After living in Montreal every day for 18 years, I left to study journalism in the big ol’ U.S. of A. Now, nine years, a food studies master’s degree and some awesome food writing experience later, I’m back in my hometown. That means that I get to discover this gorgeous, slightly dysfunctional city like a tourist, but with the DNA of a local.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I’m trying to illustrate why I’m basically the tour guide of your dreams. Guys, this’ll be fun—I promise.
If it’s not the dead of winter—and really, you’re a brave soul if you’re visiting us between November and April—you’re going to want to be biking. Montreal is a ride-share bike pioneer, so BIXIs (aka the OG Citi Bikes) are everywhere, and the protected bike lanes are plentiful.
The Metro is also something to see and to use to get around. Not only is it incredibly simple to navigate (just three color-coded lines: blue, orange and green) but some people call it “the longest art gallery in the world” in a nod to the sculptures and artwork that line many of the stations. My favorite is Villa Maria, because who doesn’t love rainbow benches?
If you’re not down to pedal or Metro, Uber is always an option, though its legality is precarious in the city, so be prepared to sit in the passenger seat and make friends with your driver (a few handy phrases in French will always get you far). Car2gos’ are also plentiful throughout the city; just download the app and you’ll be good to go.
The Mile End Breakfast Walkabout: St. Viateur, Fairmount Bagel and Cheskie’s
St. Viateur: 264 St. Viateur Ouest, Open 24 hours
Fairmount Bagel: 74 Avenue Fairmount Ouest, Open 24 hours
Cheskie’s: 359 Rue Bernard Ouest, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Weekdays, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays, Closed Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays
You’re going to wake up in Montreal after your long journey from New York (unless you flew, you jetsetter, you), and you’re going to be hungry. I can’t explain why—maybe it’s the crispness in the air, or the fact that you’re going to feel like you’re always walking up a hill, or your proximity to a forest-mountain (we’ll get there in a minute). Regardless, you’re going to have to get over your unfounded attachment to oversize bagels and get in line for St. Viateur’s and Fairmount. I’m not a coffee drinker, but if you need to caffeinate first, Local Montreal has your back with this exhaustive list of cafés.
I’m not going to even entertain the discussion of which bagel is better; this is a post for lovers, not fighters. You can make your own decisions, but it might be helpful to know that Fairmount will schmear your bagel and top it with lox for you; St. Viateur will simply hand you a bag fogging up from the still-warm, dense Montreal bagels fresh out of the wood-fired oven.
While you eat and debate the merits of each, walk on over to Cheskie’s (as long as it’s not a Saturday—It’s Shabbat, y’all) and order a few chocolate Danishes and two bags of ruggelach to go. Pop one in the freezer at your Airbnb, and snack on the other one as you please. I’m not going to say anything else, but if you’d like to send gifts or thank you letters, I’m happy to forward you along my address.
Poutine Face-Off: Patati-Patata vs. La Banquise
Patati Patata: 4177 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.
La Banquise: 994 Rue Rachel Est, 24 hours
Don’t even try to come to Montreal and not have poutine; the Quebecois dish of fries, squeaky cheese curds and gravy is a must. If it’s a reasonable time of day or night and you want an adorable little slider or four with your poutine, go to Patati-Patata. Their poutine-salad combo is my personal move, but you can’t go wrong—as long as you order the poutine. If it’s late and you’re drunk, or you’re vegan, or you want cut-up corn dog (we call them “pogos”) on your poutine, then head to La Banquise. You can go back for breakfast, too—it’s open 24 hours.
298 Place D’Youville, Old Montreal, 5:30 to 10 p.m.
If you want that historic feel, it doesn’t get better than Gibby’s, a charming horse-stable-turned-steakhouse in Old Montreal. They also make the best salad dressing in the world (so much so that they bottle and sell it in supermarkets, but I swear it’s not the same) that they dump all over a classic iceberg salad.
The steak is perfect, but even if you’re a vegetarian, you can make an incredible feast out of their giant Montecarlo potatoes, an aforementioned salad and an onion soup covered in melty cheese. Walk it all off with a wander through Old Montreal: you can’t make a wrong turn, it’s all gorgeous.
115 Rue Rachel Est, 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; 10 p.m. on weekends
I ate Romados Portuguese chicken combo at least four times the week I moved here; it’s just that phenomenal. Portuguese-style chicken (i.e., roasted chicken that is somehow made more delicious than any other roasted bird, mostly with the addition of piri-piri sauce) is a thing in Montreal, and this place is the best of the best. For $10, you get a half-chicken, a mound of incredible fries and a salad that actually is so good I sometimes order extra as a side. They also have chorizo (which they’ll put on poutine for you), and natas, custard-y egg tart pastries that are another staple of Portuguese cuisine. I’d recommend getting more than one.
48 Dante, 5 to 11 p.m., Lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays
Do you want the most magical, delicious modern Italian meal of your life? Do you want it in the most beautiful minimalist glass jewel box of a restaurant? Do you believe in local sourcing? Do you like food so soulful it makes you cry? Then just trust me, and Stefano Faita (who grew up in Montreal’s Little Italy) and Michele Forgione, and make a reservation at Impasto.
Brouepub Dieu Du Ciel!
29 Avenue Laurier Ouest, 1 to 3 p.m. on weekends, 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. weekdays
Dieu Du Ciel! Is one of the city’s most beloved microbreweries, with an adorable terrasse and a chalkboard menu of beer that is a blast to taste your way through. If you get hungry, then they’ll also supply you with great bar food—the charcuterie and cheese plates are killer, especially if you want to experience the incredible array of unpasteurized Quebecois cheeses and cured meats you’re missing out on in America.
2047 Avenue du Mont-Royal Est, 300 Rue Ontario Ouest and 2656 Rue Masson (Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie), 4 p.m. to 3 a.m. daily
I don’t know if this place is cool with the kids anymore, but when I was 18 (and certainly many times after that) this was THE bar for one simple reason: They’ll sell you a doubled-up cocktail in a giant Mason jar. There are two locations, and they’re both a lot of fun—especially if you hate wrestling your way up to the bar for another round.
Le Vin Papillon
2519 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest, 3 p.m. to midnight Tuesday through Saturday
If you’re looking to sip chicly and your Joe Beef reservations didn’t pan out—or you’re waiting for a seat—head down the street to this natural wine spot by David MacMillan and Frédéric Morin. They’ve also got beautiful little vegetable-forward bites to complement their great selection of natural wines. It’s the perfect place to whet your appetite and still save room for the fois gras double-down.
The Tam Tams
The George-Étienne Cartier Monument in Mount Royal Park, Sunday afternoons, weather permitting
This, to me, is quintessential Montreal. The gist is that a group of drummers gather at the foot of Mount Royal to play together. The reality is that it’s so much cooler than that. Bring a picnic, some sneaky beers and some cash for the local vendors—you’re going to want to hang out for a while.
McGill really is the Harvard of Canada—just as much so for its prestigious education as it is for its gorgeous, historic campus—which used to be a meeting place for aboriginal tribes. Pass through the Roddick Gates on Sherbrooke and McGill College Avenue and wander up the main campus. You can pop into the Redpath Museum, lounge around on the lower fields or even sneak into the Nahum Gelber Law library and say hi.
St. Joseph’s Oratory
My late grandfather used to call me up and concoct elaborate lies about how Beauty and the Beast and all their animated object friends were living in St. Joseph’s Oratory, and that I should go visit. His tall tales may sound like a stretch, and I’ll admit I can be gullible, but he is actually very believable when you see this majestic slice of history up close. Built in 1904, it’s a sprawling complex with a giant green-domed basilica, sweeping gardens and winding stone hallways. My personal favorite spot is the Votive Chapel, the tomb of Saint Brother André. There, grateful pilgrims who had been healed by him left tokens of their gratitude, including crutches they no longer needed. Creepy, but cool.
For even more Montreal inspiration, check out this guide that ran in our 2012 travel issue.
Illustrations by Adriana Gallo.