HIT: Local Boutiques & Shops | MISS: Eaton Center
If you’re from Canada – wait, let me clarify. If you’re from most parts of America where malls are decent, please do yourself a favour and make a pass on Montreal’s Eaton Center which was a near duplicate of Toronto’s Eaton Center — or most large malls for that matter. Unless you want to shop at stores you can go to anytime, I suggest bypassing it. We made the mistake of wasting an hour in there before we re-grouped and admitted to each other that this wasn’t how we wanted to spend our time in Montreal. Sure, shopping is fun, but not when you’re on vacation in a place where you want to experience the culture, sights and sounds.
Instead, I recommend the local boutique shops such as Kooka, Johnny Boy, Boutique 1861 and Al Mode Yangpan which all had great finds you can’t necessarily find anywhere else at very decent prices. Rue St-Denis and St-Laurent had tons of local shops, music stores, thrift shops and furniture stores such as Structube. I was shocked at how affordable the furniture was considering the quality. Win, win, win.
HIT: Chaï Tea Lounge | MISS: Pikolo Espresso Bar
We heard good things about Pikolo Espresso bar going into our trip, so we were excited to try it out. While Pikolo smelled great and while I have no doubt their snacks and espresso were probably good considering their Yelp rating, it was packed like a tin of sardines with ultra-trendy youngins and we got squeezed out rather quickly. Three times. That’s right; we tried to go on three different occasions at three different times during the day on weekdays. Riddle me that. From being in there a total of 55 seconds, the long and narrow cafe reminded me of the Queen-street cafes in Toronto, though Pikolo didn’t feel as welcoming. Their interiors were gorgeous with high-as-a-kite ceilings and roughed-up blonde wood counter tops, but it was all form and not so much function. Their metal bar stools and 1 square-foot tables meant you couldn’t read a book, but you could balance a Macbook on your knee — if you know what I mean. Although somewhat bitter from the experience or lack thereof, I must stress again, how good it smelled, so I’ll give them that.
Alternatively, Chaï Tea Lounge was a breath of fresh air. I had an entire leather sofa to myself – along with a raspberry white chocolate scone and a mango bubble tea, no judgy. The cafe had 2 rooms connected by open double-doors with leather armchairs and all the goodies you could ever want; myriad Haribo, fudge, scones, cupcakes, macaroons, Asian candies, milkshakes, coffees, loose leaf teas, bubble tea, paninis and smoothies. While the cafe was moderately full of people, the lounge was pleasingly quiet and peaceful – I nearly fell asleep both times we went. Soft jazzy music played while people sketched, work and nibbled.
Lunch & Dinner
HIT: Lola Rosa | MISS: Carlos & Pepe’s
I don’t know how it’s possible to make sub-par nachos, but they managed to somehow. With over 100 items on the menu, it seems Carlos & Pepe’s aims for quantity, not quality. The moment we sat down we were served some tortilla chips with “red sauce” as they called it. It was described by our server — and I quote –, “like a watery, kind-of salsa”. It tasted like sweet and sour sauce, and with no dumplings in sight, we ate the chips plain. And I get it; You can’t serve the cream of the crop to every table for free, so I let them have that one. But when we ordered beers — a Heineken and a cider to be exact — our server made it seem like we asked her to sacrifice her life. When she returned with them, she asked that “we never ask her to do that again”, albeit laughing. But the real kicker were the nachos. While the salsa was chunky and flavorful – thank goodness – and the beef was tender and juicy, the remaining toppings were “meh” and the chips were soggy. Overall, not a culinary highlight.
Lola Rosa’s, on the other hand, was amazing. Nestled between century-homes and McGill student residences on Rue Milton, Lola’s vegetarian restaurant didn’t disappoint. It reminded me of Toronto’s Fresh – only more Mexican. The reclaimed wood tables, mismatched Indian-inspired seat cushions (?) and chalkboard menu put us at ease. Their black bean Burrito was superbly flavorful, the cream of vegetable soup was comforting — though nothing out of the ordinary — and their quiche had an impressively flaky pastry crust. It was super busy in there, but we didn’t mind one bit. The service was fantastic, the food was feel-good and healthy, and the decor, while confused between Indian and Mexican, was delightfully charming.
Nature & Sightseeing
HIT: Parks | MISS: Mont-Royal
Okay, I know, I know. Mont-Royal is beautiful, sure, but if you’ve hiked anywhere in Canada, you’ve hiked Mont-Royal. The only thing that made it was worth it was the view of Montreal’s skyline and downtown Montreal — but seriously. The main trail and attractions at the summit were filled with tourists elbow to elbow and jogging locals, brushing past us from all sides. And did I mention there were zero trail markers? There was one large map that essentially showed giant x’s where your guess was as good as mine as to how to get to each attraction. I’m sure there were some gorgeous trails at the peak, but nothing was mapped nor was any tree marked, so it was impossible to figure out how long each trails was, where they led to or if it resulted in a dead-end. We’re both normally savvy with directions, I swear, but we actually had to go down the mountain the way we came up which isn’t very fun or new or exciting.
On the other hand, all of the parks, large and small, were beautiful and grossly underrated. Square Saint-Louis, nested between cobble-stone pedestrian streets with plenty of benches, had a humble fountain and gelato cafe in it. Park La Fontaine, Rutherford Park, Parc Jeanne-Mance, you name it. They were quaint, peaceful and full of birds and squirrels, perfect for people-watching, reading and relaxing. The parks, unlike Mont-Royal, were peppered with locals rather than tourists. We felt like flies on the wall of a city we didn’t know — yet one that felt familiar.
Honorable & Dishonorable Mentions
HIT: Musée d’art Contemporain de Montréal (AKA MAC) – Must see for art and culture lovers. There were also plenty of films and a trippy experiential installation called “Pulse Room”. On Wednesday evenings, admission is half price.
HIT: Fairmount bagels – Sweet, dense, chewy. Not big and fluffy like NY bagels, but satisfying. Loads of sesame seeds. Toasted > untoasted.
HIT & MISS: University B&B – The home was gorgeous and in a great location, but due to the high ceilings and old wood construction, noise and footsteps from other guests were loud as can be. The breakfast was mediocre — albeit free!
MISS: El Mundo Café – From the outside the cafe looked quaint, but on the inside it was worse for wear. The single-serve creamer & sugar packets left a lot to be desired.
MISS: Wearing your hair down. Traveling and walking — and more walking — calls for hair up! I went for a chignon, or rather, 2 chignons, as pictured in the feature image on this post.