One of the most entertaining weekends of my adult life came a few years back in the brilliant, bilingual Canadian city of Montreal. St. Patrick's Day happened to fall on a Saturday, and a few friends and I spent a rollicking afternoon at McKibbin's Irish Pub before enjoying a sumptuous Italian dinner at Da Vinci Ristorante. From there, we walked across town to catch a hockey game between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins at the cathedral known as the Bell Centre, where every announcement is broadcast in English and French. Finally, as the raucous cheers faded, we caught a taxi to our hotel, in the city's Chinatown section.
That 12-hour spectrum of experiences perfectly sums up the magnificent diversity that Montreal represents. And we barely scratched the surface of this world-class city.
A city with many sides
I admit to a distinct fondness for Montreal. It's in my DNA. I'm half French-Canadian by heritage. It's where my grand-père emigrated from, and where my folks spent their honeymoon back in the 1950s.
This city of my forefathers is awash in intriguing contradictions, revealed by its various nicknames. Montreal has been called "The City of Saints" and "The City of a Hundred Steeples," a testament to its strong Christian spine. But a notorious Prohibition-era reputation also found Montreal with the label "Sin City," indicating a devilish side that, while more subtle, still survives.
These days, the city offers a wonderful number of attractions, from the Underground City to Old Port, that can be part of my itinerary depending on whether I'm looking for a romantic escape with my wife or a family outing with our teenage daughters joining us. Fall, when the city's canvas is transformed by a riot of color (and hockey season gets underway), has always been a favorite time. Here are a few reasons why.
The autumn foliage at the Old Port allows for a serene break.
Museums and the arts
The Gardens of Light at the Botanical Garden's Chinese exhibit — part of Montreal's Space for Life complex — takes the annual chromatic celebration of fall foliage to an entirely new level. Between Sept. 11 and Nov. 1, more than 700 bright and exquisitely detailed Chinese lanterns provide a unique perspective on the myths surrounding Chinese New Year. The awe-inspiring Botanical Garden also hosts the Great Pumpkin Ball (a two-month party that "Peanuts" cartoon creator Charles Schultz surely would approve of) through Nov. 1. While you're there, take in the Biodome and Planetarium, and be sure to bring your camera.
For art aficionados, any visit north of the border requires a stop at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and the Musée d'art contemporain de Montreal. In addition to its stunning permanent collections, the MFA offers special exhibits throughout the year, such as those featuring the great sculptor Rodin and an exhibit on 1920s modernism. The Musée is launching three new major exhibits in October.
The annual Festival du Nouveau Cinema entices art lovers of a different stripe, specifically fans of independent films and experimental cinema. Film buffs can uncover original works from provincial, national, and international artists. Want more? The Documentary Film Festival in November, formally known as "Les Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire," typically focuses on social, political, and environmental issues.
Lanterns are aglow at the Chinese exhibit at Montreal's Space for Life complex.
Music and cuisine
Music enthusiasts will delight in the POP Montreal festival. This annual musical celebration showcases more than 400 acts at over 50 venues throughout the city. As an added bonus, many art and film events are linked to POP Montreal.
Of course, given the city's French roots, culinary adventures can be found everywhere. Start with the art-deco Marché Atwater and sprawling Marché Jean-Talon ("marché" being French for "market") in the heart of Little Italy, and then venture out to the cafés, pubs, and high-end eateries. Montreal's remarkable mix of restaurants, from fancy to frugal, never ceases to amaze.
The annual Restaurant Week — known locally as MTL à TABLE — is a great way to experience more than one of these tantalizing locations. Held in the late fall, it serves up special prix fixe menus at dozens of locations, from ultra-chic restaurants to warm, inviting bistros. And if an early winter chill settles, treat yourself to a decadent hot chocolate at Juliette & Chocolat.
Finally, it's only fair to give Mother Nature her due. Some of Montreal's best attractions are available year-round, but seem all the more dazzling in the brisk, abbreviated days of autumn.
Consider a stroll or horse-drawn carriage ride along the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal, where New World history and Old World architecture blend seamlessly. Or take a hike, literally, to the top of the city's namesake, Mount Royal, for an extraordinary leaf-peeping experience. This mountain park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (who lists New York City's Central Park among his accomplishments), features unrivaled views from the Belvedere Kondiaronk lookout.
And of course, there's always hockey!