The Jewish Nomad: What I loved about going back to Montreal for two months

As I sit here on the patio of my Mile End sublet apartment, I can’t help but think about all the things that make my hometown so wonderful.

In my very first column, I gave a whole spiel about Toronto’s hidden gems and idiosyncrasies. But after about eight weeks back in the city I grew up in, it’s only fair to give Montreal its own love letter, too.

Here are my personal reasons that I think it’s oh-so-special.


With outdoor spiral staircases, colorful brick buildings and converted mills from the shmatta business era, Montreal is known for its eclectic architecture.

In neighborhoods like the Plateau and the Mile End, just a stroll down the street is like walking through a living museum—or art gallery, if I say so myself.

My grandparents grew up in these gorgeous old-style apartment buildings, now inhabited by groups of students, young families, burgeoning artists and Hasids.

In general, Montreal’s buildings have a certain grit and character to them, that makes the cityscape so unique.

Out of the three Canadian cities I’ve lived in (Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver), I think my hometown takes the cake. (And the bagels, let’s not forget those.)


Someone once told me (if they didn’t also tell you) that the main difference between Toronto and Montreal is that in Toronto people live to work, and in Montreal people work to live.

Montrealers have an incomparable joie-de-vivre, made obvious by how late our bars and restaurants stay open. (It’s not unusual for closing time to be on the 4 a.m. side of things, here.)

We love to socialize and have a good time.

I can’t pretend that we don’t have some existential angst, due to the tensions between the francophones and anglophones–but that’s a story for another time.

Our bilingual community is feisty and people are reliable, punctual and work hard so they can enjoy time with family, friends and take in the city.


Montreal is bustling with well-attended arts and cultural festivals.

In the summer, le Quartier de Spectacle becomes the Montreal Jazz Festival—which attracts celebrity musicians from all over the world and humongous crowds. Amongst the 350 shows to choose from, certain outdoor performances are even free of charge. (Israeli bassist and composer Avishai Cohen performs on July 2! Check it out.)

Murale Festivale is one of my favourite times of year here. St-Laurent, the main street which runs through the Plateau, is closed off for pedestrians as businesses bring their fare out onto the street. As you walk up this artsy rue, you’ll see artists painting, installations installed, street musicians and you can enjoy yummy street food. This year, the festival takes place June 9-19.

The St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival—a multidisciplinary performance event featuring comedy, dance, theatre and more—overlaps with Murale, running from the end of May until mid-June. The Fringe is SO. FREAKIN’. FUN. Not only can you see tons of shows (there are generally over 800) for a very low cost, but anyone can enter the Fringe lottery—meaning you might go from seeing what will become an award-winning piece to a trashy late night comedy, all in the same night! What says Montreal summer more than sitting in the sweltering heat at MainLine Theatre, soaking up some good ol’ performance art?

Lest not forget the Just For Laughs (or Just Pour Rire for the francophones). This fest happens in July and brings in top comedians from around the globe. Jewish feature of the year is Marc Maron, stand-up comedian and actor. (I loved his performance as the disgruntled boss in Netflix’s female wrestling comedy GLOW. I hear he has a great podcast too: WTF, which has been featuring celebrity interviews for 13 years.)

Those are only just a few of Montreal’s summer festivals, not to mention the winter ones! (Ever heard of IglooFest? Look it up and report back!)


Mont Royal sits in the middle of the city and is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. On Sundays, be sure to check out the Tam Tams: groups of happy drum-playing humans gather on the mountain and artists sell their goodies laid out on blankets. Grab a bagel in the Mile End, make a picnic and soak in the famous Montreal culture. There are also great trails on the mountain, for biking or a weekend stroll. The two lookouts are popular spots, as well. (We took our prom pictures there, in high school!)

Montreal also boasts some great (smaller but still substantially sized) parks, including Parc Lafontaine, Jarry Park, NDG Park and beyond.

If you have access to a car, you’re about 45 minutes from the Laurentians–or what my family calls “The Country”. In Ste-Agathe, there’s even a shul, if you want to hit up morning minyan before taking a dip in the lake.

Or, drive two hours, and take a trip to Mont Tremblant. Whether in the summer to relax and eat a Beaver Tail, or in the winter to ski, it’s a beautiful destination.

(Sorry Toronto, not that this is a competition, but THREE hours to get to nature? Not having it.)


Originally built for Expo 67, La Ronde is a Six Flags amusement park—yup, we got Six Flags in Canada!—which you can access through the metro system or by car. With over 400 rides, including the terrifying Goliath (which up until 2008 was the tallest rollercoaster in Canada) this amusement park does not disappoint. 

The Biodome is another awesome Montreal staple. Located near the Olympic Stadium, the museum has four ecosystems that you walk through, with all sorts of animals from penguins to tropical birds.

Right next door is the Insecterium (which I’ve heard sells bug lollipops, no thanks!) and the Botanical Gardens—which has a glorious butterfly exhibit I’ve been meaning to check out for years.

A little further out, Parc Safari is an outdoor zoo with many endangered species. (There’s a famous story of my dad opening his car window to see a giraffe and it licked the side of his face.)


Poutine, smoked meat, bagels, beaver tails, tire sur la neige… Need I say more?

Montreal’s cuisine goes heavy on the Jewish fare, as well as modern Quebecois dishes.

For the best of both worlds, Pizza Pita is a kosher dairy restaurant that makes a mean poutine. Not gonna lie, I grew up on this style of fries, and still ask for mozzarella cheese when I go to La Banquise, because it tastes better to me than the squeaky stuff. Sue me.

Needless to say, Montreal is incredibly diverse in culture, so there’s a lot of variety.

Oh and did I mention that our drinks and food are CHEAP! At least compared to Vancouver or Toronto. (Fact check: a Negroni cocktail in Montreal is about $10, whereas in Toronto it’s closer to $18.)


Montreal is a great place to be, whether in the cold or warm months (though I warn you, the cold is BRUTAL, so bundle up!) A lot of young’uns come here to have a legal drink, since our drinking age is 18. But there’s a lot more to the city than only the nightlife.

If you’re an anglophone struggling to speak the legal language, don’t get too insulted if your French barista switches to English if they hear your accent… But don’t be intimidated either! Pretty much everyone is bilingual.

We legally have to say “Bonjour, Hi” in commercial settings, rather than the reverse. That’s where the name of my podcast comes from. (Cue every non-Quebecer going “Ohhhhh… NOW I get it.”

Ilana Zackon can be reached at ilanawritesthings[@] and found on Facebook and Instagram.

HEAR what else she has to say every week on Bonjour Chai