It's wonderfully easy to be a tourist in Montreal

With its physical beauty, rich history and friendly people, it’s easy to be seduced by this city’s charms.

"Bonsoir, madame," the hotel clerk said pleasantly as I approached the front desk. 

"Hello," I responded hesitantly.

"Welcome," the young woman said, immediately switching effortlessly to unaccented English. "Are you checking in? May I have your last name, please?"

Ahhh, bon! It seemed there would be no need to unleash my first-year university French on the citizens of Montreal.

It had been decades since I’d been to Montreal, but I found myself there recently to lend a hand to colleagues at a sister paper, the Gazette, as they underwent a major revamp. I was there to work, and I wasn’t sure I’d have much time to sightsee.

I found quickly that it’s wonderfully easy to be a tourist in Montreal.

First, language barriers are not an issue. Most Montrealers who work with tourists are impressively and fluently bilingual. They are also unfailingly polite, and friendly, and curious about visitors to their city.

"You are from Vancouver?" asked my cab driver. "You go to Stanley Park? You have many cyclists? You are enjoying our Indian summer? What time does rush hour start?"

From the cashier in a little confectionery, wistfully: "Vancouver? Oh, you 'ave the best weather in the country."

And from my hotel concierge, excitedly, when I asked for directions to Bell Centre: "We love our 'ockey in Montreal! You are going to the game tonight?” (No, I just wanted to see the arena.)

So yes, the people are wonderful ambassadors for their city. But add to that a physical beauty and rich history, and it’s impossible not to be seduced by Montreal’s charms.

Early on during my stay, I took advantage of unseasonably warm temperatures to see Parc du Mont-Royal, the highest point in the city and one of Montreal’s crown jewels.

Within the park, there are many attractions: A 31.4-metre-high illuminated cross, a sculpture garden, an interpretive centre and more. I opted to go for a run so I could immerse myself in the deep reds and golds of the foliage that could be seen from my plane as I flew in to the city.

The main path is about four km from the park’s entry to the top, and it’s wide enough to accommodate joggers, walkers and cyclists all at the same time. For those with an aversion to slow, gradual grades, there are stairs that will take you straight up.

However you get to the Kondiaronk Belvedere at the top of Mont-Royal, the payoff is spectacular: You’ll see a sparkling panorama of downtown Montreal and beyond, with the St. Lawrence River wending its way south of the skyline. 

Behind you is the majestic Mount Royal Chalet, no doubt the venue of choice for many a young bride. Before you, bridges intersect the river and boats sail lazily in the distance. It’s a view to savour.

On the way back to the hotel, I took a detour through McGill University, which abuts parts of Mont-Royal. I paused often to admire the detail and beauty of the campus’ numerous historic buildings and, lured by the name, couldn’t resist zipping into the William Shatner University Centre for a cup of coffee.

Of all of the sites and attractions I saw in Montreal, the most unexpected pleasure for me were the churches.

I first saw the Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde, on bustling Rene Levesque Boulevard, en route to my hotel. Captivated by the 13 statues that grace the top of the roof, I stopped to quickly take a photo.

When I went into the cathedral a few days later I discovered that where its facade is imposing and stern, inside, graceful lines and warm colours give the church an inclusive, welcoming feeling.

When I visited the magnificent Notre-Dame Basilica in Vieux Montreal, I had a similar visceral reaction. I was awed by the grandeur of the apse, the illuminated crucifix, and the intricate carvings and stained glass windows, and I felt uplifted and humbled at the same time.

The Basilica was just one of the many historic buildings I was captivated by during the hours I spent traipsing around Vieux Montreal, the oldest part of Montreal.

There was Montreal City Hall, which was built in the 1870s; and the eight-storey-tall New York Life Building, the city’s first high-rise; and the Pantheon-like head office of the Bank of Montreal, to name but a few.

One of Old Montreal’s most interesting attractions is Pointe-à-Callière, an archaeological museum that’s set right over the original birthplace of the city of Montreal. Enter the building and you can actually walk through the preserved ruins of the original 1642 settlement. Mind-blowing, non?

From old to new: My favourite modern attraction was Montreal's Underground City, which comprises 32 km of tunnels spread over about 12 square kilometres.
But these are no ordinary tunnels - they house stores and shops and restaurants, and serve to connect shopping malls and condominiums and commuter train stations and even universities.

One rainy morning, I entered the Underground City via an entrance that came right into my hotel lobby. I wandered below for about 30 minutes, checking out everything from clothing and stationery stores to travel agencies and gift shops, before I decided to come back above-ground to see if the rain had stopped. What a surprise to discover my long, circuitous path had taken me to the building directly across the street from my hotel.

No visit to Montreal would be complete without a mention of its food. Some of my favourite meals included a vegetarian ciabatta, broiled with gooey cheese bubbling over the edges, that I purchased from a boutique grocery store; an elegant tomato and brie omelet at an Old Montreal bistro where the grizzled proprietor was chef and waiter and cashier; and a sinfully rich penne Romanoff at a modest Italian restaurant near the Gazette newsroom.

Even deep within the bowels of the train station, in the Underground City, there was much to love. I found produce that was Granville-Island fresh; chocolatiers and pastry shops whose offerings would be perfectly at home in a patisserie; and bakeries selling every kind of bread product imaginable.

Needless to say I also made a pilgrimage to the iconic Schwartz’s, where I stood in line to get in and then squeezed in beside fellow diners in the cramped deli, all of us worshipping at the shrine of the restaurant’s smoked meat sandwiches.

One youngish man came in shortly after me and breathed a deep sigh of happiness before photographing the paper placemat that bore the restaurant’s logo. He told me he was visiting from Paris, and had wanted for years to eat at Schwartz's.

“And finally, I am here,” he proclaimed blissfully.

I felt much the same way about many of the sights I visited in Montreal: I was thrilled that I was finally there.

But the little taste I got of the city only whetted my appetite for more. I’ll return when I can, and it will be sooner rather than later.

A bientot, Montreal. Till we meet again.


For more travel inspiration check out my Instagram, @JuanitaNg.