Paris Without Jet Lag
In 1535, Jacques Cartier arrived in a village called Hochelaga, populated by about a thousand Iroquois, and claimed it for France, renaming it Mont Réal (Royal Mountain) in honor of his king. Actual change didn’t come, though, until 1642, when a group of missionaries led by Paul de Chomedey arrived and set up shop, intent on converting the Iroquois to Christianity. Within thirty years the mission had grown into a settlement of about 1,500, becoming in the process a major trading center and base for trappers and explorers. By 1759, when the British took the region from France, the population had grown to 5,000, inhabiting about 95 acres on the St. Lawrence River. Today, this area is known as Vieux Montréal or Old Montreal, and despite almost 250 years of British rule and the influence of anglais-speaking Canada and the United States all around, it remains a bastion of French diaspora culture – in its architecture, its cuisine, and its general attitude toward life.
By the 1960s, the area’s predominately 18th- and 19th-century buildings and cobblestone streets had fallen into disrepair, but a popular restoration program saved it from ruinous modernization. The move has certainly paid off: Today, it’s a hot spot of nightlife, café culture, and tourism, and preserves its atmosphere so well that it’s commonly used by American and Canadian film producers as a stand-in for Europe. Don’t miss the Rue St.-Paul, with its Victorian street lamps, or appealing public squares such as the Place d’Armes and the Place Jacques-Cartier. The latter is the epicenter of Montreal summer life, with its street performers, cafés, flower merchants, and a line of horse-drawn calèches waiting to put the vieux in your experience of Vieux Montréal. Nearby are some of the city’s most beautiful and historic sites, including the 1824 Basilica of Notre Dame, with its stunningly rich interior; the Sulpician Seminary, Montreal’s oldest building, dating to 1685; and the Art Deco Prévoyance Building, giving the city a dose of Big Apple with its resemblance to the Empire State Building. Along the riverfront, the Vieux Port has been transformed from a gritty warehouse district into a 1.2-mile promenade full of parks, exhibition spaces, skating rinks, and playgrounds. It’s also the jumping-off point for various boating activities on the river.
For perfect 18th-century Montreal accommodations, check in at the Auberge Les Passants du Sans Soucy, a former fur warehouse built in 1723, now converted into a delightful bed-and-breakfast whose nine rooms – with their stone walls, beamed ceilings, polished wood floors, and traditional Québécois furniture – are veritable time machines. For a quick bite, head north of the old quarter to L’Express, one of the most popular spots in town for French bistro cuisine. For something more elaborate, Toque! offers an ever-changing menu that uses only the freshest (and sometimes rarest) ingredients. It mixes modern French with a tiny dash of Asian influence, and arrives at what has almost unanimously been considered the best meal in town since chef/owner Normand LaPrise opened the place in 1993.