I love Montreal but like every destination there are things you should and shouldn’t do when you visit. On a twist on the ever popular blog meme, here is my list of things to avoid doing at all costs when visiting Montreal.
Don’t learn any French – Yes, Montreal is in Canada where English is the most common language. Montreal is also in Quebec however where English is not the most common language, it’s French. Of course you can get around town and enjoy a trip to Montreal without knowing or speaking any French, but learning just a little bit will make your trip much more interesting. While transportation and other official signs and pamphlets are bilingual, almost all the advertising and daily language is in French. It’s also nice to be able to say a few words to people in the language they use most often. Like I said, it’s not a requirement and there’s no problem if you only speak English, but take a few minutes to learn some French and you’ll have a much better experience. Trust me.
Stay away from the underground city – This isn’t based at all on scientific fact or studies, but I have a gut feeling that many tourists don’t take full advantage of the underground city. On my most recent visit I had a great time navigating the RESO and it turned out to be an unexpected highlight. While most visitors will see the more public face of this massive tunnel system in shopping malls or the conference center, most don’t realize just how extensive it really is. The tunnels span 20 miles spread out over almost 5 miles in Montreal’s downtown and connect everything from malls to metro stations and even hotels. During the winter it’s the best way to stay out of the frigid temperatures, but throughout the year it’s a convenient and even fun way to experience a side to Montreal many never see.
Stay only in the Old Port – The main historic center of town, the Old Port is everything you want it to be and more. The streets are lined with shops and restaurants and the historic buildings ooze Old World awesomeness. But there’s a lot more to see in Montreal than just the Old Port so make sure you get out there and experience all of it. Wander through the neighborhoods, drive up to Mont Royal, spend a day at the Olympic Park or if it’s warm outside head down to the urban beach. Montreal has changed a lot over the last ten years and there’s never been more to do and see in and around town, so make sure you take advantage of it all and not just the traditional Old Port section.
Get ‘authentic’ poutine – This is a good rule no matter where you go, but never eat anywhere with the words “authentic” “tourist” or “real” on the menu, especially when searching for poutine. The unofficial national dish of not just Quebec but all of Canada, poutine is a rich combination of fries, gravy and cheese curds. It may be heavy, but it’s a delicious snack or meal and for many defines the food experience of Montreal (for better or for worse). First, don’t eat poutine near the main tourist areas of the Old Port, which is where most of the ‘authentic’ poutine is advertised. Instead for the best in the city head over to La Banquise where they have an incredible selection of poutines including ones with chicken, sausages and even smoked meat.
Buy maple syrup – I hope my Canadian friends don’t hate me for saying this, but as a visitor to Canada one of the dumbest things you can do is to buy maple syrup. Yes, I know Canada is famous for it and is so vital to the economy that they even have a strategic maple syrup reserve. (If you haven’t read about the Great Syrup Heist, check out this article on Bloomberg.com) But the syrup that is sold in countless souvenir shops in and around Montreal is far too overpriced for a similar quality you can find at home. If you want great Canadian maple syrup, go to your nearest grocery or gourmet food store and look for Grade B syrup. The differences between this and Grade A aren’t great and it’s much cheaper. Besides, I would never trust packing bottles of syrup in my checked bags – can you imagine the potential for disaster?
Skip eating at Schwartz’s – Montreal is famous for a few food staples: poutine, bagels and smoked meat. Just like New York City, Montreal has a long and distinguished history of fine delis where they produce their own unique take on cured meats. In the US the closest thing we have is a high quality pastrami, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that’s what you’ll find at Schwartz’s. The Montreal take on this deli meat is a final product that is a little less salty than pastrami with a unique spice flavor that has no equal. The problem is that Schwartz’s is insanely popular and a line almost always extends down the block. Don’t let this deter you though, the staff at the deli know what they’re doing and you won’t have to wait long for your fix of great meat.
Don’t go in the first place – There’s nothing quite like Montreal anywhere else in the US or Canada and for that I’m thankful. The city has a certain vibe and feel that is all its own and oftentimes reminds me more of Europe than it does North America. The biggest mistake you can make is not experiencing this unique blends of continents and cultures for yourself. And honestly, why wouldn’t you go? From the East Coast it’s a short flight or even an easy drive and makes an ideal weekend getaway. I waited far to long to visit Montreal, something I regret but I’m making up for lost time. It’s a city I could return to again and again and still find something new and always be amazed.
What are some others things visitors to Montreal should NOT do?