I never thought I’d be happy about 20-degree weather. But after five days of sub-zero temperatures and bone-chilling winds in Montreal a couple weeks ago, even this unusually snowy New York City winter has been looking really good.
As an islander and lover of all things tropical, Montreal in February was not an obvious choice. But somehow, with its French vibe (appealing for me) and its storied hockey history (appealing for my boyfriend), the city snuck its way onto our list of places to visit.
From the moment we exited the airport and felt our lungs physically adjust to the shock of the frigid Canadian air, it was clear Montreal was going to be experienced on its own terms.
Life immediately felt slower, and a bit more deliberate. As I listened to the drone of a French morning broadcast and looked out the window of our cab, the mad rush of New York City felt a world away.
Le Petit Hotel, our home base during the trip, was a trendy boutique hotel with a cool, minimal design. Located in historical Old Montreal, where the streets are tiny, the hotel was tinier, but still comfortable for two.
I always push myself to experience a place’s culture beyond the walls of a hotel, but I was beyond grateful for the complementary breakfast – including croissants, fresh fruit and good coffee – provided daily was a lifesaver in the mornings and gave us one less reason to battle the cold.
We spent the first day exploring Old Montreal by foot. During our time there, I’d come to love the familiar crunch of snow beneath by boots as we navigated the neighborhood’s narrow streets and European architecture.
A short walk away from our hotel was the famous La Basilique Notre-Dame, a beautiful church that took my breath away the moment I stepped inside. Every inch of the church, from ceiling to floor, was packed with intricate architectural details, creating an awe-inspiring scene that demanded quiet fascination from me and every other visitor there.
Not even the fluorescent blue lights that bathe the exterior at night or the life-size angels hanging from the facade could compete with the magnificence inside. The experience was so peaceful; lighting a candle in memory of my dad, felt like the appropriate final touch before we bid the angelic calm of the basilica goodbye.
From the church, we walked to Chateau Ramzay, a governor’s house-turned-museum, where we learned about the city’s early history. Unless you’re a history buff, I’d recommend skipping this if you have limited time to explore. The collection of artifacts was pretty low-key, but multimedia guides stationed around the museum and imaginative storytelling saved the visit from being completely unspectacular.
Unfortunately, we had bad timing and our visit to Montreal fell just smack in between the end of one and the beginning of another winter festival, which are truly some of the biggest draws to the city during the colder season. But we did manage to have some outdoor fun by ice skating at the nearby Old Port, an outdoor skating rink where we had the luxury of skating down part of an iced-over river.
At night, the rink was beautiful – Montreal has a thing for lights! But after spending more than an hour outside with temperatures never going above -4, we had to look for solace inside.
WHEN IN DOUBT, EAT
Sometimes I forget there are other things happening outside of New York, and so admittedly it was a bit of a surprise to me that the same trends (farm-to-table cuisine, the foodie culture, mixology and the craft cocktail movement) were just as alive in Montreal as they are in major cities like NYC, San Francisco and London.
While any Montreal travel guide will recommend poutine (fun to try, but not impressive in my opinion) and smoked meat (we didn’t brave the lines at Schwartz’s for this), it’s the more under-the-radar places that were my favorite.
At Olive + Gourmando, where we had the first meal of our vacation, the place was packed with locals and tourists alike. Embarrassingly, all my years studying French went right out the window when a young lady spat out a question in French and I froze completely as my brain tried to slowly translate what she was saying. Luckily Montreal residents speak English pretty well, and everyone we met was kind enough to speak English for our benefit.
Lunch itself was delicious – we split a Cuban and Ruben sandwich, mac and cheese and two really good cappuccinos. But the whimsical decorations were what stole my heart and made me imagine going back week after week.
We also really enjoyed the Polish fare at Stash Cafe, which was conveniently only a block away from the hotel and features a piano player in the evenings. Everything we tried was good, including the Griffon Extra Pale Ale, a locally-brewed Montreal beer that I could drink forever.
I promise we did more than eat, but with temperatures like that could you really blame us? This vacation definitely gave meaning to the term “comfort food,” as we sought refuge day after day in the city’s most cozy restaurants. If you’re ever in town, I’d also recommend:
- Modavie, an Italian restaurant with live jazz music and top-notch cuisine. At the owner’s recommendation, we both had lamb (divine!), and we also enjoyed the tiramisu and French onion soup.
- Brit and Chips, which Yelp reviewers describe as the best “fish and chips in town,” is also good for a casual lunch.
- Cacao 70, where we spent Valentine’s Day indulging in the most rich chocolate fondue, complete with fruit, waffle pieces and marshmallows for dipping. Highly recommended!
For drinks, we found two great bars. Le Mal Necessaire (French for “necessary evil”) has a speak-easy vibe and is identifiable from the outside only by the glow of a neon-green pineapple. The drinks were delicious (my favorite was the Painkiller), our bartender was phenomenal, and it was cool to hang out among other locals in an underground place in Chinatown.
At Le Lab in the Plateau du Mont Royal neighborhood, the impressive drink menu reminded me of Booker and Dax in NYC, though only in terms of the menu and not in atmosphere, which was a cross between an Irish pub and a mad scientist’s lair.
As I spent the last hours of my birthday sipping a cocktail garnished with an edible orchid and watching the bartender pour, pluck and primp behind the dimly-lit bar, I realized that I was seeing the essence of Montreal. Below the surface, the city is great without being showy, offering interesting experiences if you are willing to search for them, but inviting you to take it or leave it.
I’d definitely go back when the weather is better so we can explore other neighborhoods and spend more time finding Montreal’s hidden treasures.