The language spoken might be French, and you’ll surely find boulangeries and patisseries, but to simply reduce Montréal to a North American version of Paris is to discredit this cosmopolitan hub of Québec. Stroll the narrow streets of Old Montréal or bike along the Lachine Canal and you’ll realize that Montréal has its own unique charm. Food certainly plays an integral role in this city, starting with classic French bistros where the waiter arrives with a jar of cornichons, tongs and creamy mustard for dipping. Yet Montréal also serves up a number of noteworthy sites, from the Botanical Garden to the waters of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Leave your luggage in the center of town at Square Phillips Hotel and Suites (www.squarephillips.com). The hotel recently renovated all 160 guestrooms and features a rooftop pool atop the 10th floor.
Recently recognized as the No. 1 cycling city in North America by Bicycling magazine, Montréal operates more than 300 self-service BIXI stations (http://montreal.bixi.com). Pay the daily fee of $5, grab one of the durable three-speed bikes, and leave it at any other station in the city. For a quiet spin far away from the city traffic, bike along the Lachine Canal past the old mills, warehouses and grain elevators that line the historic waterway. Stop to watch the boats waiting for the water to rise at their respective locks so they can move onward.
For lunch, drop the bike off in Old Montréal and dine alfresco at the city’s beloved crêperie, Le Jardin Nelson (407 Place Jacques-Cartier, www.jardinnelson .com). A pianist plays as folks dine on large sweet and savory crêpes. The Basilico is their version of a chicken-parmesan wrap, while the Nelson is stuffed with apple, cinnamon, mozzarella and Cheddar cheese.
Work off lunch by strolling the cobblestones in Old Montréal and visiting the many boutiques selling French country wares. Tant qu’il y aura des fleurs (347 Rue Saint-Paul E.), whose name means “as long as there are flowers,” features a cutting board for baguettes, a planter with Bienvenue (French for “welcome”) and wallets with Parisian motifs such as a girl on a moped.
Take a taxi to the other side of town and the impressive Botanical Garden (www2.ville.montreal.qc.ca/jardin). At the Courtyard of the Senses, smell the fruity citronella and pleasant English lavender and touch the velvety glory bush. Then it’s off to the Insectarium to find tarantulas, scorpions and bees flying in and out of tubes as they collect pollen for their hive. At the gift shop, you can try barbecued mealworms, which the man in front of me said “taste like pretzels, but I wouldn’t want to eat the whole bag.”
Instead, have a proper dinner at L’Express in the Plateau District. One step onto the black-and-white checkerboard tiles and you realize this is a French bistro straight out of the Left Bank. Start with the soupe de poisson, served with a large spoon that one normally finds on the other side of the Atlantic, and then move on to the steak frites or monkfish, saving room for a dish of crème caramel. The perfect way to end a sweet day in Montréal.
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