Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Guide to ISA Conventioneers and Other Visitors to Montreal

In March, the International Studies Association will be held in Montreal.  This is the second time in recent years, but people have short memories, so I thought I would provide some tips for the conference folks.  But first a caveat:  I live in the suburbs and don't hang out that much in the city.  Most of my experience eating downtown is with job talk candidates or visiting speakers.  That means, I tend to eat in downtown areas when someone else is paying the bill.  So, my expertise is not so expert.

First, getting from the airport to the conference hotels.  The bad news is that there is no easily available rail shuttle (Montreal politicians are still fighting about this), so you have to depend on some kind of car/shuttle.  Worse news--there is lots of construction right now since the airport's roads and connections were very, very poorly planned.  So, unless you are coming in after 7pm or on a weekend, budget at least an hour.  Plus you will have to go through customs if you are coming from the US (remember your passport--Canada is a foreign country)*.  Anyhow, back to the airport to hotel trip.  There are several alternatives:
  • there is a bus/shuttle (the 747). It costs $8 each way and runs right in front of the main conference hotel (Boulevard René-Lévesque--the appropriately most windy street in town).  It stops at Drummond and Peel with the hotel being in between those two streets.  It is frequent enough--every 11-14 minutes.  I have never taken it, so I cannot say whether it gets very full (too full?) or not.
  • taxi is $38.  Makes sense if you are with a few people and/or have decent funding (I would use a taxi).  Use a credit card.  
  • Rail: there is a train station for commuter trains but it is NOT easy to get to, and does NOT have a convenient schedule. DO NOT think this is a good option.  DO NOT be deceived by maps google or any other resource that would suggest to you that the train is a good option.  
FYI: Rush hour is pretty elastic, but definitely from 7 to 9:30am and then from 2-7pm or so.  The airport to downtown road has traffic at both times in both directions--it is not the case that one direction is clearly free at one time or the other.  The fundamental lesson for highways in Montreal is that they were designed to congest.  So, count on traffic and don't plan on jumping off the plane, running through customs and then flying downtown.

Weather: Snow.  Be prepared--gloves, hats, boots.  If it is not snowing, chances are the leftover snow will be melting.  I prefer frozen and fresh snow to slush.  Our winter does not end until April.  Just be prepared. 

Language:  The nationalists in Quebec hate how bilingual Montreal has become.  I am officially the only unilingual person in town.  Ok, that's not true, but it feels like it.  In most of downtown, you will usually be welcomed by a "bonjour/hi" and they will use the language that you use to respond.  So, say bonjour back if you want to interact in French, and hi if you want to interact in English.  If they just say Bonjour, well, then you may be in a place that is not so English friendly.  S'il vous plait (cee vu play) is please and works nicely, as does Merci for thanks, Oui (wee) for yes.  Again, you should be able to get along in English, but there is just a bit of language politics here.  If you indicate you are an American, they will be less offended with your ignorance of French than if you were a Canadian.

Money: Yes, they use those wacky Canadian coins and bills here.  But since the last time, the US $ has tanked, so we are now at parity.  This simplifies the math, but means that there are no big discounts for buying in Canada right now.  Your American $$ are worth less than they used to be (not worthless, just worth less).  Lots of places to change money, especially on St. Catherine street (handy for the lap dance places, I guess), but any bank will trade US and CA dollars.  Best bet is just using an ATM.

Metro: Works pretty well, especially going East and West.  Tickets are something like $3 now and you can buy them from the guys in the boxy cages at the entrances.   You can get a three day card.  Don't expect the machines to be as bilingual as you might want.

Tourist destinations:
  • Old Port area has, well, the older, more European buildings, restaurants, tourist traps. It has the science museum and some other stuff. Plus perhaps even some skating.  Might even be one of the few places that would rent stakes as Canadians seem to be required to own skates (which means that most rinks do not rent).
  • Bell Centre.  Hockey is religion here.  The game is always sold out and there are always scalpers selling tickets right out in front before the game.  Bring a heap of cash, and you should be able to find some tickets. 
  • Art museum on Sherbrooke is pretty good.  
  • If you want to see failed government planning, grab a metro or taxi and head to the Olympic Stadium.  They did productive stuff with some of the other buildings, including turning the cycling arena into Bio-Dome.

Hotels: if you have not already gotten one, there are several just four blocks up the street near McGill that are just fine--a new Hilton, a Holiday Inn, an Omni, and others. The conference hotel is semi-convenient in that it is in between but not close to the major restaurant streets, it is very close to the Bell Centre (more on that in a minute), and near but not part of the underground city that visitors seem to like.

Basic navigation: If you are on Rene Levesque Boul and are looking at the Sheraton--you are looking North, and uphill.  The main east-west streets are Sherbrooke, Maisonneueve, St. Catherine and Rene Levesque.  St. Catherine is the most interesting--it has the most shopping, restaurants, naked lady places, and so on.  If you walk either east or west on St. Catherines, you will find a restaurant or an area that is interesting.  And have much to talk about.  St. Laurent and St. Denis to the east are the main streets with heaps of stuff.  Indeed, they sometimes call St. Laurent "the Main" especially when they are tearing it up.  At the bottom of St. Laurent is a small China town.  There are Vietnamese places there and nearby.

Restaurants:  Good news--it seems to be illegal to be a bad restaurant in Montreal (unless you serve Mexican food).  The food is just terrific nearly everywhere.  If you walk four blocks or so to the West, you will find heaps of places on Bishops and Crescent street, including at least one Irish bar.  Best bet is to take a cab or hop a metro to St. Denis, which is to the east.  That one street has heaps of restaurants.  There are tons and tons all over (a search shows more red dots around the hotel than any place I have visited recently).  The cuisine ranges from French (of course) to Middle Eastern (lots of places to get a pita full of warm juicy stuff with good sauce) to Chinese and Vietnamese and Thai and Indian to Portuguese, etc.  Again, the only mistake would be Mexican.
  • General tip--if it is a night of a hockey game, avoid the Bell Centre.
  • If you have a really, really big budget, Queue de Cheval has super expensive steaks.  I have never been there. 
  • Baton Rouge (next to the Bell Centre) is a far more reasonable but still nice and not cheap steakhouse with good ribs, and portions that rival American places (we joke that this is a restaurant for giants, given how big the salads and main courses are).   Keg Steak house is similar.
  • For breakfast, hit Chez Cora (around the corner on Drummond)--fresh fruit, great crepes, whatever you want. 
  • Montrealers are very proud of their smoked meat.  I don't find it that special--pastrami essentially, but they think it is special.  Reubens is close by on st. Catherine St but the classic place to get it is Schwartz's.  Very basic, almost soup nazi-esque in its delivery, but tasty.  Get a cab and tell them you want to go there.  Not a walk from the hotel but a ride.
  • Do not eat at Cage Aux Sports (pronounced causal spore) unless you like to watch hockey (it is a sports bar) and really slow service.
  • Expensive, fancy, good Chinese food at Le Chysantheme on Crescent steet (a few blocks to the west)
  • Great Portuguese at Ferraira's up Peel.
  • There are heaps of food courts that are hidden away--in the Eaton Centre on avenue McGill College (about four blocks to the East), across the street from the hotel in the office building on the second floor (same building as Decca 77, which looks interesting), Place Ville Marie which connects the big train station to down town and has actually two food courts or so --3.5 blocks east of the hotel.
  • Best French places nearby for a very fine, expensive but justly so dinner: Le Caveau on Avenue du JFK (close to McGill); Le Parchemin, which is at the corner of Rue University and St. Catherine.  Quebec food can be game-y: rabbit, quail, deer, duck.  Good stuff.
  • Tim Horton's are everywhere, almost as prevalent as Starbucks.  Perhaps even more so, but Timmy's is guaranteed to have cheaper coffee and much longer lines.  Their service reminds me of the Soviet Union, and not in a good way.

Pubs: Avoid the Peel Pub--a student hangout. I have not tried Brutopia, but it is nearby on Crescent St.
  • Cheval Blanc looks intriguing.  The beer is quite good.  Far enough way that a taxi is required.
  • Ditto Brasserie McAuslan.
  • Benelux Brewpub looks good, too.  Within a walk--up to Sherbrooke and then head east (245 Sherbrooke St West)
Beers: Canadian beer is simply better than most American beer, even Molson and Labatt. Here is a guide to Quebec beer and pubs. I like Blanche de Chambly.  Boreale,  Le Cheval Blanc, McAuslan, Dieu du Ciel are all good.  I like some of the more national brands as well: Alexander Keith's and Sleeman's. You can find these two in most places. [Doug, let me know if you need more info]

Handy websites:
  • Montreal's official tourist site.  Has a good guide to restaurants for more selections than I listed above. Can sort by price, location, etc. 
  • Less official Montreal tourist cite:  Good reminder that CA is like US--tip 15%.

This is a work in progress so if you have questions or suggestions, send them my way.  Enjoy the conference, and, more importantly, enjoy the city.

*  Seriously.  SERIOUSLY.  Seriously.  Some people take it for granted, but 9/11 did change things.  A driver's license is no longer sufficient for crossing into Canada.  The customs area is newer and better but can slow things down.  Don't bring in food, as it will slow things down as well.  I love my new Nexus card.  Too late to get one for the ISA, though.


Anonymous said...

Hi Prof Saideman - as a former student, saw this come up (on facebook of all places) and felt I should have a look - I miss Montreal and am experiencing withdrawal symptoms. And hey, having lived in the plateau for 4 years on a student budget, I figured I'd see if I could help too!
Just because I miss Montreal and its amazingness, I felt I'd add a few things, especially on food:

Le Caveau is fabulous, well worth the $$. I too have heard good things about Le Parchemin. At the other end of the $$ spectrum is rites Alors, there's a little on on St laurent just above Sherbrooke - caribou, bison, boar, lamb burgers galore, and poutine! With Tin-Tin themed decor. :) Speaking of poutine, the best, best, BEST place to go for that delicacy (again, something I truly miss about Mtl) is La Banquise, up on Rachel, east of St Denis (near Parc LaFontaine). A hike from the downtown core, but cheap so worth the metro or even cab as a group. And SO good. And hey, open 24hrs, so perfect whenever! Massive portions, beware. For adventurous visitors or those wanting the walk, heading up St Denis or St Laurent into the plateau is great for coffee shops, bars, and boutiques (St Denis) and interesting food options (ever craving insanely good rotisserie chicken? Delicious seafood? the Protguese neighbourhood aroud St Laurent/Duluth is rockin').
In fact, Duluth is a great BYOB (wine) restaurant street too. And there's an SAQ open till 10pm at St Denis and Duluth for all your beverage needs along such a BOYB-heavy street.
If you're looking for 'exotic', there's Ethiopian food - don't go to the ones on St Denis though, there's a much better and cheaper and way more authentic one on Bishop, just below Ste Cat's (called Magdela/Mekdella - spelled differently on signs, menus, etc). Really good, especially for sharing. And far more like actual Ethiopian food and decor (trust me) than the pricier St Denis ones. Not open on Mondays though.
Those are all the major food-related points I'd make. Touristing-wise, Old Port has some good indoors stuff too - the museum at Point a Callieres is quite good, with an underground annex where you can walk through the bits of the old city they're excavating, quite neat and very much local history, good times. For film-lovers, the Cinematheque nearby has a neat deal where you pay a set amount ($5?) for access to the robot-operated national film library - all the Canadian film you could ever want, at your fingertips, and put into your personal movie-seat-thingy by a robot!
Drinks-wise, I'd say the farther east and north you go the better - Crescent and Bishop streets offer nice places but often with average drinks at higher-than-average prices. You're very right to point out Benelux for beer - it is incredible micro-brew beer, the way it should be (flavourful and hearty - UK beer makes me nostalgic), and at decent prices. Resevoir (St Laurent/Duluth) is great too, and bigger food menu (killer brunch, apparently, too - the blanche of wheat beer is supposed to pair well with their brunch plates).
Enjoy the city!!

Unknown said...

Also a former student (POLI 244, Fall 2007) but still around Montreal.

For transportation:
Just as a note - the 747 is $8 for a ticket, but it's also a one-day bus/metro pass. So it's a much better deal than you're making it out to be. Also, any longer-term STM passes, like a 3-day pass, would also cover the 747 in the cost.

For food:
The Main is a good alternative if the line at Schwartz's is too long. And, for a Mexican fix, I've heard Itacate is pretty good - and I'm planning on testing this over the weekend. But, since it's at Beaubien, it's probably not that convenient for conference-goers. Romados (near Rachel and Coloniale) is well known locally for Portuguese rotisserie chicken. If you want to go, call ahead - you can get into a much shorter line.

The area around Concordia has some of the best Chinese food in Montreal (coming from someone who lived in Shanghai for 2 years). Try Qing Hua Dumpling (Lincoln a little west of Concordia, Cuisine Szechuan (Guy south of Sherbrooke) or Tapioca The (de Maisonneuve a little west of Concordia). The first one does dumplings filled with soup - something you can hardly find outside China. The latter two tend to do Szechuan food, and their chefs can be serious about spicy food if you want them to be. Tapioca The also does a fair number of more standard Chinese dishes from other parts of the country.

Also try Antep Kebab (near Guy and de Maisonneuve) for quick Turkish food. Not a very upscale place but very good food, esp. the bread.

For beer:
Brutopia skews young (though not as young as Peel Pub, necessarily), and their beer is not necessarily the most adventurous. That said, it's probably the most convenient location. Go to Benelux or Dieu du Ciel. It's worth it. Resevoir (on Duluth near St. Denis) is also supposedly pretty good, but for some reason I haven't tried it yet. Likewise for Brasserie McAuslan, although many McAuslan beers are available around town.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the tips!

FYI, Le Parchemin's website says they have gone out of business (checked on Mar 4).

Unknown said...

The only things I would add to this are:

1) My personal opinion, but Baton Rouge is that it is a not so great and over-priced chain restaurant. Maybe it has picked up its game since I last tried it a few years a go, but as Steve says, there are tons of good restaurants and I would try to find a real one first.

2) Cora is definitely great for breakfast. Also a chain, but with a smiling French-Canadian woman! And they do things like egg-white omelettes. And likely to be 1/3 the price of the hotel.

3) Tim Hortons (aka Timmy's) isn't like the Soviet Union! It's great! (Like North Korea!) It helps to speak the language though: A 'regular' is a a medium coffee with one cream and one sugar. A 'double-double' is a medium coffee with two creams and two sugars. Not sure this language exists outside of TIm Hortons, but it's important Canadian knowledge.

3) Good advice on beer - but I've had plenty of American beers better than Molsons. Sleeman's is usually my fall-back position, but I also like Rickard's Red.

4) Our pharmacies are often chains like the US. Look out for Shoppers Drug Mart for most of your needs. But many grocery stores will also cover the basics.

5) Your US cell phone MAY NOT WORK. (Yet European mobiles are often fine....)This was a HUGE problem at APSA in Toronto. Please check with your provider first. Unfortunately, Canadian competition laws mean we have the WORST telecommunication companies on the planet. You probably won't find a cheapie sim card/mobile easily. But do try either Bell Canada, Rogers, Wind, Telus, if you want to see what your options are.

Anonymous said...

Clicked through from another blog site, and I find your post about Montreal decidedly irritating. You obviously don't know much about the city but your condescending/snarky outsider's attitude is worse than your ignorance. Also, do you intend to be writing for an unsophisticated, backwater American male audience? That is what it sounds like. C'mon Saideman, up your game and do better.

Steve Saideman said...

I would have posted this negative review earlier but I don't check the comment moderation page that much and especially not during the ISA since it tied me up pretty good.

Sorry if my post bothered you, but I am a self-admitted snarky outsider. Next time, provide me with suggestions of places I missed.