On my recent trip to Montreal, I was overwhelmed with the city’s European flare. After a less than 60-minute flight from NYC, I was transported into a world of cafes, croissants, café’ au laits, signs and menus in French and French architecture. Getting to Montreal is so easy, and the rewards of a weekend away are so abundant. Plus, there are so many things to do with kids, and what better way to introduce them to French culture without breaking the bank on a trip to Europe?
Montreal has so much to offer – it’s a city with so much history. Situated on the St. Lawrence River, Montreal is actually an island, bordered by rivers and lakes. Founded in 1642, Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, arrived with fifty settlers, including Jeanne Mance, a French woman who established the first hospital. In the 19th century Montreal grew to a major metropolis, and today Montreal is the second largest city in Canada. It’s a sight to behold, and every American should start planning their next trip abroad to no place other than Montreal.
Everywhere you look, there is the old and the new – original sandstone colonial houses and modern domes. The architecture is stunning. You and your kids can explore the city by foot, bike or car. Montreal has great food- everything from French to Portuguese to Montreal’s classic bagels (everyone in Montreal boasts about the bagels, and I didn’t know what they meant until I tried one!). The people in Montreal clearly love food, as there are restaurants of every type of cuisine. They also have a plethora of great museums, theater, festivals, dance, shopping, parks, the Old Port, and some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Its natives speak “Frenglish,” a combination of French and English so you needn’t worry about a language barrier, and they are happy to speak English whenever necessary (unlike the French in Paris, in my experience). They also greet you with a kiss on both cheeks, which is extremely courteous and indicative of the polite culture.
The architecture makes you feel like you are in another world, far away from home. It’s historic and monumental. Montreal’s rich history as a port city of major importance during the settling of the New World combined with its fearless embracing of all things new and a thriving immigrant culture make it a place that families love to visit over and over again. It’s also a very livable city, which makes it great for touring. It’s relatively clean. It has a good transportation system. I already can’t wait to return with my own family.
Montreal is also unique in that it has an “underground city” with over 18 miles of pedestrian walkways, indoor walkways, indoor areas and tunnels linking 10 metro stations, 2 train stations, 2 bus stations, 62 buildings, 7 major hotels, 1,615 apartments, 200 restaurants, 1,700 boutiques, 37 movie theaters and exhibition halls, 2 universities, 1 college and 10,000 indoor parking spaces. (Source: Visit Montreal)
Montreal is also a relatively inexpensive weekend for families, compared to many cities in the U.S. Here are some important facts to remember when visiting so you know what will save you time and money traveling with kids:
- Public transportation is free for kids on weekends (up to 5 kids) and is very reliable.
- You can get a museum or attractions pass ( 30 museums plus popular city attractions and access to the public transit network are all covered.)
- The permanent exhibits at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts are always free.
- Space for Life (which houses the Biodome, Insectitarium, Botanical Gardens and Planetarium) has a 3 for 1 ticket which saves you money.
- There are plenty of parks all over the city for when your kids need a break from sight-seeing.
- At the Old Port, there is so much to do, not only the Montreal Science Center and Pointe-a-Calliere but you can take your kids on a boat ride or they can play by the water, go on jet boats, ride a quadricycle or pedalboat or run around the Shed 16 Labyrinth, a brilliant maze for kids of all ages. There are also 15 summer boutiques and vendors set up alongside the river on the east side of King-Edward Quay.
- There is no better time to visit the Montreal Science Center than this summer. They currently have the Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology exhibit and it’s amazing. The exhibition puts the spotlight on the extremely large and exclusive collection of props, models, film scenes, original costumers, drawings and concept and set designs for the making of the Indiana Jones film series but also archaeological artifacts.
Montreal is also known for its seven outdoor markets. On a busy Sunday morning, you can visit the Jean-Talon Market in Montreal’s Little Italy, and find it crowded with families. There are bright red peppers, crisp apples, all kinds of cheeses, breads, tomatoes and squash, wide varieties of olive oil and spices, pastries and chocolate and maple (a Canadian delicacy).
If you plan a trip this summer, there are so many festivals to work into your visit including:
- Montreal Museums Day (May 29th, 2011)
- Fringe Festival (May 30th-June 19th, 2011)
- Montreal Grand Prix (June 10th-June 12th, 2011)
- Montreal Jazz Fest (June 25th-July 4th, 2011)
- Fireworks Festival (June 25th – July 30th, 2011)
- Canada Day (July 1st, 2011)
- Montreal Circus Arts Festival (July 8th-July 25th, 2011)
- Just for Laughs and Twins Parade (July 5th-30th, 2011)
Montreal has a wide range of hotels, in all price ranges, and in all parts of town. I stayed at Le St-Martin Hotel Particulier Montreal on this trip (980 Boulevard de Maisonneuve, Montreal, H3A), which I’d recommend highly for a family visit. It’s a beautiful boutique hotel that opened up last year right in the town center. You can get a nice-sized suite (they have 123 rooms and suites), large enough for the family. It’s very clean, and very, very comfortable. The style is both contemporary and traditional, and it’s really charming. I can honestly say that the bed was the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. Its free breakfast is also a nice perk; I loved waking up to café’ au lait, croissants, pate’, fruit and lovely eggs. The Le St-Martin Hotel Particulier Montreal is also very convenient to everything, including the longest shopping street in North America, Rue Sainte-Catherine, which is right outside the hotel, around the block. It’s conveniently located close to two metro stations, one is right across the street, which makes travel particularly easy.
Foodwise, Montreal is extremely family-friendly. Jardin Nelson (407, place Jacques-Cartier Vieux-Montréal) is a restaurant that has a passage that leads to a garden in the back. We ate dinner while listening to live jazz and took in the French culture and ambience. Jardin Nelson has an extensive menu with options for everyone, from pasta and pizza to more eclectic choices like lasagna and eggplant. Lunch at Eggspectation was an unexpected delight. They have a complete family-friendly menu, featuring 160 items. It’s not all eggs either. They have yummy salads, steak, pasta, sandwiches, chicken, soup, as well as a variety of egg dishes. Dinner at Guido & Angelina (690 Sainte-Catherine Street West), right on Sainte-Catherine Street, is another child-friendly restaurant. The restaurant offers pasta and other traditional Italian dishes.
Montreal is also known for poutine, a local snack that consists of french fries with cheese curds topped with gravy. It’s also known for beaver tails, a sugar delicacy your kids will love. The bagels…ahhh the BAGELS! There’s something to say about the bagels in Montreal. You hear the hoopla and hype about them and don’t understand….until you try them. The bagels here are made with honey and then baked in a wood-fired oven, and they are delicious.
There are so many ways to see Montreal. We started off our weekend on a walking tour of the Old City. Walking tours excellent ways to see a city, but you have to evaluate whether your children are up to the challenge. Our professional tour guide, Peggy Wilson, took us down the city’s cobble streets in the Old Port and learned about the city’s history over the last 200 years.
We kicked it off at the yellow sign in Victoria Square marks the entrance to the Montreal Metro and instantly reminded me of the sign in Paris where I have entered the French Metro many times. Victoria Square, where it’s found, has quintessential Canadian architecture in its benches and street posts, which Peggy called “urban furniture”.
We went into the city’s World Trade Center, a fantastic piece of architecture, which houses a piece of the Berlin Wall and a sculpture called Amphrodite that was a gift from France. The promenade is built on the Ruelle des Fortifications, following the original lines of the city’s 18th-century walls. It is connected to the Underground City, and the luxurious Inter-Continental Hotel.
We also went into the Royal Bank of Scotland, which was built in 1928, and is utterly beautiful with high, ornate ceilings decked in gold. We walked down St. Paul Street, past cafes, galleries and souvenir shops housed in the centuries-old buildings.
We walked by Notre Dame Basillica, which was built in 1826 and is a sign of the country’s church’s power.
We got a glimpse of the Pantheon and ended our tour at the foot of Place Jacques Cartier, a street lined with shops and cafes. It is near here that Cirque du Soleil — headquartered in Montreal — performs in the summer and initially started before they got world-renowned.
Another great way to see the city is to go on a bike tour of the city. I’m not joking when I say that the best way to see Montreal is by bike. We took bikes out at Ca Roule/Montreal on Wheels. For $55 per person, or $22 per child, you can take a tour of the city with a professional tour guide. We took the Classic Ride around the city that took us through the Old City, to the Latin Quarter, through the Plateau, to La Fountaine Park and Mont-Royal Park, through the Business District, McGill University and for bagels.
The bikes were really comfortable. Montreal on Wheels gets new ones every year. It’s the city’s largest bike rental center and offers a vast array of more than 150 bikes, including trailers and road bikes, good for all ages. I can honestly say we saw the best of the city, riding through alleys and down streets we never would have come across any other way, encountering outstanding architecture and the real natives of Montreal.
As for child-friendly sites, I’m going to write a completely separate blog entry, so stay tuned. You will find it on TravelingMom.com, but I’ll post it here, too. Meanwhile, check out some photos from the weekend to give you a taste of what you’d expect on your visit.
Disclosure: My visit was made possible by the folks at Tourisme Montréal.