Montreal delights in confounding every cliché used to describe her. Like a stripper working on a doctorate in philosophy, she’s forever letting slip her unexpected qualities. Is she “Paris without the jet lag?” Well, it’s true that you can get an unsurpassed steak frites in a brasserie on Montreal’s rue St.-Denis for much less than you’d pay in the French capital.
But an equally valid sobriquet would be “Jersey City with a beret,” for local tastes also tend to the down-home, if not downright trashy. Consider the grilled bologna sandwiches served at Wilensky’s Light Lunch, or the widely available poutine, a dish of french fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds.
After a few days of hearing both English and French, you may think you understand the city’s dual essence. You’d be wrong: The fact that two major linguistic groups dominate cultural life means nobody really dominates. At the Caffe Italia in Little Italy, generations of Italians still order espressos in the dialects of their ancestors. In the diverse neighborhood of Parc-Extension, the aromas of Greek souvlaki and South Indian masala dosa perfume the air outside of mosques and Orthodox churches.
By rights, cramming the French and British together on an island in the St. Lawrence River should have created endless civil war. Instead, it seems to have fostered tolerance and hedonistic individualism. The million citizens of Montreal know they are on to a good thing. Unlike Torontonians, who like Toronto for its efficiency, or Vancouverites, who favor proximity to the wilderness, Montrealers love Montreal, period.
Locals love flamenco nights in indie rock concert venues, 18th-century fountains in post-modern atriums, and bug tastings prepared by gourmet chefs. The clichés, it turns out, are true: Montreal’s got joie de vivre to spare. But you’re just as likely to find it at the Notre-Dame Basilica as on the dance floor. Montreal may be a party girl—but she’s got depth.
TARAS GRESCOE has written many books, including Sacre Blues: An Unsentimental Journey Through Quebec and The End of Elsewhere: Travels Among the Tourists.
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