrival time in Montreal. Toronto immigration was very fast, and while there I stopped at the Plaza Premium lounge. The food was average, but there was wifi and it was quiet peace as compared to the gate area. One interesting note is that my bags went all the way to Montreal, so there was no need to collect them in Toronto and give back to an agent to put on the next flight, as is the case in the USA and Mexico.
As was the case on my first trip, the best bet to get from the airport into town is the 747 bus. A trip is $10, but a better idea is just to buy the 3 day unlimited pass for $18. Compared to a $25 Uber or $50 taxi ride, this is an amazing deal. The bus does take longer than a car, but for a frugal traveler like me, it fits the bill. Unfortunately, I got off too early, and learned the subway system quickly by necessity, as my hotel, Le St. Martin, was three stops away. I got a quick introduction to rapid-fire French/English, as a local bus driver kept switching back and forth between French and English when I asked him for help. I suspect he was making fun of me in French before switching back to English. In general, most Montreal residents are bilingual. This makes it easy for tourists, though you may be spoken to in French first, if the person suspects you don’t understand, he or she will quickly switch to English. Ironically, this actually makes it tough to learn French if you just moved there and are attempting to pick up the language.
Upon arrival, the first question was, what to do? As mentioned earlier, the Montreal Film Festival was due to take place this weekend, and so I headed to the Cinema Imperial and bought tickets for two films. Due to the fact that the first film, a Chinese movie about an autistic child named Destiny was to start at 7 PM, I decided to grab the quickest thing that fit my ethnic interest near to Cinema Imperial, in this case a Korean restaurant named Kantapia. Interestingly enough, this was the only place in the city that didn’t accept credit card, good thing I had some leftover Canadian dollars from my previous journey. The movie itself was delightful, and after that, I hit the sack and planned out the next day.
I started the next day with a visit to a local café named Universel. I ordered a waffle; though gargantuan, it didn’t fill me up until the next day as I feared. The waffle actually had a somewhat light and crisp air to it, a pleasant surprise. The atmosphere was wonderful, people were enjoying their food while chatting away, mostly in French of course. This was truly a cosmopolitan experience.
On my first visit, I was unable to visit the Olympic Stadium, a disappointment as I always admired the Montreal Expos baseball team growing up. This time, I was sure to not miss it. Upon arrival at the station, I noticed there were signs everywhere about the 1976 Olympics. I found it interesting that it is being celebrated; it took Montreal 30 years to pay off the $1.6 billion price tag, and the stadium itself has needed many repairs over years, particularly the roof.
Nonetheless, it was mandatory for me to check it out. In reality, the visit is just a trip up an elevator to a viewpoint, where one can see views of the city from various angles. There are also signs that mention famous events that took place, such as the Olympics, concerts, and other sporting events. I made sure to grab a Montreal Expos t-shirt, this is basically a collector’s item as it can’t be purchased outside Montreal.
The stadium itself is just one piece of an array of sights in the area. There is an indoor zoo and a botanical garden, the third largest in the world. It took me three hours to walk the entire loop, and if one lazily strolls through it a whole day could easily pass by. I’m definitely glad I brought my walking shoes.
After this, I had yet another film to watch, While We Live, a Swedish-Gambian film, which though not as emotionally powerful as the previous film, was still very good. I suppose this makes sense, as in a film festival there is a competition where awards are given out. After the film, I grabbed a Napoletana pizza from Pizzeria No. 900. At around $9, it was quite and tasty meal.
On the final day, the most important part of the trip had to take place: shopping. Montreal is the city where most Canadian designers are based, and there is a particular neighborhood named Le Plateau that houses a number of local boutiques. The neighborhood also has many local restaurants and bars, and in general has a hipster vibe. There are many unique styles to be found, and prices are reasonable due to the aforementioned currency pricing of the CAD.
After grabbing a few items, it was off to Old Montreal. There really isn’t much to see here besides the Basilica Notre Dame, but there is a nice waterfront to walk beside. There are several local vendors selling poutine, which at best can be described as an acquired taste. Essentially, it is French fries lathered with gravy and cheese curds. This was my third time trying it, and I think I actually enjoyed it this time. The gravy really makes all the difference, as the cheese doesn’t have a strong flavor like a feta cheese.
After strolling around, it was time to head back to the airport. Before this, I made sure to grab a shawarma, which seems to be ever popular in Montreal, due to a large population of Middle Eastern descent. This was probably the best shawarma I ever had in my life, the meat was moist and it was topped by pomegranate sauce. The amount of food was massive and the price was cheap, all in all a wonderful way to end the trip.
After that, it was simply a walk to the bus stop and a ride back to the airport to catch my next flight. The days went too quickly, I wish I stayed an extra day, but perhaps there will be a future visit to the closest thing we have to Paris in North America.