Steppin' Out in Montreal:
A World Fantasy Convention Tourist Guide
by Claude Lalumière
Walking out the front door of the Delta Centre Ville,
the hotel hosting the 2001 World Fantasy Convention, one gets a misleading
impression of both Montreal and its downtown ("centre ville" in French). Located
at 777 University, at the very edge of the industrial area south of Montreal's
downtown core, the hotel faces an inhospitable stretch of street: anonymously
dismal architecture, utter lack of street life, automobile traffic in a hurry to
get anywhere else. Autoroute 10spewing a heavy flow of traffic onto the
island of Montrealdissolves into University Street a mere block south of the
hotel. A steep hill makes downtown invisible from the hotel, but it does mark
the way. Less than a five-minute walk up the hill is the core of Montreal's
vibrant, culturally heterogeneous, pedestrian-friendly downtown.
Planes: The Dorval Airport is where most
convention attendees will likely arrive in Montreal. If you're travelling alone,
it's be cheaper to take the airport bus to downtown and then either cab, metro,
or walk to the hotel. If you're travelling in groups of two or more, a cab ride
from the airport to the hotel is more cost efficient.
Trains: The train station is a block and
a half from the Delta Centre Ville, if geographically feasible, the train is
thus a great option for coming to Montreal for the convention.
Automobiles: Montreal, like the rest of
the world, suffers from the diverse ailments resulting from our pathological car
culture; however, it is totally unnecessary to travel by car in Montreal (see
below); warning to drivers: no turning on red lights!
Taxis: Cabs can be either hailed on the
street or called; on any major street , it's easier to hail one; if called,
wiating time is usually about five minutes or less.
Public Transit: Montreal has a
relatively inexpensive public transit systemsubway and bussesthat
efficiently covers the gridlike sprawl of the city; the hotel is connected to
the subway system via the Square-Victoria Metro stationno need to even step
Walking: Only once or twice a month do I
use anything but my feet to get around my city. Montreal is an exceptionally
pleasant and easy city to walk in: picturesque settings, bustling activity,
streets and neighbourhoods with exuberant identities, a nonviolent urban
culture, and a densely developed downtown core that combines residential and
commercial uses. Warning to pedestrians: cars do not stop at pedestrian
crossings unless there's a stop sign or red light!
Despite efforts by the provincial government to turn
Montreal into a unilingual municipality, the metropolis remains fiercely and
proudly multicultural. The downtown core is mostly English to the west, mostly
French to the east, and thoroughly blended in the overlap zone. Despite also
misleading reports from various media, anglophone, francophone, and other
cultures coexist, interrelate, and crossbreed with joyous abandon here. The
bottom line: don't worry if you only speak English. No-one'll even bat an eye.
Nevertheless, a well-placed "bonjour" or "merci" goes a long way....
Montreal's main commercial artery contains a dense
variety of local boutiques, chain stores, malls, cinemas, bars, restaurants,
concert venues, etc. Walking west from Papineau Street, one comes across the
bilingual Gay Village (Papineau and Beaudry Metros); the francophone Université
du Québec à Montréal (Berri-UQAM Metro); a mostly francophone fast-food,
nightclub, headshop, and sexshop zone (St-Laurent Metro); the Place des
arts/Complexe Desjardins area (Place-des-arts Metro), which includes the
Complexe Desjardins mall, the Place des arts with its four concert halls and
expansive public plaza (a popular hang-out spot), and the Musée d'art
contemporain de Montréal; a hyper-dense bilingual (with an Anglo emphasis)
shopping zone that features all the usual chain stores and also malls designed
in such a way as to interact with pedestrian traffic and street life (McGill and
Peel Metros); restaurants and English-language secondhand bookshops
(Guy-Concordia Metro); and, on either side of Atwater Avenue at the western edge
of the downtown core, traditional "box" malls not so friendly to urban street
life and, half a block north off Ste-Catherine, at 1235A Greene Avenue, The
Double Hook, a bookshop specializing in Canadiana (Atwater Metro).
The Mainas St-Laurent Boulevard is also known
separates east and west street addresses: this is the zero point. It's also,
more than any other street, an eminently walkable reflection of Montreal's
multicultural identity. At the southern edge of the island, St-Laurent is at the
heart of Old Montreal. A few blocks north, St-Laurent crosses Chinatown. It then
intersects with Ste-Catherine's sleazy (but perfectly safe) sex and fast food
strip. Up a steep hill, past Sherbrooke Street and up to Avenue du Mont-Royal,
it becomes the soul of multicultural Montreal: Asian restaurants, multiple small
stores owned by members of the local Portuguese community, a high-tech
multimedia building (the Ex-Centris), hip nightclubs, various thriving remnants
of the Eastern European/Jewish community that used to populate the area a few
decades ago, tattoo parlours, used clothing stores, specialty record stores, and
sundry boutiques of all types, with only a few chains amidst the colourful blend
of independent businesses. A few blocks northwards, St-Laurent leads into the
trendy but low-key Mile End neighbourhood, featuring Montreal's best bagel
bakeries. The last notable zone before entering a long stretch of residential
and industrial areas is Little Italy, concentrated mainly between St-Zotique and
Located about ten short blocks to the east of St-Laurent
Boulevard, Rue St-Denis's bustling commercial zone stretches from Ste-Catherine
Street (south) to Avenue du Mont-Royal (north). Contrasting with the
multicultural smorgasbord of St-Laurent, this street is imbued with a strong
francophone cachet. Densely packed with bistros, cafés, restaurants, bars,
boutiques, French bookshops (both new and used), secondhand CD shops, it is the
heart of Montreal's francophone urban street life. A metro line runs along Rue
St-Denis, and, to the south, St-Denis leads into the eastern edge of Old
Montreal. Of potential interest to some WFC attendees: St-Denis hosts a few
Medieval fashion stores and a popular gaming store,
Le Valet d'coeur.
From St-Laurent Boulevard to Rue St-Denis, Prince-Arthur
Street, located slightly to the north of Sherbrooke street, is accessible only
to pedestrians. This broad walkway offers a wide variety of restaurants, from
Greek to Eastern European. It stops a few blocks before Rue St-Denis, to lead
into one of Montreal's many public parks, Square St-Louis.
The convention hotel is located near the southern tip of
University Street. Across the street from the hotel is one of Montreal's oldest
malls, Place Bonaventure, with a gigantic convention hall (which hosts popular
annual events like the francophone book fair,
Le Salon du livre) and access to the train
station and the Bonaventure Metro. Up the hill, where University crosses
René-Lévesque Boulevard, is found Place Ville-Marie, Montreal's first modern
mall (it opened in 1961). The mall is underground, and it was the first glimpse
of what would eventually become Montreal's "underground city," linking malls,
hotels, train stations, metro stations, and universities. Surrounding Place
Ville-Marie's modernist skyscrapers is a spacious plaza. Just north of that is
the dense core of Ste-Catherine Street's busy shopping area. North of Sherbrooke
Street, University runs along the picturesque downtown campus of McGill
University, to then end as it reaches Mount Royal, the mountain-within-a-city
that towers over the metropolis.
Several notable tourist attractions are located within easy walking distance from the hotel. The nearest is the Planétarium de Montréal (1000 west Rue Saint-Jacques); three short blocks to the west of the hotel, it's an astronomy geek's wet dream. Three blocks to the east of the
hotel is Old Montreal, with its historic financial district, cobblestoned streets, City Hall, heritage architecture, souvenir shops, the Old Port, and two notable museums dedicated to local history, the Centre d'histoire de
Montréal (335 Place d'Youville) and the Montreal Museum of Archeology and History (350 Place Royale), conveniently located within two blocks of each other.
Despite being densely developed, Montreal is generously peppered with parks and green spaces. Walking around, it's impossible not to stumble on several, ranging from small ones tucked in between buildings to gigantic ones the size of small towns. The most conspicuous, of course, is Mount Royal. The mountain is a source of pride for Montrealers. Its lush verdant atmosphere (although perhaps not so lush by November) provides a fantastic getaway in the midst of
downtown. Its Park Avenue entrance is host to the celebrated "tam-tam Sundays":
hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of Montrealers spontaneously congregate there
every Sunday to play tam-tams, dance, picnic, drink, smoke dope, make out, and
generally have a good time. (Although by November, unless the weather is
particularly clement, things start to quiet down somewhat due to the encroaching
More to the east (Pie-IX and Viau Metros), is a huge park areabordered by Pierre-De-Coubertin Avenue to the south, Pie-IX Boulevard to the west, Rosemont Boulevard to the north, and Viau Boulevard to the eastthat incorporates a panoply of tourist attractions and local landmarks. It's the site of one of the worst blotches on the Montreal landscape: the infamous Olympic Stadium. Otherwise, it's an exciting place. Most of the area is covered by the 25-hectare Parc Maisonneuve, landscaped in the picturesque style and completely isolated from street traffic. Also on the site are the conservation- and education-driven Insectarium de Montréal (4581 east Sherbrooke Street), Biodôme de Montréal (4777 Pierre-De-Coubertin Avenue), and Montréal Botanical Garden (4101 east Sherbrooke Street). The Botanical Garden is especially beautiful, even in autumn.
The Canadian Centre for Architecture (1920 Baile
Street), located halfway between Atwater and Guy-Concordia Metros, unpretentiously and lovingly presents a diversity of intriguing exhibits. Additionally, it hosts a good bookstore specializing in design and architecture books. Similarly, the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal (185 west Ste-Catherine; Place-des-arts Metro) is also an exciting venue with a charmingly quirky and densely packed bookshop. Also of note is the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1379 & 1380 west Sherbrooke Street; Guy-Concordia Metro).
Off the island, but still accessible via the Jean-Drapeau Metro, is Parc Jean-Drapeau, named after Montreal's most famous and beloved mayor. It consists of two islandslinked by a pedestrian bridgeincluding Île Ste-Hélène, the site of the spectacularly successful 1967 World's Fair. Other major parks include Parc Lafontaine (a handful of blocks east of Sherbrooke Metro) and Angrignon Park (Angrignon Metro).
It is famously easy to get good food in Montreal. There are restaurants and bakeries everywhere. Here's a short (and far from exhaustive!) list of especially good spots.
Café Presto (1244 Stanley Street): This intimate Italian family restaurant in the heart of downtown offers quality meals in a cozy and fun atmosphere.
Chai (4088 Rue St-Denis): This gourmet Thai restaurant is fully vegan, but
uses seitan to imitate meat; consequently, its menu includes startling items
such as "vegetarian beef" and "vegetarian pork."
Fairmount Bagel Bakery (74 west Fairmount
Avenue): There are good bagels to be found at several locations in Montreal, but
this 24-hour bakery is the home of the most famous Montreal bagels.
Le Commensal: This local chain of
vegetarian buffet restaurants sells its gourmet cuisine by weight and its
desserts are the best in town.
Mazurka (64 east Prince-Arthur Street): My
favourite of the Prince-Arthur restaurants serves wonderfully delicious Polish
comfort food at rock-bottom prices.
Mondo Fritz (3899 St-Laurent Boulevard): This
burger (including two vegetarian selections) and fries joint is distinguished by
its variety of specialty sauces.
Santropol (3990 Rue St-Urbain): This popular
first-date joint specializes in peculiar sandwiches and outré drinks and is
renowned for its gigantic portions.
Star of India (1806 west Ste-Catherine Street):
Montreal's best Indian restaurant offers its quality cuisine at surprisingly low
- People here are friendly and open-minded and love to meet and know new people.
- Nights will likely be around 0°C, while daily maximums should reach
about 10°; i.e., fall jacket weather.
- Smoking is sadly ubiquitous.
- There is no specialty genre fiction bookshop.
- Back-issue comics shopping is dismal.
- The food is diverse and delicious.
- It's safe to walk anywhere, day or night.
See you in November.