Two-Day Towns: Montreal

The key to success for traveling to “two-day towns” are picking the right two days.

Reservations and bar spots can be tough to nab on weekends (and streets more crowded), making it more appealing to visit cities during the week. However, if restauranteurs decide to close for a day or two, you might be out of luck on your most-wanted list.

In French-based Montreal, for example, the city’s restaurant industry seems to take its cues from France itself. It actually may be faster for some restaurants to list the days they are actually OPEN. Many choose to close some combination of Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. And some are closed all three days.

We thought the key to making money in the restaurant business was to, you know, actually be open and have paying customers in your restaurant? Hmmmm.

Beyond the “what’s open when” question, Montreal really is one of the great two-day towns. It’s enough time to see the Old City and some of the cool neighborhoods, hike through the Mt. Royal park, and hit a lot of great restaurants and bars.

In the spirit of the NY Times “36 Hours” travel series, here are a few of our favorite itineraries.

old city
olive and gourmando

We find it best to arrive late afternoon, giving ourselves an introduction to the city in the early evening rather than the bright light of day. Then, after quickly dumping our bags at the hotel, the eating and drinking can commence.

This time, we started our trip at Foxy, arriving straight from airport with bags in tow (we don’t mess around when it’s just two days). Foxy is a newer restaurant from the team behind Olive & Gourmando (one of the old city’s best breakfast/lunch finds) in the Griffintown/Little Burgundy neighborhood. A perfect first-night stop, especially if you can’t get into Joe Beef or Liverpool House (also in Little Burgundy). Reservations are a great idea at all three; walk-ins on high-demand nights can be tough.

cover notre dame
la bremner

A great alternate (to Foxy or Joe Beef and Liverpool House) if you’re staying in Old Montreal is to try one of the handful of great restaurants within a short walk. One of the best first impressions of the city’s dining scene is Le Bremner, which is a great walk down Rue St. Paul. We always find that the touristy Old Montreal seems to look better at night.

The great thing many restaurants in Montreal are now doing is asking for guests to specify a preference of dining-height or high-top tables. At Foxy, you can’t go wrong with either, but if you go for dining-height, request it in the front of the restaurant. If high-top, it’s all about the bar. At Le Bremner, Joe Beef and Liverpool House, bar seating is the best.

place d armes
st denis street

The best hotel options are in Old Montreal. They’re not the easiest to get to (because there always seems to be an event in the city), but Old City is actually a great central location to walk to the cool neighborhoods and up to the park. Old Montreal doesn’t take more than a few hours to walk and look around (see the aforementioned comment about its touristy vibe).

Our favorite hotels (somewhat in order) include:

Hôtel Place d’Armes: It’s a bigger property that includes three buildings, but the separation of the buildings makes it feel a bit smaller. It has a great rooftop to see the city, and its location is right by the Notre-Dame Basilica, which is magical at night.

Hotel St. Paul: located right on Rue McGill, which is the border of Old Montreal, this hotel has a bit easier access and is a good all-around choice for a boutique hotel.

Hôtel Nelligan: The sister property to Le Place d’Armes, in the heart of Old Montreal. A little more comfortably worn, and also has a great rooftop overlooking the Old City.

Hôtel Le St. James:  If your style is more traditional and you want high-touch, old-school service, this is the place for you.

Hotel Gault: Trying to be a bit more cool and hip, but some of the rooms are spacious and use the old bones of the building well.

Le Petit Hôtel: In the same category as Hotel Gault.

If you want to stay downtown (although we’re not sure why you would), Le Germain Hotel Montreal is the choice over the multitude of chain options (including the Ritz).

the park

The next morning, the exploring can begin. If you didn’t walk Old Montreal the night before, it’s a good place to start. Wander through the city early to see what it looks like before it wakes up, and head to Olive & Gourmando for a breakfast sandwich to die for when it opens at 9:00 a.m.

If you saw Old Montreal already, get some fresh air and exercise and walk up (coming from downtown and Old Montreal, it’s a decidedly gradual uphill stretch to the Milton Park and Mile End neighborhoods) and head to the Mt. Royal Park.

One of our general rules of thumb is to always go to the top. Find the highest point in the city and climb to it (by bike, by foot). In this case, it’s Mt. Royal Park. Within the area, there are tons of options, some more challenging than others.

st viateur

Your reward for the exercise? A mid-to-late morning bagel, of course. Montreal, especially the Mile End neighborhood, is known for its delis and bagel places. Most people will pit St. Viateur against Fairmount for bagels. Our verdict is St. Viateur by a mile (pun intended).

As we mentioned, there’s no shortage of great eating in Montreal, so don’t neglect lunch. A few favorites include:

  • Larry’s (the sister property to the more-known Lawrence restaurant), with a great open storefront and creative menu. It’s in Mile End.
  • Moleskine is closer to downtown and has a great downstairs pizza menu, or the option of a creative upstairs menu. It also has a fantastic open storefront—perfect when the weather is nice.
  • L’Express is a bit more known in Mile End on Rue St. Denis, and you can’t go wrong if you like French-inspired food.
  • Campo is a newer chicken place from the well-known Portuguese restaurant Ferreira

For the afternoon? Reverse whatever you didn’t do in the morning. If you haven’t had a chance to discover the growing areas of Griffintown and Little Burgundy, there are some great places to explore. (Although our preference is to explore the area either before or after dinner at Foxy, Joe Beef, etc.)

The streets of Blvd St. Laurent and Rue St. Denis are great to wander. Parc la Fontaine is not quite as grand as Mt. Royal’s surrounding parklands, but it’s bigger than a pocket park and a great place to stop for a cup of coffee.

Or head back to your hotel for a short nap before the evening eating and drinking begins.

As a precursor to wherever dinner takes you in the evening, drinks at either the Hôtel Place d’Armes or Hôtel Nelligan are always great options. Another good spot for a pre-dinner cocktail is Philémon Bar in Old Montreal, which has a direct connection to the street activity going by on Rue St. Paul.

philemon storefront
la filet oysters

The above-mentioned list aside, here are a few other great options for dinner:

If you want to hit the old-school, best-known Montreal highlights, you can’t miss Toqué and Au Pied de Cochon.

papillon bar
papillon food

The next morning, we always seem to find ourselves back at Olive & Gourmando rather than noshing on the hotel breakfast, but if you’re there on brunch day (weekends), there are incredible options in addition to O&G, like Lili Co.

We usually opt for a late afternoon flight to give us a chance for a last lunch or brunch. On our last visit, we had advance notice of a flight delay, giving us the perfect opportunity to hit one more must-do restaurant, Le Vin Papillon—also part of the Joe Beef family. It’s more wine-bar-focused, with creative and fun small plates from a chalkboard menu.

Au revoir, and bon appétit.

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