Our teenage daughters have been making the seven-hour road trip from Hamilton, Ont., to Montreal twice a year to visit grandma ever since they were born. Visiting family has meant we haven’t been able to appreciate all that Canada’s second largest city has to offer. So this winter we played tourists for a change to check out some of Montreal’s museums, restaurants and attractions. Winter can be harsh in Montreal so it’s often not top of mind for families to consider for a March break getaway, but we found an abundance of great activities (along with, yes, heaps of snow) to keep kids happily engaged, whether they’re little tykes or easily bored teens. An added bonus: we got to feel a wee bit culturally superior by brushing up on our French.
Home base was the Hotel Bonaventure (formerly the Hilton), perfectly situated in the heart of the city. Keep your car parked to avoid navigating slushy streets and walk or take the subway instead. The hotel’s big drawing card for families is the year-round, heated rooftop saltwater pool where you can unwind at the end of the day. The hotel also features a massive rooftop garden with pretty trees, waterfalls and ponds that attract ducks. The buffet breakfast allows picky eaters to make up their own plates and includes a Montreal favourite — bagels with cream cheese, lox and capers.
The great outdoors
Montreal boasts 17 large parks and Mount Royal, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted of New York’s Central Park fame, is the crown jewel. It’ll take you about 45 minutes to climb to the summit where you’ll be rewarded with a great view of the city. Mount Royal also features an interpretive centre, Smith House, and Beaver Lake, which has a small man-made lake, short ski slope and seven cross-country trails. Skates, tubes, snowshoes and skis are available for rent. Linger awhile after your excursion sipping a fair trade hot chocolate at Café des Amis.
Take to the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal, the most historic part of the city, dating from 1692. Download a walking tour map or opt to tuck yourself under a fur blanket and take a family ride in a caleche (horse-drawn carriage) to get a street view of Notre Dame Basilica, cosy bistros, one-of-a kind shops and unique galleries. The entire area is only one square kilometre so it’s easy to get around. Lace up a pair of rental skates at the Old Port Skating Rink or check out the nearby Montreal Science Centre, which has several permanent exhibitions designed with young kids in mind. Its current crowd-pleasing temporary exhibit is Dinosaurs Unearthed 2, with 14 roaring full-sized and strikingly real animatronic dinosaurs. The on-site IMAX theatre has regular showings of a number of exciting and educational films on its seven-storey screen.
Our family’s absolute favourite stop in Old Montreal was the Parisian pastry shop Maison Christian Faure. Faure was once the personal pastry chef to Prince Rainier of Monaco and has been hailed as the best pastry chef in the world by the American Academy of Hospitality Services. Feast your eyes on the glass cabinets showcasing pretty éclairs, macaroons, rum babas, madeleines and classic cakes. Best pick? The multi-layered flaky vanilla and custard mille-feuille (literally translated as ‘a thousand leaves’). Faure also runs the onsite pastry school, the first international school devoted to French pastry in Canada. The six-month program costs $23,000!
Our teens enjoyed two full mornings of shopping on their own on Saint Catherine Street, a two-block walk from our hotel, while we lingered over croissants, coffee and the newspaper. The fashionable street is home to the city’s largest stores, such as the Bay, Birks and Ogilvy, as well as teen favourites Forever 21 and American Apparel. If it’s too chilly for window shopping, you can head indoors to the “Underground City,” with its 32 kilometres of tunnels connecting shopping malls, restaurants and hotels.
Spend a day exploring the plant and animal kingdoms at Space for Life, which brings together the city’s four most prominent natural museums: the Montreal Biodome, Insectarium (our personal favourite), Botanical Garden and Planetarium. (You can get through the first two in an hour but devote a couple of hours to the others.) The Montreal Tower at Olympic Park is on the same site as Space for Life. Accessible by a ride in a funicular, it has the distinction of being the tallest inclined tower in the world — its 165-metre length leans at a 45-degree angle. Beat that Pisa.
You’d be mistaken to think the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is too highbrow for kids. They will especially enjoy Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s from here to ear exhibit, consisting of 70 zebra finches that flit about on the strings of a dozen amplified electric guitars that play prerecorded chords in an enclosed room. The museum’s Pompeii exhibit runs until September and features some 200 archaeological artifacts offering a glimpse into the life of a once-thriving ancient Roman town.
The McCord Museum, dedicated to Canadian culture, has the delightful Mister Rabbit’s Circus exhibit. Kids have free rein to explore the circus-themed adventure that leads to the discovery of some 200 toys and objects from the museum’s archives (free for kids 12 and under). Wearing Our Identity: The First Peoples Collection is a fascinating exploration of the complex heritage of Canada’s First Nations and how their dress helps define their culture and identity.
The Montreal Museum of Archeology and History offers an opportunity to learn about history from the ground up with an archaeo-adventure that gives kids a chance to experience a simulated archeological dig and step into an archaeologist’s shoes to find authentic remains and artifacts. A current exhibition devoted to the Queen of Crime, author Agatha Christie, celebrates her life and the role archaeology played in it — she witnessed some major finds at ancient Mesopotamian sites alongside her archaeologist husband.
While we were sure to make time for family dinners with relatives on our visit, we also checked out some memorable high-energy eateries. First among them was Wienstein & Gavino’s, a boisterous 300-seat Italian restaurant located on popular Crescent Street. The place positively buzzes with its large open kitchen and fleet of fast moving waitstaff who deliver massive plates of pesto al basilica and lasagna di carne in an atmosphere of flair and festivity. Other faves: Schwartz’s Deli, a Montreal institution dating back to 1928 that’s famous for its smoked meat sandwiches, and La Banquise, a snack bar near La Fontaine Park that’s an ode to Montreal’s famed poutine, serving 22 different kinds.
Our trip to Montreal ended the way it always does — with the requisite stop at the legendary St-Viateur Bagel, which has been serving up hand-rolled, boiled-in-honey-water chewy and slightly sweet bagels that are cooked in a wood-fired oven. For a mere $8.15 a dozen, you can bring a delicious taste of Montreal home with you.