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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
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Rue Sainte-Catherine.
Rue Sainte-Catherine.
CITY GUIDE

A local’s guide to Montreal

Rue Sainte-Catherine.
Rue Sainte-Catherine.
  • By Selena Ross
  • Photos by Kayle Neis
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No simple facsimile of France, Montreal has blended Quebec traditions with cultures from all over the world, and it adds up to its own distinct flavor — some melange of spiral staircases and big parks, moody bars and permissive laws. It’s no coincidence that Leonard Cohen, Arcade Fire, Cirque du Soleil and jazz star Oscar Peterson all came out of this effervescent, nonconformist city.

Sure, it’s not all perfect. Winters can be harsh, but that makes locals appreciate the summer, when they flock outdoors for pickup sports and all-day picnics or, if that gets old, back-to-back festivals. There are also hundreds of kilometers of urban bike paths to explore, most built in the past decade. Or get around (and avoid our infamously confusing street parking signs) by taking our clean and reliable Metro.

Montreal isn’t like the “ROC,” as Quebec refers to the “Rest of Canada.” Really, it’s like nowhere in the world.

Meet Selena Ross

Selena has lived in Montreal for a total of 10 years. She grew up a couple of hours away, in Ottawa, but has Quebec roots, especially on the Plateau — her grandfather landed there after immigrating to Canada in the 1920s.

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IN THE ACTION
Rue Sainte-Catherine
Sainte-Catherine Street, as it’s also known, is the downtown shopping drag — it’s got big stores, a movie theater and office towers. But equally close are two college campuses, the “festival district” (with its people-watching plaza) and many museums. You’ll also be near the two main subway lines (orange and green) and a bike corridor and just a walk away from other areas to explore. There’s a reason nearly all of Montreal’s hotels are located here. Find this neighborhood.
LOW-KEY
The Plateau
This historical neighborhood, widely considered to be the beating heart of Montreal, is dotted with bed-and-breakfasts and boutique hotels. Stretching atop a steep hill from, roughly, Sherbrooke Street to Saint-Joseph and Park Avenue to Papineau at the north end, the general Plateau area is also huge, containing several mini-neighborhoods. All are beautiful, with classic architecture. If you want to pretend you’re a Montrealer for a weekend, this is your best bet. Find this neighborhood.
Neighborhoods

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Eat

BREAKFAST
Le Vieux Velo
Locals trek from across town to this brunch spot, which is close to a Metro stop (Beaubien) and makes for a good jumping-off point for a day in Petite-Patrie. The coffee and food are unfailingly good, including a few addictive variations on eggs Benedict. Nothing about Vieux Velo is a throwback: It’s run by, and for, the city’s 20- and 30-somethings.
BTW: Expect to wait in line on weekends, but it’s not so bad to people-watch on Beaubien Street with a coffee or kill time at Ex-Voto, the excellent boutique around the corner on Saint-Laurent.
59 Rue Beaubien E, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2S 1R1
BREAKFAST
Guillaume
This bakery is a dream for gluten-eaters, with dozens of sweet and savory croissants, loaves, cupcakes, brioches, galettes, fougasses and more delights that you’ve never even heard of. Guillaume invents its own flavor combinations, and you’ll appreciate that time waiting in line to pick what you want. Stop here while wandering around Mile End, the neighborhood just north of the Plateau.
BTW: There’s no indoor seating, but a courtyard next door is meant for (warm-weather) Guillaume clients and is especially popular with kids.
5134 Blvd. Saint-Laurent, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2T 1R8
LUNCH
L’Express
The only time you’re likely to get a last-minute reservation at L’Express is for lunch — and why not go when it’s a bit quieter, anyway, for an old-fashioned, midday steak-frites? Most visitors to Montreal want a French bistro experience. When residents feel the same way (which is often enough), L’Express is their top choice. Not touristy, it offers good food, strong service and black-and-white tile to remind you that this is still New France.
BTW: Partly because of those beautiful tiles, L’Express can be very loud at peak times. It’s not a great choice for anyone who is hard of hearing.
3927 Rue Saint-Denis, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2W 2M4
LUNCH
Patati-Patata
Ever heard of poutine? If fries, gravy and semi-melted cheese curds don’t sound delicious to you, you probably shouldn’t be in Montreal at all. (Kidding.) Luckily, at Patati-Patata, you can sample the classic dish, stick with a traditional burger or even opt for the homemade tofu burger. This sunny, microscopic hole-in-the-wall where the tables can’t seat more than three has fed generations of young Plateau-dwellers, and it makes everyone feel welcome.
BTW: Order the burger assiette (plate) with half salad, half fries, then ask to convert the fries to poutine. You can also get pitchers of beer.
4177 Blvd. Saint-Laurent, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2W 1Y7
DINNER
Damas
This upscale restaurant in the neighborhood of Outremont has been voted “best in Montreal” many times, and for good reason: The food is unforgettable. Syrian cuisine is hard to find even in some of the continent’s biggest cities, so the flavors are sure to be new to many visitors; think closer to Turkish, with complex sauces and unusual spices, than Lebanese.
BTW: The local Syrian community has been settled in Montreal for more than a century, growing out of long ties between Syria and France. But the thousands of Syrian refugees who have recently resettled in Canada have sparked a new appreciation of Syrian food.
1201 Ave. Van Horne, Outremont, Quebec, Canada H2V 1K4
DINNER
GEMA Pizzeria
This Little Italy pizzeria has a tiny interior, but the popular spot’s row of picnic tables along Saint-Dominique Street saves the day for local families. The takeout window is also inundated with foot traffic for those who choose quick-service and head to one of the many parks nearby with their own tables. The thin-crust pizzas are very good, and there are salad options, a wine list and frozen custard, too.
BTW: People wondering about the name: It’s an initialism made up of the first letters of the names of the owner’s four children.
6827 Rue Saint-Dominique, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2S 3B1
LATE-NIGHT
Le Majestique
This wine and cocktail lounge is a relatively new addition to the Plateau neighborhood, a modern take on the Old World atmosphere of the Main district. It has oysters and small plates and a cozy but stylish vibe.
BTW: If you’re looking for a substantial after-hours meal, order a footlong hot dog supported by a sturdy wooden box.
4105 Blvd. Saint-Laurent, Montreal, Quebec, H2W 1Y7
LATE-NIGHT
Vices & Versa
Plan to end up north of downtown one night so you can hang out amid a cross-section of Montrealers at this long-established bar. Francophones, Anglophones, old and young all consider Vices & Versa their local favorite, which can be quite a feat in this city of overlapping languages and identities. This is mostly a beer bar, with a mammoth list of regional options.
BTW: With its three interior rooms, it’s rare to wait for a table here. There’s also a courtyard out back. The bar stretches patio season as long as possible with heat lamps.
6631 Boulevard Saint-Laurent, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2S 3C5
(Etienne Savaria for The Washington Post)
LOCALS THINK YOU SHOULD KNOW
  1. You don’t need to speak French to get around. But making an effort, even a “Bonjour,” will earn you an appreciative smile before the other person switches to English.
  2. Servers here won’t bring your check without being asked — you can linger for hours. Enjoy it! But in places with few seats, do not stay all night.
  3. Locals give directions that automatically tilt the city grid east. When a place is described as being north, it’s actually northwest — or “Montreal north.”
(Etienne Savaria for The Washington Post)

Do

Jean-Talon Market
Spend a few hours exploring this bustling hub, which is more geared to locals doing weekend shopping than to tourists. The central building stays open year-round, and in summer, the market expands with open-air produce stalls. But this isn’t just a farmers market: Poke into bakeries, cafes, florists, cheese shops or the store dedicated entirely to duck meat, and sustain yourself with maple candies, crepes, sausages, oysters or countless other snacks.
BTW: Traffic can be bad, but a Metro stop is just two blocks away. If you must drive, there’s plentiful and cheap underground parking, with the entrance on Henri-Julien Avenue.
7070 Ave. Henri-Julien, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2S 3S3
Jewish food tour with Beyond the Bagel
Montrealers call Saint-Laurent Boulevard “the Main,” but it would take hours to explain why it’s so central to the city’s psyche. Fortunately, this walking tour will do exactly that job, and it’s well worth the price (the equivalent of about $60 for adults). While eating snacks of pickles, smoked meat and more, you’ll learn about the history of Montreal’s vibrant Jewish community and the long-running rivalry between St. Viateur and Fairmount bagels. The tour is coordinated by and ends at the Museum of Jewish Montreal, mapped below, although its starting place varies.
BTW: The tour runs year-round.
4040 St. Laurent Blvd. R01, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2W 1Y8
Temporarily unavailable
Bike the Lachine Canal
Cycling is big in rural Quebec, with its 3,000-plus-mile-long “Route Verte” system. But bikes are also quintessential Montreal, and green-minded officials have created a plethora of city paths. There’s an older option, too: Start at Parc Fleury-Mesplet (in the Old Port neighborhood), and the Lachine Canal path will take you on a roughly nine-mile journey from the Old Port through the historical neighborhoods of Griffintown, Little Burgundy and Saint-Henri, then along an open stretch with nostalgic views of brick warehouses. Stop along the way at the Atwater Market.
BTW: The local bike-sharing service, Bixi, is easy to use. If you want a road bike, there are plenty of rentals. Try Ça Roule, at 27 De la Commune St. E.
Parc Fleury-Mesplet, Rue de la Commune Est, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Mont-Royal
“The mountain” is really a hill. But it’s still an impressively huge, forested city park. Start at the monument on Park Avenue and explore the crisscrossing paths (which become ski trails in winter), or let the wider one lead you to the main attraction: a panoramic lookout over the downtown skyline. Warm up in the chalet if it’s cold. Mont-Royal is also home to Montreal’s favorite landmark: a giant cross, illuminated with white lights. After the death of a pope, the lights are briefly turned purple.
BTW: If you want a workout, ditch the central path and climb the very long staircase to the top.
Monument to Sir George-Etienne Cartier, Park Ave., Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2W 1S8
Bota-Bota Spa
This spa is built on a ship right in Montreal’s working harbor, at one edge of the Old Port. It’s not expensive, as spas go, and even a brutal February here can feel manageable if it means sitting in a hot outdoor pool while the snow falls and the port trains clatter nearby (though most of the spa is very quiet).
BTW: It offers the cheapest rates if you go in the morning or night.
Bota Bota spa sur l’eau, Old Port, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2Y 2E2
Parc Lafontaine
Big, landscaped parks are key to Montreal life, and each resident has a favorite. One common choice is Parc Lafontaine, made up of several square blocks of picturesque slopes, lawns and benches arranged around an S-shaped pond with a grand fountain and a footbridge. There’s also a kids’ park, baseball diamonds, bocce games and a theater. But the most popular activity is just to set up a picnic, maybe with a bottle of wine — that’s legal in Montreal parks, as long as you’re also eating.
BTW: In winter, the pond becomes a big skating rink, with music piped from the periphery. Skates can be rented on-site.
3819 Ave. Calixa-Lavallée, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2L 3A7
Selena Ross
Selena has lived in Montreal for a total of 10 years. She grew up a couple of hours away, in Ottawa, but has Quebec roots, especially on the Plateau — her grandfather landed there after immigrating to Canada in the 1920s.
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Kayle Neis
Kayle is a contributing photographer to The Washington Post based in Montreal.

CITY GUIDES