Forget the student protests and that monster Magnotta, Montrealers know how to deal with the heat: Keep it simple, sexy and a little bit debauched
Between the mass student protests and the twisted murder and dismemberment allegedly carried out by Lukas Magnotta, the news hasn’t exactly been a tourism ad for Montreal lately. But there’s absolutely no reason to let that stop you from making your way there sometime very soon.
For one thing, Magnotta is behind bars eagerly awaiting the attention that will come with his trial. And the student protests are actually quite pleasant. They’ve injected an energy into the city that’s pretty inspiring whether you fully believe in their cause or not. Sure, they occasionally erupt into violent confrontations with police. But unless you seek out that scenario, the most you’ll likely notice is the citywide sound of banging pots and pans every night at 8pm.
More importantly, though: No city does summer like Montreal, and no group of people feel like they deserve summer as much as Montrealers. Current events aren’t going to change that. On any given summer day expect yourself to wonder whether anyone in the city actually works. Instead, they all just seem to spend their days lying in parks, books or booze (or both) in hand, with as little clothing on as possible. And it’s this image wherein lies the true pleasure of Montreal summer: Simple, sexy and a little bit debauched. Simply joining in on Montrealers’ party will give you more of a genuine vacation than any of the city’s tourist traps (as fine as they are).
Remember, weather is unpredictable. Without nice weather, Montreal can lose a drastic amount of its appeal. Like the city’s Bixi bike rental system (montreal.bixi.com) — far superior to Toronto’s because there’s something like 10 times the bikes and stations (and a spectacular network of segregated bike lanes, too) — perfect to enjoy the city’s inexhaustible outdoor spaces. The newest of which is the Clock Tower Beach, an urban not-quite-beach located in the city’s Old Port. (oldportofmontreal.com) There’s sand, Adirondack chairs, a boardwalk and a bar, plus showers and mist stations to cool off. Just not actual swimming water. But it only costs $6, and the people-watching is worth the price alone.
A less cost-effective but totally worthwhile option is the year-old Bota Bota. (botabota.ca) Bota Bota is literally a spa on a boat parked in the water of the Old Port. With both indoor and outdoor spaces, it offers giant hot tubs, steam rooms, dry saunas, massages, a restaurant and bar (though mind the two-drink maximum), and the best view of the old city you could ask for. Basic entry for the day (sans massages) costs $55, but there’s a special on Tuesdays where two people can go for just $60.
Entirely free is the city’s iconic Mont Royal, an epic urban park in the city’s centre complete with hiking trails, an observation deck, and the biggest lit-up cross you ever did see. But on Sunday afternoons it becomes Montreal’s best party when its eastern side becomes packed with thousands (and thousands) of locals. Some of them are playing drums (part of Tam Tams, a 30-year tradition). Some of them are dressed up like medieval people fighting each other with fake swords (Google image this immediately). Most of them are just watching in awe, biere ou vin in hand.
If you want a little less riff-raff, the massive Parc Lafontaine is located a 20-minute walk east of Mont Royal, and is filled on weekends with folks having boozy picnics. It also has a beautifully designed and very yummy new café on its northwest side.
And while the city’s massive calendar of summer festivals might fall closer into the tourist trap column, there’s simply too many of them to ignore. The city basically becomes one giant festival from June to September.
The Montreal Jazz Fest (June 28 to July 7; montrealjazzfest.com), the world’s biggest, features free concerts from Rufus Wainwright and Chromeo this year, as well as not-so-free ones from the likes of BB King and Janelle Monae.
Then of course there are the city’s Pride celebrations, which are a strange beast due to the fact that they are split into two separate, unassociated events. Montreal Pride is August 13 to 19 (fiertemontrealpride.com; this year questionably themed “3011: Odyssey of the Future”), and brings with it the official parade. Divers/Cité (entering its 20th year) runs a few weeks earlier (July 31 to August 6; diverscite.org) and bills itself as a more multidisciplinary festival focusing on dance, art and music.
Both events bring with them the crucial elements of outdoor drinking, tons of events and performances, and packed streets full of friendly folks in the mood for fun times. Though Divers/Cité’s epic La Nuit des Drags (Aug 4) — the biggest drag queen contest in the world — is pretty amazing.
But even if you find yourself in the city on a rare occasion where some special event is not going on, the city’s nightlife is pretty limitless either way. When it seems time to leave the park (though they are also perfectly acceptable places to party well into the night), there’s no shortage of bars and restaurants to keep things going.
The city’s queer village has cleverly reinvented itself as a pedestrian-only neighbourhood during the summer. With pink balls strung above the streets for a good mile along Rue Ste Catherine, the village becomes this pink lagoon of cafés, bars, clubs, strip clubs and bathhouses during the summer, attracting diverse crowds. Toronto’s Church Street can’t seem to come close. The famed rooftop bar at Sky (toward the east end of the village; complexesky.com) is unrivalled as far as patios go, with gigantic buckets of sangria being served by the hottest bartenders you’ve ever seen.
The city’s first official queer bar outside the village in sometime, the Royal Phoenix, opened last year on the corner of Bernard and St-Laurent (royalphoenixbar.com). Located in Montreal’s Hasidic Jews-meet-hipsters neighbourhood Mile End, expect a very young, mixed crowd that pours out into the street — more lady than gent though this varies widely depending on the night.
And if Phoenix ends up not being your thing, there’s no shortage of options nearby. Notre Dame des Quilles (32 rue Beaubieane; just north of Phoenix at St Dominique) offers an oddly perfect mix of bowling alley, lesbian bar and creative pub food. While just south on St-Laurent is The Sparrow (5322 Blvd St-Laurent), with brick walls, vintage wood chairs, great cocktails and an even better crowd.
All this and there’s been minimal discussion of what is certainly one of Montreal’s best offerings: The food. Which probably warrants an article in itself, but if you want to do it all on the cheap, maybe just buy some Montreal bagels at St Viateur Bagels, add fixings and eat them while you’re at the park. Then save your calories for a 3am trip to poutine havens like La Banquise (99 rue Rachel E; near Parc Lafontaine), open 24 hours and serving more than 25 varieties (for the extremely ambitious: Try the T-Rex, which features ground beef, pepperoni, bacon and hot dogs over traditional poutine).
But remember to not plan anything out too much. You can enjoy Montreal as easily as most Montrealers, and it works best when the days and nights just seem to find themselves.