The first scenes of autumn in Montreal are set to a multi-colored backdrop of burnt amber and willowing orange, the Québécois characters linking arms and popping their collars. It’s a romantic stage, full of drives up to the Laurentian Mountains and warm apple cider in the Eastern Townships.
Fall’s second half, on the other hand, is an apprehensive time in ‘la belle province.’ While some of the lovely leaves still hang for our aesthetic pleasure; the colors get darker, the cold rains begin, and there is a menace that looms. Locals know what’s coming.
Montréal winters are a never-ending marathon of short days and wet socks, of running to your frozen car and swearing to one day escape to southern sanity. But when the sun is still showing on an autumn Sunday afternoon, throngs of Montréalers are hitting the city streets with quiet urgency. This might be their last chance.
Explore the Lachine Canal
A cool sun shines over the Sud-Ouest (pronounced Sud-West in French or simply the Southwest in English), a borough that holds, among other things, the recently trendy neighborhoods of Little Burgundy and St-Henri.
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A few weeks ago there were yoga classes and cocktails along the shores of the historic Lachine Canal, the urban waterway that horizontally partitions the Sud-Ouest’s neighborhoods. Yet it seems that even the canal is beginning to pack it up for the season: the picnic tables are now empty, the canal waters receding. Still, despite the changing seasons, there are few places in the city better for a Sunday stroll.
Shop with the locals at Marché Atwater
Down at the Marché Atwater, the municipality’s epicurean epicenter, things are also starting to wind down. The farmers market normally overflows with the colors of fresh flowers and bright berries, with weekend warriors maneuvering through the crowds around popular food stalls like Malaysian street-food favorite Satay Brothers.
But Mother Nature has rung her bell and many merchants have already called it a season. The few that remain perform their autumn duties by showcasing the province’s closing harvest, offering spreads of rusty red apples like departing seasonal gifts.
Poutine to guard against the chill
Down the road at St-Henri’s Greenspot Restaurant, heaping plates of fries are bathed in brown gravy and topped with chunky Quebec cheese. Depending on your appetite and the time of night, chopped bacon or Bolognese meat sauce are thrown on for good measure (and extra cardiac pressure).
Despite the infamously harsh weather, Montréal has a reputation of leaving visitors with a warm and fuzzy feeling, that certain ‘je ne sais quoi.’ The city’s European cachet is undoubtedly responsible for some of this charm, but in many ways greasy-spoon diners like these define Montréal’s intangible appeal.
The city’s older areas are spotted with such hybrid eateries, a blend of Montréal smoked meat sandwiches, Greek souvlaki, and Quebecois poutine – all wrapped in the aesthetic of classic working-class diner. On this crisp autumn Sunday, hung-over hipsters and local families are packed into the brown leather booths, flipping through tracks on the 1960s mini-jukeboxes that long ago stopped working.
What makes Montréal unique
Under vintage signs announcing fifteen cent patates frites, locals chomp down on ‘steamie’ hot dogs (with mustard, coleslaw and relish) while a Greek-Canadian restaurant owner and French-Canadian waitress have a friendly feud. It’s in these multicultural moments – in broken English and with a suspect French accent – when Montréal’s unique tapestry can perhaps be best understood.
Head a few minutes north, veering right along the eastern slope of Mont-Royal (the city’s eponymous park and mountain) and stroll through the Plateau Mont-Royal, another of Montréal’s historically hip neighbourhoods.
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The autumn rains have started, the bright colors getting drizzled a bit dark and damp. Umbrellas are opened, pedestrians lingering under awnings or jumping into their favorite café.
As usual there’s a line-up at the famous Schwartz's deli on Boul St-Laurent, its reputation of steaming sandwiches and kosher dill pickles making it relatively weather-proof. If a local vibe is more your thing, take some quick shelter down the road at Crazy Harry’s. A quirky local legend, Harry and his brother run a little dépanneur on Ave. Duluth. As far as corner stores go Marché Ventura is pretty humble, but day or night you’ll find regulars sitting around, chatting with the owners. You might even catch Harry showing off some of his recent painting projects.
A surprise around every corner
A few blocks away you’ll find locals warming up at Romados, where Portuguese chicken is flame-grilled to savory perfection and the answer to ‘picant?’ (spicy) should always be a resounding ‘oui.’ Belly full and fingers smelling like Piri Piri sauce, take a moment as you step outside and notice Rue Rachel leading toward Mont-Royal. The Plateau offers many such moments, narrow porthole views between old brown brick two-stories, the mountain always there as pleasant surprise.
The day is winding down and the cold drizzle continues. But if you’re dressed warmly keep on strolling, exploring the neighborhood’s quaint, tree-lined streets, its wrought-iron staircases and colorful rooftops.
If you’re lucky you might stumble onto little Rue Napoleon, where you’ll find a mural of Leonard Cohen, Canada’s recently departed poet laureate, looming over his childhood home, appreciating the view, unbothered by the rain.