Biking Montréal

My wife, Judith, 8-year-old son, Liam, and I parked our bicycles and collapsed on a broad patch of grass overlooking Montréal’s Lachine Canal. It was a bright Sunday afternoon and the locals were hard at play.

We watched a tattooed, French-speaking foursome play a game of pétanque —similar to bocce — urging each other on with shouts and howls. On the bike path beside them, a cross-section of Montréal wheeled past: families, couples, slowpokes, artsy types, Lycra-clad racers, out-of-shape mountain bikers and Rollerbladers. Walkers puffed past on two legs; dogs padded by on four.

My family had driven from our tiny Vermont hamlet of Peacham (pop. 732) to the world’s second largest French-speaking city, armed with bicycle helmets and a plan for a day jam-packed with urban delights.

Our goal was to explore the city of 1.7 million the way many residents do: on two wheels. Montréal offers miles of dedicated bike paths and bike lanes. We planned to take the mostly flat, mostly traffic-free Lachine Canal path because of its proximity to food, water, pit stops and city fun.

Our day began when we parked our car at Sir George-Étienne Cartier Square, a modest three-block oasis of flowers, fountains and trees near Atwater Market. Liam had brought his new bike; Judith and I rented two of the city's 5,000 BIXI bikes —the name is a hybrid of the words "bike" and "taxi" — which we found nearby, at one of the city's 460 self-serve kiosks. A swipe of our credit card bought us access to two of the chunky and indestructible three-speeds (see sidebar for rates).

In short order, our peloton was saddled up and pedaling two blocks to the canal. To our right, the bike path wended southwest for five-plus miles to Musée deLachine, an art and history museum.

We turned left, following the well-marked, paved pathway toward the Vieux Port in downtown Montréal. The trail twisted over bridges and under roads, detoured around construction and passed new condos and graffiti-clad warehouses. Liam, riding ahead of us, cranked his bike as fast as it would go. As we pedaled, we shouted the same three phrases — Judith: "This is great!" Me: "Hey Liam, wait up!" Liam: "Dad, can we go now?"

The balmy weekend weather meant the path was heaving with bike and pedestrian traffic, yet no one we saw crashed or clipped a handlebar. I couldn't help note the irony: We were probably safer cycling here than we were at home, where there are no sidewalks or shoulders and most of the roads pitch straight up or down. Best of all, we were having a blast navigating the city.

After about three miles, we reached the Vieux Port and locked our bikes outside the Montréal Science Centre. It was Museums Day, an annual event during which the city's 30-plus museums open their doors for free.

We ducked inside the science museum. The hands-on experiments and tables of DIY projects and gizmos looked excellent. But the lines were staggering.

Liam begged to queue up. Judith and I recited the catechism of parents trying to deflect disappointment. "Um, how about we come back another day when it's not so crowded? Like, on a Monday? That way we can really enjoy it and spend the whole day here."

We managed to exit before morale sank any further. We were hungry, so we used our smartphones—equipped with a pre-purchased international data plan—to track down one of the city's celebrated food trucks: a Polish seller of gourmet pierogies and sausage sandwiches. The food was good. But the hike there, through the crowded tourist core of Old Montréal, was a killer.

That's when I realized we'd tried to squeeze too much into one day, especially with an 8-year-old on a hot day after a long drive. So we decided to slow down and ditched the rest of our urban superhero itinerary. No public pool. No metro ride. No Jean-Talon Market. Our goal shifted to simply enjoying the day.

After our snack, we reclaimed our bikes and retraced our route. We stopped in a shady spot and lingered a while, watching pétanque players, kayakers and dog walkers along the canal. Then we hopped back on the path and headed past Atwater Marketback to Sir George-Étienne Cartier Square, where we returned our rented bikes to the kiosks in the park.

Liam played with maple-seed helicopters and "adopted" an ant, which he named Travaux. Judith and I took in the neighborhood of three-story stone townhouses, with wrought-iron staircases and pocket-size balconies dressed like tiny theater sets. At dinnertime, we walked two blocks to F+F Pizza, an amiable spot with a façade open to rue Notre Dame.

We ordered salads and a pie. I sipped a St-Ambroise beer, which is brewed just down the street next to the canal and bike path. (There's even a canal-side beer garden with bike racks. Did I mention what a civilized country Canada is?) Our Francophone waitress delivered our greens in large bowls of baked pizza dough. Liam set a record for the most spinach eaten in one sitting and fed leftovers to Travaux, now marooned on a bamboo skewer.

From our table, we watched the neighborhood pass by. A woman in a teal dress carried the day's groceries in white plastic bags. Some goth-looking teenagers strutted down the opposite sidewalk. A Sikh in a burgundy turban stepped from his storefront.

We talked, enjoyed our dinner out and then drove home, smuggling Travaux and two slices of pizza across the border.

Know before you go:

  • Built nearly 30 years ago, Montréal's Lachine Canal multiuse trail often ranks among the world's best urban pathways. Surrounded by green space, the trail and canal belong to a Parks Canada national park. Check the website to plan your trip and learn more about where to find free Wi-Fi hot spots, open-air chess games and summer food trucks.
  • Don't want to lug your bikes across the border? Enter BIXI. The Montréal bike-rental service charges $7 (Canadian) for a 24-hour pass, which gives you access to the bikes. You pay additional surcharges based on how long you use each bike. Rides longer than 90 minutes get pricey, so the service is best for short, point-to-point rides. Longer day trippers might rent bikes from My Bicyclette in Old Montréal, which also offers kids' bikes and tag-along trailers. If you choose to bring your own bike, don't forget a good lock.
  • Hit up Montréal Blog for insider city tips. Amid posts on the best places to get day drunk, or where to speed date, this hipster site dishes family-friendly insights on Montréal's best public swimming pools, food trucks and festivals. Oh, and the upcoming 1,000-foot Slip'N Slide on August 15.
  • Don't forget your passport! Children ages 15 and under can cross the border with a certified birth certificate.

Where to eat:

  • Montreal food trucks are back for a second year. The city has licensed 30 of them to serve sublime gourmet grub through the summer. Click here to find the closest truck or, better yet, plot your course.
  • Atwater Market, adjacent to the Lachine Canal, is a multi-vendor food mall and Montréal institution. It's a bit touristy, but the location is perfect, and there's a playground. If you're looking for something a little more off the beaten path, hop on the Metro at the nearby Lionel-Groulx station and take the orange line to Jean-Talon Market in Little Italy.
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