My family and I arrived at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts on a beautiful June afternoon with a calm breeze in the sky and painterly light darting through the white clouds overhead. Despite the placid scene, I felt anxiety as I pushed my toddler’s stroller toward the entrance. I was already preparing to hear, “Can we go now?” escaping from between his little lips.
Bringing kids to attractions that may test their patience and challenge their reasoning can be delicate, or precarious. While I consider the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to be the best facility of its kind in Canada, I couldn’t expect Gabriel to be excited, let alone enchanted, by the collection. I anticipated a stay of one hour, if my wife and I were lucky.
Nearly three hours after we entered, we departed with a mind-blown 4-year-old determined to have one of his haphazard works of imagination — rich with scribbles and stickers and misshaped figures that make total sense to him — hanging someday in that largest art museum in the country. It was a learning lesson as a parent to let the child discover novel environments and question for himself what constitutes entertainment. He stood enthralled by David Altmjed’s gigantic “The Shepherd”, a circa 2008 sculpture that looks like Chewbacca crashed into a chandelier. The questions from my son came quickly and none of them inquired about the estimated time of his departure. He wanted to know “why” the artist would make the choice to use certain materials or how something as enormous as a 50-foot monument of horse hair and polyurethane could get into a gallery space. Similarly, he wanted to know how and, of course, why Nicolas Party — the featured artist of the museum’s current special exhibit — could manufacture giant, multi-coloured heads.
It was an eyes-wide-open moment that ignited Gabriel’s curiosity, lingering with him for longer than you might think. Two days later, when we were pulling out of Montreal on a VIA Rail train, I asked what he liked most about his trip. Unexpectedly and without hesitation, he said it was going to the fine arts museum. The answer came after a fun-filled journey that included stops at the Montreal Biodome and Insectarium. At both of those venues, the natural world is what excites children, with giggle-inducing multimedia features and lots of creature interactions. The newly renovated Insectarium experience begins with guests seeing themselves the way a fly might as their image appears on a giant screen sectioned into what look like tiny honeycombs that display a slightly opaque visual resembling an insect’s view of the world.
There are also alcoves where kids can get a sense of the tiny and dark spaces that critters inhabit. The butterfly conservatory is the highlight as kids can roam with the lovely creatures flitting about and sometimes on them. The Insectarium reopened in April after a $38.4-million refurbishment that has reimagined the space and brought another reason to visit the attractions around Olympic Stadium.
Refined Montreal Marriott Chateau Champlain
A massive renovation has recently transformed the Montreal Marriott Chateau Champlain into a contemporary gem while retaining the sense of its heritage. The new owner is Tidan Hospitality and Real Estate Group, headed by entrepreneurs Mike Yuval and Jack Softer, who have aimed to retain much of the property’s distinctiveness. Built in 1967, to accommodate the International Expo, the hotel has been a venerable part of Montreal for the past 55 years. It’s one of a few large hotels around Gare Central, the city’s main train station, and that location makes the Montreal Marriott Chateau Champlain even more attractive these days when air travel is so chaotic.
The Toronto-to-Montreal journey on VIA Rail is especially appealing because passengers venture from downtown to downtown, avoiding airport and highway traffic. Most trains will arrive in five hours, making stops en route. Without the need to lineup for security or wait for an airline delay to resolve itself, you have a predictable means to go from Toronto to Montreal (or vice versa). It was Gabriel’s first time on a passenger train and he managed the journey exceptionally well, leaning into the leisurely pace and turning the family seating into his activity desk. By the time we arrived at Gare Centrale he was ready to explore — and we easily could.
The train station is just a couple of blocks outside of Montreal’s famed historic centre and a four-minute walk to Montreal Marriott Chateau Champlain. Along with its more than 600 rooms and suites, the property has an excellent new restaurant, Lloyd, that features local ingredients spun into globally inspired dishes. The highlight at Lloyd is the cocktail list, which includes libations created with craftsmanship and presented with panache. The Smoked Re-fashion arrives in a glass box that the server opens for you, releasing the campfire-like aroma into your nostrils.
Dining Delights in Montreal
While Lloyd is a quality hotel restaurant, travellers to Montreal are always keen to explore the city’s many dining establishments, especially those in the tourist-focused historic centre. Jellyfish is a new addition to Old Montreal since my last visit. Its focus on seafood with hints of Asian flavours in the sauces and seasonings is creative and a true pleasure to taste. Examples include Pani Puri, which is a dish of delicate fried crackers, shaped like balls, that contain lobster and are topped with Mujjol caviar, and a scallop crudo that hints at Peruvian-style ceviche. Tempura octopus is served with wasabi guacamole and ginger relish.
A recent trend in Montreal is the emergence of food halls, which elevate the concept of the greasy, unappealing food courts we’re accustomed to seeing at malls. Le Central on bustling Boulevard St-Laurent includes 20 restaurants congregated in one large space that is a haven for foodies. You will find Spanish tapas, vegan options, French classics, Mexican churros, Korean ramen, Portuguese ramen and more. I opted for a lobster salad from Gaspésie Camion Gourmand, which showcases flavours from Quebec’s Maritime region. The dish was a massive treat of lobster meat served atop a big, red bowl of vegetables.
Venture West to Trendy Verdun
In the summer, Montreal is easy to explore and its neighbourhoods are always reinventing themselves. Among them is Verdun, a community at the western end of the city’s Metro subway line that has attracted young families and entrepreneurs looking to save on real estate. That has led to an emerging dining scene and some outstanding community events, including activities at its public beach and a car-free zone that runs a dozen blocks along Wellington Street, the borough’s main thoroughfare. The pedestrian-friendly area — dubbed “Bonjour Beaux Jours,” or “Hello Beautiful Days” — opened this year on June 1 and will run through the summer. It features decades-old retailers — such as Harricana, a seller of the distinct Canadian Hat brand — and hot new restaurants. We dined at local favourite, Rita, which specializes in pizzas made from its wood-fired oven. It also has an outstanding wine list for a small restaurant. Afterwards, we sauntered down Wellington, relaxing in the vibe of Montreal and savouring another beautiful day, indeed.
MORE ABOUT VISITING MONTREAL
Getting Around: The Montreal Metro is easy to use and offers free rides for children under five years old. A single-ride, one-zone fare costs $3.50 per adult. Select 24-hour or three-day passes if you plan on venturing around the city by subway. Passengers with a stroller or ambulatory issues should be mindful that not all Metro stations have elevators.
Where to Stay: Room rates for an August weekend stay at the Montreal Marriott Chateau Champlain, based on a recent search of the property’s booking engine, start at $290 per night.