Getaway No.09 Thank Goodness the French Took Montreal

Montreal offers visitors a perfect mix of activities for a quick city getaway: a rich history, amazing places to eat, tons of culture, modern and classic architecture, excellent public transport, a lively community of young artists and entrepreneurs, all with a French Twist. And best of all, you get to enjoy it all without jet lag. What’s not to like!

The French arrived in the area as early as the 16th century and in 1760 Quebec officially became a colony of France. The original inhabitants, the First Nations, occupied the territory for about 4,000 years. Sadly, their experience with newcomers was all too typical for any place that Europeans found resources to exploit around the globe.

The region is stunning and highly regarded for its beautiful alpine terrain and distinctive natural landmarks. But in spite of its beauty, life was hard for those first visitors from half a world away. The early settlers had to adapt quickly to the unusually long and harsh Montreal winters, much more demanding than they had anticipated. The first wave of immigrants had to re-think the basics; agricultural techniques, food, housing, and clothing. They were ill-equipped to survive this new environment.

Today the cold winter months lasting October till mid-April is still a defining characteristic of Montreal. While chatting with a few locals, we met; they filled us in on Montreal’s unique seasons. We learned that when the first frost hit the grounds, and light snow starts to sprinkle, this is a sign that Fall is ending coming to a close. We were freezing even with all our clothing layered on. We stood out like the visitors we were. Locals were still navigating the weather in sneakers and light jackets, weeks off breaking out their winter gear.

Our concierge broke it down, “you want to leave your puffy down jacket in your closet as long as possible; otherwise, you’ll be wearing it for five months. The longer you can wait, the shorter winter seams.”

The first French settlers took inspiration from the homeland trying to recreate France in the New World; modeling Montreal after Paris, Lyon, and Nantes. Walking through Montreal today, there is no mistaking it; you could easily be in France.

Montreal is a buzzing, diverse, thriving city and one of the largest French-speaking cities in the world, second only to Paris. 59% of the population identifies as bilingual French/English speakers. About 22% identifying as English only speakers. Needless to say, communicating and getting around is not a problem.

There is so much to do in Montreal; it can be overwhelming. For this guide, we have curated a few highlights reflecting Montreal’s history, traditions, and future to build your itinerary around. Visit these destinations and then allow some extra time at each to explore the neighborhood. Enjoy your visit!

Crew Collective Café

If you are the kind of person who loves to while away the hours in a coffee shop, you are going to love this place. Crew Collective Café is a new collaboration-centric concept that redefines the notion of a workspace and café. Set in the glorious main hall of the old Royal Bank Tower, where bank teller would have handed you your money, today a barista will deliver a mean flat white.

Habitat 67

An interesting off-the-beaten-path landmark, and a well-trodden destination for international design aficionados who pilgrimage across the Lawrence river to visit this model community built in the 1960s which resembles a set from a Science Fiction movie.

Moshe Safdie, an architectural student at the time, got the chance of a lifetime when his plan was accepted to create an innovative urban housing development with all the “perks” of the suburbs, a sense of privacy, a natural setting, and fantastic views over the river.

Talon Market

Located in Little Italy, this charming area is home to the second largest Italian community in Canada. Immigration from Italy to Montreal in the 19th century reached its peak after WWII. Since the 1930s Talon Market has been an intricate part of the neighborhood with a diverse offering of fruit, vegetables, flowers, baked goods, meats. It’s full of great little places to grab a quick bite to eat and sit in the communal hall to watch the people shop. The market is open all year round and is conveniently close to bus and metro stations!

Church of the Madonna Della Difesa and its Mussolini Mosaic

Not far from Talon Market are clues of a strange occurrence in Montreal history and a great stop on your discovery tour. The church of the Madonna della Difesa, a local Catholic church is most known for the subject matter of an odd piece of mosaic on its ceiling. The mural depicts Benito Mussolini riding a horse and marks the existence of a small group of Italian Mussolini supporters who lived in Montreal. The fresco was created by Guido Nincheri and was built before World War II.

Strangely after all the horrors Mussolini unleashed and his execution it was never removed.

Dinette Triple Crown

In the heart of the area known as “Mile X,” the area between Mile End and Park Extension, is Dinette Triple Crown, a Southern Comfort food establishment run by Colin Perry, a US Ex-Pat who initially moved to Montreal because of his music career. Upon meeting his wife Nicole Turete here, the couple decided to make Montreal their home.

Together they decided to quit their jobs and embark on culinary careers with a mission to bring the food and customs of Collins home state of Kentucky to the Montreal; including Bourbon, homemade sauces, barbecue meats and lots of pickles.

In the summer, Dinette Triple Crown offers a picnic basket service complete with a real wicker basket, plates, napkins, and blanket. As in the restaurant, even the condiments are all homemade. After you are done you just return the basket etc. to the restaurant. Best of all, Martel Park is close by which is the perfect setting for a none fuzzy outing.

It is in the winter months when it becomes evident how suitable southern comfort food is to the Montreal climate. Warming comfort food is the perfect thing to help you stay toasty inside while the temperatures outside dip into the minus double digits. But it is excellent fare any season.

Chateau Ramezay

To dive headfirst into Montreal’s early history, head over to the Chateau Ramezay. This beautiful stone building, the former governor’s mansion, has over 30,000 historical artifacts in its collection including; paintings, portraits, furniture, and manuscripts. You will also find Benjamin Franklin’s picture is on display. He took the trip north from Philadelphia to rally the French to rebel and join the cause of the American revolutionaries. He brought along a printing press as a present in the hopes that the leaflets it printed might help his cause. His trip was not the success he hoped though with the French at Montreal opting to stay out of the fray.

Arts Café Montreal

On our second afternoon in town, we met up with French Expat and graphic designer Julien Roudaut at his favorite coffee spot in Mile End, the Arts Cafe. He moved to Montreal a few years ago and quickly became involved in the local art scene. For a totally unique souvenir of your visit, check out his Montreal themed prints. Julien knows Montreal well, and he was happy to give us an insider Mile End perspective. Mile End is one of the most laid-back neighborhoods in the city, with a very genuine and cool vibe, with lots of art, crafts and good food to experience. You can check out Julien’s group of artists gatherings via Instagram.

Viateur Bagel

The Mile End district harkens back to English occupation, named after the East London borough of the same name. Today it has a reputation as the home of the cities creative crowd. Musicians like Arcade Fire, Ariane Moffat and Plants, and Animals all make their homes here. Just a guess on my part but I would bet that most of those artists frequent Viateur Bagels. Open for business since 1967 this local institution has been going strong ever since.

Living in New York where bagel artistry is taken very seriously, I have over the years heard talk of the “great” bagels in Montreal? These rumors, met with skepticism, were to a New Yorker’s ears unusual enough be memorable. Putting the mystery to rest, we treated ourselves to a bag of fresh warm bagels and bialys, and I must admit that they were superior MY local bagel source. Another great experience resulting from Montreal’s eclectic and multifaceted past.

Clark Street Mercantile

Take a break from the tourist trail and head over to Clark Street Mercantile for a bit of local retail therapy. Clark Street Mercantile offers stylish curated merchandise by small independent designers tailored to both Montreal’s cold winters and summer outdoor activities. We loved the raincoats from Danish brand Norseproject.

Chateau Dufresne

This 1920s historic mansion in Montreal’s Maisonneuve borough used to be the family home of wealthy entrepreneurs Marius and Oscar Dufresne. The building’s 40 rooms cover over 20,000 square feet allowing visitors a peek into the lifestyles of Montreal’s early 20th century wealthy industrialists.

The Dufresne brothers hired Parisian architect Jules Renard who based his design for their house on the Petite Trianon in Versailles. Indeed, a good talking point for the Dufresne to show off their wealth and taste to their Montreal peers. But any resemblance to the buildings ancestor is obscured by fashionable neo-classic details of the day. One contributor to the decorative arts on display, local artisan Guido Nincherie (the same artist who created the Mussolini mural in the Madonna Della Diefessa) created murals and ceiling paintings throughout the chateau. The Dufresne murals are a lot less controversial than those of the Madonna Della Diefessa.

Olive & Gourmand

Feeling peckish? This charming food destination is perfect for a quick lunch, serving artisanal bread, paninis, and salads, in a French cafe-style setting. You can find this and other similar great foodie destinations in our EAT Montreal article.

Cité Mémoire

The Cité Mémoire is a public art installation supported by the City of Montreal. The project puts on display the unique and riveting history of Montreal. Large scale projections can be seen in the evening on buildings in Montreal’s old town. Plan your visit to Cité Mémoire’s eight projections with the free app.

Breakfast with Pierre-Luc Lapare

A “serial-cereal” entrepreneur, Pierre-Luc Lapare started the breakfast startup Oatbox, a company that struck upon the idea that the subscription model was ideally suited to breakfast cereal. They say a good business idea is one that is 10x better than the status quo and with no meaningful development in the cereal market since its invention by Will Keith Kellog little more than 100 years ago, the industry is ripe for disruption. Getting a fresh and yummy supply of cereal delivered on a schedule is WAY better than roaming the endless cereal box aisle at your local grocery store. No more stale old cereal boxes stuck in the back of the pantry!

We met up with Pierre-Luc at his favorite local breakfast hangout, Cafe Parvis. Situated just off Place d’Armes, a short walk away from the Museum of Modern Art and the Redpath Museum it’s a handy spot to know about when roaming around downtown Montreal.

So convenient that we ended up returning several times over the next few days, getting a taste of Cafe Parvis’ lunch and dinner service. For dinner, we tried their popular flatbreads, a pizza-like dish with fresh veggies and toppings. For lunch, soups and salads all super fresh and not too expensive. With restaurants like Cafe Parvis dining out is quite affordable making Montreal visits all the more enjoyable.

Redpath Museum

Built-in 1882 as a gift from the sugar baron Peter Redpath, the Redpath Museum hosts a diverse range of exhibitions focusing on ethnology, zoology, and paleontology. The museum’s collections were initiated by some of the same individuals who founded the Smithsonian and Royal Ontario Museum collections. Admission to the museum is free!

Lachine Fur Trade Museum

On the outskirts of Montreal, where the Lachine Canal meets the Lawrence River, we came to check out the Lachine Fur Trade Museum. We arrived it in the nick of time on the museum’s last day before closing for the season.

The fur trade was vital to Montreal’s economy, with beaver furs fetching high prices in Europe as they fed well-heeled society’s insatiable apatite for felted headwear.

Set in an old stone warehouse built in 1803, trapper’s furs were once stored here waiting for shipment to Europe. Now a National Historic Site, visitors can experience the history of Montreal’s trade in the place it happened. It’s fun for kids with “dress-up” exhibits where you can imagine fur trader’s experience of the day; with typical trappers clothing, a pretend canoe and bails of fur to feel the weight of the cargo trappers hauled for hundreds of miles to reach this point.

I recently watched the Netflix series “The Frontier” which gave me a little better understanding of the competitive practices and harsh conditions experienced by the early Montreal settlers. As well as the battle for dominance of Montreal between the English and the French.


For opening hours and directions follow the links below:

Crew Collective Café
Habitat 67
Talon Market
Church of the Madonna Della Difesa
Dinette Triple Crown
Chateau Ramezay
Arts Café Montreal
Viateur Bagel
Clark Street Mercantile
Chateau Dufresne
Olive & Gourmand
Cité Mémoire (free app)
Cafe Parvis”
Redpath Museum
Lachine Fur Trade Museum

Photography: Daniela Stallinger

Planning a visit to Montreal? Here is the current weather and what to expect for the next few days.