Shopping in Montreal

You can shop in Montreal until your feet swell and your eyes cross. Whether you view shopping as the focus of your travels or as a diversion, you won't be disappointed. Shopping ranks right up there with dining out as a prime activity among the natives. Most Montrealers are of French ancestry, after all, and seem to believe that impeccable taste bubbles through the Gallic gene pool. The city has produced a thriving fashion industry, from couture to ready-to-wear, with a history that reaches back to the earliest trade in furs and leather. There are more than 1,500 shops in the underground city alone, and many more than that at street level and above. It is unlikely that any reasonable consumer need -- or even outlandish fantasy -- cannot be met here.

The Shopping Scene

American visitors have the advantage of a markdown on all prices encountered in Montreal shops due to the favorable exchange rates between Canadian and U.S. dollars. When traveling with U.S. dollars, go to a bank to exchange cash or traveler's checks for Canadian currency -- or, better yet, withdraw Canadian dollars from a local ATM with a credit card, an ATM card, or a debit card. While stores often accept U.S. currency, the exchange is likely to be less favorable than that obtained in a bank. There are exceptions, however, as some stores, in an attempt to attract customers carrying U.S. funds, put out signs offering better exchange rates than you might find in a bank.

Note that when you make purchases with a credit card, the charges are automatically converted at the going bank rate before appearing on the following monthly statement. In most cases, this is the best deal of all for visitors. Visa and MasterCard are the most popular credit cards in this part of Canada, while shops less frequently accept Discover, and American Express is only accepted reluctantly and sometimes not at all.

The Best Buys--Most items are priced at approximately the same costs as in their countries of origin, including such big international names as Burberry and Ralph Lauren.

Exceptions are British products, including tweeds, porcelain, and glassware, which tend to cost less. While not cheap, Inuit sculptures and 19th- to early-20th-century country furniture are handsome and authentic. Less expensive crafts than the intensely collected Inuit works are also available, including quilts, drawings, and carvings by Amerindian and other folk artists. While demand has diminished somewhat, superbly constructed furs and leather goods are high-ticket items, and you can retrieve the high sales tax on these items by filling out paperwork. In addition, Quebec's daring clothing designers produce some appealing fashions at prices that are often reasonable.

The Best Shopping Areas--Rue Sherbrooke is a major shopping street, with international and domestic designers, luxury items such as furs and jewelry, art galleries, and the Holts department store. Rue Crescent has a number of upscale boutiques scattered along its length, plus numerous cafes for a break from shopping. Boulevard St-Laurent sells everything from budget practicalities to off-the-wall handmade fashions. Look along avenue Laurier between St-Laurent and de l'Epee for French boutiques, home furniture and accessories shops, and young Quebecois designers. Rue St-Paul in Vieux-Montreal has a growing number of art galleries, a few jewelry shops, some souvenir stands, and a shop that sells kites.

Antiques can be found along rue Sherbrooke near the Musee des Beaux-Arts and on the little side streets near the museum. More antiques and collectibles, in more than 50 tempting shops one after another, can be found along the lengthening "Antiques Alley" of rue Notre-Dame, especially concentrated between Guy and Atwater. Artists display and sell their largely unremarkable but nevertheless competent works along compact rue St-Amable, just off place Jacques-Cartier. From there, meander into a walkway called Le Jardin Amable to find a courtyard filled with kiosks stocked with eye-catching costume jewelry and items crafted in silver and gold. Rue St-Denis north of Sherbrooke has strings of shops filled with fun, funky items.

Some of the best shops in Montreal are found in city museums. Tops among them are shops in Pointe-a-Calliere (the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History), which is in Vieux-Montreal, shops in the Musee des Beaux-Arts and the Musee McCord, both on rue Sherbrooke in the center city, and the shop at the Musee d'Art Contemporain in the Place-des-Arts.

Rue Ste-Catherine is home to the city's four top department stores and myriad satellite shops, while rue Peel is known for its men's fashions. Avenue Greene in Anglophone Westmount has some decidedly English stores. Most of Montreal's big department stores were founded when Scottish, Irish, and English families dominated the city's mercantile class, and most of their names are identifiably English, albeit shorn of their apostrophes. The principal exception is La Baie, French for "The Bay," itself a shortened reference to an earlier name, the Hudson's Bay Company.

Montreal's long history as a center for the fur trade buttresses the many wholesale and retail furriers, with outlets downtown and in Plateau Mont-Royal, but nowhere more concentrated than on the "fur row" of rue Mayor, between rue de Bleury and rue City Councillors.

Those who delight in the hunt for bargains -- and possess the tenacity to plunge into barely managed chaos to find them -- won't want to miss rue Chabanel. A long trek north from downtown (nearest Metro station: Cremazie), rue Chabanel is a street that runs west of boulevard St-Laurent and is lined with factory buildings and warehouses. On Saturday mornings from 8:30am to 1pm -- very roughly -- the clothing manufacturers and importers use ground and mezzanine level showrooms and suites to display and sell all manner of men's, women's, and children's clothing at a discount. For those few hours a week (usually not in Jan or July), coats, leather goods, sportswear, suits, and sweaters are all on offer at deeply discounted prices, and diligence and a willingness to bargain are rewarded. Prowl the 8 blocks with buildings numbered 99 to 555; the higher the number, the better the quality, or at least so goes the commonly held conviction.

Shopping Complexes--A unique shopping opportunity in Montreal is the underground city, a warren of passageways connecting more than 1,500 shops in 10 shopping complexes that have levels both above and below street level. Complexe Desjardins (tel. 514/281-1870) is bounded by rues Jeanne-Mance, Ste-Catherine, St-Urbain, and boulevard Rene-Levesque. It has waterfalls and fountains, trees and hanging vines, music, lanes of shops going off in every direction, and elevators whisking people up to one of the four tall office towers or into the Wyndham hotel. Les Cours Mont-Royal, 1455 rue Peel at boulevard de Maisonneuve (tel. 514/842-7777), is a recycling of the old Mount Royal Hotel. This complex recently added a huge Harry Rosen fashion emporium. The venerable Eaton department store failed, but it spawned Le Centre Eaton, 705 rue Ste-Catherine ouest (tel. 514/288-3708), with over 175 shops, multiple cinemas, and eateries on five floors. The actual old Eaton department store is now occupied by Les Ailes de la Mode (The Wings of Fashion), 677 Ste-Catherine ouest, at University (tel. 514/282-4537), which has five floors of home accessory and fashion retailers, plus eateries, a spa, and more. Place Bonaventure, at rues de la Gauchetiere and University (tel. 514/397-2325), has some 125 boutiques beneath the Bonaventure Hilton. Place Montreal Trust, at 1500 rue McGill College at rue Ste-Catherine (tel. 514/843-8000), is a five-story shopping complex, and Place Ville-Marie, opposite Le Reine Elizabeth hotel, between boulevard Rene-Levesque and Cathcart (tel. 514/861-9393), was Montreal's first major postwar shopping complex, known locally simply as "PVM." It has over 80 boutiques and eateries. Les Promenades de la Cathedrale, at the corner of rue University and rue Ste-Catherine (tel. 514/849-9925), has more than 70 shops on the levels below the Cathedrale Christ Church. The new Ruelle des Fortifications, on rue St-Pierre between St-Antoine and St-Jacques (tel. 514/982-9888), is in the Centre Mondial du Commerce (World Trade Center), at the edge of Vieux-Montreal. This complex has more than 80 upscale boutiques, centered around two fountains, one modern and one traditional. Westmount Square, at rue Wood and rue Ste-Catherine (tel. 514/932-0211), combines a shopping center, an office complex, and a condominium complex designed by the famed Mies van der Rohe.