It’s a strange feeling to hop in your car for a short ride and suddenly be in another country. It’s a little like slipping through some Fairyland portal to an alternate dimension where everyone speaks French, the money is multicolored, and teenagers can go to bars. Only Fairyland is just Canada — and it’s a little chilly.
As my friends and I stumble stiff-legged out of our VW bug after an hour and a half car ride, a bright, crisp Montreal afternoon greets us. There’s still slush in the streets, but the sunshine makes up for that, and everyone is in high spirits as we make our way through the neighborhood to retrieve the key for our Airbnb apartment.
The key retrieval requires us to follow a series of Kafkaesque instructions involving hidden mailboxes, multiple sets of keys, and cryptic directions. But somehow, my rusty French skills manage to get us where we’re going.
None of us have ever used Airbnb, so we had some reservations about our health, safety, and sanity. Aside from a mysterious chicken bone on the bathroom floor and a closet that looks designed for hiding corpses, the apartment is nice. And we especially like the heated floors.
Travelling on a college student’s budget can be tricky, but resources like Airbnb can make it much easier. You get a more authentic feel for a place because you’re in a residential area instead of the main tourist traps. And most importantly, you don’t have to shell out tons of cash for a sterile hotel room–our studio apartment only cost $35.00 for two nights.
After appreciating the amenities at our temporary home, we brave the Canadian wind again to go exchange money. It took us a while to figure out where to do this, but bus stations are usually your best bet. Although some places in Canada do take American money, and you can use your debit card, it’s worth exchanging some cash — if only because Canadian money is about a million times cooler than ours. Plus, the exchange rate is great right now at $1.28 Canadian dollars to one U.S. dollar.
There’s lots to explore in Montreal, but we decide to make the Latin Quarter our home base. Close to McGill University, the neighborhood is popular among college students and is packed with restaurants, cafes, shops, and clubs.
We grab dinner at a local pub, Le Saint-Bock, which I highly recommend. It’s casual enough for us to feel comfortable in jeans, and it sports a diverse crowd of patrons. Wedged at a little table, we’re surrounded by a mix of businessmen, families, married couples, and 20-somethings starting a night on the town. Saint-Bock boasts an impressive 31-page beer list, but we were mainly there for the poutine. If there’s a happy way to have a heart attack, it’s that Quebecois concoction of fries, gravy, and gooey melted cheese curds.
When you tell people you’re going to Montreal for the weekend, you get knowing looks, usually accompanied by the question — “You’re not 21, right?” and a sly chuckle. And there’s no denying the city is known for its nightlife, so after dinner we slip into our going-out clothes and force our bemused friend, Mike, to take an excessive number of pictures of us.
There are plenty of well-known, bustling clubs in Montreal, but we opt to take the road less travelled and explore some smaller joints. One of my favorites is En Cachette Speakeasy, an underground bar set back off of Rue St. Denis. Inside, hardwood floors and slick, brocade wallpaper shimmer in the candlelight. Small armchairs, tables, and settees dot the room while people mingle and chat over the thud of catchy French pop hits.
Also not to be missed is La Distillerie. We huddle outside with our fellow explorers, waiting to get in, eagerly eyeing the warm interior. La Distillerie serves Goldfish, popcorn, and an extensive selection of cocktails organized by taste and strength. I found myself wondering what more you could need, since Goldfish basically constitute my ideal meal.
If you’re looking for live music instead of the pulse of recorded bass, do yourself a favor and swing by Bistro a JoJo. Also on Rue Saint Denis, the Blues Bar features an array of cool musicians and performers that have the entire room dancing and stomping their feet in time.
The next day, we take on the city with renewed energy. We spend the afternoon at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts, which is currently featuring a stunning exhibition on Pompeii with artifacts on loan from many collectors. Regardless of the exhibition, though, the museum is worth a visit. A glass ceiling refracts light throughout the lobby, and slate stairs wind between galleries. Plants line an upstairs walkway, spilling from their pots and framing a panoramic view of the city’s skyline.
I spend most of my time trailing through the upstairs art galleries, working my way from the medieval era’s anatomically questionable baby Jesuses, to Baroque portraits with gilt frames, to haunting 19th century paintings of shipwrecks.
After I am dragged away from multiple tempting gift shops, we treat ourselves to Italian food at a restaurant we have yet to be able to find on any maps. The walls are bedecked with various nationalistic regalia, and all the lightbulbs have been replaced with red and green colored lights. A very large, very fake tree looms over our table. Whether this place really exists or was just a figment of our over-tired, hungry minds, I can promise you the tortellini is to die for.
The next morning is our last in Montreal, so we start where any self-respecting person would: a cat cafe. Le Cafe des Chats is home to several adorable felines and an incredible number of vegan pastries. I really don’t think I need to provide you with more incentive to go there. I spend entirely too long eating my delicious herb-grilled cheese because I keep getting distracted by the cats jumping on the tables, basking in the morning sunshine, and chasing each other around the cafe.
Our final stop before we leave the city is Mont Royal Park, described as “the jewel of the city’s parks.” We hike up to an overlook that takes in the whole city. It’s a beautiful day that hints at spring, and it seems like the whole city is out with us. Little kids swing from their parents’ hands, couples shyly stop to kiss as they stroll up the hill, and people perch precariously on the overlook wall laughing, jostling each other, and posing for selfies. We take a short walk around the park before reluctantly piling back into the car. Someone mentions something about class tomorrow and we all groan. Even though we’re only a short drive away from campus, dorm life, and homework, last Friday seems like a decade ago.
“I bet Mont Royal is beautiful in the fall,” someone says as we wind our way down the hill.
“Yeah, dude, we should come back in the fall!”
“We could come up for a weekend this summer, probably.”
We are planning our next trip before we even cross back over the border, content for now to upload our pictures and start our reading for class, but already eagerly looking forward to our next adventure.