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Montreal’s Chinatown

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Centered around the Rue de la Gauchetière, Montreal’s isn’t the biggest Chinatown you’ll find in North America, but it’s among the most historic. Chinese families began immigrating to this area in the 1860s, and today the neighborhood is a vibrant mix of Asian restaurants, shops and culture.

Chinatown Montreal

Montreal’s Chinatown doesn’t take much time to walk through; it extends just a couple of blocks in each direction. But there’s a lot packed into the small area, and a thorough exploration might take hours… especially if you’re hungry.

I like Asian food, but Jürgen loves it. So when I realized how close our apartment was to Chinatown, I knew I was in trouble. Indeed, every time… every single time I asked what he wanted to do for lunch, his face would light up with glee. To his credit, he did give me a choice: “Korean, Ramen, Dumplings or Mongolian Hot Pot?”

Chinatown Montreal

It might be called Chinatown, and Chinese shops are definitely in the majority here, but this neighborhood is home to a wide variety of people and restaurants. You’ll find Korean bibimbap, Japanese shabu-shabu, Chinese noodles and Vietnamese Pho, almost all of it is reasonably priced. Chinatown is regarded as one of the best areas in Montreal for good cheap eats.

Montreal’s Chinatown Has Cheap Eats

You’ll know you’ve entered the neighborhood after passing through one of the four paifang, or ceremonial gates, which mark its borders. You’ll find old tea shops, stores selling paper lanterns and decorations, cheap barbers, and confectionery shops. We stopped in at one that was advertising “Dragon Beard Candy,” a treat once made for the emperors of China. Stretched out into fine, white hair-like threads, it actually does resemble an old Chinese man’s beard. Luckily, it doesn’t taste like one.

The Rue de la Gauchetière is a pedestrian zone, and develops a festival-like atmosphere on summer weekends, when many events are held out on the street. The party doesn’t stop once the sun goes down; in fact, because Chinatown has been named a special “tourist” zone of Montreal, its bars and clubs are permitted to stay open later than normal.

Location on our Map

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April 30, 2016 at 2:02 pm Comments (0)

Under the Dome at SAT – Société des Arts Technologiques

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At first glance, you might mistake the gleaming dome on Boulevard St. Laurent for that of a modern mosque. But in fact, it’s an immersive exhibition space utilized by Montreal’s Society of Technological Arts, or SAT. SAT is a collective of artists and engineers dedicated to a wide array of projects, from mind-bending multimedia shows in the dome, to practical networking and communication applications.

Société des Arts Technologiques

Montreal is equally accomplished in both the worlds of culture and high-tech; not only is this city home to Cirque du Soleil and the world’s largest jazz festival, but it’s also an important hub of the aerospace and video gaming sectors. So a place like SAT, a non-profit organization which blends the arts with technology, feels right at home.

About fifty people work full-time at SAT, but there’s a constant influx of artists from all over the world, who come for temporary projects. The organization hosts courses in multimedia disciplines like “Creation of Online Films” and “Compositing Video with After Effects,” offers residencies and even runs technological summer youth camps.

Société des Arts Technologiques

SAT also opens its doors to the public, welcoming visitors to its third-story terrace restaurant every evening after 5pm. This is a cool spot to hang out and, if the Wednesday night crowd we saw is any indication, it’s not exactly a “hidden secret.” We snatched a table outside on the terrace to enjoy a beer in the sun, and played a SAT-inspired game: is that person an artist or an engineer? It’s surprisingly difficult, both groups seem to have the same fashion sense, and are apparently big beard fans.

We couldn’t linger on the terrace for too long, because a show was starting in the Satosphère. This dome was built in 2011, and is used primarily for immersive artistic endeavors such as “Cauchemar Merveilleux,” the show we’d be seeing. This was a bizarre merging of the poetry of French performer Arthur H and computer-generated visual projections that simulated clouds, stars, tunnels and skyscrapers. It was all in French, so I didn’t understand much (except for the bit about Batman being a homosexual cyborg… which… I guess you couldn’t really say I “understood.”) On weekends, the Satosphère is used for live sets featuring both DJs and VJs, who live-mix video projections against the dome.

Location on our Map
SAT (Société des Arts Technologiques) – Website

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April 29, 2016 at 2:08 pm Comments (0)

A Tour through Old Montreal

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As its name suggests, Vieux Montréal is the oldest section of the city, occupying roughly the location of the original 17th-century settlement of Ville-Marie. With many of Montreal’s most historic buildings tightly packed in close proximity to one another, it’s a rewarding place to take a self-guided walking tour.

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We started our tour in the southwestern quadrant of Old Montreal, among the towering edifices which line St. Jacques, also known as the Wall Street of Montreal. Most of the buildings on this street date from the nineteenth century, and each is a work of art, with emblems and statues adorning the cornices and Roman columns protecting the entryways. The epicenter of this architectural grandeur is at the corner of St. Jacques and St. James, where five banks were once headquartered.

Turning to the south, we walked down the small Rue de les Récollets. The Récollets were a religious order who had served the French Army. But with the arrival of the British, the order was dispersed and their convent replaced with greystone Victorian residences. At least their name lives on.

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Continuing south, we reached the Place d’Youville, named for Marguerite d’Youville, who founded Canada’s famous Grey Nuns in 1738. Some of the sisters still live in the massive old convent, although that might not be the case for long. Concordia University recently bought the building, although the nuns will be allowed to stay until 2022. Nearby the Place d’Youville is one Montreal’s most popular streets, St. Paul, which runs parallel to the old port and transforms into a major tourism thoroughfare on summer weekends.

We walked up to the Place des Armes, found between the Notre-Dame Basilica and the old headquarters of the Bank of Montreal: Canada’s first bank. You can find a small, one-room museum inside. Continuing east, we soon found ourselves at the Champs de Mars, a small park behind the City Hall, where remains of Montreal’s former fortifications can be seen. Our tour then continued down the wide, sloping Boulevard St. Laurent, lined with souvenir shops and cafes spilling out onto the sidewalk.

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It would require a heroic undertaking to catalog all the individual shops, sights and highlights of Old Montreal. There are quaint delicatessens, fancy French restaurants such as the gorgeous Les Filles de Roy, parks, plazas, lovely old banks, monumental office buildings, churches and museums galore. Every step seems to reveal some fascinating new historical tidbit. At the corner of Rue Sainte-Hélène and Récollets is the building in which North America’s first YMCA was founded, for example. Just north of Place Jacques Cartier on Saint-Paul is the former Rasco Hotel, where Charles Dickens once stayed. And next to the Notre-Dame is the Old Sulpician Seminary, which dates from 1684 and is the oldest standing building in the city.

The official website of Old Montreal provides an excellent self-guided walking tour, which introduces the highlights of the neighborhood and some of its history. You can either follow the tour exactly, or wander randomly about at your whim. It almost doesn’t matter where your journey in Old Montreal takes you; every street is interesting, and any time spent here is going to be worth your while.

Locations on our Map: Place d’Armes | Former Convent of the Grey Nuns | Champ de Mars | Place Jacque Cartier

List of Montreal hotels

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April 27, 2016 at 11:00 pm Comments (0)

La Sucrerie de la Montagne

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You can’t take a trip to Quebec without at least once visiting a Sugar Shack. I’m pretty sure that’s a law. Jürgen and I spent a sunny April afternoon at La Sucrerie de la Montagne, about an hour west of Montreal. We walked around the maple trees, peeked into the buckets, learned how the sap is boiled down, and enjoyed a hearty meal… all of it drenched in maple syrup, of course.

La Sucrerie de la Montagne

When we first met Pierre Faucher, the owner of the Sucrerie de la Montagne, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Hollywood itself couldn’t have cast a more perfect “Quebec Maple Syrup Man.” With his burly build and undisciplined grey beard, he looked like he’d been born in the woods, raised by bears, and weaned on maple syrup.

La Sucrerie de la Montagne

And in fact, Pierre is as Québécois as they come. He’s directly descended from a family who arrived from France in 1659, and were among the first settlers. He told us that almost all of the other families had perished in the early years of New France. “Only the strongest survived,” he boasted, pounding his chest. And when we met Pierre’s son, Stefan, the hearty blood lineage was confirmed — Stefan looks just like his father, but was even a little bigger.

Early April turned out to be prime season for maple syrup production — there’s only a brief, one-month window during which all the syrup for an entire year is produced. We had found Pierre hard at work inside the shack where the sap is boiled down into syrup. It was one of those perfect moments: opening the door to a log cabin in the middle of the Quebec woods, to find this mountain man shoveling logs into an old oven, while plumes of sweet-smelling vapor filled the room.

I get the feeling that, during the short production season, Pierre is inside the shack almost non-stop. The sap which comes from the trees is clear and watery; it needs to be boiled down from 40 parts to one, so it’s a long, painstaking process… and when the syrup is finally ready, there’s cause for celebration. We were lucky enough to be in the room when the “liquid gold” began dripping and then flowing out of the vat. Pierre lit up with joy. “Look at it go! Wonderful!”

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I had almost the same reaction an hour later, after we had sat down for lunch, and the food began arriving at our table. “Sausages, ham, potatoes, beans and soufflé? All we can eat? Wonderful!” Naturally, there was a big bottle of maple syrup was at our table, which we made liberal use of. We drank maple-flavored beer and had a dessert of pancakes and sugar pie, both of which we drowned in syrup. Because sugar pie definitely needs maple syrup. This meal was nearly enough to induce a coma… a Sugar Shock at the Sugar Shack.

So, during our first couple weeks in Montreal, Jürgen and I had seen the Canadiens play hockey, visited a sugar shack, and learned that (for some reason) uttering the word “tabernacle” in a bar is reason for riotous laughter. We were progressing! By the time we left Montreal, we’d almost be as Québécois as Pierre and Stefan Faucher. Just gotta work on the beards.

Location on our Map
Sucrerie de la Montagne – Website

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April 27, 2016 at 3:00 pm Comments (0)

The Notre Dame de Bon Secours

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Known as the “Sailors’ Church,” the Notre Dame de Bon Secours is one of the oldest churches in Montreal, originally built in 1771. Its founder was Marguerite Bourgeoy, a woman of deep faith whose life story is celebrated within a museum attached to the church.

Notre Dame de Bon Secours

Because of its location on the port, the Notre Dame de Bon Secours has long been a place of pilgrimage for sailors passing through Montreal. After having survived a particularly dangerous journey, many of these sailors would return with votive offerings in the form of model ships, twelve of which are now hanging from the church’s ceiling, suspended a few meters above the floor.

The church was the brainchild of St. Marguerite Bourgeoy, a deeply spiritual woman who had arrived in Montreal along with the first settlers. She’s known for founding one of the Catholicism’s first communities of uncloistered nuns. It was controversial at the time, but Marguerite reasoned that she and her sisters could better help their vulnerable settlement by actively engaging with it, instead of sequestering themselves away. She took it upon herself to educate both settlers and native children, and established the fledgling town’s first schools.

Notre Dame de Bon Secours

In honor of her remarkable life, she was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1983, becoming Canada’s first female saint. Her tomb can be found within the church, and it’s worth touring the small museum dedicated to her. In one room, Marguerite’s life has been reconstructed in a comic-book-fashion, with nearly a hundred small panoramas that detail everything from her birth in Troyes, France, to her transatlantic journey, her works in Canada, and her death, at peace among her followers and loved ones.

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Even if you’re not interested in Marguerite Bourgeoy, there are other reasons to visit the museum. Not only can you see the crypt underneath the church, but a ticket also allows you up into the tower, from where there’s an outstanding view over the Old Port of Montreal. Also included in the ticket price is an audio guide, which brings certain details of the church to vivid life.

Location on our Map
Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours – Website

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April 26, 2016 at 1:55 pm Comments (0)

Godspeed You, Montreal Music Scene

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As we were walking through the Underground City, near the Place des Arts, I spied a poster out of the corner of my eye. Godspeed You! Black Emperor would be playing in a couple days. They’ve long been one of my favorite bands, and I had completely forgotten they were from Montreal. Before Jürgen had a chance to protest, I raced over to the counter and scored us a couple tickets.

For years, I’ve wanted to hear GY!BE’s soaring, orchestral music in a live setting and the show, held in the Théâtre Maisonneuve, was as great as I had hoped it would be. The band teamed up with award-winning local dance troupe Holy Body Tattoo for a performance called Monumental. It was an inspired combo: GY!BE’s droning and emotionally-exhausting music paired with an intense, bizarre and brutally physical dance, which seemed to be about the insecurities and frustrations of modern life.

Montreal is famous for its indie music, but I hadn’t realized just how big the scene is. A couple days after the GY!BE show, I looked up “Bands from Montreal,” and was stunned by the list. It was like scrolling through my music library… a shocking percentage of bands I listen to come from this city. There’s Majical Cloudz, Ought, Patrick Watson and Tim Hecker. Remember the Unicorns and the Stills? And more recent acts include Half Moon Run, oddball Max DeMarco and Grimes, whose Art Angels was one of 2015’s best albums.

And Wolf Parade! They’re a band I’ve been deeply in love with for a decade, and who I’ve followed through all their various side projects: Handsome Furs, Divine Fits, Sunset Rubdown and Moonface. Also, did you know Leonard Cohen was from Montreal? I didn’t! But this godfather of indie rock was born in Westmount, an affluent English-speaking neighborhood of the city.

Haha, I made it the fifth paragraph of an article about Montreal’s music scene, and still haven’t mentioned Arcade Fire. Easily the city’s most successful musical export, Arcade Fire have released one critically-acclaimed album after another, and have become one of the world’s most popular (and best) rock bands.

What is it about this city that produces such great music? Our theory has to do with the long winters. It’s an idea we first developed while in Iceland, another place with an outsized music scene. When you’re looking forward to long months of uninterrupted cold and snow, there’s nothing better to do than get together in a garage and create something.

Here’s a collection of videos featuring some of our favorite Montreal artists, and some we’re looking forward to discovering. Have we overlooked any of your favorites? What about some of the city’s French acts? As English-speakers, we’re naturally more familiar with the English-speaking bands, but there’s also a lot of great Montreal music being made in French.

Framed Photos From Montreal

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April 25, 2016 at 7:38 pm Comments (3)

Butterflies and More at the Greenhouse

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Included in the ticket to the Insectarium is a free entrance to the neighboring Botanic Garden. With two dozen thematic zones like the Chinese Garden, Rose Garden and Courtyard of the Senses, the Botanic Garden is huge… but we wouldn’t be seeing much of it. It was freezing in Montreal, and snow was still covering the ground. So we decided to delay a thorough exploration of the garden, and instead scurried straight into the greenhouse.

Greenhouse and Butterflies

Every year, from February to April, the Main Greenhouse of the Botanic Garden hosts an exhibition called “Butterflies Go Free,” during which hundreds of butterflies are set loose. The variety is astounding; along with the familiar species like monarchs, there are some massive and bizarre butterflies to be found. And they’re everywhere, munching on plates of fruit, sucking the nectar from flowers, flapping past your face, or resting on a leaf. If you have sharp eyes, you’ll also be able to spot caterpillars and chrysalises.

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The butterfly exhibit was the highlight, but it’s just one section of perhaps a dozen in this incredible greenhouse. We spent an hour walking from one end to the other, checking out ferns, orchids, palms, cacti and more. Set inside a boomerang-shaped hall, it’s all beautifully designed, with waterfalls, raised platforms, and even a mock hacienda in the cactus section.

Location on our Map
Jardin Botanique – Website

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April 25, 2016 at 1:31 pm Comments (0)

The Insectarium

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Imagine an enclosed area just swarming with tiny, freakish beasts. Millions of them crawling around, randomly piercing the air with hideous ear-piercing screeches. This is Montreal’s Insectarium on a Saturday afternoon… and the beasts of which I’m speaking are, of course, children. The insects? They’re cool.

Insectarium Montreal

It was our fault for visiting the Insectarium on a freezing cold weekend afternoon, when literally every family in a fifty-mile radius had the same idea. We should have timed our visit for a sunny Tuesday in June, when normal people want to be outside. Because when the Insectarium is jammed-packed with children, you’ll be plotting your escape from the moment you enter. And that would be a shame. This place is so cool, it deserves a big chunk of your time.

Montreal’s is the biggest insectarium in North America, and among the largest in the world, collecting over 250,000 of the planet’s weirdest and most beautiful creepy-crawlies, many of them alive. There are scorpions and spiders, cockroaches and termites, while huge glass cases enclose pinned butterflies and beetles from around the world, displaying their unbelievably varied colors and shapes.

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Perhaps I liked the stick-bug village best; I had been searching through this big enclosure, trying to locate the bugs, until realizing I had been staring at them the entire time. And then, I was able to see dozens. I also had the chance to hold an Orchid Mantis, which, when standing still, looks almost exactly like a flower petal.

There were so many bugs… big ones, small ones, cute ones, ugly ones, coughing and sneezing ones, some that were crying, and one that cleverly dodged all my attempts to smash it underfoot… oh wait, I’m talking about the kids again. Actually, the truth is that the exhibits are so engaging that we were able to ignore the chaos and concentrate on the insects. And it was fun to watch kids interact with them. I waited by the tarantula cage while one little girl searched for its hiding spot. When she finally found the monster, she nearly jumped out of her skin.

The whole time we were in the Insectarium, we talked about how much our niece would love it. Like many kids, she’s fascinated by the natural world, and has no compunction about picking up worms, crickets, or any other kind of creature. If you have a similar child, they’re going to be in heaven at the Insectarium. And you’ll probably like it, too.

Location on our Map
Montréal Insectarium – Website

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April 24, 2016 at 9:10 pm Comments (2)

A Concise History of Montreal

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Five hundred years ago, Western civilization didn’t even know about the existence of Montreal Island. The Renaissance was just winding down in Europe, as the first wooden houses were being erected in a settlement called Ville-Marie. So, in order to evolve into a modern-day metropolis, Montreal has had to cram a lot into its short history. Here’s a brief rundown of the highlights.

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2000 BC The first traces of human activity on the island of Montreal, including stone tools and evidence of campfires, date from about four thousand years ago. Before that, the island had been under the water level of the St. Lawrence River.
1142 The Iroquois form a powerful confederation. They and the Algonquin are the earliest settlers of Montreal, and each has a different name for it. The Iroquois call it Tiohtià:ke, while in the language of the Algonquin, the island is known as Moniang.
1535 The Island of Montreal is discovered for France by explorer Jacques Cartier, during his trip down the St. Lawrence River. He reports the presence of a large Iroquois settlement called Hochelaga at the base of Mont Royal.
1642 The first families arrive from France and establish a settlement called Ville-Marie (it’s uncertain when the name changed to Montreal). Although the Iroquois had abandoned the island by this time, the settlers are under constant attack from the Mohawk, who had been using it for hunting.
1701 Over 1300 Native Americans representing 40 tribes descend upon Montreal to sign a treaty known as the Great Peace and bring the Fur Wars to a close. The treaty is unique in relations with Native Americans, and most Canadian tribes consider it still active.
1760 As a result of the Seven Years War, France loses its North American territory. Montreal, along with Quebec, is ceded to the British. The island sees an upswing in immigration from Britain; by 1830, Anglophones outnumber French-speakers in Montreal.
1849 Tensions between the Crown and the independence movement finally boil over, as an angry band of rioters burns down parliament. Montreal’s short five-year period as the capital of Canada are over, and the government is moved to Ottawa. Alarmed English-speakers begin an exodus, and Montreal again becomes a majority Francophone city.
1920s Prohibition in the USA turns Montreal into a hot party-town. Nightclubs, casinos, bars, cabaret shows and strip joints gain prominence, as Montreal cuts loose to enjoy the roaring Twenties.
1960s Liberal leadership of Montreal brings about what has been called the city’s Quiet Revolution, transferring power to the people and secularizing society. The metro is introduced, utilities are nationalized, the welfare system is expanded, and the French-speaking population of the city begins to exert its influence.
1967 Montreal introduces itself to the world with the wildly successful Expo 67, which is timed to coincide with Canada’s centennial. Just nine years later, Montreal hosts the ’76 Summer Olympics, perhaps best remembered for the perfection of Romanian gymnast Nadia Com?neci.
1970 The Front de Libération du Québec sparks the October Crisis by assassinating Pierre Laporte, a member of Parliament, and kidnapping James Cross, a British diplomat. Canada sends special forces into Montreal, in its only domestic deployment of troops during peacetime, and order is soon restored.
1995 Quebec holds a nail-biting referendum on secession, which fails to pass by the slimmest of margins: just 50.58% of the province chooses to stick with Canada. The first referendum, in 1980, had been defeated by a more comfortable margin.
2016 and beyond… In December, Montreal celebrates its 375 birthday. The city has become a recognized leader in the arts, with a summer program full of events, including the world’s biggest jazz and comedy festivals. With its multilingual and cosmopolitan residents leading the way, Montreal seems certain to continue building on its status as one of North America’s most vibrant cities.
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April 23, 2016 at 9:34 pm Comments (0)

The Marché Atwater

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Set inside an imposing art deco building on the waterfront near the Lachine Canal, the Atwater Market is home to a wide variety of butchers, bakers and produce stands. The market was too far away from our apartment in Old Montreal, but this was probably a good thing. If we had shopped there every day, we might have been healthier and happier, but we’d also have gone broke.

Atwater Marche Market

The Marché was constructed in 1933 and named after local politician Edwin Atwater (who’s also been honored with a nearby metro station). It was part of the public works projects which were designed to stimulate growth in Montreal following the devastating 1929 stock market crash.

Since its earliest days, the market’s primary focus has been selling high-quality produce and meats to the citizens of Montreal. A number of delicatessens can be found within its walls, although not as many as you might think. The market building looks enormous from far away, but it’s actually quite narrow, with space for just a couple rows of shops.

Atwater Marche Market

But you’ll find stands selling every type of delicacy you might want. There’s one dedicated entirely to sausages, with dozens of flavors such as “truffle” and “broccoli.” There’s a massive bakery, a shop selling specialty cheeses, a wine store, plenty of butchers, one that focuses on Italian pastas and sauces, and any number of fruit and veggie vendors.

We visited just before lunchtime, and that was a mistake. It was as though my stomach had developed its own eyes and nose. Even if I wasn’t physically looking at them, my stomach seemed hyper-aware of all the most delicious foods. It would grumble to alert me, then drag me over to the ricotta-stuffed shells… the baby-back ribs… the wide-ranging selection of pates and jams. “Stop it, stomach, or it’s tofu again for you!”

As much as I’d have liked to indulge my every desire, the prices at the Atwater Market kept us from splurging. Unless you’re loaded, this isn’t a place for day-to-day groceries. But if you’re looking for a certain sort of cheese that the supermarket doesn’t stock, or preparing dinner for a special occasion, it’s perfect. And even if you’re not planning on buying anything, it’s worth stopping by just to see the architecture and admire the beautiful food.

Location on our Map
Marché Atwater – Website

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Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
Atwater Marche Market
April 22, 2016 at 2:34 pm Comments (2)

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