‘Hello-bonjour,’ my waitress greets me. As does everyone I meet here in Montreal.
The “hello” part welcomes English-speaking visitors, while “bonjour” employs the language of the locals. And that harmony is part of the secret sauce that seasons the magic of a visit to this city, the second-largest French-speaking town in the world (after Paris, natch).
You realize, with a delicious shiver, that you’re not in Minnesota, Dorothy, but you’re spared the long and costly overseas flight, plus the attitude, traffic snarls and crowds of France’s capital. You’ll still have to change money, of course, but who doesn’t love a country in which the dollar boasts the image of a loon?
I was paying a return visit, so this time I chose to stray beyond the historic Old Port, along the banks of the St. Lawrence River, where French voyageur Jacques Cartier first beached his boat in 1535. His home still anchors the waterfront, aside a tiny 17th-century sailors’ church. For centuries, the port he founded — and the antique limestone mansions that followed — served as the hub of the city.
Only later came the souvenir shops, galleries and wine bars as the area morphed into a tourist magnet.
That mecca is as vivacious as ever, but today’s experiential visitors want more.
We were drawn to the city’s lively, “undiscovered” neighborhoods, where locals live, work and play, with nary a tour bus in sight.
Our home was the hip, new Alt Hotel, just a 20-minute stroll from the famed harbor, hemmed in by the muscular Lachine Canal.
In the Griffintown neighborhood it anchors, condos are rising on once-gritty streets as, inevitably, it starts to gentrify. So now’s the perfect time to catch the vibe in the area’s vintage shops, salons, bars and hole-in-the-wall eateries of many persuasions, overseen by splashy murals along an artery called Notre Dame West.
First, check out the bustling Atwater Market of 1938, built to serve the working class in nearby tenements. Today its rainbow of pristine products includes sweet shellfish, juicy apples, savory charcuterie and fancy chocolates, to name a few.
And yes, that Quebec food fave, poutine, is there, too: Think fries slathered in gravy, then topped with squeaky cheese curds. (I dare you not to become an addict.) Don’t miss the bakery with its attached café, either.
Take a moment to admire (or rent) paddleboats beached along the canal it borders, or pop into the Canal Lounge for coffee or a glass of vin. On the market’s far corner, Foiegwa (pronounce it and you’ll recognize its signature dish) is doing a brisk brunch business in Benedicts, chicken with waffles and adult milkshakes.
Another day, head across town to the equally blue-collar (and venerable) Jean Talon Market, a standby of Little Italy, where a good share of its 150 stands offers All Things Maple — syrup, sugar, candy.
We took the Spade & Palacio food tour, which features a hearty lunch of samples at half a dozen neighborhood stops, including — within the market itself — cured meats (sausages and ham); cheeses both sharp and aged and young and creamy; and homemade ice cream (think pear-maple-whiskey).
Next, we followed our guide to a Salvadoran neighborhood to gorge on pupas (cornmeal pancakes stuffed with beans and cheese and topped with cabbage salad). At Brasserie Harricana, we sipped Belgian-style beers, followed by sobering cold-press coffee at Dispatch Roastery. (Next door was Manitoba, a bistro celebrating the fare of Canada’s First Nations: Seal, anyone?)
The tour’s finale was a picnic in Petite Italie Park, where a checkered tablecloth disappeared under platters of specialties gleaned from the American South — fried chicken, hush puppies, mac and cheese and more, courtesy of nearby Dinette Triple Crown, which gladly fills picnic baskets for visitors.
Finally, we took a taxi back downtown to explore the new, block-long festival park called Jardins Gamelin, which arose from a dicey urban stretch to be reborn as a vibrant hangout for after-work happy hours, Sunday brunches and everything in between.
We found food and drink stands, a stage hosting free performances and green gardens where tots escaped from strollers to romp.
Close by was the Village (aka Boys Town), where on summer evenings, its bustling St. Catherine Street is reserved for pedestrians to promenade under a canopy of tennis-ball-size colored lights that form the Pride flag.
By dinnertime, we were somehow hungry again, so we tramped back to Griffintown to Foxy, where everything’s wood-roasted, including apps like lobster with smoked jalapeno butter and shrimp in green mole. Heavier fare included charcoal-grilled trout, honey-mustard sausages, baby chicken and hanger steak.
To plan your own off-the-grid immersion, visit Tourisme Montreal.
The walled city of Quebec
Quebec City, three hours’ distant from Montreal by bus or train, seems plucked from across the sea.
French is the native language of nearly all its inhabitants, since the days when that land’s explorers erected a fort-like trading post on what’s now Lower Town’s prime gathering spot, Place Royale.
Galleries vivid with modern art and elegant pieces sculpted by the First Nations’ Inuits vie for shoppers with dusty antiques stores and a vast food market.
The city grew up along the mighty river galloping below a rising cliff you can descend by the accurately named Breakneck Stairs or a less lethal funicular beside the breathtaking fairytale that is Chateau Frontenac.
Its venerable hotel rooms — and a popular café where we sated ourselves on a regal buffet brunch — have hosted the globe’s political leaders and bold-name celebs (as the photos in its public spaces can attest).
Today, this quaint town remains the only walled city in our continent. But these days, newly hot neighborhoods outside those formidable walls are capturing visitors’ attention, too.
Our trendy hotel, the 3C Art de Vivre faced the Grande Allee, the Champs-Elysees of the city with the Musee de Quebec across the street — a treasure house of art.
Behind the 3C, Avenue Cartier, hung with lanterns that resemble oversize lampshades, intersects with Boulevard Rene Levesque, sporting a quirky mix of indie boutiques, wine bars and cafes.
To plan your outside-the-box vacation, visit quebec-cite.com/en.
Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.