I’m embarrassed that I associated Montreal’s food scene with poutine. Don’t get me wrong, they still grub on cheese curds and gravy up north but the assumption that it’s Montreal’s standout dish is like thinking Chicagoans eat deep dish on the regular.
In my mind, Montreal was neat houses wearing jackets of crisp snow and seeing your breath in the air filled with greetings en français. What I got was a melting pot. This is partly due to me visiting during the hottest few days in recent memory, but mostly because Montreal is a global affair.
Vieux-Montréal, the historic City Center
Yes, most of Montreal speaks French. Yet the flora on the city’s flag recognizes an additional three nations as instrumental in its development, shouting out the English, Scotch, and Irish. Since those early days, Montreal has become home to over 120 ethnocultural communities. As for the food scene I mentioned, it turns out Montreal is second only to NYC for the highest number of restaurants per capita in North America ¹.
Visitors flock to the scenic stone lanes of Old Town Montreal for a European feel without the jet lag. Architecture buffs geek out on everything from cathedrals to midcentury monuments to the Olympics and Expo 67.
For this mini-adventure, we’re going to steer west of downtown and spend a day in the area surrounding the namesake Mount Royal Park.
Olympic Stadium, built for the 1976 games
Breakfast at Beauty’s
Montreal bagels are a thing. Unlike New York’s, they are hand-rolled, poached in honey water, and baked in a wood-burning oven. The result is a sweeter, denser ring. Rather than starting your day in line at the city’s bagel heavyweights, Fairmont or St. Viateur, head to Beauty’s Luncheonette for breakfast in the Mile End neighborhood.
Founded in 1942, Beauty’s is the originator of Montreal brunch. Order the Special to get your bagel fix alongside lox, cream cheese, sliced tomatoes, and onion. According to owner Larry Sckolnick, “The Special is our Big Mac.” ²
After another late night at Dieu du Ciel (see below), I topped off my brunch with plenty of coffee and a Bloody Mary, while reveling in the vintage diner vibes. To my delight, the Bloody was served as a build your own kit. A beautiful start to the day indeed!
Beauty’s founder Hymie Sckolnick
Play at Mount Royal Park
For a city that averages over 80 inches of snow per year, Montrealers make the most of their outdoor time. The city pioneered bike sharing with the BIXI system, and offers over 200 miles of bike paths for your pedaling pleasure.¹
The hub of outdoor life in Montreal is the small mountain at its center, Mount Royal. Winter activities in the park include tobogganing and cross-country skiing while picnics (alcohol permitted) and tam-tams, or drum circles, are popular when the island warms up.
BIXI station & street art in the Plateau neighborhood
Mount Royal Park is conveniently close to Beauty’s for hiking off your mish mash omelet. It’s easy to forget you’re in a city as you ascend the park’s shady paths. Parc du Mont-Royal owes its lush design to Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect behind Central Park and Chicago’s Jackson Park.
The hike becomes steep in places, but the skyline view from the top is worth it. You can admire downtown Montreal and the St. Lawrence River from the terrace at the summit and brush up on Quebec history with the murals inside the Chalet du Mont-Royal.
After you exit the park, it’s a 15 minute walk to Station Mont-Royal. Keep an eye out for Montreal’s renowned street art along the way. Take the 2 train toward Montmorency to Station Jean-Talon.
A Taste of Quebec at Jean-Talon Market
Public markets are one of my favorite places to experience a city, since you can literally get a taste of the region while chatting with locals. Tourisme Montreal hooked me up with Danny Pavlopoulos of Spade & Palacio Tours to navigate North America’s largest open air market.
Jean-Talon Market lies in Montreal’s Little Italy, but it wouldn’t be easy to pinpoint given the market’s cultural variety. As Danny said, “Strolling through the adjacent areas you will gain a better understanding of why diversity is synonymous with Montreal. The Vietnamese neighbor the Italians and further east the Latinos share the streets with the Maghrebis.”
Losing yourself among the up to 300 vendors sounds like a tasty afternoon, but there are a few Quebec specialties the adventurous eater shouldn’t miss. Danny introduced us to mushrooms and blueberries foraged on farms outside Montreal. We snacked on raw Salicornia, a salty succulent that grows in marshy areas. Finally, we tasted the creamy, complex contentment of stinky unpasteurized cheese — so good it’s illegal in the rest of North America.
Glorious unpasteurized cheese
You shouldn’t miss the aforementioned BIXI while getting around Montreal. Weather permitting, hop on a bike near the market for a 12 minute ride to Dieu du Ciel!
Drink at Dieu du Ciel!
Good lord! is right! Beer fans should plan accordingly to take full advantage of Montreal’s thriving craft beer scene. Quebec’s complicated alcohol laws can make finding a wide selection of beer and wine from other parts of the world (or even Canada) difficult. Fortunately, it’s home to one of the 20 best beers in the world.³
The rotating beer list at Dieu du Ciel! features playful flavor profiles and interesting combinations that deliver. I was so enticed to taste them all that I closed out three consecutive nights in the pub!
Hops on the vine at Brasserie Harricana
On my first visit to Montreal, I found that residents are passionate about the unique aspects of their city and happy to discuss them over beverages late into the night. I never did try the poutine, but I learned that Montreal’s culture is as multifaceted as its famous geodesic dome.