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Montreal, nestled on an island in the midst of Quebec, is worth visiting for many reasons: food, architecture, swing dancing, food, history … and did I mention the food? I was in Montreal for less than 48 hours last fall and my taste buds will never be the same.
First impressions: Montreal is gorgeous, but it’s nearly impossible to find a parking spot downtown, so if you can arrive by plane or train, do so! Their public transit system is excellent, though I did find the ticket machines confusing, despite their attempts to be bilingual, so do ask one of the attendants lingering nearby for assistance or you’ll be there far longer than you should be. I, however, had driven in with a friend, and we navigated throughout several of Montreal’s downtown neighborhoods looking for a parking space.
We finally found one in Le Village, also known as Montreal’s Gay Village. This neighborhood has a lengthy history, and today is home to countless shops and restaurants owned and operated by LGBT persons, and is welcoming to everyone, heterosexual or otherwise. We were on a mission and didn’t have time to do much more than look on our way through, but a neighborhood with bicycle shops named Bikurious and buildings that look like this is guaranteed a return visit someday:
Because I was there for such a short time, I decided to focus on one thing: food. I had convinced myself for years that poutine was disgusting, in spite of the fact that I’d never actually tried it and mainly founded on a dislike of gravy. Between encouragement from friends of mine and the smell wafting from the dish my friend had picked up from a hole-in-the-wall café along the way, I finally decided to give it a try. (That, and I was embracing a spirit of adventure, even if it meant I felt like throwing up after.) With one bite, that delectable combination of potato, gravy and cheese curds melted into my mouth and seared a love on my taste buds that will last forever.
Since we were there in October, the weather was brisk and we were both huddled in long coats, but that didn’t stop us from walking in every possible direction downtown. We finally wound up near the base of Mount Royal, gorgeous from a distance and also, I hear, up close: it’s home to Mount Royal Park, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the same clever fellow who worked on Central Park in New York City. If you make the trek up to the lookout (walking, biking, bussing and driving are all available to you) you can see the entire city laid out below, which would be absolutely stunning in the fall with the red, orange and gold foliage everywhere.
The next morning, I made my own way to brunch at Universel Déjeuners et Grillades, and got lost several times along the way, due to inadequate mapping on my part and lack of a smartphone. Even though many Montreal residents are bilingual, I was too intimidated to use my little bit of French to stop and ask for directions, so I finally called one of my friends and they directed me which way to go.
Be warned: Montreal is home to several steep hills, one of which I trekked my way up – in the rain! – on my way to brunch. It was well worth it, however. There were gorgeous little shops on either side of Rue St. Denis to keep my gaze occupied, and the food at Universel was delicious. Many places in Montreal, particularly downtown, are comfortably bilingual, and this was no exception. I enjoyed their Mexican Breakfast, and my brunching pals, who all ordered different dishes, were all happy with their choices.
Hours away from catching the train to home, I set out on one last mission: to find Suite 88 Chocolatier, the one place I’d researched ahead of time, knowing I would have time between brunch and the train departure for one last dining experience in Montreal. It was well worth the hour or so it took to find it (my fault – I forgot the address – can you tell I’m new to solo travel?). The fellow who served us was patient with our stuttering French and switched easily to English when we did, and then proceeded to serve us what was, hands down, one of the best culinary experiences I will ever have in my life:
Looks simple, no? How, you might ask, can a waffle smothered in chocolate syrup be that good?
The syrup: dark chocolate. Rich and the perfect balance between bitter and sweet.
The waffle: even without the chocolate, it would have been incredible. A little crisp, nearly but not quite falls apart when you bite into it, and a hint of sweetness to the batter.
I don’t have photographic proof of the hot chocolate but it was also decadently delicious. I chose the chili cayenne flavor, which has a real kick. If you’re not into spice, you can choose from one of many other options or stick to a regular hot chocolate, which has no extra flavorings and is made with milk, or the intense hot chocolate, which is also without extra flavorings but is made with cream. No matter what it’s in, their chocolate, as you may well guess, is top notch, and I could easily spend day after day here, working my way through the menu. After that, it was time to make my way to the train station and head back home.
It’s been nearly a year now and I can still taste the sights and sounds and cuisine of Montreal. I hope to be a regular visitor: I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer.
Photos courtesy Victoria Fry. Photos cannot be used or reproduced without express permission from the owner.
Have any Montreal tips of your own? Share your secrets with us!