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The Big Orange of Gibeau Orange Julep

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Every city needs a ridiculous roadside attraction, and Montreal’s is the Big Orange of Gibeau Orange Julep. Found on the side of the Décarie highway near the metro station Namur, this three-story orange sphere is impossible to overlook. We decided to stop by and see if its famous julep was any good.

Giant Julep Montreal

The Big Orange has been part of the Montreal landscape since 1945, when it was built by Hermas Gibeau next to the highway to advertise the frothy orange beverage he’d been selling since 1932 in downtown Montreal. The structure proved a hit, and soon Gibeau was erecting similar giant oranges throughout the city.

Today, only the original Big Orange on Décarie remains. It’s still a popular restaurant, serving up greasy-spoon style burgers and fries. The food is pretty good, but the reason people come here is for the julep. This creamy drink is served with every meal; in fact, you’re not even given a choice when ordering your menu. It’s safe to assume that if you’ve come to the Big Orange, you’ll be drinking the julep.

Giant Julep Montreal

As far as I can tell, the drink of Gibeau’s is practically identical to the Orange Julius we have at Dairy Queens across the USA, although I’m sure there are some connoisseurs out there who would be aghast at the comparison. The julep is made with milk, orange juice and loads of sugar. It’s delicious, and I wasn’t surprised to see people waiting in line with big plastic containers to fill up and take home.

For a long time, the Big Orange featured rollerskating waitresses, although that practice stopped a few years ago. It’s become known as a gathering spot for classic muscle cars and motorcycles, and hosts a few events every year. In the summer, it’s open around the clock and, despite having only outdoor picnic-table seating, remains open all year long. Not even freezing temperatures and snow are going to keep Montrealers from enjoying their favorite drink.

Location on our Map

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Giant Julep Montreal
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July 12, 2016 at 6:23 pm Comments (3)

Montreal’s Biosphère

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Built as the American Pavilion for the 1967 World Expo, the Biosphère on Île Sainte-Hélène has become one of the defining landmarks of Montreal. Today, this geodesic dome is home to a museum about the state of our planet’s environment.

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The Biosphère is one of the most recognizable buildings in Montreal, and is at its most impressive when you’re standing inside it. The geometric pattern used to create the dome (a Class 1, Frequency 16 icosahedron, since you asked) is mesmerizing, and it’s easy to become dizzy while staring up and around at the intricate system of interlocked metal bars. This is the work of the famous American architect and theorist Buckminster Fuller, who helped to popularize geodesic domes in the 1950s.

When it was built for the Expo, the Biosphère had been covered with a plastic shell. But in 1976, the shell caught fire in spectacular fashion. The metal girder remained unscathed, but the sphere was closed to the public for nineteen years, before reopening in 1995 as a museum dedicated to water. In 2007, it was re-branded as the Biosphère.

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The exhibitions inside the Biosphère are what you might expect from an environmental museum, though they’ve done a good job of balancing the doom and gloom with optimism for the future. The best exhibit is a 360° cinema experience that recreates wind, rain and snow, and provides concrete examples of how humans are applying lessons from nature within our newest technology. For example, we’re learning how to make LEDs more efficient by studying fireflies, and designing optimal mass transport systems by looking at the veins of a leaf.

Other exhibits allowed us to re-enact a scientific study into water and air pollution, and take a walk through a tribute to the forests. On the top floor of the museum, there’s a viewpoint which offers a view of Montreal’s skyline through the bars of the dome.

Location on our Map
Montreal Biosphère – Website

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June 17, 2016 at 10:38 pm Comments (0)

A Day in Mile End

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Situated around Boulevard Saint Laurent, immediately south of Little Italy, Mile End has become synonymous with Montreal’s indie music scene. And bagels. And hipsters. We spent a sunny day exploring the streets of one of the city’s most iconic neighborhoods.

Montreal Mile End

No miles actually end in Mile End; the name is thought to have been inspired by London’s Mile End neighborhood, in the same way Montreal’s Quartier Latin is a nod to Paris. For much of its history, Mile End was an independent town known as Saint-Louis; it didn’t change its name officially until 1982. The stately former town hall of Saint-Louis, built in 1902, is today Montreal’s most attractive fire station.

Years ago, Mile End became the unofficial capital of Montreal’s burgeoning indie music scene, when bands like Arcade Fire and Godspeed You! Black Emperor started to take off. Musicians flooded in, setting up indie labels, performing at local clubs like the Casa del Popolo and la Sala Rossa, and recording at places such as the “thee mighty hotel2tango.” A glance at the list of the artists who’ve worked at this legendary Mile End studio reads like a who’s-who of indie music.

Montreal Mile End

Rue Bernard is the most iconic street for the young Montreal hipster, and is where you’ll find some of the neighborhood’s most popular shops, such as Drawn and Quarterly (which publishes as well as as sells comics and books), the artistic mecca of Le Dépanneur Café (which has live jazz all day), and a number of cool stores selling vintage clothes and second-hand vinyl.

What’s the opposite of a hipster? A Hasidic Jew? That’s not a bad guess. Somehow, this is the second-most prominent group in Mile End… and I doubt many of them are Arcade Fire fans. As we walked along Rue Hutchinson, on the west of Mile End, almost every single guy we passed was sporting a long black gown and curly black sideburns. After WWII, both Mile End and neighboring Outremont became a place of major resettlement for ultra-conservative Jews.

We had already fallen in love with one of Mile End’s Jewish establishments: St-Viateur Bagels. And today, we decided to check out Fairmount Bagels, their long-time competitor. Since the 1950s, there’s been a battle for dominance between the two shops, and Montrealers are strictly loyal to one or the other. We’ve been warned not to wade into the war between them, since choosing a favorite will alienate approximately half the city… but we like to live dangerously. In our view, St-Viateur is better. There, we said it!

Montreal Mile End

Near Fairmount Bagels, we found Wilenksy’s Light Lunch. Founded in 1932 by Moe Wilensky, this tiny shop has become an institution with its simple sandwiches, pickles and soda frappes. It’s a weird place; just a large empty room with a few stools around the bar. Our Wilensky Specials (salami, bologna and mustard on a toasted bun) arrived fifteen seconds after we had ordered them, and were gone fifteen seconds after that. Luckily, the prices are low enough that a second round wasn’t an outrageous idea.

After lunch, we stood in line for ice cream at the ridiculously popular Kem Coba. Normally, I will avoid long lines for things like ice cream; I hate it when specific shops with hipster names manage to become trendy. There’s a million other ice cream shops in Montreal, but no, everyone has to go to Kem Coba, because it’s Kem Coba, man! It’s the only place I ever eat ice cream, man! But we were still hungry after our Wilensky Light Lunch, so decided to see what the fuss was about. The ice cream was, of course, really good. Not worth the wait, certainly, but if the line happens to be small when you walk by, go for it. (Kem Coba’s Line is so ridiculous, that it has its own Twitter account.)

Montreal Mile End

From here, it was just a few minutes to the next stupidly popular Mile End institution: Café Olimpico. Crowned the “best cafe in the city” by a few publications, this is the neighborhood’s top spot to see and be seen, and has welcomed stars like Jennifer Lawrence and Will Ferrell. But one glance inside was enough for us. Here was a line in which we wouldn’t be waiting. Anyway, how is it even possible to proclaim which is the “best cafe” in a city the size of Montreal?

In truth, it feels like Mile End’s coolest days are behind it. We saw hipsters, of course, but not as many as I had expected. And while there were a lot of great shops on Rue Bernard, the street didn’t have the energy I’d read so much about. But then, hip scenes are fickle, and I could just imagine some snob snuffing that “Mile End is so 2008.” Overall, though, we enjoyed our time here. With so many unique stores and restaurants, it would have been hard not to.

Locations on our Map: Drawn and Quarterly | Le Dépanneur Café | Fairmount Bagels | Wilensky Light Lunch | Kem Coba | Café Olimpico
Websites: Drawn and Quarterly | Le Dépanneur Café | Fairmount Bagel | Wilensky’s Light Lunch | Kem Coba | Café Olimpico

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June 13, 2016 at 2:28 pm Comment (1)

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.

Insectarium Montreal

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)

The Montreal Science Centre

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A huge complex located within the Old Port, the Montreal Science Centre introduces children to the worlds of science and technology with hands-on workshops, experiments and games. The focus of this center is almost entirely on kids, but we were drawn by a temporary exhibit called “Animal Inside Out.”

Science Center voiles en voiles

Adults aren’t going to get much out of the Montreal Science Centre’s permanent exhibits, but kids will have a blast. The museum’s main attraction is called “Human,” and explores the human body with a wide-range of activities that exercise all of the senses. Another permanent exhibit is the “Creative Factory,” which is basically the high-tech playground of every child’s dreams, although it’s questionable whether any scientific knowledge seeps into their brains as they spin themselves around on a disc, play with derby cars, or forge two-meter whirlwinds in a chamber.

Luckily, the Montreal Science Centre also has awesome temporary exhibits, and “Animal Inside Out” is probably one that should carry an NC-17 rating. If I’d seen this as a kid, I’d have nightmares for a week! The title was accurate: it features real animals (including humans) displayed from the inside out. They’ve been peeled back layer-by-layer, revealing the muscles which lay under the flesh, the capillary systems, the internal organs and the bones.

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It’s the work of German scientist Gunther von Hagen, who sparked controversy years ago with his famous Body Works exhibit, which used the same embalming technique (called “plastination”) on humans. We never had the chance to see Body Works, but “Animal Inside Out” was fascinating. You don’t realize just how similar humans are to other species until you start stripping back the layers.

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The Science Centre also has an excellent IMAX theater, which shows both nature documentaries and mainstream hits like Star Wars. And nearby, there’s another outdoor attraction that kids will love. Voiles en Voiles is a pirate-themed aerial adventure park where children can harness up to climb ropes, crawl across logs and speed down ziplines. It looks like a blast; if I were twelve again, I would try to spend every day here.

Locations on our Map: Montreal Science Centre | Voiles en Voiles
Montreal Science Centre – Website
Voiles en Voiles – Website

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April 20, 2016 at 7:18 pm Comments (0)

The Underground City

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A vast network of tunnels leading to practically all of downtown Montreal’s shopping malls, food courts, office buildings, metro stations, museums and theaters, the so-called Underground City enables people to get around without ever having to step foot outside. And in this city, that can often be a real life-saver.

Montreal Underground City

When we arrived in early April, we expected to occasionally make use of the Underground City. But we hadn’t expected to depend upon it. On our second full day in Montreal, the city experienced a vicious cold snap, which sent temperatures plummeting below freezing and dumped inches of snow onto the streets.

Now, Jürgen and I might be from northern climes (he’s from Germany, and I grew up in northern Minnesota) but there’s a reason we chose Valencia, Spain as our permanent base. And that reason is: we don’t like the cold. The last time we saw snow was four years ago, and it’s not some kind of wild coincidence. We arrange things like that! So when this April storm hit, it was a surprise, and not one we appreciated. We whimpered and complained like children. We bundled up like Arctic explorers. And whenever circumstances forced us to step outside, we scampered like rats toward the nearest entrance of the Underground City.

Montreal Underground City

“Underground City” is certainly an evocative name, bringing to mind a sort of subterranean, alternative Montreal, populated perhaps by near-sighted mole-people. But the reality isn’t that exotic. Montrealers are often amused to learn that their elaborate maze of tunnels has become a bonafide tourist attraction… because that’s really all the Underground City is: tunnels which lead from one set of buildings to the next.

To long-time residents, these passageways are purely utilitarian; part of their boring, daily commute. But to newcomers like us, the Underground City is much more interesting. Many of the tunnels are decorated with art. There’s odd architecture, and an endless array of shops. The interior courtyards to which they lead are often beautiful. It’s fun to emerge from a random passageway into surroundings which are entirely new and unexpected. And the people-watching is great, especially when cold weather drives the city’s numerous crazies underground.

During the snowstorm, we dedicated an entire afternoon to the Underground City. It went something like this: Oof, it’s cold out there. Which way should we go? Check out that fountain! And there’s a piece of the Berlin Wall. And an ice-skating rink. This lobby is sweet… are we in a hotel? Can we go up these stairs? Okay, Mr. Security Guy, we get it; please calm down. The Tunnel Espresso Bar must be good, but that line is crazy. [Gasp] An entire store dedicated to board games… and there’s a comics shop! I’m gonna need an hour, Jürgen, go away. This tunnel leads from the Eaton Mall to the Cours Mont-Royal Mall. Malls interconnected to other malls: a stroke of evil genius. Oh, that poor Chinese woman is so drunk she can’t stand, should we help her? (No, Jürgen, I was joking!) How did we end up at a Barbie exhibition? Wait, I don’t believe it. Look at that poster: Godspeed You Black Emperor are playing next week. I forgot they were from Montreal. The booth is right there, I’m buying tickets. No, I shouldn’t, we’re trying to save money. Arrgh, but I have to!!!!!

If that isn’t among our most action-packed days in Montreal, I’ll be surprised.

Montreal Underground City

We made an effort, but it’s impossible to see all of the Underground City in one day. And the truth is, you wouldn’t really want to. Although we had fun during our excursion, much it was boring… mall after mall, Starbucks after Starbucks. (At least there were plenty of places to re-up on caffeine.) And while some tunnels have been beautified with art, many others are just boring old tunnels. Still, the Underground City is an impressive feat of urban engineering, which deserves to be seen. It comprises over twenty miles worth of passageways and, during winter, is used daily by over half a million people.

It seems unlikely that you wouldn’t visit the Underground City at least once during your visit to Montreal, even if you don’t realize it. But if the weather’s bad, it’s worth making an effort. Grab a map, plot a course, and dive underground to see a totally different side of Montreal.

Map of the Underground City

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April 15, 2016 at 10:54 pm Comments (3)
The Big Orange of Gibeau Orange Julep Every city needs a ridiculous roadside attraction, and Montreal's is the Big Orange of Gibeau Orange Julep. Found on the side of the Décarie highway near the metro station Namur, this three-story orange sphere is impossible to overlook. We decided to stop by and see if its famous julep was any good.
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