I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again – one of my favourite cities in Canada is definitely Montreal. As the second largest city in Canada, Montreal blends the romance of the cobblestone old port with the modern downtown core so perfectly, you feel caught between two different moments in time. It is a city that bustles with people who love holding onto their French history and culture, yet still welcomes students and immigrants from all over the world looking for a better life in Canada. Even with all this, most don’t think to visit Montreal in the winter (to be fair, it is pretty cold!), but here is why you should!
Over the course of 2 winter weekends (Feb 22 – Mar 4) the city comes alive for a spectacle and celebration that combines art, music, food, and fun. This year, Montreal celebrated the 19th edition of Montreal En Lumiere – one of the largest winter festivals in the world. Not only do Montrealers come out in hordes to enjoy all of the interactive art installations and shake hands with Olympians, but the festival also sees a huge influx of tourists. Whether you are a foodie, a music lover, or just want to see some cool art, there is something for everyone of every age to enjoy.
Having gone to Montreal En Lumiere last year, I was bubbling with excitement to be headed back for a second time. The major difference for me was that this year I wasn’t going to be going alone! My girlfriend Krystle (@dineandfash on Instagram) joined me and I was determined to show her around and make her fall just as much in love with the city and festival as me.
Where To Stay
Having arrived before her, I went directly to the hotel to check in and get settled. This year we were staying at Hotel Zero 1, a modern and chic boutique hotel located an easy 3-4 minute walk from the festival grounds. The room itself was very comfortable and featured a kitchenette with a microwave, mini fridge, and coffee maker, making it perfect for a festival ‘base camp’. Although the hotel does serve complimentary breakfast every morning, located two blocks away is Complexe Desjardins where you can find an SAQ (liquor store) and IGA (supermarket). The convenience of being so centrally located made it super easy to stuff the kitchenette fridge with weekend essentials.
Once united, Krystle and I went straight to Le Quartier Des Spectacles to check out the festival grounds. Walking through the festival I was seriously surprised by how busy it was on a Thursday and how many people were out zip-lining (one of many totally complementary activities), enjoying maple syrup candy (probably the most Canadian thing ever), eating poutine, and partying in the Bell Chalet. After doing a quick loop around the grounds, Krystle and I headed into the Bell Chalet for a celebratory ‘weekend kick-off’ cocktail and some tunes. A great start to our trip!
The next morning Krystle and I decided to get up early and run around the city taking photos. One of my favourite spots was La Grande Roue de Montréal in the Old Port, which is the largest observation wheel in Canada, reaching over 60 meters high. It is open year round and gives you the most spectacular panoramic views of the city. At the base of the observation wheel, there is also a coffee shop and skating rink so you can easily spend a couple of hours there.
After snapping some photos and enjoying a relaxing chat over our morning coffee, it was time for lunch so we headed to Restaurant Europea. Like many restaurants in Montreal, during this special time of year, the resturant had a specialty menu in celebration of Montreal En Lumiere. For $45 you can enjoy a 5 course lunch at one of the most revered restaurants in Montreal, which if you’re from Toronto and have seen restaurant prices lately, is pure crazy sauce.
This year, Restaurant Europea’s Montreal En Lumiere menu was inspired by legendary French chef Paul Bocuse who passed away this past January. In his memory, they featured delicious dishes like eggs poached in red wine, caramelized onion and crunchy bacon on a bed of celery root mousseline and covered in a reduced meat juice. Delicious is an understatement!! For my main I had the roasted chicken breast with Cognac cream and morels, which was so good I scraped the plate!
There is also a wine pairing option available to enhance the experience even further, for around $85 per person. If this sounds a little out of your budget for lunch, during the festival there are countless culinary activities (such as workshops, tastings and even conferences) that vary to suit everyone’s taste and budget.
Must Do: Floating Spa
During our stay, Krystle and I also made sure to visit Bota Bota, a floating spa in the Old Port that features over a dozen different massage, facial and body treatments. The spa itself is so beautiful and offers the most stunning views of Old Montreal. We spent the entire next morning enjoyed their water circuit, which is the ultimate thermal experience and leaves you feeling completely revitalized.
The purpose of a Water Circuit, or Nordic Baths is to raise your temperature, dilate your pores and flush out toxins before plunging into a cold bath to get your heart pumping and close your pores again. Because you have spent so much time in the hot baths before transitioning into the cold lake (that’s right, you are jumping into the lake) your pours actually close so fast that the heat is trapped inside creating a natural thermal insulation. The result, a natural state of euphoria. It is actually quiet an incredible experience with numerous health benefits including:
- Assists in the elimination of toxins
- Helps restore skin elasticity and tone
- Stimulates the cardiac system
- Improves circulation
- Reinforces the immune system by promoting white blood cell production
- Releases stress and tension
Rates for the spa vary, but during low season (like when we went during the festival) you can do the water circuit for as low as $39! The Spa also participates in Nuit Blanche by hosting a Vague de Lumière event that blends water with light and keeps the spa open till 2:30AM.
For Nuit Blanche, there was a lot Krystle and I wanted to see and do. This year marked the second edition of ‘Illuminart’, a circuit of light focused instillations that are scattered around the festival grounds.
Some of the works that I loved included a piece called Chimes by Black Box Collective that consisted of 30 light tubes and 8 speakers that would come alive when a set of large wind chimes located in the middle were interacted with. It was enchanting to stand amongst the tubes, listening to the soothing sounds of the chimes while watching children play and interact with the art.
Another one of my favourite pieces was by a Belgium artist named Tom Dekyvere who set up a canopy of lights that symbolizes the flow of a plant looking for light in an urban environment. It was quiet a mesmerizing piece that could easily steal 5-10 minutes of your time and I gladly let it do so.
In addition to ‘Illuminart’ there is also ‘Art Souterrain’ which features 70 contemporary pieces of work in Montreal underground path. The path is about 7 km long and is a huge draw for those who are interested in escaping the cold.
Grab Yourself A Drink
During Nuit Blanche, the Montreal subway stays open all night long and bars extend last call, so after running around enjoying all the festival had to offer, we made sure to hit up two of my favourite bars in Montreal, both of which also happen to be located a stones-throw away from our hotel. The first stop was Le Mal Nécessaire, a Chinatown speakeasy that serves Pina collides in hollowed out coconut. They also serve the best Old Fashions! After a couple drinks there we followed up our cocktails with some drinks at Midway, a hip-hop playing university hangout that was literally packed with people!
Like I said in the beginning, Montreal really does come alive during this special winter festival. If you ever have a chance to go I definitely recommend grabbing your favorite travel buddy and exploring the art, music, specialty menus, and events this amazing festival brings together every year…. and who know, we may even run into each other!