It’s a street, it’s the beginning (and in some unfortunate instances, the end) of a book of Montréal stories, it’s a Friday night dance party and a Sunday afternoon stroll. It’s also a National Historic Site. It’s Saint-Laurent Boulevard, or as Montrealers call it, “The Main.”
The Main, the much-beloved north/south street that at one time fed a steady stream of new immigrants from just-docked ships straight into the beating heart of Montréal, once marked the symbolic divide between Montréal’s French and English communities. Just over 11 km in length, The Main bisects the entirety of the island of Montréal, literally representing a cross-section of the city.
Classic cafés, trend-attentive nightclubs, old-world delicatessens, time-capsule-like greasy spoons, retro clothing stores, high-end eateries, low-end brasseries and ethnic grocery outlets all co-exist comfortably on the most walkable and culturally diverse street in Montréal.
Lower Saint-Laurent Boulevard
The Main’s steadily northward and upward trajectory officially lifts off at De la Commune Street, which separates the city’s repurposed Old Port district (a warren of cultural activity all year-round) and historic Old Montréal, which can follow its cobblestones back to the mid-1600s. A short walk north of Old Montréal, past the Place d’Armes metro station, takes one to Chinatown, a vibrant hive of Southeast Asian restaurants, specialty stores and imported produce shops.
Continuing northward, we cross over into Montréal’s former red-light district, now home to the Quartier des Spectacles (the red lights projected on sidewalks in front of venues in the QDS pay tribute to the district’s history). It’s home to Monument National (a 1,600-seat theatre and National Historic Site), the Society for Arts and Technology (a multi-disciplinary arts centre and foodie fun spot), and one of the last vestiges of its red-light past, the Café Cléopâtre, which hosts regular burlesque and drag shows.
Continue further north, past Saint-Laurent metro station, and the character of the street is no less interesting, with all-inclusive punk club Katacombes (situated in a former bank) and legendary and unmistakeable retro clothing store and café Eva B, where it’s Halloween every day.
Middle Saint-Laurent Boulevard
The pace changes as The Main crosses Sherbrooke Street and enters the Plateau Mont-Royal district. This is primo shopping, noshing and night-out territory, from swanky institutions like Italian eatery Buona Notte (popular with pro athletes and celebrities) to the innovative small-plate awesomeness of Big in Japan. After eating comes the dancing and socializing, literally steps up the street, at party places like upscale nightclub École Privée, the unique Apt. 200 (designed to resemble an enormous apartment) and the perennially pumping Tokyo Bar.
Moving evermore northward we approach a Montréal institution, Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen, home to the best smoked meat – according to Montrealers – anywhere on the planet. The parade of Prime Ministers, Hollywood A-listers and other heavy hitters who regularly chow down at Schwartz’s would seem to support that contention.
A few steps up the street is the newly opened vintage pinball machine “barcade” North Star, imaginative hipster magnet and oyster/cocktail bar Le Majestique, favourite local hole-in-the-wall Blizzarts (habitually dizzy with dancing techno/electro/hip-hop fans) and Le Belmont (which also has live acts, mostly hip-hop).
Laptop convo with lattés and DJs? That’d be Laika. Legendary veggie poutine while taking in the scene? Cutesy corner cubbyhole Patati Patata will warm the coldest cockles (and their veggie poutine is the bomb). The rising stars of the local indie scene in an unpretentious environ? Divan Orange. And world-class world music with a dance floor that knows no quit? The incomparable Balattou.
And the summertime positively rocks on The Main when most of this section of Saint-Laurent closes for the imaginative outdoor urban art fest MURAL as well as elaborate parties during the Formula 1 Grand Prix Weekend.
Upper Saint-Laurent Boulevard
As The Main angles upward and northward, past vegan eating institution Aux Vivres, just north of the bar and boutique-lined Mont-Royal Avenue into the city’s hip Mile End neighbourhood, we come to two mainstays of the live music scene in Montréal: Casa del Popolo (with its hidden jewel of a backyard terrasse) and Sala Rossa (with its adjoining, and excellent, Spanish tapas restaurant) are where indie bands like Arcade Fire got their start.
A little further up the street and it’s hard to miss beautifully-designed contemporary arts space Espace Go!, which regularly plays host to world-class performing arts. For those who prefer cozier environs with a bohemian touch, try popular neighbourhood pubs Snack’n Blues (known for its friendly owners and finger foods) and Sparrow (with its well-appointed interior and range of tasty local brews).
And some of the best comes last on The Main as it eases into Montréal’s bustling Little Italy district, with its impressive and imposing churches, authentic Italian restos and colourful cafés offering a bit of the old country. Shop for Italian products at Milano, international spices at Anatol, or grab a cuppa at Caffé Italia, where the soccer-talking baristas claim to have the best coffee in town. Or at least on The Main.
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