Take Five: The Mighty Main in Montreal

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Boulevard Saint-Laurent is Montreal’s Main Street. Known simply as “The Main,” this drag acts as the city’s geographical dividing line between the French-speaking population to the east and English-speakers to the west. The thoroughfare also acts as a melting-point for cultural areas like Chinatown, Little Italy and the Jewish Quarter.

While each neighborhood on this stretch has an identity and history of its own, the commonality is that every road leads back to The Main. If you get lost, it’s easy to get back where you started. Just follow the decreasing street numbers on any east-west street and you’ll be back on Boulevard Saint-Laurent.

1. Vieux-Port de Montréal
A patchwork of cobblestone streets with historic buildings housing art galleries, loft-style apartments and upscale restaurants, the Old Port—or Vieux-Port de Montréal (pictured above)—was established as a fur-trading post for French settlers in the 1700s. As trade expanded, factories, churches and government buildings were erected in the neighborhood, including Montreal City Hall and the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal, which was the largest church in North America when it was built. Today, the area welcomes six million visitors per year, not merely for its genteel charm but for events, such as the an annual outdoor winter rave Igloofest and Montreal en Lumière, a multimedia arts and culture festival in February. The neighborhood is also one of Montreal’s culinary hubs, replete with French fine-dining restaurants, steakhouses and cozy bistros.

2. Lower Plateau

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Prismatic at Quartier des Spectacles Photo by Cindy Boyce/www.quartierdesspectacles.com

Between the 1930s and 1960s, the neighborhood known as Lower Plateau was the neon-bathed Red Light District. The corner of Boulevard Saint-Laurent and Rue Sainte-Catherine was lit by glowing facades hiding brothels and gambling dens. After a government crackdown on corruption started in the late 1950s, the bars closed and the dens dismantled, but there are still clues to Lower Plateau’s past amid the boarded-up buildings. The historic burlesque cabaret Café Cléopatra is one of the last surviving remnants of those days. The popular club shares a block with the newly developed Quartier des Spectacles, an LED-studded pedestrian walkway that pays homage to the neighborhood’s vibrant origin in a more PG way by catering specifically to summer festival-goers and families.

3. The Plateau

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Schwartz’s Photo by Flickr/@chunso

The Plateau is confused, and we love it that way. The 10-block stretch is lined with boutiques and chain stores, exciting clubs, chic bars, 24-hour diners, upscale restaurants, French cafes and office buildings infused with young start-ups. Tucked away in this hectic neighborhood are drinking holes like Barfly that turn into places of worship during the hockey season, and a sprinkling of delis initially established in the 1930s by Eastern-European Jewish immigrants that are still competing for the title of Best Smoked Meat. Schwartz’s is famous for marinating their meat for 10 days, but the Main Deli Steakhouse has a smoked-meat poutine with its own vocal fan club.

4. The Mile End

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St. Viateur Bagel Shop Photo by Flickr/@TMAB2003

North of Avenue du Mont-Royal, the Mile End area was once the manufacturing hub of the city. In the 1980s, the factories closed and artists moved into the giant empty spaces. With the artists came cozy bistros, vintage shops and art galleries. The factory spaces are now filled with loft apartments, small community venues and artist communes, while below, people stroll from boutique to cafe. Monastiraki, a colorful boutique and gallery on The Main, exhibits the personality of Mile End, selling local print art and inexpensive Montreal curiosities. The area is also home to Montreal’s two great bagel shops, St-Viateur Bagels and Fairmount Bagels, each named after their respective streets and churning out top-shelf, honey-soaked bagels 24 hours a day from giant brick ovens.

5. Little Italy

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Petite Italie Photo by Flickr/@lubam

The turn of the 20th century brought a large wave of immigrants to Montreal from the southern regions of Italy to work on the newly established Mile End Railroad and in the nearby factories. These immigrants slowly established local groceries and churches in the area around the Parc de la Petite-Italie, most notably the Madonna della Difesa church—a National Historic Site recognized for its striking ceiling fresco. However, it was not until after World War II that the Italian immigrants started their own restaurants. Caffè Italia, a sparsely furnished gem dating back to 1956, is favored in the area for its World Cup crowds and expert cappuccinos.

Jessica Wei is a Montreal-based travel writer and chief editor of Elysia Travel.

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