Tommy was a small-town boy from Repentigny, just 15 minutes from Montreal, who happened to be my travel buddy in Toronto. Upon learning that I was going to visit Montreal, he gave me a list of places to visit, quite off the beaten path.
His list was my love recipe of the city that belongs to the State of Québec. Following the list felt like going on a treasure hunt. From one place to another, I collected hidden gems of the francophone Canadian city.
I am sharing the list now, with his consent, of course, for you to also discover the beauty and scrumptious Montreal beyond its mainstream attractions. Since my visit was in summer, some places may not look the same in winter time.
Pier of Parc Jean-Drapeau
The park is located on St. Helen’s Island, sharing the northern land with the La Ronde amusement park. It holds the iconic Biosphere, a ball-shaped environmental museum, and is connected to the main island by another iconic construction, the Jacques Cartier Bridge. However, its pier was barely visited, since most people prefer to arrive by subway instead of by boat.
Once you get out of Jean-Drapeau Station, take a left and follow the road until you reach the pier. It was less than a kilometer’s walk, and with nature all around, it’ll seem like a breeze.
The benches on the wooden dock were empty when I got there. On that summer day, the sky was clear, St. Lawrence River that separates the island from the mainland was calm, the wind blew gently, and although the sun was intense, there was enough shade around. Serenity, my mind was taking a rest for a while to be carried away by these natural blessings and the view of Montreal’s Old Port.
Chalet of Mount Royal
A chalet and its wide belvedere was built on top of Mount Royal overlooking the city and the port. Inside the chalet you can learn about the history of the establishment of Montreal by the French through a video presentation played inside telescopes.
This place may not be as unnoticed as the others on the list, but let me give you some tips. First, visit it in the evening, just before sunset, to get two or even three different views of the city: day, dusk and night time. Second, you may want to save energy climbing the hill on foot by taking a bus from Mount Royal Street from the northern side of the hill. Third, prepare a flashlight in case you want to descend using the stairs through the wood at night. They get you to the eastern part of the hill, next to downtown.
Fountain at Jean-Paul Riopelle Square
Tall office buildings in downtown Montreal all but hide the fairly small square, although it is located next to Viger Avenue. During the day, people may just notice it as another fountain in another square, since there is no fire show.
In the evening from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., however, the bronze fountain – called La Joute – with its abstract carvings of animals and humans starts its kinetic cycle that involves breathing fire. When the fire is off, the inner edge of the fountain’s circle base sprays haze, giving the art installation by Quebec artist Jean-Paul Riopelle a somewhat mystical look.
World Trade Centre
An office building as a tourist destination does sound dull, but you can definitely make an exception for this one. The building’s interior has a European street concept. My feet stepped on brick floors, my eyes fixed on classic street lights along the passageway and my hands touched the stone walls flanking me. Its glass roof gave plenty of natural light while showing off the chic industrial style.
Its atrium hosts the statue of the Greek goddess of the sea, Amphitrite. The statue was originally set up in France, before Canadian tycoon Paul Desmarais brought it to the World Trade Centre Montreal and complemented it with a 200-square-meter black granite pool in front.
Crew Collective Café
This historical Royal Bank Tower was once the tallest building in Canada. It served as Royal Bank’s headquarters for a long period until it was abandoned in 2010; then came a digital company, Crew, as new tenant. This company turned the main hall of the 1920s building into a co-working space with Wi-Fi and a long counter in front of bank windows now serving coffee and pastries. Crew kept the interior authentic, leaving the vintage chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and the World War I Memorial Wall uncovered. Roughly 150 names are carved into the wall, of the bankers who went to the Great War.
Crew Collective opened its doors in 2016, and apparently has become a popular office for telecommuting freelancers. The visitors were mostly individuals with laptops in front of them, though some were sitting in small groups having meetings inside meeting cubicles or outside at the common tables. Of course, there were curious tourists visiting, just like me, but they didn’t stay for long.
Tip: Crew Collective Café, World Trade Centre and Jean-Paul Riopelle Square are located in Quartier International (International District), so you may want to visit these places in one single trip.
Here you pay for neither coffee nor food; you just pay for the time you spend. It’s CAD 3 for the first hour, and CAD 2 for each hour after that, but you can’t pay more than CAD 9. The Anticafe concept was first introduced in Moscow in 2010 and has since become a trend in Europe.
Although I had turned on the GPS to track this place down, I walked down the road two times before I finally found its entrance door. In the middle of the busy St. Catherine Street, the black entrance door with no sign placed on the street was unnoticeable among other big name signs. Upon entering, I was unsure this was the place, since I had to climb the stairs in the dark, no greeter, no one. It felt like I was going to surrender my soul to an underground cult club. When I reached the second floor, I knew I was safe since it looked more like a decent homey coffee shop, even a captivating one.
Sam, the host, welcomed me warmly and explained Anticafe’s concept. Basically, we can help ourselves to whatever we want, coffee, tea, water, biscuits, and bread; only the espresso machine we were not to operate by ourselves. However, Sam offered his services to make the coffee, even until your tenth cup.
The second floor of Anticafe was a social space, where people can chat, work, laze around and play table games. The third floor was intended for those who desire tranquillity, there were people studying and having meetings in doorless rooms. The highlight of Anticafe was not only the concept, but also its stylish decoration, from artwork, vintage stuff like an old television and old typewriter, hanging bulbs to hippy objects.
Wilensky's Light Lunch
This Russian family business has survived for years since 1932. The restaurant still looks the same, also serves the same trademark salami sandwich, The Wilensky Special. Apart from this signature dish, the luncheonette also offered the classic home-made soda mixed by hand.
The food and the history of this corner restaurant was one thing, the warm welcome by Sharon Wilensky, the daughter of the late Moe who first created the famous sandwich, and her daughter, was quite another. Another treasure to be found was an old bookshelf that amassed old second-hand books to sell cheaply. I was excited to bring home a book from 1923 only for a dollar (Canadian).
Kem Coba Ice Cream
What could be better company on a summer’s day in the city than a scoop of ice cream? A double scoop of ice cream! After visiting Wilensky’s, I just could not miss the Kem Coba Ice Cream shop across the street. It was not easy to pick the flavors, since they were all tempting, lychee, mango, lime, cheesecake, chocomint, etc. After seeing a long queue behind by, I knew that I had to make up my mind fast. Hibiscus sorbet and sea salt ice cream became by final choice, refreshing and the perfect balance of sweet and salty, both were soft-textured.
Located just a block away from Wilensky’s and Kem Coba, this bagel shop sells the exemplary Montreal-style bagels under one dollar each. They contain no salt are hand-made, boiled in honey-sweetened water and baked in a wood-fired oven. Originally, they had poppy seed bagels as a signature product, yet now 80 percent of their sales is sesame seed bagels, apart from other varieties like rosemary, multigrain, cinnamon and raisin, whole wheat and flax. It opened its doors in 1957, and today online buyers from Canada and the US can get them too.
In addition to bagels, Montreal is famous for its tender pink and piquant smoked beef, and the best place to try it is undoubtedly Schwartz’s. A long line-up to enter the Jewish deli was spotted on the street, and it indeed took a long time. If you want to have a quick smoked meat sandwich or get something to go, enter through the door next to the small restaurant. Schwartz’s was established in 1928. Its story was made perpetual by Bill Brownstein, who wrote the book Schwartz's Hebrew Delicatessen: The Story, which inspired a musical theater show staged in 2011.
Tip: Wilensky’s, Kem Coba, St-Viateur and Schwartz’s are located in the Mile End area, the hipster capital of Canada; therefore, these places can be visited sequentially.