When visiting Montreal, renowned filmmaker Wim Wenders once said, “I believe there is a growing need for alternative places, which is represented here in an extraordinary way.” ‘Alternative’ is indeed the best word to describe Montreal – it is a city that resists classification. Perhaps this is because of the area’s multicultural heritage – over 80 languages are spoken here, from English and French to Vietnamese and various Creole languages. Many groups with diverse interests call Montreal home, creating a vibrant culture that is a hotbed for unexpected experiences.
From its thriving subcultures to its street art, its architecture and its international cuisine, surprises can be found around every corner. The city is the host of prestigious events including the Canadian Grand Prix, the Montreal international Jazz Festival and the Just for Laughs comedy festival. In fact, Montreal was even the city where John Lennon and Yoko Ono held their legendary Bed-In for Peace. They stayed at the Queen Elizabeth hotel in Fairmont from May 26th to June 2nd 1969 to protest the Vietnam War.
With such creative credentials, it is no wonder that Montreal is becoming an increasingly popular destination for those planning an alternative holiday to Canada. Whether you are a jazz music enthusiast, an indie film fan or a fine art buff, here is our alternative guide to Montreal.
Art and galleries
One of the first things you are likely to hear about Montreal is that it is the epicentre of Canada’s art scene. Nestled among the stonework mansions, countless brilliant museums and galleries can be uncovered by curious visitors. The famous Musée d’Art Contemporain is worth a visit for fans of experimental art, as is the Parisian Laundry, a 15,000 square foot gallery converted from an old industrial laundry. However, for something a little more off-the-wall, head to the Fonderie Darling to enjoy large-scale avant-garde exhibitions, plus street events in the summer.
La Carmina, a travel blogger and alternative culture seeker, has written extensively about the indie scene in Montreal. She recommends the art collective at Ateliers Grover as a brilliant place for those to visit who want a more interactive experience:
“You can walk around local artists’ studios, meet the craftspeople, and see the experimental, creative works that they are producing. When I went, I came across statues inspired by Edward Scissorhands, and cute-meets-creepy pillow creatures.”
A stroll through the Quartier des Spectacles is also a must. This area comprises over 80 cultural venues spread over eight public spaces, which are host to over forty festivals and events and 100 shows each month. La Carmina comments that, on her wanderings around the quarter, her favourite installation was “21 Swings,” where the motion of participants triggers music. She also admits, “I laughed at the temporary “Dachshund UN” exhibit, a world council represented by yipping sausage dogs.”
You don’t have to be in a gallery to witness some of Montreal’s most unique artworks. One of the most famous elements of the city’s alternative scene is its street art. Wherever you are, all you have to do is stroll down the street and you will find yourself surrounded by inventive, thought-provoking and beautiful artworks. While these pieces certainly enrich the backdrop of the streets, Montreal’s street art is well worth spending a day exploring in depth.
As Sofia Mazzamauro from the travel blog Like a Local Guide comments:
“Cities like Paris, London and Sao Paulo are known for their street art, but Montreal is slowly catching up. With its own budding scene, Montreal hosts a mix of local and international artists like En Masse, WIA (aka whatisadam), and Stikki Peaches from Montreal, along with Paris’ Le Diamantaire.”
To find the best of the city’s street art, Sofia recommends you head over to Saint-Laurent Boulevard and stop by the street art gallery, Station 16 to purchase some works of your own. St. Laurent Boulevard lies at the heart of Montreal’s eccentric Downtown area, and flaunts many of the city’s most interesting murals. From monochrome, Tim Burton-esque pieces to hyper-realistic portraits and vibrant collages, every style you can imagine is on display here. From the 8th to the 18th of June this year, the boulevard will host the fifth annual Mural festival, which celebrates international public art by turning the area into an open-air music venue.
Montreal’s underground music scene
GUYS! Merci TELLEMENT. On pouvait pas s'imaginer une saison aussi parfaite avec vous. On est tellement émotifs nous aussi, de dire adieu à notre site, mais dites-vous que l'esprit Piknic est là, peu importe le lieu. On vous aime. On a déjà hâte de vous retrouver l'an prochain pour plein d'autres beaux moments. Ciao! ❤️ Photo par @waktr
Montreal’s fusion of French and North American culture has long proved a prolific foundation for the city’s music scene – one which is anything but mainstream. From Quebecois jazz to rock acts, ever genre is represented here, in a thriving underground live music culture.
Jon Weisz from Indie Montreal explains:
“Montreal has a legendary music scene and the best part of it happens in small venues like Divan Orange, Quai des Brumes, L’Esco and Sala Rossa. Bands like Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, Mac Demarco and Patrick Watson came up playing these venues (and occasionally still make appearances). Montreal tends to attract some of the best talent in Canada and the Mile End and Plateau Mont Royal’s small venues offer some of the best musical discoveries around.”
Anne Le Gal from Indie Guides agrees, recommending the Mile End and Mile Ex areas for venues including Le Ritz-PDB, Le Cagibi and La Casa Del Popolo (which is run by members from band Godspeed You! Black Emperor). She adds, “Another favourite for music enthusiasts is Ti Agrikol, a tropical bar located downtown and run by members of Arcade Fire.” And, to take a little of Montreal’s music home, Anne suggests visiting the record shops in the area such as Phonopolis, Death of Vinyl, Sonorama and 180g, which she describes as “an excellent record-shop-cum-café hidden in an industrial part of the Mile Ex.”
There are also some fantastic festivals hosted in Montreal each year – not just the Montreal jazz festival, but some smaller-scale events, too. Joaquim Miro, founder of the unconventional travel guide, The Alternative Ways, explains:
“Montreal offers some of the most amazing and alternative festivals around. If you are looking for something unique to do in the winter, try partying outside with 20,000 other people at IglooFest. In the summer, try Piknic Electronic at Parc Jean-Drapeau and TamTams at Parc Mont-Royal.” (See below for more on that!)
Try the Tam-Tams
Having fully immersed yourself in the intoxicating atmosphere of Montreal’s music scene, you may be tempted to get involved yourself! Luckily, no technical qualifications are required to do so. Every Sunday at the foot of Mount Royal Park, a semi-impromptu festival begins and everyone is invited to take part!
This free event is a cacophonous explosion of music and laughter, where thousands of drummers and dancers form a huge circle to play along on hand drums. With vendors selling delicious food and people of all ages dancing together, spirits are high at this fantastic street party. Sofia explains, “Every Sunday you’ll find hippies, groups of friends and families enjoying the sound of the drums. Don’t be afraid to dance or bring your own tam-tam to the party.” So, whether you’re planning a short break in Montreal or a longer stay, this is a must on any music-lover’s itinerary!
Food and drink
After all that partying, you’ll be in need of a refreshment. Luckily Montreal is famous for its cuisine, which is as delicious as it is diverse. From haute cuisine to street food, everything is on offer here, and it’s some of the best in the world. If you’re out to sample some traditional Montreal delicacies, head to Schwartz’s Deli on St Laurent Boulevard for smoked meat. Poutine, maple syrup and Canadian bagels are also popular here, and sampling these is a must.
For something a little bit different, there are plenty of lesser-known eateries in Montreal that are somewhat under the radar but well worth a visit. EVOO in Notre-Dame West has a loyal local following who love the creative dishes of chefs Sophie Oullet and Peter Saunders. Prizing local produce, their dishes such as a pan-seared Arctic char with confit orange, oyster mushrooms, burnt carrot, kohlrabi and sunchoke stimulate the taste buds and the imagination alike. Aux Vivres is a favourite with conscious eaters in the city, for its 100% vegan menu. However, even a committed carnivore will delight at their delicious dishes – in fact, one customer even had their famous ‘Dragon Bowl’ dish tattooed on their arm!
Of course, if you’re out to celebrate, Montreal is set to deliver. Joaquim recommends, “If you are more interested in bars and nightlife, try Le 4eme Mur, a speakeasy bar on Saint-Denis that serves some of the best drinks in town.”
If you have a passion for architecture, or simply enjoy staring at beautiful old structures, Old Montreal is the place for you. Here, you will feel as though you have stepped into historic Europe, with colonial architecture standing perfectly preserved in every direction. A photographer’s haven, the historic quarter is bursting with cobblestone alleyways, sweeping public squares with panoramic views and superb gothic buildings. Visit the Place d’Armes, a former colonial battleground, to witness some of the most impressive heritage buildings such as the Basilique de Notre-Dame (Basilica of Notre-Dame) with its intricate stained-class windows and elaborate golden nave.
Alternatively, if you are interested in the more lived-in side of Montreal’s architecture, Michelle Little suggests a visit to Westmount. She says:
“Westmount is a lovely, leafy neighbourhood just west of downtown. Gorgeous architecture and beautifully designed parks dominate the area. To view some of Montreal’s top residential architecture head up the mountain where you’ll also find a wooded area popular with dog walkers and a lookout point for gorgeous views over the city.”
In fact, many of the most beautiful hotels in Canada are situated in Montreal, themselves displaying beautiful and intricate design features with a rich architectural history. Hotel Nelligan, for example, was originally an 1850s townhouse and today offers rustic bedrooms, exposed brick walls and Juliette balconies. So the dedicated architecture enthusiast can enjoy some of Montreal’s most prestigious fine design from the comfort of your own hotel room!
When you think of Montreal, watersports and outdoor pursuits are probably one of the last things you would imagine yourself doing. It might not be famous for its outdoors, but if you’re the kind of traveller who yearns for a little adrenaline wherever you are, Montreal is the perfect city. It isn’t a concrete jungle – the natural world is very much apparent here, and it offers great opportunities for extreme sports fans. Thanks to the natural wonders of the area, activities such as surfing and rafting have become a very popular pastime in Montreal.
As The Guardian points out, surfing is not something you’d typically associate with a city that’s a couple of hundred miles from the sea, but the St Lawrence River has a standing wave that’s ripe for action. Here, a standing wave called Habitat 67 (after the adjacent housing complex), is popular with white water kayakers and river surfers, and reaches up to two metres. As a standing wave, surfers can ride the water for as long as they want without actually moving. This spot is great for experienced surfers, but if you’re a beginner who fancies a shot at the wave, Imagine Surfboards – which claims to be the world’s largest river-surfing school – is ready to help.
White water rafting is also popular in Montreal. With Lachine Rapids on your doorstep, it would be rude not to test your stills in these exhilarating waters! Joaquim recommends, “For something really out of the ordinary, try going through the second largest rapids in North America with Saute Mouton Jet Boating.” Join a jetboat cruise along the St. Lawrence and the rapids to feel the thrill of this dramatic activity in the safety of expert hands!
An endless array of unique and inspiring revelations beckons in Montreal. So… À la prochaine!