One of the questions I get asked a lot is: am I going to travel to every country? It’s an easy answer for me: No. I don’t want to travel to every country just to get a stamp in my passport and check it off a list. And really, that’s all it is – checking places off a list before moving on to the next one, and not taking the time to delve into the culture of the destinations. I would far prefer to go back to my favorite places, experiencing them in different ways every time, or seek out amazing new places and take the time to do them right.
That’s one of the reasons that I loved AFAR when I first found the magazine several years ago. The tone and personality of the magazine made it different. It doesn’t have articles on the top charming villages to visit in Provence. In fact, the magazine rarely even uses the word “charming.” Rather, it figures out how to travel deeper into any destination, getting to its heart and soul. A lot of my best travel experiences have come from having this philosophy: visiting the home of our safari guide in Zimbabwe; mushroom hunting in the forests of Lithuania; an early morning photo walk with a local helicopter pilot in Lloret de Mar, Spain; meeting a man from Singapore at the Summer Palace in Beijing and then going to lunch with him at a locals-only noodle bar hidden deep in the city; and spending New Years Eve outside of Oslo with the extended family of a friend from college. I’ve had experiences like that virtually everywhere I’ve traveled, and it’s made for amazing travel memories.
A couple of times a year AFAR runs AFAR Experiences in different cities around the world. I went to Mexico City with them last year and joined their Montreal Experience this year. The trips are true to the mission of the magazine, with every activity, speaker and even meal chosen to provide deeper insight into the city and its people. I highly, highly recommend traveling with them! In recounting the highlights from the AFAR Montreal Experience below, my goal is to give you some ideas of things to do in Montreal, but also to encourage you to look for activities like this in any city that you visit. Some of these can be booked directly. For some, you may need a connected travel planner. I’ve utilized experts from Wendy Perrin’s WOW list before as well as AFAR’s Travel Advisor Council. I had excellent experiences with both. And AFAR now has its Journeys itineraries planned around deeper cultural travel, which look to be as well-designed.
Montreal AFAR Highlights (or Things To Do In Montreal If You Possibly Can)
1) In the Mouth Dining Experience
This was the coolest dinner ever. Instead of having pre-set notions of what dining is and which foods should go with each course, the folks behind In the Mouth look at dining partly as art and partly as a series of memories. All 40 of us received questionnaires to complete well in advance. What was my most recent meal and how did that made me feel? What’s my favorite kitchen utensil? We listed our favorite and least-favorite foods and why. We chose how we wanted our evenings to begin (e.g. slowly, beautifully or surprisingly). And then we arrived and we saw that every one of our responses was incorporated into the four-course meal, with over 100 ingredients used.
Course one was a cocktail (or two) based on how we wanted the night to start. My drinks were sweet-potato-based and very good. It definitely was surprising, which had been my selection. Course two had a wide assortment of foods that were to be eaten with the utensils that everyone chose in advance. I grabbed my rubber spatula. There was a mortar and pestle. There were a lot of whisks and knives. And we used our hands. All of the food was served directly on a very long table with a perfectly-ironed tablecloth and playful artistic elements, adding to the eclectic experience.
Course three was based on everyone’s favorite and least-favorite foods, on the premise that something that you love may be something that someone else hates, and it prompted fun discussions. Course four was dessert…based on the foods that represented our favorite childhood memories. Luckily some people had chosen chocolate cake, fruit and donuts. But there was also lasagna, pot roast, potatoes, spaghetti and meatballs, avocado with Vegemite and all sorts of other things that you wouldn’t normally associate with dessert. Overall it was an extraordinarily unique experience and was the highlight of the trip.
2) Opening Night of the Montreal Jazz Festival
Montreal is all about festivals. There’s the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival. There’s the Circus Festival. There’s an Igloo Festival. And then there’s the world-famous Jazz Festival. We attended opening night at the Place des Festivals, a huge, open square in downtown Montreal. It was a gorgeous night and Beirut was excellent live. A really fun evening. The festival runs through July 5th this year.
3) A Home Dinner with Monique Simard
AFAR finds the most interesting, influential locals and then sets up home dinners with them. Six of us were hosted by Monique Simard, a film producer and head of SODEC, which provides financing to support culture in Quebec. She prepared an excellent meal from locally-sourced ingredients and invited her friends and family to join us. A really, really fun and interesting evening at the home of a Montreal cultural leader.
4) Dinner with Celebrity Chef Normand Laprise
Again, we were divided into smaller groups for dinner. For this meal I had the honor of heading to Toqué for drinks and a three-course meal prepared by Normand Laprise. And before dinner, we were invited up to the restaurant’s rooftop garden to help harvest greens that would accent our main course. A very fun evening and great food.
5) The Rodin Exhibit at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal
The Rodin exhibit on display at the Museum of Fine Arts was excellent. The museum’s Director and Chief Curator Nathalie Bondil spoke to us and gave us a private tour of the exhibit before it was open to the public. I’ve been to the Musée Rodin in Paris and I felt like I got a better feel for the sculptor, his life and his creative process in Montreal – thanks largely to the excellent tour with Nathalie but also due to the arrangements of the exhibits. Metamorphoses: In Rodin’s Studio ran through October 2015, but see what’s there now. I’m sure it’s similarly impressive!
6) A Tour of the Bell Centre and the Canadiens’ Locker Room with Two Hockey Icons
In addition to loving its festivals, Montreal loves its hockey. Six of us had the pleasure of meeting with former Montreal Canadiens players Yvan Cournoyer (10 Stanley Cups) and Réjean Houle (5 Stanley Cups) at the Bell Centre and getting a tour of the arena and the team’s locker room. It was great hearing stories from their hockey days, and in seeing the reaction of the Canadiens’ fans in the museum that we were getting to spend time with these local legends.
7) A Walking Tour Through Mile End
I love taking walking tours and foodie tours, especially when traveling with my family. This was actually an accidental walking tour – it was supposed to be a cycling tour but we were rained out. So the guys from Fitz & Follwell took us around on foot instead. We saw the highlights of the Mile End neighborhood and learned about its history and architecture. We also stopped at a cafe and went by world-famous St-Viateur to try the bagels. I highly recommend Fitz & Follwell and will be signing up for a cycling tour with them next time I’m in Montreal – hopefully in better weather.
8) A Walking Tour Through Little Italy
Another foodie/walking tour! Montreal has the second highest number of Italians in Canada (to Toronto) and the history of Little Italy is fascinating. Joyce Pillarella took us everywhere, recounting what it was like to grow up in a poor Italian family in the neighborhood, and she carried old photographs of the notable sites and families in her stories, bringing the history to life. We stopped at the Jean-Talon Market, sampling fruits, and went to a meat and cheese shop for more tastings. We ended the tour at the excellent Pizzeria Napoletana with pizza, wine, tiramisu and cappuccino.
9) A Private Party at Cirque Éloize
We closed out the trip with a private party at Cirque Éloize, one of the famous modern circuses founded in Quebec. With live Cajun French music, excellent food (poutine!) and several performances by circus performers, this was an extremely fun night.
10) The World Cup
Adding to Montreal’s status as a world-class city, where else could you go for a cultural week and find out that there happens to be a Women’s World Cup game taking place while you’re there? During an afternoon break in the AFAR schedule I hopped on the Metro, went 11 stops and got off literally inside Olympic Stadium. After a quick trip to the ticket booth, I was watching France take on Germany in the quarterfinal match. I had always wanted to attend a World Cup game. Little did I know that it would happen almost accidentally.
And we did so much more, including meeting with Mayor Denis Coderre and seeing a very cool (and dizzying) virtual reality presentation of the universe at Société des Arts Technologiques. We attended a food truck festival, visited the temporary Montreal Underworld exhibition at the Centre d’Histoire de Montreal and discussed the city’s comedy scene with the very entertaining Andy Nulman, the founder of Just for Laughs. And our visit to Ubisoft Entertainment was incredibly interesting – we met with two of Ubisoft’s lead game developers who walked us through the process of creating a video game. Any one of those activities could have easily made my top ten list.
Go to Montreal! I couldn’t have been more impressed with the city and its culture. Montreal and the province of Quebec really support local arts and culture – more than I’ve seen anywhere else – so no matter when you visit you’ll find new exhibits and world-class performances, and likely stumble upon a festival or two.
If it fits into your budget, stay at the Ritz-Carlton Montreal. I’ve stayed at a lot of nice hotels around the world and this was one of my best hotel experiences ever. From the front desk personnel to the girl who sat me at the same table for breakfast every morning, the staff was excellent. My room was gorgeous. And the location is perfect.