Travellers looking to experience Montreal’s old world charm and bohemian vibes may end up neglecting downtown Montreal. After all, you can get skyscrapers, main street stores, and cheesy nightclubs in any big city.
But there’s more to downtown than the commercial drag. It’s full of culinary gems and fun little oddities. If you know where to wander, you’ll while away a day in a blink. I’m an Irish immigrant to this city, who teaches at Concordia’s buzzy downtown campus; I’ve spent the last few years ferreting out downtown treasures, whether for lunchtime treats or after work shenanigans.
Where to Stay
To truly enjoy your downtown experience, avoid the big name hotels, and go for one that’s rich with history. Chateau Versailles, a cute, quirky place to stay, is a boutique hotel perfectly located for downtown wandering on Sherbrooke Street. The walls are hung with an eclectic mixture of classical and modern art, while the small foyer has a range of beautiful coffee table books to peruse. The rooms are cozy, the breakfast hearty, and the staff helpful to a fault.
Montreal’s Downtown Cafés
Every busy downtown day should start with good coffee. Myriade on MacKay Street is the preferred destination for connoisseurs: it takes great pride in sourcing beans, which are always fair trade, and its pastries are locally made. Kafein on Bishop Street is another great spot to get your fix. Upstairs it’s filled (as is to be expected of urban coffee shops) with folks in sturdy spectacles on MacBook pros, while downstairs is kitted out with comfy couches. In the evening, Kafein starts serving cocktails, a DJ appears, and it transforms into a chilled out bar.
There’s a plethora of excellent museums to visit downtown, which any of Montréal’s tourist guides will tell you about. They may be less likely, however, to direct you to McGill’s Redpath museum, which is a shame, as the Redpath is the oldest purpose-built museum in Canada, and it houses an utterly unique and somewhat odd natural history collection. While the extensive fossils and minerals are fascinating for natural history geeks, my favorite thing about the Redpath is its highly entertaining taxidermy. If you have ever wondered what a vampire koala would look like, the Redpath can help. And it’s free!
On the off chance that vampire koalas are not your thing, another lovely alt-museum experience is to simply walk along Avenue du Musée next to the Musée des Beaux Arts. It’s lined with beautiful sculptures and installations all year round. Or, for fans of cultural history, the McCord museum houses a uniquely Montréalais collection, tracing the city’s history through cultural objects, as well as displaying a sensitively curated First Peoples exhibition.
Where to Eat in Downtown Montreal
It must be time for lunch! There’s a vast selection of quality eateries downtown, often in unassuming spaces, and at very friendly prices. Misoya on Bishop serves big hearty bowls of delicious ramen – perfect during the long winter months.
Qing Hua is secreted away in a basement space on Lincoln Avenue, and it makes the best Chinese dumplings I have ever tasted. I recommend the shrimp and leek, lamb and dill, asparagus and tofu, or curry beef.
Other thrifty favorites include Thali on St. Marc, a no-frills Indian restaurant where you choose three excellent curries accompanied by naan, rice, and poppadum, and Kazu on St. Catherine Street, a deservedly popular Japanese fusion restaurant – but take warning, there is always a line at Kazu, so try to get there when it opens.
Books and Reading Nooks
After lunch, pop into Argo – Montreal’s oldest independent English-language bookstore. This tiny Montreal institution has something for all seasons, from classics to contemporary sci-fi and fantasy. If you’re not sure what to read, Moti and Adele, the owners, will have recommendations – you have never met another human who likes talking about books so much.
If you fancy finding an unusual spot to read your new favorite book, journey to Concordia’s Hall Building and take the elevator all the way up to the 12th floor. Then walk up the final flight of steps to the roof and nestle down in Concordia’s rooftop greenhouse, surrounded by fruit trees, flowers and plants. You can even make yourself a cup of herbal tea! (But remember: the greenhouse is only open during fall and winter semester, and closes for the summer months)
We were kind to our wallets at lunch, so let’s go fancier for dinner. The Dominion Square Tavern on Metcalfe is aesthetically gorgeous, affecting a 1930s Art Deco music hall atmosphere. With classic cocktails, a stylish wine list, and a menu that perches elegantly between pub grub and haute cuisine, The Dominion is always a treat.
I also love Ferrari, an unpretentious Italian place on Bishop. All the pasta is homemade, and the maître d is delightfully bombastic and charming. Have the Tartufata, and save room for the tiramisu.
Late Night Spots
Music after dinner? Upstairs jazz bar has hosted some of the world’s greatest musicians. There are acts every night, from local talent to big names on tour, reminding visitors that there’s much more to Montreal’s jazz scene than our famous festival.
If you’d rather something folksy, Grumpy’s bar hosts regular sessions that meld bluegrass and Celtic traditional. The bar is worth a visit in and of itself – inhabited with beat poet lookalikes who’ve dropped in from the ‘50s to nurse tumblers of whiskey and brood, it’s got a lot more character than most downtown watering holes. Just don’t ask for wine. The barman’s eyebrows will tell you everything you need to know about people who ask for wine.
And look: it’s late. You’re well fed, well read, well watered, and ready to go to bed after a beautiful day in downtown Montreal. Tomorrow you can check out the Plateau Mont-Royal.
Top image: © Tourisme Montréal