When people hear the word “Montreal,” they tend to think of gorgeous, hot nights and raunchy sex in back alleys. Well, I know some of you do, anyway. But given its European architecture, vibrant cultural institutions and beautiful parks, Montreal is a city that’s well worth checking out in winter.
Cold weather makes for a great excuse to spend time indoors, in particular at several of Montreal’s beautiful museums. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has a vast permanent collection but also features strong rotating exhibits year-round. The museum itself is an architectural wonder; the old building sits on the north side of Sherbrooke Street, and the new progressive bit of architecture sits on the south. The gift shop is one of the best in the city and the second-floor restaurant is divine. The Canadian Centre for Architecture has one of the largest collections of prints, drawings, photographs and models relating to architecture in the world. The building itself is worth a tour and the bookshop is unbeatable. The Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art focuses on the works of Quebec artists but also boasts an intriguing number of works by Canadian artists. The current exhibit, Beat Nation: Art, Hip Hop and Aboriginal Culture (which runs until Jan 5, 2014), is getting rave reviews.
Essential to any stay in Montreal is a visit to the Biodome, an eco-museum where visitors can sample various climates and the plants and animals that inhabit them. Since its opening in 1992, the Biodome has seen millions check out vast rooms that recreate faraway climes, including “tropical rainforest,” “Laurentian maple forest,” “Labrador coast” and “Gulf of St Lawrence.” The people behind the Biodome also run the Botanical Gardens — which features all sorts of rare, exotic plants — and the Insectarium, a museum of unusual bugs.
Wintry fun can be found at the Parc Jean-Drapeau, where every year a massive snow village is created. There is a 25-room hotel made entirely of ice and a restaurant that seats 100, but kitsch enthusiasts will really get a kick out of the snow-and-ice replica of New York City. For those who are travelling with children, there are train rides and snow-sculpture workshops specifically for kids. There is ice skating at the Parc Lafontaine, a delightfully picturesque park that lies just north of the Village. And on a mild, clear day, a walk up Mount Royal Park is just fantastic and offers a beautiful view of the city. The lookout features a panoramic view, and hot chocolate is served in the colder months.
The Highlights Festival (or Festival Montréal en Lumière, is a celebration of light in the winter, to be held this year Feb 20 to March 2. It’s based in scenic Old Montreal and the downtown arts district and features food, film screenings, music and dance performances, and art exhibits.
The newest event is Igloofest, which will run Jan 16 to Feb 8. When it started seven years ago, it proved an instant hit, with thousands of fans dancing in the snowy Old Port to the beat and hum of electronic music. What is basically a wintry outdoor rave continues to grow in popularity.
Montreal, home of the legendary Canadiens, is a hub for our national sport of hockey. Jock enthusiasts will want to check out the Montreal Canadiens Hall of Fame, where the history of the team, founded in 1909, and Montrealers’ longstanding love for it, is recounted in a number of exhibits. Another bit of hockey history can be found in the Montreal Forum, where hockey games and concerts were held from 1924 to 1996, when the complex was transformed into an entertainment centre, featuring a 22-screen cinema complex, restaurants, pool tables and bowling alleys. There are statues of famous hockey players to commemorate the centre’s origins. You can grope them if you’re feeling really hard up.
Okay, I know who I’m writing for. I realize many of you may be rolling your eyes at this point and thinking, “Enough with the culture! Who do you think you are, Peggy Guggenheim?” So I’ll end with a reminder that Montreal’s nightlife remains intact, even in winter. Get off at Metro Berri-UQAM, then head east. There are a bunch of drinking holes and clubs to check out, all in close proximity.
As well, after walking around in a bunch of layers, you will undoubtedly want to take off some clothes at the end of the day — and you might want to watch others take off their clothes, too. The top strip clubs in Montreal include the jock-centric Campus, the raunch-infused Stock Bar, and the borderline-NAMBLA headquarters Taboo. And then there are the one-of-a-kind Montreal queer institutions: Cabaret Mado, run by the city’s legendary drag queen Mado (and featuring nightly drag shows), and the Royal Phoenix, the city’s sole out-of-Village queer nightclub, located in the hipster Mile End neighbourhood.
For information on exploring Montreal by foot, bicycle or moped, read Matthew Hay’s feature "Discover Montreal Through Guided Tours."
For more on information on museums in Montreal, visit museesmontreal.org.
For more on information on festivals in Montreal, visit montreal.com/tourism/festivals.
For more information on Montreal, visit tourisme-montreal.org.