Many are surprised to learn that my husband is a Canadian citizen. Before his parents took the plunge and moved to the United States, they started the first chapter of their North American life in the frozen North of Canada. My husband waxed poetic about Canada like it was a lost paradise. Mary, he often told me, I will take you to Canada–the country of my childhood–and I will show you why I love it so.
Well, husband came through. I’ve not only visited Toronto, Ontario and Vancouver–but to my surprise, my husband proposed to me on the top of Mount Whistler in Whistler, Canada. Like husband predicted, I fell in love with Canada. From my point of view, Canada is basically a friendlier, cleaner, and more egalitarian version of the United States.
The first North American city my husband ever lived in was Montreal (which is why, much to the surprise of all my friends and family, my husband speaks French). Although he much preferred the streets of Toronto to Montreal, my husband knew that my taste was different.
“Mary,” he gripped my hand as we sat on a train slowly approaching Montreal, his stare piercing my gaze. “I just… I already know you’re going to love Montreal. I need verbal confirmation that you’ll board the flight when we have to leave Montreal, ok? Promise me you’ll go back to the US after this trip.”
Well, husband was right. He not only aptly guessed that I would fall in love with Montreal, but he also had to drag my screaming and kicking body out of the hotel room–because I fell in love with Montreal. Here’s why (scroll to bottom for my 3-day itinerary in Montreal):
The City is Bilingual!
I’ve never been in such a full-blown bilingual environment. Service workers spoke seamlessly in and out of conversation in French and English. All signage was in both English and French. If I was approached in French, I would shyly speak in English and the person would immediately reply in perfect English. Although from my perspective it seemed like the locals operated more in French than English, it was still amazing to see them switch between native-level French and English in the blink of an eye. As a language nerd, I was duly impressed.
Although I’ve heard there are some downsides to the strict adherence to being bilingual in Montreal, I think there are surely more positives to encouraging your populace to speak more than one language.
Enchanting Architecture & Neighborhoods
Montreal is the most European city on this side of the Atlantic, hands down. The cathedrals in Montreal could easily give Notre Dame a run for its money. The buildings and cobblestone streets of the old quarter transport tourists to a Montreal of New World past.
Plus, each neighborhood in Montreal is so distinct and unique, I could easily see myself moving there and exploring the niche of each district. The eccentric-but-slowly-turning-hipster neighborhood of Le Plateau Mount Royal near Parc du Mont Royal. The area surrounding Jean-Talon Market–or Little Italy–is a working class neighborhood with easygoing eateries and markets interspersed down the main roadway. And the Old District with the Notre Dame Basilica, the seaside port, and Quarter Des Spectacles with fantastic restaurants and markets? Dear God, yes.
The Food. Brace yourself.
There are only two places in the world where I can say I’ve never had a bad meal: Japan and Montreal.
The French tradition of only making the finest of foods with the freshest ingredients lives on in this former colony. I can still taste the texture and cheeses of my fettucine pasta at L’Usine Spaghetti restaurant, an Italian restaurant in the old quarter. The baked goods at Olive et Gourmand, a brunch spot in the old quarter, had lines of people waiting to get in for a reason.
And oh man, don’t get me started on the Farmers Market at Jean-Talon. The fruit was so beautiful, it looked fake. The colors. The quality. THE SMELL. The quality of fruits and vegetables is exceptionally higher in Montreal (and probably Europe) compared to the US. Plus, the prices at these markets were surprisingly reasonably–I told husband that if I lived in Montreal, I’d shop at this market daily.
Oh yes, and Poutine. Montreal didn’t invent the dish for nothin’–it’s damn good here.
Parc Du Mont Royal
Ok. So in the dead center of the city is Mount Royal–which just sounds so much better in French. It’s a park with three peaks spanning a radius of 250 meters (or around 800 feet). Oh, it also has a huge ass cathedral in it.
Husband and I spent at least 3 hours traversing Mount Royal, and even then I felt that that we only saw half of the park–if that. The park has major walkways with joggers and dog walkers galore, but there are also a spiderweb of pathways that offer more secluded trails for those who want to lose themselves in nature. The park is blanketed in a sea of green trees in summer and fall foliage in Autumn.
Plus, the view of the city from all three peaks of the mountain is spectacular.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing to walk through this park on the weekends?” my husband commented as we sat near one of Mount Royal’s many lakes. “It’s a great place to escape the noise of the city and escape to a green retreat.“
Husband read my mind.
Mind Blowing Public Transportation
Leave it to the most European city in Canada to provide the best in public transit. While I had high hopes for Vancouver in terms of public transit, I was sorely disappointed–Vancouver, despite its size, didn’t even offer a rail service below or above ground (buses only). Toronto did an exceptionally better job with its many trolley, buses and underground railway networks–
But wow, the metro in Montreal? It blew everything else in Canada out of the water.
Husband and I mostly used the metro to get around Montreal; but when the subway didn’t cut it, we were able to hop on an equally convenient bus to get where we needed to be. Montreal is one of the most pedestrian friendly cities I’ve ever visited.
Disclaimer: I visited Montreal in August
Montreal’s claim to fame is not its amazing food, great public transit or beautiful architecture–its the brutal winters.
I went to Montreal in August and it felt like heaven. The weather was a crisp 70 degrees with long days and lots of sunshine. I imagine Montreal in the winter is the literal polar opposite of that, with below freezing temperatures; short and cold days and empty, frozen streets.
Despite hearing about the horrors of Montreal winters, I still stubbornly told husband I’d put up with the crappy weather to have my lovely European life this side of the Atlantic. As someone who grew up in Utah and lived in Japan’s snow country, I’m not afraid of a little snow and some cold. In fact, the year-round warm weather in California freaked me out more than the 10 foot snow walls in Niigata.
In that Montreal summer, I saw the signs of a much-loved summer. Outdoor, warm-weather markets. Summer festivals galore. Locals strolling the main thoroughfare, enjoying the reopened, outdoor patios of their favorite restaurants. Residents making the most of their favorite, lush-green hiking trail reborn in a new summer season.
What I saw in Montreal was true appreciation for the fleeting beauty of spring and summer–something that only those who know the painful cold of a truly miserable winter can appreciate.
Montreal is the most hybrid version of a European-North American city I’ve ever seen. The citizens know the jokes and humor of the USA, yet they’re perfectly fluent in French and know the latest media from their former colonizers. It’s the kind of place where the locals are carefree, friendly and easygoing like their American neighbors; yet simultaneously hold true to their French roots by eating only the finest in quality food and appreciating the finer arts in life. Much like Berlin, Montreal felt like a city of artists. It’s a city full of creativity, history, colonization, Native American tribes, culinary mastery and rebirth.
Mary’s Three Day Itinerary in Montreal:
Have you been to Canada or Montreal? What do you think?