The K-Beauty Insider’s Guide to Montreal
Perhaps the best way to self-care? Taking a well-deserved vacation or traveling. If you’re thinking about getting away from it all this summer, why not consider Montreal? Here, contributing editor Coco shares the ins and outs of her home city, including the best sights, the best food, and well, the best K-beauty, of course.
Oh, Montreal. I’ve described you as the bastard child of a back-alley tryst between Paris and NYC, as Diet France, and as North America’s best hidden secret. All of those things are true.
I’ll start with the briefest of history lessons. Of course, Montreal’s history starts way before it officially became a city in 1832, a full 35 years before Canada even officially became a country in 1867. We actually celebrated Montreal’s 375th anniversary as a city last year, from its beginnings as a bustling trade post settlement in 1642 as part of the French Colonial Empire. In 1760, when it was surrendered to the British army, following the French defeat, British immigration further expanded the city. Its true history stretches back about 8,000 years — when the Europeans came along in 1535, the area was inhabited by the St. Lawrence Iroquoians.
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You can see the influence of all three groups today, but what’s most notable is its retention of its French identity. 65% of the residents of Montreal are Francophone (French speakers), 42% are bilingual French and English, and only about 16% are Anglophone (English speakers), although I’m sure there’s a lot of grey area between us Francos and Anglos, as the majority of us probably know just enough of each language to muddle through most casual interactions.
It is very normal in Montreal for children to speak upwards of three languages: French, English, and whatever else your background might entail. You can hear Italian, Greek, Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc., depending on what side of town you’re on. It’s really a wonderful mosaic of cultures as retaining one’s home culture is encouraged as it adds flavor to the city. All of the signage is in French, as are all of the menus in restaurants. Some places do have English menus if you ask for them, especially downtown and in touristy areas, so don’t let the fear of French keep you away!
Now keep in mind, this 65% French speakers thing? That’s for greater Montreal only. If you wander outside the island and into the rest of the province of Quebec, 81% of people are strict Francophones and 91% of people speak French. Montreal is an anomaly and about the only place you’re going to be able to comfortably navigate in English. By the way, did you catch that? Island. Montreal is an island, like Manhattan. So let’s start our tour of the city at the port.
Vieux-Port de Montréal et Vieux-Montréal (Old Port and Old Montreal)
The historic Old Port area of Montreal has been poppin’ since 1611, and the surrounding architecture reflects that. In fact, a lot of Hollywood films are filmed in Old Montreal and passed off as Europe. The cobblestone streets and 300+ year-old buildings really do look like you’ve been transported to just about any European city. Wandering those picturesque streets and strolling by the water is about the most romantic and/or wistful thing you can do here. This area is always packed with tourists but for good reason: It’s gorgeous. Must-see attractions are the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal (Notre-Dame Basilica), Vieux Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice (oldest building in Montreal dating back to the 1600s), and Marché Bonsecours. Really the whole area is a must-see.
There are handsome cab rides, Segway tours, bike paths, and even bus tours of the area. Personally I suggest just wandering around; you won’t be disappointed no matter where you end up. Avoid the tourist trap restaurants though — they’re overpriced and this city can offer you so much better, trust me.
An absolutely can’t-miss beauty experience in The Old Port is spa Bota Bota, which is a gorgeous floating spa located on a permanently docked ship in the port. No excuses, you’ve gotta check it out.
Downtown Montreal is going to be awesome for you if you’re from middle or small-town America. Think skyscrapers and tons of glittery lights. If you’re from NYC, you’re not going to be all that impressed as it just looks like any section of Manhattan.
As a Korean beauty enthusiast you’ll be pleased to know there is an official The Face Shop downtown as well as one Korean and one Japanese beauty store. C & C Beauty carries Peripera, Sulwhasoo, The History of Whoo, Tony Moly, Banila Co, and a really good selection of JayJun that a lot of online stores don’t even carry. At Nanami, you can find Canmake Hada Labo, Shisedo, Sana, and Dolly Wink, among other Japanese brands.
Centreville also have some other good shopping spots, and if you’re here in winter it’s a good place to wander as we have the famous “Underground City.” The Underground City is 32 kilometer’s worth of interconnected tubes and indoor pathways winding throughout downtown. Inside you’ll find over 1,600 shops and services. Yes, you could spend an entire day there, but c’mon we have other things to do!
Notably and salaciously, downtown Montreal is also home to its world famous All Nude Full Contact strip clubs and sex parlors. So don’t be surprised if you’re walking down the street and see signs featuring very naked ladies inviting you in for a little naughtiness. Remember, Montreal has been a sin den since the prohibition era in the U.S., and that’s the way we like it. Fun fact: Female toplessness is legal in this city.
Everyone jokingly refers to Chinatown as “Chinablock” as it’s tiny compared of other large city’s Chinatowns, but those of you into Korean beauty will appreciate this area as it hosts an official It’s Skin store (called C’est La Peau because the French language police made them change their name — seriously) and two cosmetic stores that carry a surprisingly awesome selection of Korean beauty items. It’s also where you can indulge in some dim sum and hand-pulled noodle soup. There’s also some damn good pho to be had, as the sizeable Vietnamese population has a long-time established presence in the area due to the French colonization of Vietnam.
Are you an artsy fartsy hipster that loves artists, gourmet food, and just being a cool kid in general? Then you’re going to love the East End where The Plateau and The Mile End lie in the borough of Plateau Mount Royal, full of beautiful people, the coolest artisans, the best collection of restaurants, hippest bars, and most awesome boutiques.
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It really is the artsiest place — a 2001 study deemed it Canada’s most creative neighborhood because artists comprise 8% of its labor force. Off the top of my head, I can think of three jewelry makers, two ceramicists, four illustrators/fine artists, three authors, several musicians, three chefs, and two clothing designers that I personally know that live in this area. I loved the artsy vibe of this area so much I moved my family to The Plateau three years ago from Downtown Montreal, so it’s the place I spend the most time these days.
To explore this area, there are three streets you cannot miss: St-Laurent, St-Denis, and Mont-Royal. Between the darling cafes, beautiful boutiques, and mouth-watering restaurants on every block, you’re going to fall in love over and over again.
Montreal’s Mile End in full Cherry Blossom Tree bloom! 🌸 Picture by @may629. #mtlblog #montreal #montréal #mtl #quebec #quebeccity #québec #qc #canada #mtlmoments #downtownmontreal #montrealoldport #oldmontreal #oldportmtl #vancouver #britishcolumbia #toronto #winnipeg #ottawa #ontario #calgary #edmonton #alberta #halifax #novascotia #newfoundland #cherryblossom #mileend #mileendmtl #photography
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It’s also known for its amazing parks! Park Lafontaine and Park Mount-Royal cannot be missed. I don’t count anyone as having ever truly visited Montreal unless they’ve attended at least one Tam-Tams at the park. Also it’s totally legal to drink in public in any park as long as you bring along a bit of food. So grab a bottle of nice wine and a baguette and cheese and have the ultimate French picnic.
This area is also famous for its unique housing, which feature cheerful row houses with intricate spiraling outdoor staircases. This area is one of the most densely populated areas in North America, thanks to the way the housing is set up. It makes for a very nice sense of community and you’ll want to spend hours just walking up and down the streets taking photos.
A day of chocolate
Hitting up different spots all over the city in the name of chocolate is a great way of taking a tour. If there’s one thing my friends love to do when they come visit, it’s to make a run to all of the superb chocolatiers in this city. You can make an entire day of visiting Montreal’s mind-blowing chocolate restaurants. Start off at Cacao 70 for breakfast and grab an Illegal Chocolate Waffle, later head over to Juliette et Chocolat to share a chocolate fondue with a friend, then find your way to Noir for the most amazing chocolate cake pops of your life.
If you’re going for the most IG-worthy dessert ever, you can’t miss a spot at C’ChoColat. Cocoa Locale is another place I can’t recommend enough; it’s the most adorable patisserie run by the most adorable woman with the most adorable (and insanely decadent) chocolate cakes. There are other flavors, but the chocolate chai is my #1.
Montreal is really all about joie de vivre, and I think that’s the most important thing you need to know about this city. So come here to really enjoy life, take in a little culture and a lot of food and wine.
This article is horribly condensed and I only covered just a tiny fraction of the areas and places worth visiting. I could write an entire book and list all the can’t-miss places for each section. There are tons of boroughs within this city. Seriously, look at this list:
I’m going to have to follow up with a part two soon!
Have you ever been to Montreal? What’s your favorite spot?