With its mixture of French and English, ancient and modern, tradition and innovation, Montréal is North America’s most cosmopolitan city – perfect for a short break
On top of its French foundations, Montréal has a buzzy multicultural superstructure. The city splits in two: Vieux Montréal, the old European-looking city, and the modern, North American-style downtown. Throw in history and festivals, great restaurants and a joie de vivre second to none, and enjoyment is guaranteed.
In Vieux Montréal, start the day with a bol of café au lait at Olive + Gourmando (351 Rue Saint-Paul Ouest). Then stroll off along the cobbled streets, past warehouses converted into design studios and shops. Temptations are everywhere. I have never seen earrings, brooches and rings quite like the stunning pieces created by Roland Dubuc in his atelier, where you can watch him make stunning jewellery (163 Rue Saint-Paul Ouest). In the Bonsecours Market (350 Rue St-Paul Est), there are hand-made accessories ranging from hats and shawls to scarves and leather in the boutiques and galleries such as the Galerie des Métiers d’Art du Québec.
But Montréal’s past is also fascinating – and it is explained in the Pointe-à-Callière, the city’s archaeological museum. The modern building sits on top of an archaeological site. In the basement, I peer down through glass and back through time at the graves of French settlers and Iroquois Indians.
On top of the museum, with vast glass windows, L’Arrivage has excellent food as well as terrific views across the St Lawrence River.
Still in the Old Town, the Château Ramezay shows what life in the 18th century was like in Montréal. Not far away is the 1771 Chapelle de Notre Dame de Bon Secours, close to the old port. This was the sailors' church and still has model ships hanging from the ceiling. For domes, angels holding trumpets and more views over the river, climb to the top of the tower.
Join the trendies at the Garde-Manger, with its brick walls, throbbing atmosphere and large portions of ribs, Québec’s own crabs, mussels and shrimp (408 Rue Saint-François-Xavier).
With a large and energetic student population, Montréal is a party town – as it has been ever since Americans headed north for jazz and booze during Prohibition. Still one of Canada’s best-known jazz clubs is The Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill (1254 Rue MacKay).
Time to see modern Montréal. A North American grid-system of streets spreads up to Mont-Royal, the hill for which the city is named. Up here is the Plateau area, where houses have outdoor curving staircases, a reminder that many Montréalers still live in the city. I always take a stroll along Rue Saint-Denis, the main street, to see what’s new. Among the cafés and restaurants are designers, both established and up-and-coming. David Bitton’s Buffalo jeans are worn by skinny stars such as Victoria Beckham and Brad Pitt (at 4201). Phillipe Dubuc, twice named Canadian Designer of the Year, creates elegant urban wear (at 4451), while Christian Chenail’s Muse has been a favourite since 1993 (at 4467).
Another long time favourite is L’Express (3927 Rue St Denis), so popular that the only sign is set in the pavement. Think French bistro, North American efficiency, reasonable prices for steak and frites, duck foie gras, enterprising salads.
Taken for granted by locals, the metro is excellent and part of the Ville Souterraine, some 20 miles of cheerful underground walkways linking museums, shopping, apartment buildings and offices. I love gardens, my husband loves sport, so we take the metro to the Olympic Park, the legacy from the 1976 Games. For more great views, we take the funicular to the top of the dramatic leaning tower. Then we walk over to the Biodôme, originally the Olympic cycle track, but cleverly converted into a zoo with a difference. In its five different eco-systems, we perspire in the tropical forest, then cool down in the chilly polar regions, with their penguins and puffins. Then we head over to Montréal’s outstanding Botanical Garden, an enormous area, with 30 themed gardens, including glorious Chinese and Japanese gardens, 10 giant greenhouses and regular demonstrations by artists.
The Boulevard Saint-Laurent, known as The Main, is another buzzy street of shops, galleries, cafés and clubs. We eat at La Porte, a well-priced, family-run, very French restaurant, cooking Canadian fish and seafood the Breton way (3627 Boulevard St-Laurent).
Montréal is famous for its nightlife, with an array of clubs and classical music concerts, ballet and opera. Among the many festivals, the two mega-stars are: the International Jazz Festival (July 1-July 11, 2010), with jazz, blues, Latin-jazz, Brazilian and more (most concerts are free and outdoors); and the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival (July 15-25, 2010), which features the hottest names in comedy.
Canadian Affair has direct low-cost flights to Montréal from London Gatwick. British Airways and Air Canada both fly direct from London Heathrow. Canadian Affair also has packages including flights and hotels.
The 3-day Montréal Museums Pass includes unlimited public transport and admission to 33 museums. The STM one-day tourist pass offers unlimited travel on the fast, safe metro and bus system.
Where to stay
Hôtel Gault: trendy, minimalist hotel in a 19th-century building.
Hôtel X1Xe Siècle: well-priced rooms in a former bank, in the old city.
Les Passants du Sans Soucy: part art gallery, part B&B.
Le Local: huge dining room, rustic chic: salmon tartare with truffle oil, pan-seared foie gras with poached pear, gingerbread. One of the best new restaurant to open recently - West of old Montreal between McGill and University (740 William, 514 397 7737, www.resto-lelocal.com).