Sarah Staples offers an exciting itinerary filled with French flair in Canada’s “European” city

By September in Montreal, the heat and humidity have subsided, F1’s Montreal Grand Prix has been won, and internationally renowned summer fireworks, jazz and stand-up comedy festivals are over for another year. Still, there’s an ever-present energy in this buzzing outdoor culture, with terrasses in the picturesque Old Port area full to overflowing. Montrealers, out in force shopping along Rue Ste-Catherine, are determined to stay in short sleeves and sundresses for as long as the weather holds.

It’s an ideal time of year for a relaxing stopover – a bit of shopping and dining with French flair, perhaps a stroll through an art gallery or covered farmers’ market. Later this month, fall foliage enthusiasts will start trouping up Mont-Royal, the gently sloping urban mountain, for unimpeded views of oak trees, sugar maples and sumac painted in Canada’s extraordinary red-to-gold palette. Leaf-peeping season ends with the first snows in November or early December. But for now, here’s how to enjoy Montreal like a local – and the warm autumn sunshine while it lasts.

Qatar Airways’ service to Montreal from Bangkok and Singapore, connecting through the airline’s hub Doha, began in June. From Montreal-Trudeau airport, take a metered taxi downtown for about C$38 (US$39) plus tip. The ride is usually about 30 minutes, but during rush hour, expect it to be at least 15 minutes longer. Or buy a C$8 (US$8.15) ticket for the public Express Bus No 747, which runs 24/7 and stops at the entrances of several underground métro stations.

Check in
Hôtel Le St-James (tel +1 514 841 3111;; daily rates start from C$400/US$408) on Rue St-Jacques in Vieux-Montreal, a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, is where A-listers including Madonna and the Rolling Stones stay. Other solid choices are the Hôtel Le Germain (tel +1 514 849 2050,; superior room starts from C$210/US$214) on Rue Mansfield, the flagship of a Québécois-owned boutique chain; the reliable Sofitel on Rue Sherbrooke Ouest (tel +1 514 285 9000,; superior room priced at C$170-C$250/US$173-US$255, depending on the season); or edgy Hotel Nelligan (tel +1 514 788 2040,; rack rate from C$239/US$244) on Rue St-Paul Ouest.

Get your bearings
The city, founded by 17th-century French explorers and fur traders in the middle of the St Lawrence River, today extends across bridges to suburban sprawl along its southern and northern shores. Montreal is an island physically as well as culturally: just under 60 percent of residents are French-speaking, and restrictions on English signage enshrined in provincial law are meant to protect and strengthen those Francophone roots. So you’ll be forgiven for thinking you’ve alighted in Europe, rather than North America, for the abundance of bistrots, chic fashion, limestone walk-up architecture (think of Brooklyn mashed with Normandy), and corner boulangeries stuffed with baguettes and chocolatines.

Get around
For sightseers, public transportation is reliable and safe. A C$8 (US$8.10) daily or C$17 (US$17 approx.) three-day Tourist Card grants unlimited access to buses and the four métro lines. You could also rent a Bixi bicycle from self-serve stands around the city, for minimum C$5/US$5.07 (specific locations, And relatively clean, cheap taxis from Taxi Diamond, Royal Taxi or Air Taxi may be hailed either on the street or from a specified address.

Stroll through history: Vieux-Montreal ( is perfect for a pleasant morning stroll. Stop for advice at the Tourist Welcome Office on Rue Notre-Dame Est (tel +1 514 873 2015,, at Place Jacques-Cartier in front of city hall. Then relax and map your route, sipping café au lait at a terrasse in what was Montreal’s earliest public market.

Whatever you do, don’t overlook Rue St-Paul, the oldest and loveliest street in Montreal, paved with cobblestones that were originally laid in 1672. You’ll find works by local artists at Galerie le Luxart (tel +1 514 848 8944,, one of many galleries on the strip. Books are displayed as objets d’art at Librissime (tel +1  514 841 1234,, and handcrafted furniture reproductions and jewellery are at the domed architectural stunner, Bonsecours Market, est. 1847, now the headquarters of the Québec Crafts Council (

Light lunch: Olive & Gourmando (tel +1 514 350 1083,, on Rue St-Paul Ouest, is a trendy hangout of film stars, ideal for a light gourmet lunch. Try the gorgeous Gustavo panini with garlic chicken and maple dijonnaise. Then zip across the street to Éspace Pepin (tel +1 514 844 0114, to check out visual artist Lysanne Pepin’s unique curation of art and furniture, including her own works.

Waterfront spa and science centre: The Quays of the Old Port of Montreal (tel +1 514 283 5480, is a cultural complex along the waterfront hosting indoor-outdoor events and concerts, with an attached private marina. It includes the Montreal Science Centre, where Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology, an exhibition of artifacts from the National Geographic Society, runs until September 18.

You’re also close to Bota Bota, spa-sur-l’eau (tel +1 514 284 0333,, a new full-service spa that’s actually inside a beautifully refurbished ferryboat docked at the Quays of the Old Port.

Fall foliage tip: For generations, families have tobogganed, cross-country skied, fed ducks around an artificial lake (called Lac des Castors), and picnicked all over Parc du Mont-Royal (tel +1 514 843 8240,, the public park enveloping Montreal’s 233-metre mountain.

Any cab driver can take you there. Or catch bus No 11 from Mont-Royal métro, which leaves you at a parking lot midway up the mountain, by the lake. Then it’s a 10-minute hike through serene forest paths to Belvedere Kondiaronk lookout; a route as richly iconic as the tramway up Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak. You’ll leaf-peep panoramically – since no building in the city is allowed to be built high enough to obstruct views from Mont-Royal.

Secret Garden: Montreal Botanical Garden (tel +1 514 872 1400,, across from the old Parc Olympique, is an ethereal, less-trodden spot to enjoy nature. From September 9 to October 31, life-size nylon lanterns are spaced throughout the Chinese Garden for the 19th edition of The Magic of Lanterns festival, open 9am to 9pm. This year, they’ll portray the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, soldiers, charioteers and sections of the Great Wall.

Finest dining: Montrealers eat out late, so around 9pm is when the trendiest restaurants will be full. You can’t go wrong with an institution like Moishes steakhouse (tel +1 514 845 3509, on Boulevard St-Laurent. Au Pied de Cochon (tel +1 514 281 1114, on Rue Duluth Est serves a porcine-themed menu that could be described as whimsically Québécois. The choice for sushi has to be Kaizen (tel +1 514 932 5654, on Rue Ste-Catherine Ouest, whose chef was a protégé of Masa Takayama at New York’s Masa. And a few weeks post-splashy opening, you might just get a table at Laurier Gordon Ramsay (tel +1 514 273 3671) on Ave Laurier Ouest, which used to be a kitschy dive serving barbecue chicken called La Rôtisserie Laurier BBQ, but newly bought and renovated by the British superstar chef.


best brunches: For this essential meal, line up at Beauty’s Restaurant on Ave du Mont-Royal Ouest (tel +1 514 849 8883), an unostentatious diner serving all-day breakfasts since 1942. Or, as a Breakfast at Tiffany’s experience, there’s Birks Café par Europea (, where a Relais & Chateaux Grand Chef offers his super-expensive brunch of teensy French proportions, amid diamonds and fine crystal on the second floor of a well-known jewellery store.

Traditional covered market: Spend the rest of the morning browsing covered stalls of Marché Jean-Talon (Rue Henri-Julien,, open since 1935 and arguably the best of four public markets. Nearby, there’s also Le Marché des Saveurs du Quebec (tel +1 514 271 3811,, which stocks hard-to-find domestic wines, ciders and microbrew beers.

Lunch is at Le Pourvoyeur (tel +1 514 277 5858,, a hip new “gourmet pub” tucked between a butcher shop and a fruit store, whose terrasse opens directly onto the market stalls. Given its location, the food couldn’t be fresher – or more creative. Try the gourmand version of poutine, a fast food consisting of hand-cut French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy.

Haute Couture: The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier continues until October 2 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (tel +1 514 285 2000, After taking in this retrospective exhibition of the French fashion designer, head across to Rue Sherbrooke Ouest to shop for similar haute couture at Holt Renfrew (tel +1 514 842 5111,, which is like a Canadian version of Barneys department store.

Next, on Rue Crescent, local swimwear designer Shan (tel +1 514 287 SHAN, sells one-of-a-kind
models. And two major streets south, you’ll reach the main downtown shopping thoroughfare, Rue Ste-Catherine, where Québécois highlights include Ogilvy (tel +1 514 842 7711, and leather designer Rudsak (tel +1 514 389 9661,

Best bohemian evening: Le Plateau-Mont-Royal and Mile End are two side-by-side working-class neighbourhoods speckled with cafés, bookstores, theatres and up-and-coming fashion designers. Their quaint corner stores, bistrots and tacky snack counters have been immortalised in the classic novels of Mordecai Richler and plays of Michel Tremblay, two more-famous residents. Browse Rue St-Denis’s Arthur Quentin (tel +1 514 843 5702, for houseware, and Tango (tel +1 514 843 7619), an antique shop with creative window displays, whose owner loans his collection of Canadian art to movie sets and museums. Dinner is nearby, at a traditional French bistro such as L’Express (tel +1 514 845 5333).

Don’t even think about leaving town without tasting what Montreal’s famous for: at the tiny take-out counter of Fairmount Bagel (74 Ave Fairmount Ouest, tel +1 514 272 0667), you’ll line up late into the night for hot and chewy sesame or blueberry bagels – now that’s a truly “Montrealais” ending.