As fall break rapidly approached last semester, my friends and I were faced with the single greatest recurring struggle of our generation: where to spend those four precious days of freedom. Most of us could simply go home, sure, but where was the fun in that? Montreal promised an international adventure, a foreign language and a discount drinking age of 18. So we loaded our bags into the spacious trunk of my VW Beetle and set off toward the City of Saints.
A note: the streets of Montreal were not meant for easy driving. Plus, I’m pretty sure half the city was under construction. But Montreal has an amazing metro system. Make use of it. Even though we were on the outskirts of the city, a ten minute bus ride to the metro station and a quick ride on the rails would have gotten us downtown in no time. We were young, excited and foolish, however; our first night in the city, we hailed an Uber, and we payed by spending the next 50 minutes crammed into a cab together.
Downtown Montreal on a Saturday night was spectacular. After a quick dinner, we set out in the direction of the nightlife. On our way, we wandered through McGill and felt a smug sense of superiority thinking of our own beautiful campus. After 20 minutes of walking, we found ourselves on Boul St. Laurent, a place we would be visiting often in the next few days.
To me, St. Laurent is the image I conjure up when I think of Montreal. It encompassed the city’s personality perfectly. It’s a bustling street visited by Montrealites and tourists alike, who speak every language from French and English to languages I couldn’t even recognize. Signs and menus were printed in whatever language seemed more convenient at the time. That evening, the street was lit up with bright neon signs of popping clubs and cozy pubs; during the day, it would boast cafés and upscale clothing stores with fashions from around the world. I felt as if I had been misplaced, like we’d crossed the Canadian border and found ourselves in a European town.
(One of the city’s most well-known restaurants, Schwartz’s Deli, is also here on St. Laurent, although I’d recommend you get in line early.)
The following morning was our first opportunity to really see the city during the day. We visited Old Montreal, a beautiful, historic section of the city filled with cobblestoned streets and celebrated landmarks. Horse-drawn buggies waited at corners to carry excited visitors around the plaza. Buildings were decorated not with Canadian flags, but with the flag of Quebec. If it weren’t for the souvenir shops and islands of construction work, we could have easily been plopped into the 1800s. With no particular plan in mind, my friends and I snapped pictures in front of the Notre Dam de Bon Secours Cathedral, wandered through Old Port, browsed the offerings at the Bonsecours Market and popped our heads into stores here and there. Being surrounded by the old architecture and the constant barrage of French, that feeling of being misplaced in space continued to pervade our senses.
Two of my favorite places we found along the way were a small art gallery and a coffee shop. The art gallery was called Galeries d’Art Le Bourget. The store was filled with all sorts of paintings and sculptures and, while all the artwork was way out of our price range, the owners let us amble around and gape at the things around us. After leaving the gallery, we found the 7 Grains Bakery and Café, where we had a light lunch, crepes and delicious coffee to keep us going for the afternoon.
It wasn’t until the following day that we had the chance to visit possibly the most famous of Montreal’s attractions, and my absolute favorite: the Biodome. Our tickets got us into both the Biodome and the surrounding Botanical Gardens. We welcomed the brief respite from the nippy weather by starting in the tropical dome. There, we were surrounded by exotic birds and butterflies, fluttering all around us. The Biodome took us through every sphere of the globe, from the depths of the sea floor to the frigid fringes of arctic. Our group slowly unwound itself, as everyone found their favorite mammal or critter to watch dreamily.
We met up again at the Botanical Gardens. Even though it was fall and nearing the end of the season, the gardens were filled with color. Like every section of the Biodome was filled with a different environment, every section of the Garden contained its own special culture.
It was an amazing end to an incredible weekend. We returned to Cornell the next day more exhausted than we had been when we left, but the trip was worth it. We had only driven across the border to Canada, but it felt like we’d seen much more of the world than that. We’d taken a step into a European postcard, explored every corner of the natural world, and gotten a little slice of so many cultures. It was the closest we could have gotten to traveling the planet on a college budget, and it was all only a hop, skip and a border away.