A year or so ago Marilyn and I were chatting about where we could go for a “quick-ish” trip that would still offer a new cultural perspective. We narrowed it down to a few places – Central America, Cuba, Vancouver and Montreal. Food won the day, and Montreal’s French influence lured us to come and check out the city.
We decided to head up for a culture and food trip for Marilyn’s Birthday. Being big fans of the French-inspired Canadian food we’d tried, we knew there would be a lot of good food (and poutine) in our future.
From Orlando, Montreal is a short 4 hour flight, non-stop flight. You still have to do the customs thing, but it’s still 10 hours quicker than flying over to Europe.
We ended up staying at Hotel Zero 1, which ended up being in an amazing location. We were within walking distance of the Plateau, Montreal Underground, Chinatown, Old Town and a short subway ride away from the Olympic Village area. In our entire time there, we spent less than $50 on travel, mostly in the form of $4 Ubers.
A few blocks from our hotel was Bouillon Bilk a decadent French Canadian restaurant. It was a bit on the expensive side for dinner (and reservations were needed), so we stopped in for a lunch. We were not disappointed by the poutine, or anything else. This continued our trend of eating at the best restaurant to start the trip out.
After lunch we started heading north up to Mount Royal, a large central park high up on a hill that overlooks the city. We underestimated the trip up, and it ended up taking 2 hours or so, but it was fun exploring the city.
Pikolo Espresso Bar
Before too long we ran into the Pikolo Espresso Bar, an amazing little coffee shop with one of the best mixed expresso’s I’ve ever had.
Below the Park
We made our way up through the plateau district, by a local college and up to the park.
Within the park, the trip was beautifully green. Being there in August proved to be warm enough to be comfortable in just about anything. From the south entrance to Mount Royal, it’s about a 30 minute walk up to the top, with an amount of stairs that should not be underestimated. We felt like we earned our view once we got to the top.
The Mount Royal Chateau doesn’t offer too much – aside from a place to get off your feet and grab a bag of Poutine flavored chips.
Once we made it to the top, we found the Mount Royal Chateau, built near the founding of Montreal due to it’s strategic view. We joined the the group of tourists at the top exploring the well kept flowers and looking out over the city.
Looking out over the city was the perfect way to start out week in town!
After way more walking than we expected, we headed back to the hotel for a nap before heading out to dinner at Foodlab, a unique looking place with an ever-changing menu.
Olympic Park Village and Biodome
In looking for things to do during the day, we ran into the Biodome - an indoor zoo which is open year round. It offers a place to get away from Montreal’s extreme winters. We decided to check out the zoo, and walk to the “nearby” botanical gardens.
The Olympic Stadium and the planetarium greeted us when we got off the subway.
The tour through the Biodome only takes an hour or two, but in that time you go through a jungle, caves, swamps, the arctic, underwater and finish in a sloth habitat.
The most unusual experience in our time there was a sloth presentation – without sloths. We lined into a small auditorium expecting to see someone come out carrying a sloth and talking about it, but what we ended up experience was more of a french arts performance. We sat down as the presenter mimicked sloth behavior with sounds and lights adding to the feel.
Montreal Botanical Garden
The Montreal Botanical Garden is just a bit north of the Olympic Stadium – but uphill. It’s about a mile walk, then another few miles to walk around the gardens. We underestimated it (we tend to do that with walks), but the gardens themselves were worth it.
Olympic Park Food Trucks
We were lucky enough to be at the Olympic park during a food truck event. Having been to a number of food truck pods here in Orlando, we were thinking it’d be some small event. Nope – this was a massive event with something like 50 trucks spanning the area. This made any food truck event I’ve been to seem like a small gathering of friends.
Dinner at Onoir
One of the dinners we planned ahead of time was to Onoir, a restaurant where you eat completely in the dark (hence the lack of images). We made it in early and took some seats inside (in the light), slightly confused.
The way it works is like this: you get a seat in the light and place your order. Once your order is in, you’ll be escorted to through two doors (so that light doesn’t leak) into the main dining room.
For our dinner, we needed to keep seated, and always place our beer and water in the same place. There was a lot of physical contact with the waiter, who would hand us drinks by putting a hand against our shoulder. The wait staff at this place has to be insanely skilled, as they didn’t miss a beat.
The actual dinner was delicious. Some of our courses were “surprise” meals – meaning we didn’t know what we were ordering and had to figure it out. If I went again, I’d probably do this for all courses.
The only downside was how loud the room gets with a few bad apples. We had the unfortunate experience of having a bachelorette party seated in the same room as us. They were loud beyond belief. Even though they were split up into different tables, they were holding conversation that spanned them. Despite out repeated efforts to quiet them, we got to the point where we couldn’t hold a conversation on our own.
The next day we started our morning out by heading south from our hotel to Montreals Chinatown district. This area only spans a few blocks, but is worth it for the food. We grabbed a few buns for breakfast. To our surprise there was also an anime convention going on a few blocks away. We didn’t stop by, but the streets were filled with cosplayers – and locals who were enjoying the people watching.
Heading farther south into Montreals Old Town, we ran into Notre-Dame Basilica, a historic and towering site visible across the district.
we stopped and grabbed lunch. And by lunch I mean beer.
Old Town Gardens
The waterfront area of the Old Town was one of our favorite areas in Montreal. Filled with gardens along the waterfront, and a railway that was being threatened by local wildlife. While still being very well controlled gardens, we felt like we were whisked away from the busy city.
We continued wandering around the streets – through random local shops, street vendors and performers, art installations and fountains.
One of our favorite areas of town for shopping and food was the Le Plateau-Mont-Royal area. We skirted the edge on our trip up to Mont Royal, and stopped by for our Onoir dinner, but kept ending up back for food.
One of my favorite meals was the smoked meat over at Schwartz’s Deli. We made it in on a weekday, right as they opened, which allowed us to enjoy our meal without the long lines.
Stopping by Fairmount Bagel, which is open 24-hours, we grabbed a selection of fresh smelling breads that powered us for the rest of the trip.
We also spotted a restaurant that had an impressive oyster list, and knew we had to try it.
One of the unexpected parts of our trip was wandering around Underground Montreal. This sounds like some organized system, but it’s actually just a lot of malls in downtown that are connected through tunnels and subway stops. After checking out multi-story malls in Japanese subway stations, we weren’t expecting much here, but soon learned (by getting lost) that Montreal’s underground system is the largest in the world.
This isn’t a historic or scenic area though – it’s just a mall. There’s occasionally good food, or a hole in the water coffee place, but overall it’s a mall like any other. The selling point is that since it’s underground and connected, if you lived in the city, you could do your shopping without needing to go topside in the cold.
At the Florida Film Festival this past year, we saw a short documentary about Kinder Eggs – these small chocolate eggs with a toy inside. These are against the law in the US, and cannot even be imported. For no other reason than that we decided to try them out. Now I have a stamp and Marilyn has a little plastic ball.
Montreal is a beautiful city. The many districts offer varied experiences only a short walk away, in a very safe and comfortable city. The food was amazing – we wished we had more of an appetite. There was a great beer and cocktail scene, with Belgium influences in convenience stores and restaurants alike.
The Plateau are is definitely worth checking out, as is Mount Royal. The Biodome/Botanical gardens are fun, but it might be worth visiting outside the city instead of inside of it.
The biggest downside was the number of tourists. We stopped by a few places where the lines were too long for us to get in. Montreal is a hot-spot for American tourists in the Northeast who want to head up to party and take advantage of the lower drinking age. If you’re planning on hitting some of the highest rated restaurants or bars, I’d suggest making reservations well in advance, or coming during the off-season – although for that you might need to bring a few extra layers to stay warm.