Despite its fragile economy and faded exterior, Montreal retains an allure that's hard to find in other parts of North America. The French-Canadian culture and language give the city a European feel, yet English speakers can still move around with ease. Its location 37 miles from the U.S. border and a Canadian dollar that's worth about 65 cents U.S. make it especially attractive to Americans looking for a quick getaway. No wonder more than 10 million people visit each year, including about 1.5 million Americans.
But few foreigners think of visiting in winter. January temperatures average in the teens, and snow can easily exceed the height of most boots. While it's possible to traverse the city center through a subterranean network of shops, hanging out underground is no way to experience wintry Montreal.
Pack a warm parka, and you'll find plenty of reasons to venture outside. Heading the list is the Montreal High Lights Festival, or Montreal en Lumière, which runs from Feb. 13 to Mar. 1. The city is alive with fireworks, outdoor performances, and a sprawling roster of other cultural events. Numerous streets, monuments, and famous landmarks, such as Notre Dame Basilica, are also illuminated. Several top-name acts normally come to town, while dozens of theaters, orchestras, dance troupes, and others host special events. A culinary festival will feature workshops, wine and food tastings, and dining specials with guest chefs from around the world.
Montreal boasts most of the marquee luxury hotel brands, including Ritz-Carlton, Westin, Inter-Continental, Fairmont, and Loews hotels. Good hotel rooms can be had for the equivalent of $150 U.S. per night. More important, the city is a dining delight. A personal favorite: Gibbys, a fabulous steakhouse located in the 200-year-old Youville Stables in Old Montreal. You can order wine, appetizers, and dessert along with your entrée and still pay less than $100 a couple for a romantic meal. Before or after you eat, take some time to wander around the streets of Old Montreal and the Old Port. In winter, horse-drawn sleighs depart from Jacques-Cartier Pier, and skaters head for the massive Bonsecours Basin Skating Rink.
A winter weekend in Montreal offers other pleasures. Head downtown to the Casino de Montréal for gambling and the musical variety shows of its Cabaret. Take in a Montreal Canadiens hockey game at the Molson Centre on St. Antoine Street West. Walk around Mount Royal, which offers fabulous views of the city. Explore the architecture and vibrant student life at Canada's top-ranked McGill University or go shopping in the malls and stores along funky St. Catherine Street. (If you spend at least $150 on hotels and items during your stay, you'll be able to claim back much of the 7% federal goods-and-services tax at duty-free shops near border crossings.) When you get hungry, munch on local specialties such as tortière, or meat pie, baked beans, pea soup, or poutine, an addictive concoction of french fries, gravy, and cheese curds sold throughout the city.
And you must try Montreal bagels. They're smaller and chewier than their New York counterparts and, locals insist, far tastier. The most famous spots are Fairmount Bagel Bakery at 74 Fairmount Ave. West and St. Viateur Bagels, which is at 263 St. Viateur West, and various other spots around the city. The stores are all open 24 hours, and Montrealers fiercely debate whose product is better.
The Montreal winter can be a challenge, but it's worth the trouble. Indeed, you might find that the white wonderland is a welcome relief from the slush and damp chill that typifies winter in other cities. While the cafés may move indoors and locals may bundle up, Montreal remains a lively destination even during the coldest months.
By Diane Brady