Montreal for a December long Girls’ Weekend of art, music, shopping and champagne is a perfect way to get in the holiday spirit!
Reasons to Choose Montreal
Location: Just a short flight from New York or Boston, going for a long weekend is easy when you are from the East Coast!
European Flare: Walking along the cobblestone streets, gazing into boutiques and art galleries as the sounds of French language waft by, you feel as if you have traveled to Europe. In fact, Montreal is the second largest French speaking city in the world. But, no worries, usually greeted by a “BonjourHi”, most people there are bilingual and can easily switch back and forth between French and English.
Landscape: Montreal is on an island at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers. It is built around Mont Royal (from which its name is derived), which is a small volcanic mountain. No building in the city can be built higher than the cross on Mont Royal, so the city has a similar feel to Boston: some higher buildings, but many streets with low profile architecture.
The Underground City: Unique to the city is its vast tunnel system–almost 20 miles of them. They connect metro stations, universities, museums, restaurants and shopping malls. Although it snows, on average, 60 days a year there (we managed to get three in a row: #winning), most Montrealers use the tunnels during the hot summer months rather than the cold ones. But it is a nice option any time of year if the weather is bad.
Exchange Rate: The bonus factor for heading to Canada is the exchange rate. The U.S. Dollar has been stronger than the Canadian Dollar for quite some time. Currently it is almost a 30% difference.
Where to stay
We stayed in the heart of Vieux (Old) Montreal. With most of the places we wanted to see nearby, great hotel options, a slew of trendy and well-known restaurants within walking distance and upscale shopping –it’s the place to be!
Hotel Le St. James
Hotel Le St. James is a Leading Hotel of the World and is centrally located in the Old City. The historic building is a former Merchant Bank and was built in 1870. It has been renovated is now a magnificent boutique hotel with high ceilings and marvelous architectural details.
As you enter the hotel and head to the Reception Desk, you pass a gorgeous Library, complete with a crystal chandelier that also serves as a Reading Room.
The guest rooms are luxuriously furnished with no two rooms alike. We had an outside room with a view of the street. It had a white marble bathroom with a large walk-in shower. The beds were extremely comfortable and posh with goose down comforters and cotton pique sheets.
There is a top-notch Spa located in the former Bank vault. One of its stone walls was part of the fortification of the City of Montreal and has been preserved. The candlelit ambiance is warm and enticing.
With a fabulous in-house restaurant, XO Le Restaurant, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner and direct access to a mall and the Underground City, Hotel Le St. James is definitely a fantastic place to stay.
What is there to do in Montreal in December? LOTS!
Vieux Montreal is a magical place to be in December. The Old City is lit for the holidays and walking around in the twinkling lights immediately puts you in a festive mood. We began our tour-a-pied (walking tour) from the hotel a short distance to the famous cathedral, the Notre Dame Basilica.
The Notre Dame Basilica, built in a Gothic Revival style, is probably the most ornate church in which I have ever been. It is a palate of vibrant blues, golds, reds and silvers. Intricately carved wooden pews and staircases fill the interior. The pipe organ has four keyboards and 7,000 individual pipes. The Main Altar is self-described as “Once Seen, Never Forgotten” and it’s true!
Not to miss is “AURA,” a 45 minute light and music show that takes place within the Basilica. It highlights the beauty and opulence of the building and is a bit much, but you won’t be sorry you saw it. With evening shows virtually every day, it’s best to buy tickets in advance, but you can always check online once you get there.
Place d’Armes, located in front of Notre Dame is the departure point for the beautiful “Caleches”—the horse drawn carriages that tour Old Montreal in the warmer months. The square is strewn with twinkling lights and, if it’s not bitter cold, it is a wonderful place to gaze at Notre Dame’s impressive exterior.
Place Jacques-Cartier, in an open area cobblestone square, just down the road from Notre Dame Basilica, includes my favorite building in Montreal. The Old City Hall (Hotel de Ville,) modeled after the city hall in Tours, France sits on top of the hill, overlooking the river and port area. In December, the square is decorated with lights and music, making it a magical place.
The Old Port is a few minutes’ walk further down the river. Repurposed as an entertainment center for the city, there is a delightful Clock Tower, an IMAX theater, and the Montreal Science Center. In the winter months, locals and tourists can enjoy the open-air skating rink. Most impressive, though, is the view of the Montreal skyline from here!
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is impressive and should be on your Must-See List! The Museum’s collections are divided into six time periods and geographic regions and distributed among five pavilions of the Museum complex. The permanent collection includes Archeology and World Cultures, Early to Modern International Art, International Contemporary Art, Decorative Arts and Design, Graphic Arts and Photography, and my favorite, Quebec and Canadian Art, including Inuit sculptures. With buildings on both sides of Rue Sherbrooke, walking through the Museum is almost as interesting as the Exhibits. To get from one side of the road to the other, you descend an open staircase. There are galleries on the lower level and you can then amble through a lofty tunnel replete with artwork to get to the other half of the Collection.
The Museum also has impressive Special Exhibits. An Alexander Calder retrospective including museum handlers setting the mobiles in motion daily, an African art exhibit inspired by Picasso, a Chagall Colour and Music exhibit which depicts the musicality imbued in Chagall’s paintings, costumes, sculpture, stained glass and tapestries are just some of the Special Exhibits which explain why this Museum is fantastic!
The Beaux Arts Café which overlooks the museum’s Atrium entrance area, is not only convenient, but elegant, delicious and reasonable. A great place for a Ladies Who Lunch salad and glass or two of wine!
Place des Arts is the largest artistic complex in Canada with 6 separate Halls for cultural events. There are so many choices, that it will be hard to decide what you should see. But definitely go experience something here! Place des Arts is the home of the world-famous Montreal Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Kent Nagaro), the Opera de Montreal and Les Grand Ballets. It also has Theater, Family Events, French Songs, Comedy shows, Jazz/Pop/Rock concerts and Musicals. If that isn’t enough, the Museum of Modern Art (Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal) is also located in the complex.
We were lucky enough to get tickets to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kent Nagaro. The program that night was a special Christmas concert that included a children’s choir, the Bach Magnificat and Traditional German Christmas Carols. The Concert Hall is modern and acoustically exquisite.
Where do I start? Montreal has the second highest number of restaurants per capita after NYC. So, finding a great place to eat is piece of gateau (cake.) The problem is—how do you choose?
Montreal is famous for their bagels (sorry, I grew up in NY and they’re still the best) and poutine! What is poutine, you ask? Imagine the best French fries you’ve ever had smothered in cheese curds and gravy and some sort of accoutrement (usually bacon) and served as a meal! It’s true! Then, add to that visual, the snow, the cold and the warm feeling you have inside after eating it. Bon appétit!
Vladimir Poutine Restaurant: There are many places that serve poutine and there are some places that serve poutine exclusively. My favorite of these is Vladimir Poutine Restaurant. First of all, the name! Second is the theme menu—there are poutine dishes for all types of historical political figures—mostly notorious. There are dishes for Putin, Napoleon, Mussolini and maybe one or two U.S. Presidents. Definitely Instagram worthy and also delicious. You’ll be glad you tried it.
XO Le Restaurant is located in what was the original Banker’s Hall of the Hotel Le St. James. The main dining area is a two-story atrium with a second floor balcony that circles the room. Its chic and posh décor makes it a popular spot for business lunches and the younger set for evenings of jazz. Besides the enticing décor, the food is fantastic. We went for lunch and had a three-course prix fixe menu that included a seasonal butternut squash soup, roasted chicken with artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes and crème brûlée. We also went back for cocktails one evening and it did not disappoint. A true find!
Barroco is a well-known and highly regarded staple of the Old City and rightly so. Located on the famous Rue St. Paul, the stone walls and wood-beamed ceilings as well as the wild boar head on the wall give it an old world feel. The cocktails at Barroco have a signature ice “cube”—literally a giant cube that you will want to replicate at home. The traditional menu offers a heavier, more traditional meal, but on a cold wintery night, in this cozy, friendly space, you will feel like you stepped back in time!
La Champagnerie is THE place to sip champagne in Old Montreal. On Rue St. Paul, this is one of my new favorite places on the planet! Picture a snowy evening, a cozy interior in an old stone building and a sword. Yup! You can saber your own bottle of champagne here using a sword! The staff provides instructions and points out a 3-D wall mural to which you can add your bottle top–confirming that many people were able to successfully do this? We added a local cheese plate (Yum!) to go with our glasses on bubbly. On Fridays and Saturdays, you can stay until the wee hours and dance your heart out as the Champagnerie becomes a night club. This is a place that your girlfriends will love—and will love you for showing them. In fact, I may go back to Montreal just to enjoy this wonderful place!
There are many things that I like to research and feel that I can provide some good insight on—shopping is not among them. But, how can you have the perfect Girls’ Weekend without it? You can’t. So, I will tell you about our experiences—but I welcome any and all commentary on what I missed!
Marche Bonsecours: We jump started our shopping experience by heading to this two-storied domed public market on Rue St. Paul (and conveniently, right across the street from La Champagnerie.) For more than 100 years, Marche Bonsecours was the main market in the Montreal area. Headquarters of the Quebec Crafts Council, the boutiques here feature Quebec-made crafts, fashions, accessories, jewelry, furniture and more. We found lots of unique gifts here, including fur-lined gloves and a handmade men’s shirt.
Rue St. Paul: Once you have wandered through the March Bonsecours, exit the building and you are on Rue St. Paul. The historic cobblestone street is lined with art galleries, boutiques, fur stores, homeware and interior shops and places to find interesting souvenirs. We found more fun and unique gifts and spent lots of time warming our toes and enjoying the unique experiences of each place.
For those who enjoy shopping for a bit, but not all day, there are restaurants and bars just a few steps where you can have a glass of wine and read a book while others shop to their heart’s content.
Montreal—Je me souviens
The motto for Quebec is “Je me souviens.” It literally translates as “I remember”, but the Canadians mean it to convey the sentiment that “We do not forget and will not forget our lineage, traditions and memories of the past.” It is the blend of old and new, its focus on history, art, culture and good food that makes Montreal such an interesting and marvelous place to see.
Thank you for reading this article. If you have any questions or if I can provide further insight on any of the information in this article, please write in the Comments section below.