Winter Breaks: Montréal

Just over a week into September, anyone who works in education like myself is already thinking “when’s my next break”? and is in desperate need for something to look forward to. So, to help your planning, here is the first in a series of short winter break ideas.

Canada? I hear you cry. For a short break? You’re having a laugh. Well, I blogged before about a weekend in Toronto, and though it’s a bit of a stretch the explosion in budget of airlines in the last couple of years means you can get a return to many Canadian cities on Westjet or AirTransat for under £400. A weekend is pushing it, but 4 days is eminently doable, and Montreal is an amazing city for a winter break, with lots of seasonal festivals and activities that are just a little different from the Christmas markets you might already have experienced if you’re in Europe.

I’ll admit that the cold of Montréal came as a bit of a shock to me the first time I visited. Go for the winter semester, they said. It’ll be great, they said. With snowdrifts higher than me and temperatures so far below freezing you could feel the ice forming around your nasal hairs, it took a bit of getting used to, and my London coat and non-grip shoes did not cut it. But I was living with a family out in Angrignon, a suburb with a bus/metro combo into the centre – stay in the old town and you will find yourself in a cosseted fairytale of Canadian loveliness.

more snow!
Snow. Lots and lots of snow.

Perhaps because it is so bone-chillingly cold, it’s possible to walk a considerable distance in Montréal entirely underground, where seasons and temperature are irrelevant – the Underground City was a revelation, with plenty to do and see and the ability to pop up right next to the various tourist attractions without having to brave the snow and ice at street level.

A few tips:

  1. Just under a 3-hour drive away, Québec City looks like a little piece of Brittany dropped into an ice age, the beautiful building draped in filmset winter weather, and is well worth a visit, with boutique shops and fabulous restaurants.

    Quebec church
    Québec City – like Brittany in the snow
  2. Niagara Falls is too far from Montréal (over 6 hours) but Montmorency Falls are very close to Québec City and considerably less touristy. The cable car is a must.
  3. Montreal is a Foodie’s dream. With US-size portions, cosmopolitan population and a considerable French influence and accompanying culinary pride, this city produced genuine “fusion” food to a level I haven’t seen beyond Singapore (arguably the birth of “fusion food” as we know it.) It was in Montréal that I discovered brunch long before it became trendy here – amazing pancakes piled high and drizzled liberally with maple syrup and creme fraiche and blueberries.
  4. That said, a lot of Quebecois delicacies are an acquired taste. The smoked meat had too great an emphasis on the “smoked” element from me, but the at first unpromising-sounding Poutine (chips, gravy and cheese curds) is amazing. (One tip – if you mispronounce its name you will find you accidentally be saying the most offensive word in the French language, which I once did when trying to show off my lingual prowess to one of my Canadian students. It’s called hubris, that.)
  5. Speaking of which, I’ve heard it said that Québec is more French than France. This almost felt true in the smaller towns, but Montreal itself is an entirely bilingual city, with signs, metro announcements etc. all in both English and French, so you don’t need to worry about getting by if you don’t speak French.
  6. There are endless things to do and see – if you like museums, there are many, with the Museum of Fine Arts being the grandest, and entirely free apart from special expeditions! If culture is your thing then there is a seemingly endless selection of free events going on all the time, from jazz to comedy.

    Notre Dame Montreal
    Notre-Dame Basilica
  7. Winter sports: you have to do at least one wintery activity while you’re there, and make the most of the natural cloth of snow and ice. Skating is one of the cheapest and easiest options, with many parks becoming semi-natural skating spots during the coldest months.
  8. Habitat 67 Something different and unique to look at, I’ve always been a fan of quirky architecture. Some people loathe this unusual apartment block, but I love it.Montreal housing