A taste of France, north of the border.
Ah, Paris. The nightlife, the restaurants, the art…the exorbitant airfare, the lousy dollar-to-euro conversion rate, the well-deserved moniker “Most Expensive City in the World.” What’s a girl to do if she needs to save her shekels but has an itch to spend her mornings in brasseries, peppering her conversation with bonjour and merci?
There’s no need to deny yourself those Nutella crêpes and the pursuit of that European je ne sais quoi. You can stick to your budget by heading up to Montréal, in Canada, the second largest primarily French-speaking city in the world (after Paris).
Montréal is often called the city of a hundred nations; to me, this cultural mash-up makes it the epicenter of everything awesome that’s happening to our north.
I began my visit to Montréal just the way I introduce myself to most new places: by eating. To get a fast-track version of Montréal’s cuisine, I hit up Brasserie T!, a new concept sprung from Toque!, one of Montréal’s finest restaurants.
The menu offers delights like gratin dauphinois and saucisson en brioche at accessible prices, and Brasserie T! is just below the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. With two culturally significant experiences in one place, 185 Sainte-Catherine Ouest is the perfect introduction to Montréal.
Montréalians have embraced the French penchant for chic fashion and languorous dining and combined it with the very Canadian qualities of hospitality, openness, and optimism. Check out the synergy at the Hôtel Le Germain Montréal (2050 rue Mansfield, germainmontréal.com), a swanky boutique hotel with luxurious furnishings and rooms that feel like exclusive lofts. Très bien!
The Village, or “le Village,” is Montréal’s gayborhood and is seen as a symbol of the city’s overwhelming sense of openness and joie de vivre. If the flags on the street don’t tip you off as to where you’ve found yourself, the rainbow-themed metro stop should do the trick. Though the Village is where most gay establishments are concentrated, the city itself is so welcoming that you don’t have to confine your hand-holding to the Village’s 15 blocks.
The Village can be very male-scene heavy. I stopped in at a gay strip bar and ended up circled around a small table with some fabulous boys. It was pirate night and the strippers were dressed like Captain Jack Sparrow.
Amused but not especially thrilled, I set off to find the lesbians. There are plenty of them, and they’re found at Faggity Ass Fridays on—you guessed it—Fridays, or Meow Mix on Saturdays, or during the week at the new lesbian-owned Royal Phoenix up in Mile End.
The Mile End is an arty district with a reputation for being the heart of the city’s independent music scene. I discovered that one of the most important features of the neighborhood was the bagel bakery, St-Viateur Bagel (263 St. Viateur West, stviateurbagel.com).
The place is small, but packed with hand-rolled bagels being baked before your eyes in a wood-burning oven. Stop by for a nosh at any time of the day, as it is open 24/7.
Perfect for a snack after hitting up the girl night in Mile End, and much better for you than overdosing on piles and piles of poutine, an infamous—and delicious—Canadian specialty consisting of French fries with cheese curds and gravy.
I spent a gloriously sunny afternoon exploring Old Montréal along the banks of the Saint Lawrence River. It’s a great place to get lost among some of the oldest buildings in the city, many of which look like they’ve been teleported straight from Paris.
Take note of the Gothic Revival La Basilique Notre-Dame and Place Jacques-Cartier, a large square that leads to a fountain. Avoid the tourist-trap restaurants in the area and walk along the water to Cluny ArtBar (257 Rue Prince, cluny.info)—a gay-owned establishment in a former foundry, it has high ceilings, big windows, and a menu of pastries, sandwiches, and more.
I tried the vegetarian plate and got a platter overflowing with roasted vegetables. I also helped myself liberally from the basket of freshly baked bread that’s near the register.
(Obviously, I have a weakness for carbs, and Montréal isn’t shy about satisfying it.) Check out the exhibition space next door and see what’s happening.
Montréal offers more than you can shake a baguette at in terms of culture. In addition to Cirque du Soleil (they’re Montréal residents), there are festivals in progress year-round: the Montréal International Jazz Festival, the Sketch Comedy Festival, the Fringe Festival, several film festivals, and more.
If you grow weary of museum hopping and performance watching, head out into nature and visit “the mountain,” which is the big hill north of the city and is officially known as Mount Royal Park. When I was there, I saw a person in a squirrel suit walking through the woods.
Since I live in New York City, I regard these things as normal and assumed it was just a Canadian out for a morning walk, like everyone else. Montréal really does embrace everyone.
And don’t forget—gay marriage is legal in Canada. Need I say more? Get up there, mademoiselle.