I've been asked by a number of friends and colleagues planning on attending the 2016 Opera America Conference (here in Montreal) to offer my advice about what they should see, do, and - most importantly - where they can find a great French bistro, while staying in this wondrous city.
So the blogger in me thought I'd just blog about it instead of sending the same info via email or FB. I have included tons of links as well, so you shouldn't have to google too much.
First off, a few tidbits about Montreal:
Montreal is the 2nd largest French-speaking city in the world (the only one that's bigger is Paris). Springtime is beautiful here, but May is different than other North American cities I've lived in. (Frankly, Montreal is most beautiful in the fall, so come back sometime then!) However, the city does explode in the most beautiful way in May. The flowering trees, the flowers in the ground, the grass, the leaves. Everything EXPLODES in just a week or so -- usually late April and early May. So bring your antihistamines, just in case.
Otherwise, you should experience lovely weather with a chance of rain every day you are here. Pack an umbrella too.
On top of that umbrella, pack a sweater, a light jacket, a heavy jacket, tee shirts and flip flops, comfortable walking shoes, plus clothes for 2C or 20C. You see, the weather just simply can't be predicted up here from day to day (let alone from hour to hour.) If you plan on going out and about in the city, just layer your clothes and be prepared to take things off as the day progresses.
Money -- the U.S. dollar exchange rate really favors y'all. Be prepared to shop with that strong dollar, although know that some things up here will seem super expensive.
Getting around -- I say walk or taxi (Uber is available). There aren't that many places you'll want to go, outside of the two Markets listed below, that you can't really walk to or take a quick taxi. The subway is called the "Metro", but there's also a supermarket called "Metro". Take the former if you want to move about quickly and cheaply, avoid the latter.
French -- go ahead and speak all the French you want. You'll be greeted back in English, in most cases, at the top notch shops and restaurants in the Old City and in downtown. Once you get outside of those areas, the city becomes very French. Enjoy and use all those operatic phrases you've learned over the years from listening to Carmen, Manon, and Faust, not to mention all those Debussy and Poulenc songs you studied way back when... There are always English menus available. But don't go looking for directions or signs down in the subway in English. The subway is totally in French. So what if tourists get lost?
Best Bets ossia Things Not To Be Missed In Montreal
Seriously, the cheese here is freaking amazing! It's actual cheese, unlike what's sold down in the states. The best fromagerie (cheese shop) is at the Atwater Market (Marché Atwater en français). Go there and breathe in deeply. Saturday is sample day. Go down the stairs into the back and there, behind the counter, are cheese experts who love cheese and love sharing cheese. They give samples. Ask them tons of questions. They can tell you the hour that a cheese will be best for that evening. NOT KIDDING.
The fromagerie's website: Fromagerie Atwater
(And if you can't get to this one, there's a whole bunch at the Jean-Talon Market. Or, if you can't make it to the markets, order a cheese plate instead of dessert at any nice french bistro. Get Quebec cheeses. They're not pasteurized and oh so wonderful.)
2) The Markets
There are two great markets. One is huge and wondrous: Marché Jean-Talon. Locals and tourists flock there on the weekends, so if you have a chance on a Thursday or Friday, go then. It's simply splendid. You can find anything there. I bet somewhere in some booth, there are Ricordi critical editions of Un giorno di Regno (and certified organic, for sure!)
Then there's the slightly more Romantic (albeit much smaller) Atwater Market. Sometimes I weep at the way vegetables are displayed with such tender-loving care by the farmers -- I've never seen such gorgeous fruits and vegetables laid out for sale. It's as if they're getting ready for a Food Network documentary or something. You can stroll along the Lachine canal (if it's really nice, rent bikes or kayaks) and sit down with friends and eat a fresh baguette from Premiere Moisson (try their pastries too), some cheese from the fromagerie, a bottle of wine from the SAQ, and chocolates from either of the chocolate shops there. Heaven.
You can find more information here: Montreal Market Info
3) Okay, I'll get to them now: The Restaurants!
Montreal boasts great restaurants. Some are so good you won't be able to get reservations (most are in Old Montreal), but if you call now, you might get a table. Montreal locals eat LATE, therefore if you ask for an early table, you might luck out. Be prepared. Service, for Americans, seems slows. You'll also never get a bill. Ever. They'll let you sit at that table and talk all night. It's deemed rude to push a bill onto a table here. Just ask for one 10-15 minutes before you're actually needing to leave. It takes a while to get it, then to pay for it. "L'addition, s'il vous plaît" is the phrase to remember.
Forego the "best of Montreal" restaurant lists. They'll include Indian, Thai, Korean, BBQ, etc. You can get that cuisine anywhere in the states. I'd recommend the following:
($) Laloux: Laloux website
($$) L'express: L'express website
($$$) Au pied de cochon: Au Pied De Cochon website
Food and Wine list: Food & Wine Article
If you want a great Tea experience, Montreal has some excellent and cool places. Anne Kostalas' blog is the definitive info: Montreal Tea Places While I'm at it, check out Anne's travel blog. (She also blogs about opera!): Dear England, Love Canada
And if you want a definitive list, here's the top 38 for the spring of 2016:
Best Montreal Restaurants and Map Listing for Spring 2016
4) Cuban cigars anyone?
Now that y'all can get to Havanna without being arrested, I suppose Cuban imports are easy to find down in the states. If not, head to either Casa del Habana or Cigares Vasco. If you like pipe tobacco, the famous shop is Blatter et Blatter, just a block or two from Place des Arts. Google them.
In addition to those imports, you can find other interesting things one can't find in the states. However, most of these can't be brought through customs! If you find any dried dates from Iran -- buy a box. They put other dates to shame.
5) Sights to See:
a) Mont Royal (how Montreal got its name... mount royal...)
If you find yourself not all that interested in another "how to get butts in seats by tweeting" seminar and it's a sunny day, take a long walk up the mountain. You won't be disappointed. It is QUITE a view!
b) McGill Campus -- kinda reminds some people of Hogwarts. It's right off of the intersection of Sherbrooke and McGill. There'll probably be food trucks there too, and some of those are really good (Grumman78 tacos, for instance!) While I'm at it, head to their main restaurant for the only really good Mexican food in Montreal: Grumman78
c) The Botanical Gardens and Olympic Stadium -- Iconic stadium in the East part of Montreal.
6) The Churches
In Old Montreal, pop into either Notre Dame for Sunday morning, or one of the smaller and more intimate chapels. I'm not a church goer, but Montreal has tons.
Montreal has a Museum row -- almost all are within a few blocks of each other west of McGill on Sherbrooke Street West. There are also a bunch of bars over in that area (on Crescent Street and Bishop Street), and one really nice bar (it's at the Ritz Carlton, also a great place to get afternoon tea.) A very nice ambience for cocktails, if I do say so myself; the orchid cosmo is my wife's choice.)
and last but not least... OLD MONTREAL!
Don't miss this part of the city, no matter what! It's a little bit of Europe right down in the old port area of Montreal. Totally within walking distance of Place des Arts (in fact, the right path will lead you through Chinatown) it is the part of the city that now substitutes for Europe in so many Hollywood movies. Everything from the Smurfs movie to the X-Men films are using Montreal, and especially Old Montreal, for their shoots.
Old Montreal has lots of tourists and some of the so-called restaurants down there are really awful. Any restaurant that takes walk-ins for dinner is going to be expensive and not worth it, in my book. But walk around, shop.
Shopping: St. Catherine street (basically anything west of University) is where everyone seems to go. There are high-end fur stores here in Montreal and I bet they're having sales. Also, "The Bay" is Montreal's version of NYC's Macy's store. Can't miss it. It's at the McGill Metro stop.
Nightlife: Here's a site for the Nightlife (Clubs, Cigar Lounges, Concerts, Tattoos, etc.)
Go Montreal Night Life Site
I'm sure there's a LOT more to see and do, but these are the ideas I'd share with any friends visiting. I do hope that everyone has a great time at the conference and is able to see some of Montreal. It's certainly unique to other North American cities and it'd be a shame to keep within the walls of some hotel listening to Operatic Deep Thoughts 24/7.
And if you're interested, please check out some of my other blog entries on opera (100,000+ views so far.) It focuses not just on academic opera, but issues all of us are facing, particularly those who sing and create opera!
See you at the conference,