Montreal’s Observation Wheel, Canada’s highest at 180 feet, is located in the city’s Old Port. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Three marvelous days in Montreal

Canada’s second largest city offers European flair, plentiful art

The Expo ’67 World’s Fair, 1976 Summer Olympics and Cirque du Soleil have brought world attention to Montreal, a 192-square mile island. However, Canada’s second largest city continues to inspire travelers with its European flavor, and art, cultural and restaurant scenes.

Around 4 million people call greater Montreal home (where French and English are spoken) and 25 percent are first-generation Canadians. Montreal’s performing artists, multimedia development and student population number over 200,000, giving it a youthful vibe amid historic treasures. Over 100 annual festivals means there will be one to enjoy anytime Montreal is visited.

The bed

The Euro-style William Gray Hotel in Montreal’s Old City’s heart is an architect’s dream. Here classic Euro-design meets intelligent tech chic.

Small stylish rooms have hardwood floors while concrete ceilings are softened by textured wallpaper. Marble bathrooms have excellent walk-in, multiple-head showers. High-count sheets provide sound slumber while Nespresso makers ensure pleasurable rising.

The state-of-the-art gym likewise weds European windows, old stonewalls and fireplaces with state-of-the-art equipment. Its unique public spaces include The Library, resembling Google’s social space. The eighth floor’s hip Terrace Bar boasts views of La Grande Roue, the Old Port’s Observation Wheel.

A stone’s throw away the artisan shops of rue St. Paul and Marché BonSecours beckon. Nearby is Notre Dame Basilica at Place d’Arme, making William Gray a sublime location to discover or revisit Montreal.

The meals

For food with a view, head to Les Enfants Terribles at Place Ville Marie, Montreal’s highest restaurant on the 44th floor, where panoramas complement salmon tartare and a falafel, quinoa and a harissa vegan bowl. If you want to stroll without being weather dependent, the site connects to the Underground City where over 1,600 shops and services span 20 miles.

Close to Jean Talon Market is Montreal Plaza Restaurant. Here extraordinary, innovative food is served in a trendy atmosphere with quirky attributes: a 3-foot stuffed Elmo warmed my seat as my dining partner awaited my arrival and lit “bombs” are delivered to those celebrating occasions by comical hat-donning waiters. Don’t be fooled by the oddly cryptic menu with few explanations. Try the “Happy birthday foie gras” served in a teacup with strawberries, crispy bread and truffle foam, and “Mushrooms and cheese,” where morels marry goat cheese and asparagus in a deliciously designed ceremony.

Canadians and others in the know will drive for hours for a good poutine, a typical Quebec stew of French fries, cheese curd and a perfect sauce, dubbed gravy. In the case of Maison St. Paul and its new chef Michael Vinitsky, the poutine arrived at my terrace table fronting Marché BonSecours with lobster, foie gras, filet mignon and Kenogami cheese curds in a delicate, yet richly flavorful sauce. The chocolate fondant with berries was so smooth and aromatic a real risk exists that one of my progeny will be renamed Vinitsky.

Another lovely dining terrace with great people watching is Maggie Oaks at Place Jacques-Cartier. Serious carnivores will swoon as its beef is dry aged 35 to 45 days and pescaterians will love the tasty scallop ceviche and Atlantic salmon.

The finds

The Basilique Notre-Dame’s Aura light and sound show is best described as a semi-spiritual Cirque du Soleil sans acrobats.

The first few scores are religious, with scenes and music changing to fall foliage. A mirage-like pond appeared with orange koi swimming across the nave. Disney’s “Lion King” then came to mind followed by modern electronic music. The architectural wonder that is Notre Dame emerges with a final circle back to religious music.

Aura is a musical extravaganza that is equally enjoyable to believers, agnostics or atheists.

Fronting Notre Dame is Place d’Armes. On the northwest and southwest corners stand bronze statues known as “The two snobs” created by Marc Andre Fortier. On the northwest stands a French woman staring toward Bank of Montreal with her poodle in tow. Opposite a British man holding his pug stares at Notre Dame. Both don masks signifying that while British and French lived side by side for years, their cultural distance prevailed. While the pair looks away, their dogs yearn for each other.

On rue St. Jacques, the architecturally significant former Royal Bank of Canada’s head office is now a tech space. Old teller windows became Crew Café, where fabulous coffee and pastries are the currency du jour.

Built in the 18th century for Gov. Claude de Ramezay, Chateau Ramezay Museum is Quebec’s first classified historic monument where one can brush up on Montreal history including the failed U.S. attempt to capture the city. Wood panels in the Nantes Room are spectacularly hard-carved and interesting period exhibits are on both floors.

The Museé des Beaux-Arts with its multidisciplinary approach has a remarkable collection of international, Quebec, Canadian and First Nations art in five pavilions.

The Thierry Mugler exhibition (through Sept. 8) is a mind-boggling retrospective of a designer that broke nearly every fashion world barrier, from dressing David Bowie in his 1979 “Saturday Night Live” appearance to directing and producing George Michael’s “Too Funky” video. With muses including models Iman and Jerry Hall, Mugler spearheaded the unconventional, such as Glamazon and later Fembot couture worn by Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.

Most impressive in a sea of impressive was the “Metamorphosis: Fantasy Bestiary,” reflecting Mugler’s view that human seduction is formed by the animal world.

Occurring every June over 11 days, Montreal’s Mural Festival of Art just completed its eighth year. Along Bd. Sainte-Laurent, renowned street artists the world over descend to showcase their formidable skills. My favorite this year was Dutchman Leon Keer’s “Fake News.”

No trip to Montreal is complete without a spin on its 180-foot Observation Wheel. Circling the Old Port, riders get a perfect bird’s-eye view to everything that makes Montreal marvelous.

The lesson learned

Visiting Montreal will have you thinking you traveled to Europe without traversing the pond. Cosmopolitan, sophisticated, inclusive and spotless, Montrealers take great pride in their city. While maneuvering Montreal, note that ordinary map directions don’t necessarily apply. Called “Montrealism” by locals, the map is skewed and north is not always directionally north. When Montreal first developed, the St. Lawrence River was in the south. That remained in discourse even though the river curved. So in this regard, perhaps only in Montreal does the sun set in the north. Mais oui.

Montreal: The best way

From SFO, Air Canada and United offer nonstop service. Alaska, Delta, American, WestJet and JetBlue offer connecting service.

For walking tours with local experts, see

Julie L. Kessler is a travel writer, legal columnist and attorney and the author of the award-winning book “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at

Some vendors listed hosted the writer, however content was not reviewed by them prior to publication and is solely the opinion of the writer.


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The commencement of the Aura light and sound show at Baslique Notre-Dame is striking. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Hundreds of thousands of multi-colored balls canopy Aires Libres, a multidisciplinary art festival in Montreal’s LGBTQ-friendly Village. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Street artist Leon Keer’s “Fake News” 3D rendition was part of this year’s Street Art Festival. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Thierry Mugler’s evocative fashions, including some fairly tame creations, are on view in the Museé des Beaux-Arts retrospective. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Marché BonSecours offers artisan shops inside and along rue St. Paul. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Chef Michael Vinitsky serves a rich lobster, fois gras and filet mignon poutine at Maison St. Paul. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Montreal Plaza’s innovative fare includes an amuse bouche of raw tuna in cold strawberry soup. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

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