City hopping in happening Canada’s two major destinations
The upcoming warm months are an excellent time to visit Canada, what with the dollar so strong and the prime minister so hip. Its first- and second-largest cities, English-speaking Toronto and French-speaking Montreal, offer a refreshingly international flavor. And both are less than a two-hour flight from Boston.
Montreal’s bilingual allure is evident the moment you hear the melodic transitions by locals from French to English. The same can be said for the architecture, with French Second Empire buildings side-by-side with English Georgian. This unique heritage is referenced on the license plate, “Je me souviens,” the beginning fragment of the line, “I remember/That born under the lily/I grew under the rose,” a nod to both its French (lily) and English (rose) foundations.
Lodging: The Hotel Omni Mont-Royal provides a big-hotel base camp in the Golden Square Mile downtown historic district. The upper of the 299 rooms in the 31-story tower have wide views of the city toward the St. Lawrence River and Mount Royal, the two main geographic features of the island city. There’s also the EQlib spa for a facial or haircut, and an outdoor rooftop pool.
Dinner: Montreal’s vibrant dining scene is known for its fortifying Quebecois cuisine, which Au Pied de Cochon (pig’s foot) has elevated to fame with chef Martin Picard’s odes to foie gras, terrine, and even a namesake stuffed pig’s foot. International fare also abounds. For Mexican, try the creative tequila cocktails and ceviche at Escondite.
Old Port: Take the Metro or walk (past numerous churches and landmarks) to the Place Jacques-Cartier (the explorer who first claimed the area for France in 1535). The popular summer gathering place offers street entertainers, terrace dining, and nearby landmarks including Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, where mariners have prayed for safe passage on the Saint Lawrence River since 1771. The backside of the Catholic chapel hosts a striking statue of Our Lady of Perpetual Help overlooking the activities along the river.
Festivals: The Jazz (June 29-July 9), Fireworks (July 2-30), and Comedy (July 16-31) festivals make up the backbone of summer with a variety of events every month. And in anticipation of the city’s 375th anniversary next year, special events, including Cité Mémoire’s historic light projections on the sides of buildings and Au Sommet Place Ville Marie’s exhibitions about city features, begin in May.
Lunch: Head northwest to the Mile End neighborhood to find Montreal’s famous bagels, made the old fashioned way — hand rolled, poached in honey-infused water, and baked in a wood-fired oven. Fairmount Bagel and St-Viateur Bagel (on streets with the same names) are in eternal competition for the city’s best bagel — decide for yourself. Along the way, look for Schwartz’s Deli, home to the classic sandwich with the famous smoked meat on rye and yellow mustard. Craft beers are also a thing in Montreal, and Brasserie Harricana in Little Italy is a good place to sample a wide range of local brews over lunch. Afterward, head to nearby Jean-Talon Market to stock up on fresh local produce, maple products, cheese, bread, and bagels at O’Bagel (located just outside the main building), in preparation for tomorrow’s picnic.
Nightlife: Montreal knows how to have fun afterhours. Don clubbing clothes and do some bar hopping on the Old Port’s St. Paul Street, or just head directly to Mimi La Nuit and stay put. This swishy nightclub features a celebrated restaurant in front, with bar in back where the clientele knows how to party and shots flow until 2 a.m.
Mount Royal: You can fly kites in public in Montreal, but not in Toronto. Random, but true. The place to do so (and bring that picnic lunch from Jean-Talon) is Mount Royal, the 692-acre park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (of Manhattan’s Central Park) around the prominent 764-foot “mountain.” Another quirk about Montreal is that you can drink in public as long as it’s with a meal, so pick up a bottle of wine at the nearest SAQ to go with your kiting picnic, and all will be well.
Shop: Last but not least, put your strong American dollar to use at the shopping megaplex of the Complexe Les Ailes, Hudson’s Bay, and the RÉSO Underground City, all located above and below ground near the downtown McGill Metro station on St. Catherine Street.
The refreshing thing about Toronto is its very unpretentiousness, and the generally amiable and easygoing nature of its 2.6 million inhabitants. That everyone seems to get along says something about this city, where the majority of the population hails from places other than Canada. It’s fitting that its motto, “Diversity our Strength,” has recently been appropriated by Prime Minister Trudeau as a potential slogan for the whole country.
Lodging: Yorkville is the historic former hippie hangout of Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Gordon Lightfoot, and now a high-end shopping district known as the Mink Mile. It’s home to The Hazelton Hotel, with 77 rooms and suites (many with balconies), an excellent spa, and indoor pool. The SoHo Metropolitan Hotel, with 92 rooms and suites, is based in the Entertainment District, near the theater, opera, Blue Jays and Maple Leafs sports arenas, and a nexus of nightlife options. Expect to see celebrities at both locations, as Toronto’s popularity with film crews has dubbed it “Hollywood North.”
Dinner: Home to at least 200 ethnic groups speaking 140 different languages, Toronto has a range of cuisine. For the interpreted experience, try Luckee at the SoHo Met, featuring “Chopped Canada” judge Susur Lee’s Nouvelle Chinoise meat and vegetable dishes from the Hunan, Shanghai, and Szechuan regions of China. At the Hazelton, “Top Chef Canada” host Mark McEwan’s One Restaurant offers rich takes on contemporary North American cuisine, with creative use of animal fat, maple syrup, and béarnaise sauce on lobster poutine.
Museums: Not to be missed is the Art Gallery of Ontario, with the stunning circular Baroque Stair and wood-and-glass Galleria Italia designed by Toronto native Frank Gehry in 2008. Look for works by the legendary Group of Seven, the celebrated landscape artists including Tom Thomson and Lawren Harris, whose solo exhibition beginning July 1 is being championed by actor Steve Martin.
Nightlife: Start at Fring’s, promoted by the rapper Drake in partnership with Susur Lee of Luckee, for a lively dinner and trendy hangout. From there, head around the corner to 12,000-square-foot SPiN for drinks at the two bars and a little exercise at one of the 12 Ping-Pong tables. End the night at The Addisons, the hip and happening bar designed to simulate a house party in Hollywood Hills, with kitchen, living, bar, and game rooms. The scene is casual yet upscale and frequented by friendly and attractive young professionals.
Shop: Holt Renfrew is Canada’s iconic luxury department store, and Toronto’s Bloor Street West location is its flagship, known for its amazing window displays, especially over the holidays. Start your shopping spree at Holts Café with a brunch of Eggs Benedict and a Holt Happiness anti-aging organic juice mix.
CN Tower: It may be touristy, but the view from the 1,815-foot-high CN Tower (the world’s third tallest) makes braving the crowds worthwhile. After a 58-second, 15-mph glass elevator ride, you’re treated to a 360-degree view of the city, which seems surprisingly vast from above, and Lake Ontario, which looks exceptionally blue. Next, if you dare: the EdgeWalk, a hands-free, harness-attached experience on an exterior ledge at 1,168 feet above ground. It will certainly make for a memorable visit.