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Drinking grog in the yurt on a Montreal rooftop. Jeff Rutherford photos.Drinking grog in the yurt on a Montreal rooftop. Jeff Rutherford photos.

Drinking Grog While Sitting In A Yurt on a Rooftop

Montreal En Lumière Festival: Crazy Winter Fun

When winter descends across much of North America, many people inevitably head south for a warm beach and sand. However, adventurous travelers head north for Montreal's festival of lights - Montreal En Lumière, an urban winter celebration enjoyed by hardy Montrealers and Quebecois and tourists.

I can't think of anywhere in the United States where people happily dance outside in sub-zero temperatures. At the Montreal En Lumière festival they do, and you will too if you embrace the true Montreal, winter experience.

One Montrealer explained the city's residents on my first day of exploring the city on a freezing late February day. There's an old saying among Montrealers and Quebecois, and I'm paraphrasing here, "If you're cold in the winter in Montreal, it's because you haven't dressed warmly enough." The spirit of that sentiment explains everything you need to know about experiencing the beauty of Montreal in the winter.

If you're willing to embrace the chilly weather, and add another layer of clothing if you need to, many winter urban delights await you in Montreal - drinking grog in a yurt on a Montreal rooftop, ice fishing in Montreal's Old Port, dancing outside in below zero temperatures to a booming electronica DJ, sliding down an ice slide/toboggan, and much, much more.

Where to Stay

Montreal is illuminted throughout the cold winters night during the festival Lumiere.Montreal is illuminated throughout the cold winters night during the festival Lumiere.Hotel - As is true of most metropolitan cities these days, Montreal is host to numerous boutique hotels as well as well-established chain hotels. In addition, apartments for a winter weekend abound on or AirBnB.

For this winter weekend trip, I stayed at the Le Place d'Armes Hôtel & Suites on the edge of Old Montreal. Combined from three historic buildings, the hotel is ideally suited for exploring the city. My room had hardwood floors, a comfy bed, and great bathroom for soaking and lounging at the end of the day.

Suite 701, the lounge/restaurant adjoining the hotel's lobby, was the ideal spot to grab a drink or a meal before heading out to explore the city each night. Or for a great breakfast and coffee to start the day.

Montreal - city tour: Some travelers insist on exploring a new city on their own, and I've done that many times too. But I didn't regret the Montreal city tour my first afternoon.

Montreal is unique among North American cities with its history and the fact that the city is home to two cultures - Anglophone and Francophone. Unlike the melting pots of most U.S. cities, the Montreal cultures have built a thriving urban city while also maintaining their separate identities since the city was founded in 1639.

The intricate religious statues and stained glass windows of Notre-Dame Basilica's breathtaking altar. The intricate religious statues and stained glass windows of Notre-Dame Basilica's breathtaking altar. Catholic missionaries landed in Montreal in 1642, led by Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve and Jeanne Mance, and the city’s Catholic heritage is represented in Montreal's architecture, culture, and the exquisite churches throughout the city.

Amazing Notre Dame

Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal, steps away from my hotel, is a must-see on any visit to the city, regardless of whether you're a religious person or not. With an aging, yet unassuming exterior, Notre-Dame Basilica's interior is truly breath-taking and features two balconies, elaborately detailed religious sculptures, a vaulted ceiling, a pipe organ with 7,000 pipes, and intricate stained-glass windows that depict pivotal scenes and historical figures important to Montreal's Catholic history.

And Then There Was Light is an evening performance highlighting the Basilica and its history.

Another church in Old Montreal worth noting is The Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, often called "The Sailor's Church." In the 1800s, sailors began presenting offerings for safe keeping on their sea-faring journeys. Now, wooden ship models hang from the ceilings of the church ornamented with votive candles.Snow falls in Montreal at the start of the All Nighter celebration.Snow falls in Montreal at the start of the All Nighter celebration.
Montreal – a Foodie’s paradise: Regardless of the cold temperatures outside, Montreal's foodie culture awaits inside the warmth of hundreds, if not thousands, of Montreal restaurants. It's almost impossible to have a bad meal in Montreal, and on a long February weekend, I had many, many fine meals.

SAT Foodlab

At The Society for Arts and Technology's (SAT) Foodlab, experienced chefs Seth Gabrielse and Michelle Marek deliver a themed menu that changes weekly. My meal included an exquisite lamb entree that was falling off the bone with flavor and tenderness.

The legendary smoked meat sandwich at Montreal's Schwartz’s Deli.The legendary smoked meat sandwich at Montreal's Schwartz’s Deli.My dinner at Foodlab led to one of the unique Montreal experiences I mentioned above. This winter, the Foodlab erected a Mongolian yurt on the restaurant's third-floor terrace.

Either before, or after, a meal, diners can wander outside onto the snow-covered terrace, and enjoy a hot cup of grog. With snow piled up on the terrace outside and video art displays projected on nearby high-rise buildings, the warmth of the yurt beckoned. Along with other diners, we sat on low-slung couches, enjoying the warm grog - a mixture of Canadian Club whiskey, sugar water, and ginger.

The next morning, after a late night of grog, our Montreal culinary adventures continued with a morning snack of Montreal bagels from St. Viaeteur bagels. Bagel connoisseurs can debate the merits of Montreal bagels vs. New York bagels for hours.

I’m a huge fan of New York bagels, having lived in New York City for nine years, but I equally enjoy Montreal bagels. Montreal bagels are sweeter (they’re boiled in honey-sweetened water), smaller and denser with a larger hole, and they’re always cooked in a wood-fired oven.

Fresh bagels, hot from the oven, at St. Viator bagel shop.Fresh bagels, hot from the oven, at St. Viator bagel shop.St Viateur Bagels

In St. Viateur Bagels, you never have to wonder about the freshness of the bagel. The wood-fired oven is five feet behind the counter, and cooks constantly pull out freshly baked bagels as you’re standing and watching.

In addition to their unique bagels, Montreal is also known for its smoked meats, and Montreal’s Schwartz’s Deli is world famous. Opened in 1928 by Reuben Schwartz, a Jewish immigrant from Romania, the restaurant has been in operation in the same location ever since.

Unassuming in appearance, a long, narrow room with long tables that you share with fellow diners, Schwartz’s corned beef sandwiches are unbelievably good. The meat is marinated for 10 days with a secret, special blend of herbs and spices, and then the meat is smoked daily prior to serving.

If I described every meal in Montreal in detail, this article would be novel length, but I did want to quickly mention the many great restaurants where I ate:

Les 400 Coupes – lunch of duck fazzoletti, cauliflower, leek, hazelnut, and dill.

Chez Victorie – amazing dinner of tomato salad, salmon tartar appetizer, and a mouth watering Angus steak.

Drilling  holes in the St Lawrence near an icefishing hut.Drilling holes in the St Lawrence near an icefishing hut.Restaurant Maïs

In the heart of Montreal’s Mile End neighborhood, Restaurant Maïs
features many amazing tacos and Latin-inspired dishes. Among many other dishes, we ate flank steak burritos and scallop tacos washed down with margaritas.

Montreal’s outdoor winter activities - Mount Royal Park, a mountain park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the landscape designer of New York’s Central Park, in 1874, looms over the city. Montrealers are passionate and proud of their park, and they enjoy the park’s beauty in every kind of weather, including bitter winter cold.

In keeping with a winter urban escape in Montreal, I explored the park on snowshoes and hiked approximately 1.25 miles of trails through the forests. Mount Royal offers that unique quality of many urban parks.

As you're hiking through the park, listening to the guide's explanation of the birds that fly south from northern Quebec to winter in Montreal, you catch glimpses of high-rise office buildings in the distance through the trees.

From the Belvedere castle, the destination for our snowshoe hike, you can experience an expansive view of downtown Montreal.

Ice Fishing

In addition to snowshoeing in Mont Royal Park, I also ice fished for walleye on the St. Lawrence River in the Old Port of Montreal. When you venture down to the river for ice fishing, you have the option of fishing inside a fishing hut heated with portable heaters or fishing on the river.

With the icy cold of this winter, the ice was extra thick according to our guide. Once we decided on a spot, the guide bore a hole through the ice with a very large drill. Fishing with minnows on an ordinary rod-and-reel, the lines are set for 30 feet depths. You can prop the fishing rod on a bucket as you stand in the cold, trading stories and laughs while you’re waiting for the fish to bite.

Nuit Blanche party-goers enjoying the light display, and outdoor DJs, in Montreal's Place des Festivals. Nuit Blanche party-goers enjoying the light display, and outdoor DJs, in Montreal's Place des Festivals. The day we fished, the fish were sluggish and not many people were catching anything. But Montreal’s joie de vivre shone through yet again. Many families were out fishing, and kids were running around atop the frozen river harbor while their parents patiently waited for a fish.

Nuit Blanche - The finale of the Montreal En Lumière festival is the Nuit Blanche - the all-nighter. The city stays open all night long - numerous art galleries, night clubs, restaurants, and bars. Instead of hiding from the cold weather in their apartments, Montrealers embrace the cold and explore the city.

350,000 Strong!

This year, 350,000 Montrealers and visitors participated in more than 200 activities during Nuit Blanche.

On Nuit Blanche, after dinner at Restaurant Maïs, we walked out into the bright, crisp Montreal night as snow began falling. Throughout the evening as we walked the city and explored the numerous Nuit Blanche events, snow continued to fall – a perfect accompaniment to a Montreal all-nighter.

With numerous activities to choose from, our Nuit Blanche journey included a stop at Monastikari, a funky thrift store that now features art classes. On this night, Montrealers, a mixture of families, singles, and couples, were creating art collages – cutting images out of old magazines and glueing them into new, random patterns.

As we walked down St. Laurent, we ventured past Leonard Cohen’s house (don’t worry, we didn’t knock), and made a stop at Dieu du ciel!, a bar and micro-brewery for a quick beer tasting. Every beer we tasted was amazing, but the highlight was Mortal Sin, a beer that’s 9.8% alcohol and is brewed with coffee. A coffee-infused beer may sound bad. Trust me, it’s not bad at all. In fact, I wanted another glass, but we needed to move on.
Yurt, covered in snow, on the outdoor balcony of The Society for Arts and Technology's (SAT) Foodlab,Yurt, covered in snow, on the outdoor balcony of The Society for Arts and Technology's (SAT) Foodlab,
The major attraction for many on Nuit Blanche is the Place des Festivals – a large, outdoor festival space in downtown Montreal. Thousands of people thronged Place des Festivals. A line of people waiting to ride a luge down a huge ice slide snaked around the plaza. Video art displays were projected on nearby buildings. A lighted, giant Ferris Wheel lit up the sky. Jugglers tossed neon-lighted objects.

In one corner of the Place des Festivals, a DJ stage featured internationally-known electronica DJs as well as Montreal electronica artists. There, in the cold Montreal night, with snow coming down, and spotlights sweeping the crowd, thousands of people danced. When I first heard about Nuit Blanche, I heard about outdoor dancing in sub-zero Montreal winter nights, and at first I couldn’t believe it. Standing in the dancing crowd that night, I believed, and I danced too.

At the end of a long night, after I staggered into my hotel, I knew that I’d just experienced a truly unique night, and I would be recommending Nuit Blanche and Montreal to all of my friends for a wonderful winter travel excursion.

jeff rutherford

Visit the festival website for more information about Montreal en Lumiere

Jeff Rutherford is a voracious reader, quilter, podcaster, and CrossFit cultist, who has worked in the digital marketing industry for 17+ years. He lives in Western Massachusetts with his wife and 2 sons in a house built in 1850.

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