It’s easy to forget that we don’t need to cross the Atlantic for a taste of Francophone culture (although the complimentary wine on AirFrance flights does make that option rather appealing.) But just north of the States lies Québec, Canada’s second-largest province and home to a predominately French-speaking population.
Although their accents and colloquialisms are distinct from those of French Europeans, Québec is a veritable Francophone destination with a culture to match. Its cities feel undeniably European, and visitors will be hard-pressed to find a Québecois who isn’t brimming with regional pride. The unique heritage and language set the area apart from most of Canada, and residents are generally friendly and welcoming to visitors.
For a taste of this intriguing province, head to Montréal, one of Québec’s most compelling cities and its largest. Here are the top things to do on your pseudo-European vacation:
7070 Henri Julien Ave, Montreal (map)
If you’re a fan of the classic French marché, with vendors selling local produce, baked goods, and other staples, you must pay a visit to Marché Jean-Talon. Located in Montréal’s Little Italy, this open-air market has it all. Everything is fresh, primarily sourced from local farms and businesses. It’s a definite crowd-pleaser for all types of visitors.
Perhaps the most iconic dish of the region, this mixture of French fries, gravy, and cheese curds can be found all across the city and shouldn’t be missed. It might not look like much—in fact, it can appear rather amoeba-like—but don’t let the unappealing aesthetics stop you from indulging. Head to La Roulotte on the West Island for a heaping serving on a plastic plate at a cheap-o price. Perhaps the most well-known locale for poutine, La Banquise is another bargain and perfect for those looking for variety, as you’ll have over 30 types to choose from. And the best part? It’s open 24/7, so you’re all set for that heart-stopping 4 AM treat. Hangovers, be gone.
For those seeking a more refined poutine experience, opt for Au Pied de Cochon. It’s Anthony Bourdain-approved and is known for their generous integration of foie gras into the dish. Yes, please.
47 de la Commune West, Montréal (map)
It’s not often that you head to a major metropolitan city and have the option of experiencing a crazy, there-goes-your-hat-and-your-breakfast-type boat ride. Well in Montréal, anything is possible, so bring your bathing suit and strap in for a trip through the rapids with Saute-Moutons Jet Boating. Your driver will twist and turn, so scream all you want—you’re still leaving soaked. (Official website here.)
Because it’s simultaneously sizable yet not an overwhelming mega-city, Montréal can play host to several annual festivals that energize the entire place. Music and entertainment buffs should carve out time for the summer Jazz Festival (consistently the largest in the world), which offers hundreds of concerts over 11 days. The majority of the concerts are free, and despite its name, the gathering does offer an array of musical genres. For those looking to engage with Québec’s Francophone identity, head to Les Francofolies de Montreal, a summer festival dedicated to French-speaking bands and artists. Although many of the performers are French-Canadians, bien sûr, you can also expect to find others from all parts of the francophone world.
Since you’re in already in the area, you might as well make a trip to Mont Tremblant, an idyllic town located about an hour and a half from Montreal. The city features quaint multicolored buildings and a ski lift-dotted mountain for those who want a European resort vibe. During the summer months, the landscape is an adventurer’s paradise, perfect for hiking, biking, climbing, canoeing, and more. During the winter, after a hard day of skiing and dogsledding, enjoy a cozy meal of fondue at La Savoie, located within the pedestrian village.
New Yorkers, beware: don’t expect the kind of doughy breakfast treats that we get every weekend from Absolute Bagels. While our bagels on this side of the border are boiled in tap water, our neighbors to the north use honey-sweetened water, which apparently makes all the difference. Montréal bagels are smaller, denser, sweeter, often crispier and are certainly worth a try. For the best of the best, make a trip to St-Viateur Bagel, started by Polish Holocaust survivor Meyer Lewkowitz. If you love the experience and need a second taste before heading home, try their competitor, Fairmont Bagel. Which is better? The jury’s still out.
175 Saint-Catherine St, Montreal (map)
This huge performing arts center has it all: great concerts, ballet, theater, comedy, etc. For English-speakers, opt for a dance performance or impressive orchestra rendition. But for French-speakers itching for a great show outside of Paris, here is the place to go. The acoustics are terrific, and you can enjoy the surrounding Complexe Desjardins before and after your show, which is brimming with shops and restaurant options.