I first fell in love with Montreal when I was seventeen, so much so that I moved across the Atlantic right after high school to attend its prestigious McGill University. Recently, my college flatmates and I met up back in the city where we had lived together for four years for a quick 3-days mini college reunion slash girls getaway. Here are some highlights from my trip down memory lane back to the city I still love so much.
WHAT BROUGHT ME TO MONTREAL?
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, I went to college there and hadn’t visited in a while (like 8 years a while!) So I was definitely overdue for a visit and when one of my university floormate and flatmate who lives in Calgary suggested we meet up, I jumped at the chance to reconnect with both my friend and the city I called home for 4 years.
Met these two ladies my very first week at McGill when we were floor mates at McConnell Hall’s 7th floor
HOW I GOT THERE
So, I’ll preface this by mentioning that there are direct flights from Dulles to Elliott Trudeau airport on Air Canada, Porter Airline and other American carriers like American and United. But that would be too easy right? Right. I actually flew to Hartford, Connecticut, where I was picked up by my old McGill roommate and bestie Elena, who currently lives near New Haven. We road-tripped up to Canada through Vermont and while it took longer, it was also super fun and delicious as we made stops at Grafton cheese, Harpoon Brewery, Magic Hat Brewery and the Ben & Jerry’s factory along the way. Totally planning a trip to Vermont for the fall now!!
WHERE WE STAYED
I had wanted to re-live my college days a bit by booking an AirbNb in the McGill ghetto (note: not an actually ghetto… but that is how the neighbourhood around the university is known) like this stunning loft or this cozy 3 bedroom house. But we found a good deal at the Hotel Gouverneur Place Dupuis. The hotel was ok, it’s the location that was a real draw, at the crossroads of the Quartier des Spectacles and the Gay Village and a major metro hub. Getting around the city was a breeze, both on foot and public transportation and there was some interesting people watching as the hotel held auditions for the Québécois version of The Voice while we were there. The view didn’t suck either 😉
I loved being so close to the pedestrian stretch of Rue Sainte Catherine (and its famous pink balls!) but if you can splurge, stay at the Ritz Carlton (the grande Dame of Sherbrooke) or the Sofitel, both right by the Musée des beaux-arts in a ritzy Anglophone side of the city. Back on the francophone side, and more budget friendly, I also love the Hotel de l’Institut du Quebec, a teaching hotel and restaurant with just 42 rooms on the edge of the Carré Saint–Louis between the Quartier Latin and the Plateau.
Square Saint Louis in the Plateau, famous for its Victorian style residences facing a quiet park
BEST THING I ATE
From poutine, to smoked meat sandwiches at Schwartz’s and bagels at St Viateur, my Montreal eats are obviously worthy of their own post so I’ll just highlight our decadent diner at Au Pied De Cochon. Everything I put in my mouth that night was outstanding, though the bone marrow topped with caviar was probably my favourite. It was light enough that I could enjoy hors d’oeuvres, desserts and a few bites of my friend’s Duck in Can without leaving the restaurant feeling overstuffed, yet luxurious and highly satisfying.
Bone marrow topped with caviar at Au Pied de Cochon
BEST FREE ACTIVITY
Montreal is said to owe its name to Mont-Royal, the “mountain” that sits just above McGill University, downtown and the plateau. Since the weather was beautiful, we metro-ed over to the Oratoire Saint Joseph du Mont-Royal and from there joined one of the many hiking trails to Le Lac des Castors, a man-made lake that turns into an ice skating rink in the winter. The whole Mont Royal Park, which was designed by the same person responsible for New York’s Central Park, is a breath of fresh air in the city and the views from the chalet simply cannot be beat (and we certainly needed the exercise ahead of our diner at Au pied de Cochon that night 😉
I also loved just walking the city, revisiting old college haunts including campus. Located right in downtown Montreal, McGill University is an English-language school that was founded in 1821 on a royal charter from King George IV. Some of the buildings were built in the Victorian era and you’ll even spot a statue of the British queen in front of the School of Music that bears her name. A lot of it was under renovation while we were there, including the The Roddick Memorial Gates (affectionately known as the Erotic gates because college kids are stupid even when they attend one of the best university in the world), the Three Bares fountain and the bookstore… which was kinda devastating because I really wanted to buy a bunch of new McGill stuff.
As I mentioned, the neighbourhood around the University is known as the McGill Ghetto and there’s a lot of great street art around there and down Saint Denis, thanks in part to a mural festival that take place in the city every year.
I used to live on this street ad frequent Amelio’s now Amelia’s all the time. Now it’s got a fabulous mural courtesy of French collage and stencil artist, Mathieu Bories, alias Mateo.
BEST SPLURGE ACTIVITY
Did I say you couldn’t beat the views from the top of Mont Royal? I may have to retract… So, since our hotel had an indoor pool, I actually tucked in a swimsuit in my small weekend bag at the last minute. Best decision ever because BOTA BOTA. What happened is an old college friend of mine suggested we meet up for lunch near the old port and then asked if I had brought a bathing suit to Montreal. I had no idea what kind of lunch I was in for that required me to be practically naked, but hey… I put my bathing suit in my purse and headed to the Vieux Port for a little touristy sight-seeing before lunch. Turns out we never actually ate lunch, though there is a restaurant at Bota Bota. Unless you count rosé as liquid lunch. Then we had lots of “food” 😉
So what is this Bota Bota? It’s a floating spa on a former ferry boat that’s now anchored on the Saint Laurent river, offering stunning views of the city skyline AND 40 different kinds of spa treatments. It was amazing in the summer, and I can imagine that it’s a completely different, yet equally fabulous, experience in the winter! Spread other 5 levels, Bota Bota offers wet and dry saunas, outdoor/indoor cold and hot pools, facial treatment, swings, a restaurant (apparently lol)…. It wasn’t cheap, but it was SO worth it!
MY TIPS IF YOU’RE HEADED TO MONTREAL
Winters get really cold in Quebec and Montrealers really make the most out of their (short) summer. From the pink balls that topped Sainte Catherine in the gay village to festivals every other weekends, there’s SO much to do in June-July-August. Which of course were the three months out of the year that I never got to spend in Montreal while I was a student. You’ll want to check out a calendar of events to either avoid certain happenings or schedule your trip during a festival that’s of interest to you. One of my favourite was always the Festival International de Jazz and Just for Laughs, and we did manage to catch the tail end of that and the accompany Bouffons Montreal street food fest on this trip.