It’s July. The sun is beaming down on the streets of Montreal and the city is making good on its promise of beauty. A green hill sits in the distance of a city that parades itself as three complementary identities. As a city of business, like any other, skyscrapers loom and threaten to shade you from the sun. As a city of study, the campus of McGill University – one of Canada’s most well regarded – serves as a defining feature, ensuring the city caters for more than the business elite.
And finally as a self defined festival city, arts and culture seems to find its way into every crevice of the city. While I’m in town, the sounds of the annual Montreal Jazz Festival – which takes over the their entertainment district (Quartier des Spectacles) for two weeks every July – reverberates off the buildings, with the sound waves probably heard as far as the top of Mount Royal, which lingers above the city like a mother’s watching eye.
Not far away, preparations are underway for the 37th annual Carifiesta parade along the busy shopping district, while busy bars telecast the FIFA World Cup happening a few thousand kilometres to the south and the Cirque du Soleil tent flutters in the wind. Though I’m told Winter does little to keep people indoors, Montreal is a city that thrives in the Summer and serves as the perfect destination for any traveller.
I was staying at Hôtel Omni Mont-Royal (book yourself a stay and find out more details HERE), across the street from McGill University, putting me within walking distance of all aspects of Montreal life. A museum nearby was showcasing the history of Montreal Music, the beautiful campus of McGill was within easy reach, and whether I wanted to hit up the festival, see the business area or shop on Rue Sainte-Catherine, it was all an easy walk away. Though I’m sure jumping on the city’s fantastic public transport network would have saved a few minutes if you needed it (more on that is HERE). But one thing seemed certain – you wouldn’t need a car to explore the city, and Ubers and Taxis were readily available for the times you may have.
After a fantastic buffet breakfast at the hotel’s own restaurant, my day was started early with a promised jet boat experience down the St Lawrence River. A taxi was organised for myself and another writer, neither of whom had any idea what they were getting themselves into. But one thing was certain: we were in for an early morning wake up call like no other.
When you’re told you’re going to go on a jet boat down a river, you expect to get wet, but this is another level. Saute-Moutons offers you a very literal wild ride, as you head down the St. Lawrence River, straight into the Lachine’s “mighty and historic rapids” – which are some of the most intense in the world.
The powerful boats navigate the rapids with ease, throwing you 360 degrees before dunking you underwater. You don’t get wet – you get SOAKED. You get pummeled by the water, and as you’ll see in the photo, I was right up front (front left for those playing at home). I wouldn’t recommend sitting there, though I could not stop laughing. It was insane! Luckily they cover you in waterproof clothes and a sweater, because if you wearing your own clothes, you probably wouldn’t be able to wear them again anytime soon. And just heed their warnings – avoid bringing any electronics on board – ziploc bag or no ziploc bag, you’re not going to want to take them out.
It was without question the most surprisingly extreme wake up call I’ve ever had, and a very entertaining one at that. Those who are less adventure-inclined may like to start the day with a leisurely stroll through one of the city’s beautiful parks, or check out the Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History (which comes recommended)… In any case, after the morning adventure, the afternoon became devoted to food, something that Montreal is well known for. We headed first to St-Viateur Bagel for a famous Sesame Seed Bagel. Unlike anything you might experience in New York – a city well known for having some of the finest bagels in the world – the bagels of St-Viateur and indeed of Montreal in general are almost incomparable.
Firstly, the bagels are mouth-wateringly fresh, coming straight out from the oven when we arrive, still warm. The steam rises as the bagel is broken, seeds fall all over the ground. There is a sweetness to them – comparable almost to a large, soft pretzel – that proves their claims on purchasing correct: you didn’t need to buy any cream cheese for these, they were full of enough flavour to exist as a meal on their own. Still, I bought cream cheese, ever doubtful, and enjoyed it all the same. At barely a Canadian dollar (or “a toonie”) a pop, there’s nothing not to love.
Once you’ve had your taste of this Montreal icon, try and find different ways to explore city. Keeping on the notion that walking was the best way to see everything the city had to offer, we joined an afternoon walking tour put on by the company Fitz & Follwell, who run their operation out of a bike shop, putting together a series of fantastic tours.
This particular tour started off in China Town, taking us to the local fortune cookie makers to the masterful lolly wielders, before we headed towards the famous Schwartz’s deli – ranked among New York’s Katz as one of the best in the world – for their famous pastrami on rye. With a pickle of course. Owned in part by Celine Dion, the deli is a Montreal icon, and you’ll find a line here no matter when you visit. Luckily the tour gives you the opportunity to skip the queue for some ready to go sandwiches. Pickles are not optional. Along the walk to the deli you’ll be taken to some of the area’s multicultural food shopping, enjoying cheeses and sausages along the way. You’ll also be lucky enough to see some of the city’s brilliant street art scene. We were told this is something encouraged by local government in earmarked areas, ensuring there are secrets hidden around every corner in this fine city.
I found myself wanting to explore the city even more, and made my way to Saint Catherine Street for some shopping before the day was up. With malls, bars, restaurants and a myriad of shopping outlets, this was a stretch of road that was closed off to everything but foot traffic on the day I was there. Lights and colour lined the streets as you looked above and around you – though today was a special occasion with a street parade coming through, it was obvious that this was a place where something was always happening.
Dinner options are vast, and where you decide to eat should come down to your plans for the later part of the evening. But if you have the time to go a little bit out of the way, don’t look past Le Serpent, located in Cité du Multimédia, famous for its amazing pastas and a mouth watering Lobster Risotto amongst a splattering of surf and turf. The area is an emerging market for the Montreal cuisine scene, with the neighbourhood emerging in the late 1990s as a project to turn an area of warehouses into a burgeoning scene for IT companies. Le Serpent is one just great spot in the area, and the aesthetic of revived warehouse spaces is an inspired choice for a restaurant like this.
If you’re looking for somewhere closer to the festival, the Labo Culinaire Foodlab is located right in the thick of it and has a vibrant and adventurous menu. We enjoyed a delicious degustation before we hit one of our nights at the festival. The options for entertainment this evening was vast. We started off with a Cirque du Soleil performance, of their production “Kurios”, which was happening in time for their 30th anniversary; a Steam Punk inspired show that featured a massive jumping net and a very small person among its memorable moments.
And even after all that running around, from the wee hours in the morning, to the closing acrobatics of the Cirque performers, we still had enough time to catch a show at the jazz festival. I think on this particular evening I caught the 11pm performance of of Montreal, a band who were named after this very city – though they’re actually from Athens, Georgia.
They performed in one of the city’s most well known venues, Club Soda, in one of the indoor paid concerts. The venue would have held earlier concerts, and changeover ticket holders for each subsequent event, which isn’t typical of many festivals. Others would feature a “lineup” at a venue that one ticket would get you into, but the system still seemed to work well all the same. On my final night in the city is have the pleasure of witnessing recent Ghostface Killah collaborators Badbadnotgood playing a spellbinding set in the same venue. You can read more about everything I experienced at Jazz Fest in our festival hub.
The way the Jazz Festival takes over the city is incredible. At least four major outdoor stages are completely free, encouraging visitors to wander the streets of Quartier des Spectacles and discover something known or something new, while pop up bars and established venues host free and paid performances as part of the festival.
On the nights we were there everyone from Aretha Franklin to of montreal performed, while Australia’s own Melbourne Ska Orchestra (pictured above in a jam session) headlined the main outdoor stage that has played host to some of the biggest bands in the world – and tens of thousands show up each night to witness whoever is on offer. A testament to both the city and the people who live in it.
We spoke to Montreal band Groenland, who told us a little more about the city in which they live:
As you hit the bars or continue enjoying music through the night, the only way you could suitably end your day in Montreal is with some 2am Poutine. Next door to Club Soda (or just abouts) is one of the city’s most well known spots, the Montreal Pool Room, which happens to have my favourite poutine I experienced while in Quebec. But it’s worth noting that another of the city’s most well known spots – Quartier des Spectacles – is open 24 hours. So you will never be starved for choice when it comes of the city’s most famous late night treat.
Though a city that encourages one to engage in Québécois, this is a city built for tourists and you won’t have any problems as an English speaker. But as a bilingual city, it certainly would offend no one to learn a few basic phrases. Having learnt French in high school, I remembered just enough of my pleases (si vous plais!) and thank yous (merci beaucoup!) to get by. Though some performances at the festival, and the Cirque, did prove to be unintelligible for the non-québécois linguist.
What an incredibly jam packed day, from unexpected thrills in the St Lawrence River, to a Cirque experience and the wonderful music of one of North America’s finest bands, I’ve rarely fit more into 24 hours anywhere in the world. And this isn’t something that’s only possible in the weeks in July when the Jazz Fest comes to town. I’m told the city plays host to hundreds of annual festivals, many of which attract over a million people – the Jazz Festival being just one of them. There’s certainly more than enough precedent for the city to call itself a festival city. And they promise to deliver year round, come rain, hail, snow or shine. But being from a city like Sydney, you can bet the time of year I’m going to prefer to make the trip over…
Air Canada flies daily to Canada, direct from the East Coast of Australia, connecting in Vancouver through to Montreal. Return prices at the time or printing start at AU$2155, though vary from day to day. For the latest prices, head to http://aircanada.ca/
Learn more about the walking/bike tour company Fitz and Follwell: http://www.fitzandfollwell.co/
The 37th Montreal Jazz Festival (2016) has started making its announcements, taking place from June 29th to July 9th. Tickets and more information can be found here: www.montrealjazzfest.com
For more details on the Jet Boating experience head to: http://www.jetboatingmontreal.com/
Restaurants mentioned in the article include:
St-Viateur Bagel Shop
263 St-Viateur O
257 Prince Street, Square-Victoria
Society for Arts and Technology’s
Labo Culinaire Foodlab
1201 Saint-Laurent Boulevard
Montreal Pool Room
1217 Saint-Laurent Boulevard
Schwartz’s (Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen)
3895 Saint-Laurent Boulevard
The writer traveled to Canada with Air Canada, with the assistance of Ministère du Tourisme (Tourisme Québec) and Tourisme Montréal. With thanks to Cirque du Soleil, Hôtel Omni Mont-Royal, the Montreal Jazz Festival, Fitz & Follwell, Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History, Festival International de Jazz de Montréal and Saute Moutons Montreal (Jet Boating and Rafting the Lachine Rapids).
All information was correct at the time this article was originally printed – April 2015. Refer to the respective websites for all the latest prices and information.