Perhaps like me, this “new America” has you peering up at our northern neighbors searching for the Canadian dream. Allow me to introduce you to Montreal, the largest city in Canada’s Quebec province. It’s Canada, it’s kind of French and it loves the gays.
First—and this is very important—go in the summer or early fall. Montreal prides itself on outdoor activities all year round with a plethora of winter options; however, a trip in the warmer months allows the traveler to experience Montreal in its full glory. It’s very easy to find a vacation rental with outdoor space, as most homes and apartments in Montreal have some kind of balcony or patio, providing residents space for BBQs and morning coffee. Even Montreal’s center city hotels have outdoor terraces, rooftop bars and heated pools.
WELCOME TO THE GAYBORHOOD
From my very first trip five years ago to my most recent visit in November, I have consistently stayed in The Mile End. A hub of artistic creation frequently listed as one of Montreal’s coolest and most unique areas (Grimes and the Arcade Fire live there!), Mile End is like the Brooklyn of Montreal. The tree-lined neighborhood is easy to walk around and filled with laid-back bars, great restaurants and casual coffee spots. Queermos unite in Mile End, where you’ll see septum-rocking non-binarys, flannel and tight pants-donning dancing ladies, sassy femme Francophiles, cat cafes, bikes and dykes.
Montreal’s Le Village is North America’s largest gay village in terms of square mileage. If you want to be in the heart of Montreal’s LGBTQ community, this gayborhood is located in the central south of the city near the iconic St. Lawrence River. Every summer, its largest street, St. Catherine, becomes a pedestrian mall decked with chairs and tables, and many of the local bars and restaurants provide outdoor terraces for patrons as well. This is where all the action happens during Gay Pride, and the Beaudry Metro station permanently sports rainbow-colored pillars. A stay at the gay-owned Bed and Breakfast du Village (1279 Rue Montcalm, bbv.qc.ca) will put you in the center of the action.
WHERE THE GIRLS ARE
The lovely creators of the web series “Feminin/feminin,” collectively known as Lez Spread the Word or LSTW, (lezspreadtheword.com) also run a monthly lesbian dance night in Montreal, Où sont les femmes. LSTW also recently launched an annual bilingual print magazine that explores Canada’s lesbian community and hosted launch parties in both Montreal and Quebec City. Où sont les femmes switches up their venues, so follow them on Facebook (facebook.com/lezspreadtheword) to find them when you’re in town.
Blink and you’ll miss Alexandraplatz (6731 de l’Esplanade, alexandraplatzbar.com), a bar opened by Bernadette Houde, former member of Lesbians on Ecstasy. Alexandraplatz is probably not listed in any LGBTQ guides. But when I stumbled upon the small warehouse bar with a rainbow flag on the wall, I felt I had discovered a local gem, complete with a genderqueer bartender. This bar is located in Mile-Ex, an industrial zone just a short hop from MileEnd and likely the newest part of town where priced-out artists and creatives will move to. Alexandraplatz is only open in the spring and summer—another reason to visit Montreal when it’s at its warmest.
Looking to smash some patriarchy and have a little fun? Check out the Slut Island Festival (facebook.com/slutislandmtl), an annual queer and feminist DIY music fest started by DJ Frankie Teardrop and Ethel Eugene. The festival’s mission is “to showcase underrepresented folks, specifically encouraging the participation of Queers, Femmes, POCS, Female-identified, Gender Fluid, Non-binary, and all freaky babes.” Submissions to participate as an artist usually occur in March, but Slut Island itself is held in July. Can’t be there for the festivities? Frankie Teardrop also hosts a queer dance party called LIP (facebook.com/LIP-1406265339635492) that happens much more regularly.
Montreal’s Piknic Électronik (piknikelectronik.com) is an inclusive outdoor music festival running from May to September that often books queer artists and has a lot of free events. This year’s line-up has yet to be announced, but there are always some notable women DJs on the roster. Montreal Pride (fiertemontrealpride.com) is one of the largest in the world, and this year, the city is hosting the first-ever Canada Pride, Aug 11-20, a celebration of Canada’s role as a leader in LGBTQ rights.
Montreal claims to have the most restaurants per capita in Canada, and doesn’t fall far behind New York City. Without listing every delicious dish the city has to offer, here are some suggested eats. Listen, Paris: You make a good croissant, but Montreal has the best croissants in the game. Patisserie Kouign Amann (322 Mont-Royal Est.) emanates the smell of the buttery, sugary, crispiness on the outside and is soft and delectable on the inside like the pastries they produce. With only three tiny tables inside, the crowd that gathers can sometimes have you waiting until the next batch is finished baking—they go that fast. Their signature pastry is a kouign amann, a Breton-based butter cake that feels like sex in your mouth. (I can eat only one kouign amann because it is such a rich treat, but I have been known to eat three croissants in one sitting.)
L’Gros Luxe (3807 St Andre St., lgrosluxe.com) has various locations in the Montreal area, but I wouldn’t call it a chain. Each location modifies its menu based on the neighborhood while striving for mostly vegetarian plates without cheating the carnivores. One location is 100% vegetarian with vegan options, while the others are a good balance. If you want to try Quebec’s famous poutine, L’- Gros Luxe has fancy variations on what is essentially a nationally celebrated drunk food. Smothered in cheese and mushroom gravy with fried egg on top, it also has bacon bits over your choice of fries (regular or sweet potatoes) or tater tots. L’Gros is also pretty famous for an Instagram-worthy Bloody Caesar that, for $30, is topped with a chicken wing, mini-burger, mini-grilled cheese, pearl onion, fried pickle, quesadilla, jalapeno popper, bagel with cream cheese, spring roll and shrimp.
Café Venosa (4433 St Denis St., cafe-venosa.com) is a vegan coffee spot with friendly cats that strut around like they own the place, because, truthfully, they totally do. At Café Venosa, you can adopt a kitten while playing board games or reading one of their in-house books. Before you leave, be sure to use the provided lint rollers by the door on your black jeans.
The bagels in Montreal are different from the ones I eat in New York. I won’t say better or worse—they’re just different. Montreal Bagels are wood oven-baked, smaller and less chewy than their NYC counterparts—and no one asks for a shmear or a bagel sandwich in Montreal. The best bagels are either from Fairmount Bagel (74 Avenue Fairmount O, fairmountbagel.com) or St. Viateur (263 Rue Saint Viateur O, stviateurbagel.com), both of which are open 24 hours a day, every day and located just blocks apart in the Mile End. Locals are either team Fairmount or team St. Viateur. I suggest you try them both.
Montreal’s Mural Arts Festival (facebook.com/MuralMtl) is an international public art festival held annually in June. Saint Laurent Blvd becomes an outdoor open-air museum for about two weeks as local and international mural artists are given spaces on buildings to create large works that stay up until the following year. Most murals are located on Saint Laurent Blvd., a major artery through the city traversing through Plateau Mont-Royal and Mile End. The festival also includes block parties, music shows, exhibitions at local galleries and public art conferences. It showcases Montreal’s beautiful art scene and encourages Montreal residents and visitors to look up and around.
Publisher Drawn and Quarterly (211 Rue Bernard O, drawnandquarterly.com) has a tiny bookstore in the Mile End with a focus on graphic novels. With titles in both English and French, I found my fill of queer zines and graphic titles including “Lumber Janes,” “Pregnant Butch” and “Blue is the Warmest Color.”
Montreal summers are hot, humid and sticky. Lucky for you, Montreal is a river island with sandy beaches easily accessible by metro, car or bike. Jean Dore Beach (Lac de l’Île Notre Dame) in Parc Jean Drapeau is five minutes from downtown and cost $9 Canadian for entry. If it’s hiking and enjoying stunning scenic overlooks are your thing, look no further than
If it’s hiking and enjoying stunning scenic overlooks are your thing, look no further than Mount Royal Park (montreal.com/parks/mtroyal.html). Located in the center of Montreal, this beautiful 470-acre park in the center of Montreal is where locals go to enjoy the outdoors. There’s a lookout facing over downtown towards the river officially known as the Belvedere Kondiaronk, and a second lookout faces eastward toward the Olympic Stadium.
If pools are more your thing, Montreal has loads of public options that are either free or have a nominal entry cost. Parc Jean Drapeau (296 Chemin du Tour de l’isle, parcjeandrapeau.com) has a massive aquatic complex with a humongous pool, where locals set up trampolines, water slides and inflatable islands. Unfortunately, due to construction, it will be closed summer 2017, but it’s worth remembering for future visits. As an alternative, my favorite Montreal pool is Piscine Wilfrid Laurier (5200 Brebeuf St.) Family-friendly, this spot has a lovely wooded sunning area and is half the size of an Olympic pool.
Take advantage of Montreal’s amazing bike scene and protected bike lanes by bringing your own wheels or grabbing a BIXI from Montreal’s bike sharing system. You can choose one-day access ($5), 3-day access ($14), or even a one-way trip ($2.95) with the first 30-45 minutes free.
Jean Talon (7070 Henri Julien Ave.) is one of the oldest public markets in Montreal. Open seven days a week all year, Jean Talon is known for the local fruit and vegetable vendors lined up along its corridors, offering samples for patrons to try before they buy. Nestled between them are small cheese shops, butchers, fish, flowers, artisanal oils and pastries from all over Quebec. Walk around before deciding what to buy as vendor prices can vary greatly from booth to booth. Jean Talon is livelier and more active in summer; yet even in winter, about 50 percent of the vendors are peddling seasonal offerings such as pumpkins or Christmas trees.
If you don’t want to bike, Montreal has a lovely clean (but non-air conditioned) subway system that’s simple to use. Driving is also very easy in the city, with most signs in both French and English, though parking is a challenge. On-street parking is subject to street cleaning rules, resident permits and the usual headaches.
The US dollar is strong against the Canadian dollar; at the time of writing, for $0.75 American you can get $1 Canadian, essentially a 25 percent savings on all your expenses. You can definitely splash some serious cash in Montreal, but I like a discount vacation. And if you’re not swayed at all by these travel suggestions, may I also add Canada’s National Parks are celebrating their 150th year and Canada will give you a free Parks pass for 2017 even if you’re not Canadian. Canada will even mail it to your address for free so you can visit unlimited National Parks, unlimited National Marine Conservation Areas, and unlimited National Historic Sites across the whole country. You’ll need it, because you will be back; maybe even permanently.
Arizona Newsum is the co-founder of Traveling While Black.