Monday, June 28, 2010

One-Day Walking Tour of Montreal's Old Port and ChinaTown

With a population of only four million, Montreal is by no means a huge city, but it is the largest in Quebec, Canada.

Its small size makes it a safe and easy city to navigate by foot. The subway system only has four lines that criss-cross the city and you can get from one end of the island to the other in less than an hour.

To really enjoy the city, don't waste money on taxis or even bother renting a car - Montreal drivers have their own rules for the road, and the endless one-way streets can frustrate even the most experienced drivers. Parking is also difficult and expensive. So grab a good pair of shoes, hope the weather is great and take a walk!

This one-day walking tour starts just outside Place-d'Armes metro station. Head west on St. Urbain street, towards Viger Avenue. If you walk a block over to St. Laurent, you should be able to see a large pagoda with two lion statues. This is the entrance to Montreal's Chinatown. If you are there on a weekday morning, it will be much less crowded. Sunday is the most popular day to go to Chinatown, but keep in mind, the crowds are never so large as to make navigation difficult. Chinatown is spread out over a few blocks between St. Urbain and St. Laurent and Viger and René-Levesque.

Take the time to browse in all the little shops along St. Laurent. Each shop has an interesting mix of food items, novelties, souvenirs, ornaments and dishes. In grocery stores, you'll find Chinese, Japanese and Taiwanese foods and candies. Be adventurous and pick up something you've never tried before! This is also a great place to get fresh, cheap fruits in season. Buy a bunch to bring back to your hotel room or give to your host.

If you stroll along de la Gauchetière, you'll find more restaurants and delectable bakeries. Stop by the Dragon's beard stall - you can't miss it! Dragon's beard is a candy made with long strands of sugar (the "dragon's beard") and peanuts, coconut and sesame seeds inside. It's made fresh on the spot. You can also find Bubble tea - flavoured teas with giant balls of sweetened tapioca (the "bubbles") that you suck up with an extra large straw.

You can easily make a quick and cheap lunch out of the fresh sausage rolls or red bean balls of the bakeries, or sit down at one of the restaurants or buffets along the strip. The food is authentic and good - though service can sometimes be slow.

After that, head south down St. Laurent and head towards the Old Port (Vieux-Port) of Montreal. You'll have to walk uphill for this part and you'll pass by the Palais de Justice (courthouse). If you need to use the bathroom, you can hop in there, but there's nothing particularly special about the building. If you wander upstairs, you may be able to catch a glimpse of a wedding party, fresh from exchanging their vows.

Take a right on Notre-Dame and visit the Notre-Dame Basilica. It was modelled after Notre-Dame in Paris, but is much smaller. Still, it is worth the small entrance fee to take a look inside. You'll find a wonderful organ, beautiful stained glass windows and the back chapel where Céline Dion got married!

From there, head south on St. Sulpice street towards St. Paul street. St. Paul is the oldest street in Montreal and mostly cobblestone - which is why it's important to wear good shoes for this tour. Don't try walking in heels on cobblestone! You can browse through the shops on this street that is closed to traffic all summer, or stop in for some gelato or maple treats. There are tons of souvenir shops to be found here, if that's what you're looking for.

Go south one more block and walk back along de la Commune, which follows the St. Lawrence river. In the summer you'll see private yachts in the habour and giant freight ships. If you're peckish, try a quèue de castor (beaver tail). It's not a real animal part, don't worry! It's a sort of fried flat bread covered in sugar and cinnamon, or chocolate - whatever topping you wish!

When evening falls, make sure you are around the Place Jacques-Cartier area. Performers and artists come out at night and all the restaurant terraces are open. This will be a more expensive dinner, but take the time to check the menus posted outside and find something you really like. If you walk back up Place Jacques-Cartier, there's a beautiful fountain lit up at night. If you're in town for the summer International Fireworks Competition, the Old Port is a good place to watch them for free. Go down the steps behind the fountain at Place Jacques-Cartier and you'll be back at Place d'Armes metro, where you started your day.

Time to head home, rest your feet and recharge your camera battery for tomorrow!
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