Montreal: Canada’s Design City

Montreal’s stunning cityscape offers a feast for the senses

Cosmopolitan, French-speaking Montreal has long been admired for its warmth and tolerance, its vibrant Gay Village, and its scenic setting on the St. Lawrence River, nestled beneath 732-foot Mont Royal. But in recent years, this bustling metropolis of about 1.9 million people has become increasingly renowned as one of the world’s great design cities, with a dazzling collection of modish hotels, artful restaurants, eye-catching museums, and countless more examples of visionary architecture, some of it historic, some contemporary. Whether you’re a devout style maven or simply a traveler who appreciates beautifully designed buildings and interiors, Montreal’s stunning cityscape offers a feast for the senses.

Many of the city’s most alluring buildings rise over the distinctive skyline of this ancient neighborhood that’s morphed from quaintly anachronistic to smart and sophisticated in recent years. Start any tour of Vieux-Montreal with a visit to Place d’Armes, the dignified old town square, off of which you’ll find the mammoth, neo-Gothic Notre-Dame Basilica, which opened in 1829 and is notable for its imposing pair of 69-foot towers and its seating capacity of 3,800. Churches have stood on this site since 1642, the first having been little more than a bark-covered shanty. The Montreal Symphony frequently performs here, taking advantage of the cathedral’s 6,800-pipe organ, and Celine Dion was married here in 1994.

A must-see in this section of the city is the Pointe-a-Calliere Museum of Archaeology and History, which has been built around the excavated remains of structures more than 300 years old. The contemporary building pays homage to Montreal’s forward-thinking architectural sensibilities, while the fascinating exhibits inside trace the city’s history to its very earliest beginnings. Next, walk along Rue St-Paul, which is lined with antiques shops, art galleries, and diverting boutiques, and also note Bonsecours Market, one of the city’s most ambitious restoration projects. The 1847 former agricultural market with a striking neoclassical facade and tin-plated dome contains several boutiques and sidewalk restaurants.

Directly north of Vieux-Montreal, the commercial City Center exists on two main levels, literally. There’s the neighborhood at street level, with its skyscraping office towers and busy streets, and there’s Underground Montreal, a subterranean maze of shops, restaurants, and boutiques designed to keep pedestrians from the city’s harsh winter elements. Several City Center museums and cultural institutions celebrate Montreal’s design legacy. There’s the Canadian Centre for Architecture, one of the world’s foremost architectural collections, contained appropriately inside a visually memorable building. The museum here regularly stages provocative and thoughtful exhibits related not just to architecture but also urban planning and interior design.

The nation’s oldest museum (opened in 1860), the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is another great cultural institution, with its fine collections of everything from Canadian paintings to contemporary works to ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Persian antiquities. Foodies shouldn’t miss fabulous Faubourg Ste-Catherine, in the western end of the City Center, a stunning market building with dozens of unusual food outlets, trendy clothiers, and crafts boutiques.

Up the hill from the City Center, many student- and hipster-infested restaurants, coffeehouses, and shops line the streets of the Plateau. Do not pass up a chance to dine at L’Express, one of the most hallowed restaurants in the country, with the ambience, design, and cuisine of a classic Parisian brasserie. Rue St-Denis is the heart of the city’s collegiate Latin Quarter, and as you follow it down from the Plateau you’ll reach the city’s spectacular new main library (La Grande Bibliotheque du Quebec), which is sheathed in translucent green glass. With well more than 1,000 armchairs and hundreds more study carrels and computer stations, it’s a great place to read or relax on a cold or rainy day.

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Just a few blocks east, the Gay Village contains one of the world’s larger concentrations of bars, restaurants, and shops frequented primarily by gays and lesbians. The somewhat gentrified main commercial spine, Rue Ste-Catherine, nevertheless wears a slightly gritty veneer that recalls its history as an honest, working-class, francophone neighborhood. It’s truly a something-for-everyone district, with hard-core leather bars, unabashedly steamy strip clubs and bathhouses, see-and-be-seen bistros, romantic cafes, sassy club-wear boutiques, festive video bars, throbbing warehouse discos – you name it.

Among the dozens of inviting dining options in the Village, a few stand out: Kilo is a great bet for decadent pies and pastries, designer coffees, and sandwiches and salads. The long-running Saloon Cafe is a trendy spot for burgers, Tex-Mex fare, salads, and the like – it’s more about people-watching than fine cuisine, but you’re bound to have a good time here. Le Club-Sandwich, attached to the gay Hotel Bourbon complex, is open 24 hours and is always a favorite for a meal before or after clubbing. And Mozza is an affordable, BYOB Italian restaurant that’s perfect for a romantic meal – the tiny candlelit dining room seats perhaps 30 patrons and exudes charm.

For nightlife, options are again many, but there are a few highlights. Fans of leather and Levi’s have been frequenting Aigle Noir (Black Eagle) Bar for years. Cabaret Mado is a raucous and spirited drag and sing-along bar. You could spend the whole day exploring Le Drugstore, a multilevel complex with numerous bars, some guy-oriented and others catering more to women, as well as a restaurant, newsstand, and pool hall. And the handsomely furnished Sky Pub Club is the city’s most popular gay club – there are several spaces here, from a disco to a male strip bar to a cabaret.

The Antonopoulos family operates three of the city’s coolest design hotels, all of them within walking distance of one another in Vieux-Montreal, and all with superb restaurants. The 135-room Place d’Armes Hotel opened in 2000 and received a major restoration in 2005, but it’s fashioned out of three meticulously restored vintage buildings. Many of the spacious, smartly furnished rooms reveal ornate original woodwork and have Jacuzzi tubs or huge walk-in showers with “rain” showerheads. The hotel’s AIX Cuisine du Terrior specializes in Canadian game and produce, such as honey-glazed Quebec duck breast with parsnip puree, lemon confit, and cranberries, and Nunavut caribou tartare with mustard and raisins and a port-wine reduction. In the hotel’s Rainspa, schedule a Dead Sea-salt exfoliation or soak in a traditional hammam (a Middle Eastern bath). And in the swank lounge, Suite 701, you can enjoy cocktails while mingling with the sexy crowd.

The same family runs the highly romantic Auberge du Vieux-Port, set inside a beautiful 1882 warehouse, whose 27 rooms have stone and brick walls, hardwood floors, soaring windows, and brass beds. On warm days, relax on the hotel’s rooftop terrace, with its sweeping views of the St. Lawrence River. Here, you can dine on superb seasonal French fare and sip wines from the impressive wine list at Les Ramparts, a cozy space in the hotel’s basement. The third jewel in the group is the charming Hotel Nelligan, with its warmly decorated accommodations – try to book one of the Loft Suites, which have fireplaces and large living areas. On the ground floor, Verses Restaurant serves similar outstanding contemporary fare.

If an ultra-mod property is more to your liking, book a room at the W Montreal, a high-tech retreat on the edge of Vieux-Montreal with an electric-blue color scheme and rooms with DVD players and flat-screen TVs and beds with 350-count linens and goose-down duvets. The restaurant, Otto, is one of the hottest tables in town, and the four lounges at the W are always packed with intriguing, fashionable sorts.

A wonderful value, the bargain-priced 40-room Hotel de L’Institut occupies the top three floors of a hospitality college, where the staff, which is made up of students and faculty, works hard and does a great job keeping rooms clean and attractive – they have their grades to think about, after all. The formerly hideous building was redesigned with a dashing semi-transparent glass exterior in 2005. It overlooks Carre St-Louis, a leafy square on the Plateau, within walking distance of the Gay Village, and L’Institut also has a fine restaurant. Smack dab in the Gay Village, there’s the regal Alexandre Logan B&B, which occupies a grand redbrick 1870 townhouse whose airy rooms have original crown molding, polished-wood floors, and tasteful yet unfussy furnishings. Some of the five guest rooms have private balconies, and everyone has access to the plant-filled outdoor terrace. It’s the perfect roost if you want to get a sense of the city’s style and elegance while also enjoying easy access to all the excitement of one of North America’s liveliest gay dining and nightlife districts. What better way to appreciate Montreal?