By Amy Suski
If you've been longing for a European family vacation without the jet-lag or sticker-shock, our Canadian neighbor Montreal is the perfect choice. With old world cobblestone streets, sidewalk cafes, chic shops, open air markets, and world-class performing arts venues and museums, Montreal has all the panache of a European city with some key differences. First, although French is the official language, most signs and menus are also in English and most residents are more than happy to switch back-and-forth with visitors. Second, Montreal is not a pretentious city. There is a casual, friendly vibe in Montreal that welcomes families to come as they are and simply enjoy. Finally, although it's a foreign country (don't forget your passports!) you can drive there -- which is a huge savings when traveling with kids.
We've been to Montreal multiple times with the kids and we still haven't run out of things we want to do and explore. Its a great place to introduce your kids to foreign travel with plenty of sites and activities to keep them busy. Because of the harsh winters, there is an enormous indoor infrastructure, including ice rinks, waterparks, and the the famous 19-mile long Underground City: a series of malls, hotels, offices, museums, universities, and trains connected by underground tunnels. In addition, you could spend an entire week at theBioDome -- with its indoor zoo, insectarium, aquarium, planetarium, and botanical garden. [For more Top Picks for the kids see the end of this article.] But the last few times we visited we've planned our trip in the summer to coincide with the F1 Grand Prix. Hotels are A LOT more expensive during the popular race weekend, but the spectacle of the races and street festivals is so much fun that its worth it, especially since its held during one of the most lively times of year.
In the summer, after long, harsh winters, the streets of Montreal are reborn with outdoor performances, art shows, fountains, and outdoor dining. The best place to soak it all in is along the banks of the St. Lawrence River in the Old Port (Vieux Port). Even without an agenda, you can spend much of day wandering the shops, galleries, and restaurants. (Tip: Kids will especially like the balloon artists and street performers, so keep some small cash handy for when the donation hat gets passed around.)
While the rest of the family attend pre-race events, my daughter and I are happy to browse the shops, eat pizza, and watch the street performers. One of our favorite shops in Old Port is Indianica. Its almost like a mini-museum -- full of native art, furs, clothing, dolls, jewelry, and carvings. We bought a pair of handmade moccasins, pocket knife, and a doll here. There is also a wonderful cafe across the street where you can sample the gelato and buy a box of macarons to take home too.
The secret to enjoying all that Montreal has to offer is to reserve time for wandering. One afternoon, heading back towards the hotel, we crossed the plaza in front of the Notre-Dame Basilica where we found a bubble maestro waving his wands to create enormous bubbles. An unscheduled afternoon meant that we could spend as long as we wanted lingering over freshly baked chocolate croissants and chasing bubbles. All in all, spending the day strolling Montreal with my daughter was one of my best mommy-days ever.
On another day we spent a full afternoon at Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts--one of the most kid-friendly museums I've ever been in. There are wide-open spaces to explore, friendly staff, eclectic collections, a museum shop full of creative gifts, and free drop-in art workshops that entertained my daughter for hours. There was even an installation created entirely of stuffed animals!
At night, we joined back up with the rest of the family and splurged for dinner at Gibby's, a prime choice for visiting meat-lovers. Tables are tucked into an historic old building with old iron gates, original beams, and cozy fireplaces. It's a bit pricey for families, but by dividing one rack of lamb between three kids, we were able to enjoy a special candlelit dinner without breaking the bank entirely.
On the walk back to the hotel, we stopped to admire Notre-Dame. A ticketed light show offers a beautifully illuminated look at the interior, but the accompanying 35-minute audio history of the city is best suited for adults and children ages 7 and older.
As you would imagine, the international cuisine in Montreal is sophisticated and wonderful, but as a parent you will appreciate that frites (a.k.a. french fries) are also everywhere. However, in Montreal ketchup must yield to the favored local toppings: gravy and melted cheese curds. This calorie-rich comfort food known as poutine can be found in just about any restaurant and is a legitimate meal in itself. Our favorite place to indulge is Frite Alors!, a chain specializing in creative forms of poutine such as "Vladmir Putin" (the kids' favorite) and sandwiches such as "The Rudolph Burger" (a moose burger with onion jam--which we all passed on). The walls in this particular location were painted with famous story scenes. We don't understand much french, but the kids spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was happening in each scene (we guessed the girl below is trying to swipe some candy but we could be wrong).
Another Montreal institution worth visiting is Schwartz's Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen. Travelers from all over the world (or just around the corner) line-up down the sidewalk for their famous smoked meat. Schwartz's is small and the wait may be long, but everyone will tell you its worth it. Eat there and you may not need to eat again for days (or if you are one of my kids -- 20 minutes later). The experience may be bewildering at first, but the crowds are moved in and out with supreme efficiency. Our waiter managed to wedge our party of 7 into an impossibly small corridor, interpret our confused order, and navigate a sea of jostling people with a tray towering with food -- all with good humor and a smile. (If only I had those superpowers during our family dinners at home!) The main thing is that the menfolk left the place full -- very full -- and all cravings for piles of smoked meat were satisfied.
While traveling through the city you may notice a lot of street art (especially in the neighborhood of Schwartz's) and may even run across a protest or two (McGill students banging on pots, animal-rights activists protesting horse-drawn carriages). Both were fascinating to the kids and led to some interesting conversations about art, activism, and exhibitionism (yes, the naked kind). Our suburban brood reveled in the newness of it all -- and especially loved our evening strolls. Often after a full dinner we walked the streets, picking-up gelato for the kids and stopping for drinks in a sidewalk cafe. Just as in Paris, people watching is a main attraction and there are all kinds of people in this famously-international city.
The fascination of the city aside, the main event during our visit was the F1 Grand Prix, which is held on an island in the river once used for the Olympic Games. Practices and qualifying runs start days before the actual race, so the entire weekend is full of events including open air car shows and parties. If you want race passes you'll need to buy them early -- preferably as soon as the race dates are confirmed. You'll also need to book hotels well in advance -- these fill up early. We typically make arrangements in January, but even then accommodation choices can be limited. This year we stayed at the Intercontinental and were very happy with the rooms, restaurants, and the location (walking distance to Old Port). The hotel also gave goodie bags full of race souvenirs to the kids and had an elaborate digital Carrera race track in the lobby for kids to play with.
Pre-race events are part of the fun and this year we were treated to some special events. One evening my husband's jet-setting brother had 2 passes to the Ferrari party and my husband generously volunteered to go with him, but the closest the kids and I got to the champagne-filled affair was across the street where we ogled the cars and well-heeled guests. On another day, the kids were lucky enough to be able to visit the Ferrari tent in the pit lanes at the races. While rubbing elbows with international 1%-ers, they got to see the cars up close and enjoy gourmet hors d'oeuvres. (Of course my true-blue American daughter wondered aloud if they had any chicken nuggets instead.)
On race day we had a terrific view of the starting line. I was never a race fan before, but the fabulously fun experiences we've had in Montreal have really converted me. (Note: this is not American-style NASCAR racing. The engineering involved is closer to what goes on at NASA than in your local garage.) The predominantly European crowd is is more likely to be wearing designer loafers than sneakers and the experience of sitting in an F1 crowd is a lot like being at a well-mannered tennis match. But what is really interesting is all the drama between the race teams and the drivers. If you're not convinced, watch the movie Rush!
Although her older brothers had seen the races before, this is the first year we brought by 8-year old daughter to race day. She seemed to like it a lot, right up until there was a serious crash right in front of us. As the crowd leapt to their feet, she burst into tears. I tried reassuring her: "Honey, its ok…the drivers are fine…see look…they are climbing out of the cars now…" but my assurances just made her cry louder. I was beginning to wonder if bringing her had been a mistake when she wailed: "I'm not crying about THAT [potentially injured drivers]. I'm crying because I didn't SEE it!" So, apparently I overestimated her sensibilities -- and a true race fan has been born! But whether you're a race fan or not, Montreal is a great place for a family vacation and with any luck we'll be back again someday soon.
More Top Picks for Montreal:
For more information and help planning your trip visit Trip Advisor's Guide to Montreal.
The opinions expressed are entirely my own and do not reflect those of the businesses and organizations mentioned. We did not receive any special discounts or benefits on this trip. All rights are reserved by KidTrips © 2014.
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