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  • Writer's pictureCharles Harned

Travel: Montreal

Readers can often agree on one thing: setting is important. Vying for attention with characters and plot (and sometimes coming out ahead) is where the story actually takes place. From the Mississippi River that spawned Tom Sawyer's myriad adventures to Gatsby's vivacious New York City to Bulgakov's communist Moscow, settings have come to play an integral part in the novels we read and linger in our minds long after we set them down.

For many, reading serves as an escape. It is quite common for readers to consume a book set in a foreign, exotic place and then wish to travel to the destination they just read about. I undoubtedly fall into this category.

Books and travel go hand in hand. I love to incorporate locales I've journeyed to or studied into my writing, just as I love reading the work of others who have done the same. And that's why, from time to time, I'm going to use this blog as a travel guide of sorts...posting brief (and hopefully useful) exposés with information and reflections on places I've visited.

I've chosen Montreal for the first iteration. Why Montreal?

There are several answers to that question. Canada's second largest city, for Americans based on the east coast Montreal is only a few hours away by plane. It's easily accessible from New England by car. Montreal is a great initial foray out of the United States for beginning travelers. I like experiencing places that are vastly different from what I'm used to (southeast United States). When this can be done with only a few convenient hours of travel, that's just an added bonus.

Montreal is unique in a way many people might not know about. It is the hub of Quebec's very much alive and well French culture. While the rest of Canada speaks English, in Montreal you'll find a majority of signs and instructions written in French. Both languages (French and English) are spoken by many, and there is a distinctly European feel to the city. Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal) is dominated by cobblestone streets, stone buildings tightly squeezed together, and blossoming views of the Old Port situated on the Saint Lawrence River.

(Place d'Armes in the heart of Old Montreal)

Did I mention Montreal sits on an island? Yes, it's located at the confluence of the Saint Lawrence and Ottawa rivers. The urban area is home to over three and a half million people. At the heart of it all, mere blocks from a downtown consortium of sleek towers and urban gridwork, is the small mountain called Mont Royal, from which the city got its name. Mont Royal is home to a sprawling park, two cemeteries, and a 103-foot cross at its peak that has stood there for nearly a century.

Montreal is an amalgam of two worlds. On one hand, it's a metropolitan collection of skyscrapers and all things modern that rivals America's most impressive cities. And on the other hand, it's a bohemian cultural hub with tons of history and the kind of colorful diversity that attracts visitors from all over the world.

There is tons to do in "The City of Saints", "The Festival City", or "Sin City" (earned from Montreal's prominent role as a bootlegging hub during the Prohibition) depending on what you are there for. Walking through the narrow alleys of Vieux Montreal and visiting Notre-Dame Basilica (a striking Gothic Revival masterpiece) before sampling one of the many restaurants in the Place d'Armes is a must.

(Notre-Dame Basilica exterior)

Montreal, particularly in the summer, is home to festivals of all types. Whether it's music or art you're looking for, it can be found in the city's parks and neighborhoods. Head up for the Metro Music Festival, Montreal Jazz Festival, or Osheaga Music and Arts Festival at the end of July. I can personally attest that the festivities surrounding the annual Formula 1 Grand Prix in June are a blast as well. (Add link for festivals and art)

Rue Saint Catherine is Montreal's version of Fifth Avenue where you'll find everything from luxury designer stores to coffee shops to restaurants. If you visit Montreal be prepared to see a multitude of exotic sportscars prowling up and down this thoroughfare and bisecting Saint Laurent Boulevard, especially during the week leading up to Montreal's famous grand prix.

(Getting in the racing spirit...peep the linen shirt #summeroflinens)

Speaking of Saint Laurent, Montreal's love affair with arts and culture extends to its nightlife. Known as a popular bachelor party destination, the Quebec hub's assortment of bars and clubs do not disappoint. Saint Laurent Boulevard is home to night clubs and restaurants of all varieties. A few blocks west, Rue Crescent's multi-tiered collection of bars, pubs, and lounges gets packed on weekends by visitors and students from the city's universities.

(Heading to a club on Saint Laurent)

There is plenty to see even if nightlife isn't your thing. Chinatown is probably my favorite neighborhood in the heart of the city. Enter under the Paifang on Saint Laurent and experience a few square blocks of authentic restaurants, food markets, and tea shops.

Another great spot is the Mile End neighborhood on the far side of Mont Royal from the city center. Go here if you're looking for a trendy area with great restaurants, the best bagels in town, and glimpses of a thriving Jewish community. Along the way you'll see Brooklyn-style brownstones and Victorian townhouses in Plateau. And if you don't feel like walking just know that Montreal's underground metro system is excellent.

(Synagogue in Mile End)

Spring and fall are excellent times to visit the city. Summer is great too, although it can be a little warm and humid at times. Avoid Montreal during winter if you don't like the cold. The city has coped reasonably well by incorporating lots of underground shopping and infrastructure, but it can still get brutal.

Montreal is a phenomenal jumping off point for those with the itch to travel. It can feel at times like a little piece of Europe nestled into Canada. There's an eclectic mix of everything from Chinese to Caribbean within the city, and despite being Canada's second largest metropolis there's a very laid back vibe that permeates everything.

I really can't recommend Montreal enough as a welcoming place with a mixed heritage. Modern towers stand a stone's throw from the cobblestone streets of the Old Port with parks and art-strewn residential neighborhoods scattered throughout. There's a bar or restaurant for every occasion, and plenty of fun to be had no matter what your tastes. It has a certain mystique to it that can be hard to find without flying halfway around the world, all tucked into a Canadian sensibility that might make it seem just like any other city on the surface.

If you've visited Montreal or have a desire to do so, let me know what you think. As always, please subscribe and comment below and share with others, or email me at

Thanks for reading!

P.S. Here are some novels set in Montreal to give you a feel for the city and stoke your desire to visit even more!

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