By Andrew Collins
Fashionable, friendly and forward-thinking Montreal is the sort of city that ardently embraces sensory experiences, from flavorful, globally inspired cuisine to late-night revelry at a slew of modish dance clubs and live-music venues. It’s also a city where indie culture thrives, and shopping for one-of-a-kind fashion and artfully designed housewares is a favorite pastime. Montreal is a great walking city, and is crowned by forested Parc du Mont-Royal, a perfect place to soak up skyline views after a day of exploring its eclectic, vibrant neighborhoods.
You’ll find plenty of lively dining options along rue Ste-Catherine, the primary thoroughfare of the city’s colorful—if in places off-color—Gay Village, a 10-block stretch of discos, strip bars, bathhouses, sex boutiques, clothiers, and cafes. But the neighborhood’s best destination restaurant, Mezcla, is a block from the fray, down a quiet side street. It’s worth a visit, even if you have no particular interest in the surrounding district, for its friendly and knowledgeable service and stellar Nuevo Latino fare, from grilled duck hearts with Peruvian potatoes and aji panca chiles to crispy chicharron served with a sake-soy glaze and green-mango salad. As popular for its buzzy cocktail scene as for consistently terrific modern French fare, Boris Bistro occupies a handsome Old Montreal building with an adjacent dining terrace that’s been designed, rather ingeniously, behind the 19th-century façade of a building destroyed some years ago in a fire. You might stop by De farine & d’eau fraiche, a cheery storefront patisserie and café, for a light breakfast or lunch, but the strongest draw are the colorful, delicately ornamented tea cakes, macaroons, sugar cookies, and fruit tarts. Accompany your sweet treat with a lavender latte.
If you’re feeling weary after a long flight or a couple of days pounding the pavement in this hilly city, book a massage and soak in the Nordic baths at Bota Bota. The Scandinavian-style spa is situated on a retrofitted mid-20th-century ferryboat now docked in Old Montreal’s port, near the foot of rue St-Pierre. Soothing treatments offered in this four-deck spa include Japanese shiatsu and Hawaiian lomi lomi massage, a black-tea body scrub, and a rather decadent “24 Carat” facial that uses caviar, champagne, pearl powder, and gold. The thermal therapy program includes a circuit of hot and cold experiences, from plunge pools to saunas. If you’re feeling a little peckish afterward, stop by the handful of nearby food stalls—set in recycled steel containers—including Porchetta (try the braised pork) and Homard del Iles (great lobster rolls).
Hipsters, artists, indie musicians (most famously Arcade Fire), and style-makers have steadily transformed Mile End, a formerly prosaic, historically Jewish neighborhood on the upper Plateau—close to verdant Parc du Mont-Royal into a vibrant hub of design boutiques, locavore-driven restaurants, and eclectic bars and microbreweries. Stroll along the main drag, Boulevard St-Laurent, as well as nearby cross streets—especially Avenue Laurier and Avenue Fairmount—to discover the neighborhood’s heartbeat. Queer-favored Cagibi coffeehouse is a good place to kick things off with an espresso, while stylish Lawrence Restaurant ranks among the cooler venues for dinner and drinks. Shops like VdeV and Style Labo abound with well-curated, retro-focused housewares and gifts. Be sure to stop by Fairmount Bagel, a nearly century-old vestige of the neighborhood’s history that serves the most delectable, soft-and-chewy Montreal-style bagels in the city—it’s open 24/7, too.
Situated in a stately five-story 1871 Old Montreal building that originally held a cotton warehouse, the chicly reimagined Hotel Gault contains just 30 light-filled, loft-like suites with plenty of high-tech perks (HD LED TVs, Blu-ray players, iPads on request). Among the amenities that attract design-minded guests—and more than a few celebrities—are exposed brick and stone walls, heated bathroom floors, floor-to-ceiling windows, huge double tubs, and FLOU platform beds. Several full apartments have state-of-the-art kitchens, and top-floor suites come with lovely terraces that afford panoramic views of this historic neighborhood. Not far from Old Montreal in the city’s rapidly gentrifying Griffintown neighborhood, the 18-floor Hotel ALT Montreal Griffintown opened in early 2014 in part of a contemporary mixed-use development on Lachine Canal (a picturesque spot for jogging and biking). The reasonably priced rooms in this eco-minded property (note the geothermal heating and cooling and massive thermal windows) have a smart, minimalist look, with mod desks, comfy beds with goose-down pillows, and gorgeous Italian Calla armchairs. There’s a hip restaurant and bar, Zibo, on the ground floor.