A native of Toronto, I married my Montreal sweetheart and have been exploring the city with pleasure ever since. What makes observing the changing season in these parts so special is the sugar maples and sumacs responsible for an explosion of rich reds that enliven autumn’s basic gold-to-burnt orange palette. Japanese tourists, as plentiful as the falling leaves this time of year, call the phenomenon momijigari.
Surest bets are Hôtel Le Germain (www.germainmontreal.com); the sleek W Montréal; and the ever-reliable Sofitel (www.sofitel.accor.com). Also causing buzz is the 24-room Le Petit Hôtel (petithotelmontreal.com), a choice for super-stylish budget travelers.
Montrealers are extremely choosy eaters, and here you’ll find just about every artful creation the French-Canadian “terroir” has to offer. For dense, seedy breads and traditional tourtières, I shop at Au Pain Doré, or Le Fournil in the borough of Westmount. For Quebec artisanal cheeses – a proud offering of this province—I like La Fromagerie Hamel in Marché Jean-Talon. But even the venerable Hamel can’t always get its hands on “Le Cendrillon,” a goat’s cheese from La Maison Alexis de Portneuf, near Quebec City, that claimed the title of “world’s best cheese” at the World Cheese Awards 2009. (I’m told its backordered at least three weeks on one visit.) Opposite Jean-Talon market, Le Marché des Saveurs du Quebec stocks hard-to-find domestic wines, ciders and microbrews among its sampling of flavors d’ici. And don’t even think about leaving Montréal without tasting what the city is best known for: bagels and smoked meat. At the tiny take-out counter of Fairmount Bagel, line up with the after-dinner crowd late into the night for hot and chewy blueberry ones. At Schwartz’s, ask for a rich “medium” cut.
Montréal offers an embarrassment of riches for diners, and we tend to eat out late – around 9 p.m. on a Thursday is when the trendiest tables will be full. Like La Fabrique, whose chef, Jean-Baptiste Marchand of Chez L’Epicier fame, experiments this time with seventies-industrial décor and a casual French fusion menu described in utilitarian terms (soup in a jug, anyone?). Or an institution the whimsically Quebecois Au Pied de Cochon. For brunch—a critical meal in this town—there’s L’Express, Universel Dejeuner et Grillades and the Sparrow, with its sparrow-covered wallpaper and long lines on Sundays.
Overall, though, I nominate these underappreciated, underreported gems, which are not to be missed: the first is Kaizen, a neighborhood sushi joint my husband and I have been going to for years, where you should bypass the regular menu that mostly predates the arrival of new head chef Antonio Park, and let this former intern of New York’s Masa make whatever his vast creativity inspires. For fish, I prefer the superb Greek comfort food of Faros to its pricier and better-known rival, Milos.
After a city bus tour to get your bearings and an obligatory stop in Vieux-Montréal (the city’s historic city center), browse rue Notre Dame Ouest’s Antiques Alley, where some 25 dealers are centered in what’s known in French as the historic Quartier Des Antiquaires. While at Marché Jean-Talon in Little Italy, seek out the quirky Quincaillerie Dante, a corner minimart-cum-hardware store that’s been around for ages, stocking hunting gear alongside upscale kitchenware, and offering Italian cookery workshops on Saturdays.
If you have extra time to spend before or after a trip to the ski resort region of Mont-Tremblant, head to the urban mountain: Montréal’s most distinctive geographic feature, known as Parc du Mont-Royal, and walk up to the Belvedere Kondiaronk lookout for unimpeded views of the fall colors. At dusk, my favorite spot—so underrated, so peaceful—is the Montréal Botanical Garden, beside the old Parc Olympique. Every Fall, the Chinese and Japanese Gardens are magically illuminated with lanterns.
When the colors finally fade, make a mental note to return to Montréal. For there are more seasonal delights to come, including Formula One in June, which turns downtown into a pedestrian-only street party before the actual race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Internationally-renowned jazz and comedy festivals take place later in the summer.
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