If you are looking to visit Montreal for the Grand Prix du Canada Formula 1 race and you also want to fit in some sightseeing, this might help you plan.
My boyfriend and his brother have been following F1 (specifically Red Bull Racing) for a few years. Craig has talked about wanting to go see a race since we met, but he never had any actual plans to do it. That’s where I came in. His dream race destination is Circuit de Spa in Belgium, which I of course would love to do because of my love of Europe and the French language, but that wasn’t going to fit in the budget in terms of vacation time or money if we were going to go any time soon. So, since Montreal is drivable from Pennsylvania and people have said it’s a great city to visit AND they speak French there, I offered to plan a long weekend trip to the Canadian Grand Prix.
In my research for hotels I discovered that renting through VRBO or Airbnb is much cheaper than booking a hotel room, especially on F1 and Montreal Jazz Fest weekends. My requirements for location had to do with price and walkability to the metro and sightseeing. I wanted to stay in Old Montreal but that was a little too pricey and I thought Craig would prefer to stay in a more quiet neighborhood. I ended up finding a really great 2BR condo in Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie, which is a mostly residential neighborhood very close to the Montreal Botanical Gardens, for half the price of the hotels I found on TripAdvisor. And we were able to do laundry and bring groceries for breakfasts, which saved us even more.
Craig took care of the race tickets. He watched a bunch of YouTube videos posted by people attending in previous years to pick the grandstand seats he wanted. We were at an S curve where he thought we’d be able to see some good action.
So on Friday we drove up, and met the concierge for the condo by around 5 PM. We walked over to Station F on Rue Rachel for Dinner, which was AMAZING. Excellent traditional French food – liver pâté, beef cheek. I had an Ile Flottante for the first time in years! I got to dust off my French and listen to the very striking differences between “French French” and Canadian French, also called Joual. I watched a bunch of YouTube videos myself before going, so I could get my bearings and hopefully understand the accent a little better. It helped. I actually watched DododFun a bunch; they were cute. This is for French speakers who want to understand how to speak french in Canada:
There were definitely differences, like I asked for the “WC” once at the metro (short for “water closet,” meaning bathroom in France), and the woman looked at me sideways, so I tried “salle de bain” (also bathroom) and she got it. But I find that kind of stuff really interesting. It also turned out that staying in our farther out and quieter neighborhood had another benefit for me – far fewer people speaking English, so I could use my French more. I felt so useful as the official translator all weekend.
My biggest language challenge came on the first night when we arrived and I decided to pop over to a convenience store for a bottle of wine, and the woman behind the counter was Chinese and our only common language was French. I also discovered then that at some stores you can’t use American credit or debit cards, and all I had were American dollars, and I ended up overpaying because she wanted me to give her the Canadian amount. The price we pay for our wine. I thought we might have trouble with credit cards all weekend because we don’t have the chips, but everywhere else was fine.
It also took me 24 hours to remember the French word for “start.” Like I said, my French definitely needed some dusting. And we didn’t have international data, so I couldn’t use Google Translate when we were out and about.
Saturday morning was “sightseeing for Jen” time because the qualifying race was in the afternoon, so we walked over to the Montreal Biodome, which was really, really cool. There are 5 different ecosystems inside with more than 4,500 animals from 250 different species. Definitely worth a visit, and it’s connected to the Olympic Park and botanical gardens. From there we got on the metro to the racetrack and made it easily but not as quickly as we thought we would. There was a LOT of walking. I saw a bunch of women in heels and was like, NOPE. I was in flats and my feet were destroyed by the end of day 1. Then again I have terrible flat feet, but I digress.
The racetrack! There were tons of vendors selling memorabilia/clothes and lots of different food vendors. Everything was in French and English, including the commentary for the races. We had our first taste of poutine (Frite Alors!), which was delicious. And when we reached our seats in the grandstands, we discovered that the group with the block of seats next to us were from West Chester (just a few miles from us in PA). I had a mutual acquaintance with one, and another guy’s mother works with Craig! Small world. They were staying in Old Montreal and using the city’s Bixi bikes to get around – so that’s an option if you stay closer to the track, or even if you just want to tool around wherever you are.
The qualifying race was very exciting for all of us — finally seeing the F1 cars in person for the first time — but it was probably more exciting for the guys… “brought a tear to the eye,” they said. We also watched the Ferrari Challenge for a while after that, sitting in the shade under a tree on a different part of the course. We could have actually spent a lot more time at the track because our tickets were for 3 days and there were a bunch of events and different races, but, like I said, Craig and his brother agreed to spend some time touring Montreal with me.
Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was easy to get around once you make it to the island from the metro (but again, LOTS of walking) and even had some really pretty gardens. There’s a biosphere that was part of the Montreal World’s Fair and when we drove in to Montreal we saw an amusement park on the island where the track is, but I don’t know if that was open. There’s also a casino right next to the racetrack. Don’t plan (like I did) to hop off the island for a quick bite to eat in Old Montreal or something before seeing another race event, because the people get bottlenecked walking across the bridge from the metro station.
We ate dinner that night at Bon-D on Rue Masson. Rue Masson was walking distance from our condo, and it has a bunch of good shops and restaurants up and down the street. It seemed to be the hip hangout of the neighborhood. We had some more French food (for me, feuillete de cochon, which even had blood sausage on it).
Morning sightseeing on Sunday included a walking tour I modified from a blog post I found. We saw a good number of things listed in the post and I would recommend using that. I definitely wanted to get a taste of the old-world flavor of Montreal, and you can see it there. We also happened to run into the group of folks who had purchased the special Red Bull Racing experience tickets (WOW, the perks AND the prices of those tickets) while they were getting their photo taken by the Notre Dame Basilica. If only we could have slipped in with them … we were wearing our Red Bull shirts!
Then we were off to the races! The crowd was much bigger and the stands were packed. But having only been to American sporting events I was a little surprised at how not drunk the crowd was. It was very civilized. Craig brought his camera with a really great telescopic lens and he was able to take some pretty amazing photos. The cars were going a little slower where our seats were than on the straightaways, but that was good to see, too. To be able to sit in the stands was definitely worth spending the extra money. We walked the track after the race was over, too, and participated in the honored pastime of pilfering memorabilia from the course.
Expect to spend a very long time getting off the island and onto the metro. It took us probably an hour to get onto the train after leaving the track, shuffling slowly with the crowd into the station. But again, it was pretty civilized. We went back over to Old Montreal to buy stuff from a maple syrup vendor at the Bonsecours Market that we had seen before the race. He had let us taste the maple syrup and the maple butter – that stuff sells itself. We ate at Pub BreWskey, which I would definitely eat at again. Local beers and pub food with Canadian flair (like pickled vegetables with the wings and cheese curds on the nachos).
Monday morning on our way out of town we drove up to see the view from Mount Royal, which was also worth seeing (and thankfully did not require walking, although there are a lot of walking paths if you’re into that sort of thing). Getting back through the American checkpoint took about an hour, too, so factor that into your drive time if you’re driving.
So that wrapped up our trip! Things I would have liked to do that we couldn’t fit in:
- Rent Bixi bikes
- Visit Crescent Street and Rue Sainte Catherine
- See the modern art and fine art museums
All in all it was an amazing weekend for everyone. Montreal is really beautiful and easy to navigate, and I would like to think that the people are just as welcoming to non-French-speaking tourists as they were to us.