Beaches, bands, boutique brewers and one big beautiful basilica …. Montreal has something for everyone, all year round, writes Katrina Lobley.
Montreal's annual summer jazz festival draws millions of visitors but it's not the only reason to visit this bilingual city. Here are 10 top ways to enjoy Montreal, no matter what time of year you're visiting.
1. Paris started creating pop-up beaches along the Seine a decade ago. Montreal, the biggest French-speaking city outside Paris, this summer unveiled its own urban beach. Ooh la la. Clock Tower Beach materialised on the banks of the Saint Lawrence in the Old Port. Beach-goers intent on topping up their tan can also soak up views of the Jacques Cartier Bridge, Saint Helen's Island, and Old Montreal while enjoying the parasols, refreshing mists, boardwalk and bar. Until September 23, C$6 entry. oldportofmontreal.com
2. The next Festival International de Jazz de Montreal is next year, from June 28 to July 7, but jazz aficionados can soak up the ambience of festivals past by dropping in at the Maison du Festival de Jazz. On the third floor, above the collection of musicians' memorabilia, is a free archive storing 3000-plus albums and 1000 videos of concerts from past festivals. Watch performances by the likes of Tony Bennett and Ricky Lee Jones. montrealjazzfest.com
3. Track down old, new or rare grooves in an eclectic music store. Montrealer and former jazz festival staffer Hugo Leclerc favours five spots: Cheap Thrills (cheapthrills.ca, downtown near McGill University) specialises in jazz, avant garde, experimental and blues; in the bohemian Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood, Le Marche du Disque (793 Rue Mont-Royal Est) contains vinyl treasures from multiple genres, while Aux 33 Tours (aux33tours.com) has eight rows of new LPs alone; and in Ville-Marie, Primitive (3828 Rue Saint-Denis) is hipster heaven, focusing on '60s tunes, punk, garage and modern jazz, while Atom Heart (atomheart.ca) is good for the experimental, electronic and downright strange.
4. While we're picking Leclerc's brain, his favourite year-round venue is Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill (upstairsjazz.com, downtown) for its “nice feel with very decent food”, followed by Modavie (modavie.com, Old Montreal) – “a bit pricier but fancier food”, Diese Onze (dieseonze.com, Plateau Mont-Royal) and House of Jazz (houseofjazz.com, near McGill University). Le Balcon (lebalcon.ca), an 80-seat supper club in Old Montreal, dishes up fun evenings flavoured with soul, Motown and R&B.
5. Mount Royal – or Mont Royal – isn't so much a mountain but a hill just 233 metres high. Nevertheless, it's the landmark that inspired Montreal's name. Hike or take the bus to the summit park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (who also did New York City's Central Park). Soak up the cityscape below from Kondiaronk Lookout. During snowy winters it's still a playground where you can rent ice-skates, skis and snowshoes, or whoosh down a slope on a toboggan.
6. Source a magnifique picnic or lunch like a local at the Atwater farmers' market, housed in an imposing art deco building near Lachine Canal. Marvel at the picture-perfect pates and snags, snap up chocolates infused with Monte Cristo cigar leaves or white truffle oil, or ponder gastronomic Quebec quirks such as pate Chinois (Chinese pate – or what we call shepherd's pie).
7. No one should leave Montreal without trying the famed smoked meat or poutine (fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds). At the art deco diner Reuben's, both are combined in the one dish: chop chop poutine. Yet when it comes to comfort food, nothing beats a feast in a sugar shack. The “shacks” serve up hearty meals in March and April, originally designed to sustain workers collecting sap from maple trees in freezing temperatures. La Cabane (lacabane.ca) in Montreal's Old Port gives the tradition a haute urban twist.
8. In 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged their second “bed-in” for world peace at Montreal's Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth (fairmont.com/queenelizabeth) and recorded Give Peace a Chance in suite 1742. Photographs, gold records and press clippings decorate the suite today (a one-night stay, including breakfast in bed, starts from C$799). The event is also commemorated with a public artwork in Parc du Mont-Royal, where the phrase “give peace a chance” is engraved in 40 languages on 180 limestone slabs.
9. The only Canadian brewery to crack the top 20 of the ratebeer.com 100 Best Brewers in the World 2012 list is Dieu du Ciel (dieuduciel.com) in the Mile End. Drops include the dessert beer Aphrodite (stout brewed with organic fair-trade cocoa and vanilla), Paradise White (Belgian-style wheat beer with coriander seeds and Curacao orange peel) and Snow White (cinnamon and clove wheat beer). Another notable microbrewery is Griffintown's Brasseur de Montreal (brasseurdemontreal.ca), which brews an absinthe-based stout and ginger-scented pale beer.
10. Notre-Dame Basilica's cavernous midnight-blue and gold interior is breathtakingly beautiful – no wonder Celine Dion staged her 1994 nuptials in this 19th-century Gothic Revival-style church in the heart of Old Montreal. Gape at the interiors, modelled on Paris's Sainte-Chapelle, during the day or catch the somewhat cheesy multimedia show at night. The show, tracing the beginnings of Montreal and the church itself, includes a dramatic and highly memorable “reveal” (C$10 adult).