By Bill Malcolm
Featured image by @josueissac
If you like French food and culture, enjoy getting $1.35 to the U.S. dollar, and love a big, fun gay village, there is no better vacation than Montreal. The region of 4 million people is the second-largest city in Canada and is more than 375 years old. The main language is French although many also speak English. Whether for a week or a weekend, you can’t beat it.
What to Do
You will find the Gayborhood, aka St. Catherine Street, east of downtown (near the Berri-UQAM metro). Unlike other Gayborhoods (Boystown, WeHo, Wilton Manors), St. Catherine Street (aka The Gay Village) has not been gentrified as much and retains a somewhat edgy appearance so the younger generation can see what such neighborhoods used to look like.
A walk along St. Catherine is your first activity. It is a pedestrian mall all summer complete with art displays and more. Full of shops and restaurants plus most of the LGBTQ+ bars, it’s arguably the largest gay neighborhood in North America.
A hike up Mt. Royal is your next activity. It is easily accessible from the downtown metros (including McGill) or you can take a STM bus to the summit.
Photo by @josueissac
Biking on LaChine Canal is also fun. Rent a bike and helmet at Ma Bicyclette, 2985 Saint Patrick, near the Charlevoix Metro stop and then head over to lunch at the nearby Atwater Market, a farmer’s market and food pavilion. Enjoy a Montreal smoked meat sandwich, their version of a bagel, or other gourmet goodies. Pick up some Quebec cheese as well. (The Bixi bike sharing system is another option. You can rent them anywhere. Shared biking was developed in Montreal. They also now have the dockless bikes and, of course, scooters.)
The Botanical Garden (Jardin Botanique) is a must. They have huge outdoor gardens plus indoor gardens as well. (Metro Pie IX) at 4101 Sherbrook Street East. Don’t miss the rock garden or the indoor orchid display.
Old Montreal along the St. Lawrence River is another idea. The Pointe-A-Calliere Museum features the history of Montreal plus a special exhibition on French Cuisine. Watch the movie on the city’s interesting history in either French or English. You will find them at 350 Place Royale. The nearby Basilique Notre Dame of Montreal Church is another must. The Contemporary Art Museum or MAC (Metro stop-Place d’Armes) at 1185 Rue St. Catherine is very nice as well.
The Stewart Museum on St. Helene Island tells the story of Quebec. It is situated in an old fort and is easily accessible by the Metro Parc Jean-Drapeau line. Nearby is the Biodome Environmental Museum, which is also worth a visit. The Parc Jean-Drapeau on the island also features a casino, an amusement park, an outdoor pool and more.
Swimmers can join the LGBTQ+ team, Au Contre Courant, which does a nightly swim plus Saturdays at an outdoor pool.
Photo by @josueissac
Where to Eat
Vege Vege, a vegetarian buffet on St. Dennis Street, is my favorite. Other great restaurants abound on the same street.
Try poutine while in Quebec. It’s great after too many beers. The dish is composed of French fries, cheese curds and gravy although newer editions add bacon and more.
Air Canada is ranked among the top airlines in North America, although their regional partner, Air Georgian, was a disappointment due to mechanical and delay issues both directions. Most of the U.S. carriers have service into Montreal, often on regional carriers with smaller planes. Amtrak serves Montreal from New York and you can also take VIA Rail from Windsor (near Detroit).
Coming from Chicago Midway and a few other eastern cities, try Porter Airlines, which has great fares—just watch out for a la carte pricing surprises. See the negative reviews on Yelp. The airline routes you through Toronto City Island Airport.
No matter which airline, the fares are often high due to annoying fees like the $25 charge for NAVCAN, their privatized air traffic control. They also charge you for U.S. TSA fees even if your trip is entirely within Canada but is within 250 miles of the U.S. border. A total rip. Unfortunately, Southwest does not fly there and their bargain carrier, WestJet does not have much U.S. service. However, what you over-spend on airfare you will save on hotels and other costs due to the strong U.S. dollar.
Once at YUL (airport code speak for Montreal), purchase a C$10 (US$7) transit pass to take the 747 Bus to your hotel. You can also take it to the Liionel Groulx Metro and continue in to the Berri UQAM station to save time. Your ticket is good as a 24-hour pass on all transit.
Montreal has a fabulous subway, the STM Metro. The system is modelled after the one in Paris – complete with rubber wheels on the trains. The downtown stations all feature underground gourmet food courts and shopping so you never have to go outside, which in the winter is a good thing.
Where to stay
I stayed at my favorite budget hotel in the Gay Village, the Hotel St. Andre. Located at 1285 Rue Saint-Andre, the hotel charms visitors with baguettes and croissants plus coffee delivered to your door daily. It is right off the main drag, St. Catherine’s street, and close to the Berri-UQAM metro station. Nearby are a gourmet grocery store (IGA), all the bars, two pharmacies, and the provincial liquor store, plus a Nautilus Plus if you want to work off the Quebec cheese and Montreal smoked meat sandwiches. The nearby Café Lulu at 852 St. Catherine is great for an espresso, lunch or dinner.
Other lodging options in the Village include The Hotel des Gouveneurs, which is more upscale. Hotels are a bargain in Montreal: No resort fees and about half the price of Toronto or Chicago.
Photo by @queermtl
The Village is packed with bars for everyone. St. Catherine’s street is a pedestrian mall during the summer. The bars include:
The Aigle Noir (Black Eagle), 1315 St. Catherine, for the leather crowd
The Stud, 1182 St. Catherine, for the male crowd
Sky Complexe, 1478 St. Catherine, features three floors of fun.
The Cocktail Bar, 1689 St. Catherine, features drag and karaoke.
The Mado Bar at 1115 St. Catherine, has drag and cabaret.
Le Date, 1218 St Catherine, for a relaxed atmosphere
You will find dancers (aka danseurs nus) at the Campus, Taboo, and Stock Bars.
You need a valid passport to travel to Canada.
Your ATM card will work in Montreal ATMs.
Many credit cards charge a 3% international processing fee for transactions.
If you speak French or even a little, start the conversation in French and then switch to English.
Buy your transit ticket back to the airport 24 hours in advance and use it as a day pass.
Canadian dollars are called loonies and are coins. Two dollar coins are called toonies. Canada got rid of pennies but still charges in cents and then rounds up or down.
Stick to beer while in Quebec. Their wine selection is usually limited and not very good. Apparently, the provincial government gets involved in wine selection.
Ask for the local microbrews although many bars stock Labatt’s and even Bud. The microbrewery trend is apparently slower to catch on—at least in the bars.
For more information pick up a copy or read online their LGBTQ+ monthly magazine, Fugues.
Bill Malcolm is the nation’s only syndicated LGBTQA2+ value travel columnist. His column appears or has appeared in HOTSpots Florida (both editions), GRAB Chicago Magazine, the IGLTA travel blog, and the Palm Springs Desert Daily Guide. He resides in Indianapolis and focuses on affordable travel for the community and beyond. His opinions are his own. He pays his own way (airfare and hotel).
Special thanks to Lynn Habel of Tourisme Montreal for travel ideas and complimentary museum passes.