Exploring Montreal and Toronto

When writing about a conference or other events I attend in some city I’ve never been to, I’m trying to keep that post focused exclusively on the event itself and then follow it up with a separate one about the trip itself. For some reason I forgot doing that for my trip to PyCon this April where Ulrich Petri and I first explored Montreal (where the conference took place) and later Toronto. So here we go: Lengthy post ahead :-)

Montreal

Montreal as seen from Mont-Royal

As a first-time-visitor to Canada I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Sure, I had been to North America quite a few times already but I imagined Canada to be different; and Montreal turned out to be just the right amount of that for me. The mix of French and English culture is just different enough from what I’ve become used to when in the USA. Luckily, not knowing French all that well isn’t an issue here, but knowing more definitely helps.

Getting there

Getting there, was a bit complicated, though: I usually have to do multiple city-hops to get any where. This time I had the choice between taking Air Canada in combination with Lufthansa (via Frankfurt) to fly directly to Montreal or Austria Airlines (via Vienna) which would first land in Toronto and then continue with Air Canada to Montreal. IIRC the Austria Airlines flight was cheaper and there was the chance to get a more modern cabine so I went with them. The flight itself was pleasant enough but for some reason Air Canada doesn’t provide tickets via Austrian, so I had to pick them up at Toronto Airport before being able to continue the journey. But, finally, after nearly 15 hours in air planes I arrived at Montreal Airport to meet with a couple of friends to share a taxi.

Hotel

Ulrich and I stayed at the Travelodge Montreal Centre, by far the largest Travelodge I’ve seen so far. It was cheap compared to all the other hotels close to the conference center but also not really that comfortable. They also managed to construct the toilet in such a way that you could easily burn your leg on the heating unit when using the toilet.

Other then that, it was fine and I’m considering staying there again next year.

Eating & Drinking

You can't go wrong with Poutine in Montreal

  • Rôtisserie St-Hubert: Chain of restaurants that serve chicken related dishes. Not bad but also nothing special. But they have Hoegaarden in huge glasses ;) We even went there twice simply because it was good and spacious.

  • Mâche! is a tiny restaurant in Montreal’s Quartier Latin and serves excellent Poutine. It looks like the whole area is extremely francophone, so try to order in French first ;-)

  • Another chain-restaurant Ulrich and I went to at least twice were Les 3 Brasseurs in the old town. Nice gastro-pub with decent custom beers and simply a great atmosphere.

  • Due to some reviews on Foursquare and Yelp we went to NYKS Bistro Pub one rainy evening which turned out a hidden gem! Great food, beer menu on a chalk board, quick service. Just great (although quite packed)!

  • After visiting the Olympic park we were looking for a nice coffee shop and found it right next ot the main entrance with the Station in Vivo which might look like a chain from the outside, but surprisingly wasn’t. Great Chai Latte!

  • If you want awesome food in a tiny, tiny room where you make your orders as close to the kitchen as possible, you can find all that and more at the Dinette Triple Crown. They don’t offer the largest servings, but what we got was among the best in all our two weeks in Canada.

  • After a recommendation from Baptiste we wanted to get some Poutine one last time before leaving the city and found the perfect place for that: Poutineville. You get a checklist and can customize your Poutine exactly to your liking. Want two sorts of meat and two sorts of cheese? Not a problem!

Sights etc.

  • I already wrote about the Biosphere back in April :-)

  • We went to the Olympic Park one afternoon but it was under heavy restaurative work and the elevator to the top of the stadium was just far too expensive, so we skipped it.

  • Be sure to explore Mont-Royal and the surrounding area. Even during the winter months just a nice place to sit down and enjoy the view.

  • For shopping you might find what you’re looking for along Rue Sainte-Catherine which is among others the home of the local Apple store and a nice cinema where we enjoyed the 2nd Captain America movie.

  • The city is full of awesome graffiti and other kinds of street-art. Keep your eyes open!

Toronto

Toronto at night

After PyCon Ulrich and I took a nice train ride down to Toronto for another week to explore another one of Canada’s cities. Apart from a short ride from Newark to Manhattan this was my first time in a train in North America and was really quite a different experience from European train systems. For one, the whole organisation felt more akin to airports than trains stations which weight controls and gates.

The train trip itself was, sadly, rather boring. I had hoped for some nice vistas but only the last 30 minutes offered that with a nice view over Lake Ontario. The train, at least, had power outlets in every seat :-)

It also came as a small shock that everything around Toronto Union Station was just one big construction site. Given that our hotel was just 3 blocks away, we felt quite relieved when it wasn’t in the thick of it all ;-)

Hotel

Speaking of the hotel: The Novotel Toronto Centre is really a nice place to stay. With only 5 minutes to the train station, 10 to the lake, and 10 to the distillery district, it’s a great hub for exploring the city.

The rooms are what you would expect from a Novotel (or a better Hilton if you’ve never stayed at a Novotel before) and the breakfast was awesome thanks to fresh bread and French Toast.

I should perhaps ordering breakfast at hotels more often again just to see the staff’s reaction to a grown up man ordering hot chocolate instead of coffee or tea ;-)

Eating & Drinking

  • Amsterdam Brewhouse was where we eventually ended up right on our first evening … and we came back later during our trip. Brewhouse, sports bar , good food, and extremely friedly staff. Perfect! And don’t miss the beer menu here with some that are only serviced during certain months.

  • The Triple A Bar is another one of these small restaurants we found during our trip with just tons of atmosphere. Here the seller were the BBQ dishes with the rips getting quite a lot attention on Yelp et al. Nice place and I’d definitely return but probably not for the rips alone :-)

  • I like sports bars. And the Real Sports Bar & Grill is probably the biggest one I’ve ever been to with a beer menu that spans 4 pages in the menu (and large pages they were). Sadly, the staff wasn’t all that friendly and I’ve definitely had better burgers elsewhere, but it is definitely worth a visit for the sight alone!

Real Sports Bar & Grill's display-madness

Sights etc.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see all that much note-worthy in Toronto, probably due to half of the city being under construction and the rest being not yet ready for the spring. That being said, here are a few things you should definitely do when visiting the city:

  • Obviously, the CN Tower! It’s just such a nice view from up there.

  • Take a ferry to the small islands south of the main parts of the city. We went there during the night to get some nice night-shots of Toronto, nearly froze to death, but it was worth it.

  • Watch some of the protests in front of the City Hall while they are still there ;-)

  • If you’ve ever watched Warehouse 13, take a stroll through the Distillery District to see some of the locations where the show was filmed (esp. “London”).

  • If you like modern museums, the Royal Ontario Museums should offer something for you. When we were there they had an exhibition about Chinese culture and one about dinosaurs. Great stuff (esp. the “fish of boe”)

  • There is a large mall in the north of the city which you can easily reach via metro from the Union Station. Getting a ticket for that is rather complicated but hey ;-)

  • Toronto Pearson International has an iPad-enabled lounge where you can order via tough-screen! Oh, and power plugs everywhere!

Misc.

  • Virgin Mobile has a prepaid plan for about CAD 50 which basically brought as through our two weeks in Canada. Some more data would have been nice (we got either 250 or 500 MB, can’t remember anymore) but at the least the reception was never an issue.

  • Besides, obviously, Tim Horton’s make sure to also give Second Cup a try. Great Chai Latte (well, milk with cinnamon).

  • If you consider buying some electronics or similar items here, be aware that the taxes here are higher than most of the US, so it might not be such a great deal after all ;-)

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