Thanksgiving Weekend in Montreal • Exploring Downtown Montreal • November 25, 2016
We awoke on the morning of Black Friday to see that a thick fog had engulfed the quiet street of the neighborhood where we were staying. I checked the forecast for the day and saw that the rain they had been predicting all week looked like it would hold off until the afternoon, so I rallied the troops, fed them some muffins and prepared for a day full of walking. Yes, there is great bus system that would have picked us up literally right in front of the apartment building, however we wanted Charlotte to enjoy the city with us so we decided to walk. From where we were staying, Old Town Montreal was about 3 miles away, and since we hike mountains on a regular basis we reasoned that the distance really wasn’t that far, and it would be “mostly flat and on sidewalks” which would make it very easy. We layered up, packed the umbrellas, put on our hiking boots and were out the door.
While the distance really didn’t seem that far to us, I highly doubt any resident of this neighborhood has ever said to his or her self, “I’d like to go to downtown Montreal, I think I’ll walk there!” It’s one thing to walk around the downtown area of a city, it’s another to have to walk through residential and business districts that are less than scenic to reach the downtown area. But once we had started on this journey, it seemed as though it’d take just as much effort to give up, go back, and map out a new plan, so onward we went! We were thankful we had decided not to drive, as many of the roads we traversed were under construction and rather busy, not to mention having to deal with parking downtown.
As it turned out, walking downtown was not as flat as we had led ourselves to believe. Montreal is on an island on the St. Lawrence River, and has a mountain that sits in the center of it. Our apartment was near the mountain, so the walk to downtown was generally downhill. The hardest part was walking downhill on sidewalks that were not clear of snow and slush. I was glad I had chosen comfort and function over fashion by wearing hiking boots — I needed all the extra traction I could get!
It only took an hour for us to reach the downtown area, though it felt much longer than that. Curtis grabbed some maps from a tourist center, and we started heading towards the Old Town district, admiring architecture and reading history plaques along the way. Our favorite parts of historic districts are always the state buildings and the churches and cathedrals, and this town did not disappoint! The Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal was on my list of must-sees so we made our way generally in that direction. If we had left Charlotte behind, we could have paid to see the inside, but it was more important to us to have a happy basset. Instead, we continued on, strolling down streets lined with shops and the sidewalk along the Southernmost road, closest to the river — but because of the fog, we were completely unable to see across the water. It was still fun to see the trees with bright yellow leaves still hanging on while there was snow on the ground.
I’ve heard it said that Montreal and Quebec City are the “most European cities in North America,” and from our brief visits to the other side of the pond, we would concur with that statement. I loved walking down the cobblestone streets, passing shop after shop all lined up in a row — a mix between restaurants, stores, and very kitschy shops with t-shirts and trinkets only tourists would buy. Comparing it with the few big cities we’ve visited on the East Coast — Boston, Newport, Charleston, Savannah, and St. Augustine — it did feel the most European, with a heavy French influence.
Speaking of French, if you plan on visiting Montreal (or Quebec in general), be prepared to only see French. While Canada is officially bi-lingual, the province of Quebec has only one official language – French. Consider yourself lucky if a sign has English, and if two languages HAVE to be printed on a sign, the French will be first and bigger. Fortunately, this never proved to be a problem for us. It was easy enough to understand directional and street signs. And when that’s not enough, typically native French speakers also speak English.
The weather even cooperated with our walk so well; instead of rain, we only got light snow flurries, which is honestly so much more pleasant to walk through. The fog was still heavy around us, and we were unable to see the tops of skyscrapers through the more modern downtown area. As the day went on, the area became more busy, and soon we were ready to move on and start making our way back. I’m a little embarrassed to say that we didn’t eat anywhere local while downtown — in our defense, we had Charlotte, and most restaurants were closed when we walked by (we were passing through old town between 10-11 in the morning). Instead, we ended our time downtown with food from…Tim Hortons! Yeah, we were in Canada for a total of 66 hours (just under 3 days) and we managed to stop there 3 times, and consumed 24 donuts between the 3 of us. And before you go thinking that we’re just silly Americans who think Tim’s is the best thing ever, just know that we have never seen a Tim’s that isn’t busy. Everyone of every nationality loves Tim Hortons!
Now, I know that I have mentioned it over and over that we prefer to avoid big cities when we travel. So why did we choose to visit Montreal? Well, the biggest reason is because it’s only 3-4 hours away, so why not see it while we are this close! It was also very inexpensive to visit and stay close to the downtown area (thanks to AirBnB and being willing to walk!). We may find big cities more stressful to visit, but we do enjoy getting to walk around and learn about what makes the city special and unique. And while we did enjoy our time here, there were multiple moments when we would say to ourselves, “This is why we don’t visit big cities very often!” When we visit the mountains — like on our trip to Vermont and New Hampshire, for example — there’s never any question of what we’re going to do. Instead of asking “What do we do?” we ask, “What trails shall we hike today?” If we had been willing to leave Charlotte behind, there are several places that we could have considered visiting, such as museums or an old Olympic arena. But since we like doing things as a family, our options were more limited.
Another wonderful thing about traveling to the mountains and spending our time hiking is that it’s often free to do so. On our trip to VT/NH, we had 3 consecutive days where we didn’t spend a single penny. We camped for free, we ate food we had brought and made ourselves, and we hiked for free. So while we could have visited museums or the arena, the entrance prices would have quickly added to the cost of the trip. I know that might sound stingy, but our goal when we travel is to limit our spending so that we can go on more trips. As one might say “Quantity over quality,” but I don’t think our little trips are lacking in quality because we fill them with things that we enjoy doing.
Those may be my thoughts on the matter, but the wonderful thing about people is that we were all created so differently, with our own opinions and preferences. Many people would prefer a trip to a city over a trip to the mountains, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good thing, in fact, because if we all loved the mountains the most, the mountains would be way too crowded and not at all enjoyable to those who prefer to use them as their escape from the world. Cities are beautiful in their own way, and it took very gifted architects, city planners, engineers, and construction workers to help build and design them in a way that’s both visually appealing and efficient. We can appreciate that, and we certainly enjoyed seeing all the detail that went into the buildings here. So while this isn’t necessarily our top choice for a vacation destination, we’re thankful that we did visit, as it gave us a better understanding and appreciation for different people and different places.
[Part 2 of our trip coming soon!]