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Among vibrant arts, beaucoup retail, and alfresco sipping and supping spots, the 16th annual International Retail Design Conference says bonjour to Montréal

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You might be planning to attend VMSD’s International Retail Design Conference (IRDC) for the brilliant speakers, the abundance of retail-related wisdom and the powerful peer networking. But let’s also be honest: The promise of a spirited host city is quite the motivator, too.

This Sept. 13-15, the 16th installment of IRDC travels to Montréal, a city that boasts a metropolitan-area population of roughly 4 million, making it the second-largest city in Canada. It’s an arts and culture hub and one that spawned the beloved circus troupe Cirque du Soleil. It’s also known for its impressive mix of year-round festivals, including everything from Igloofest in January to the Croissant Festival in April.

Brush up on your French: It’s the official language spoken in Montréal, and 2011 census figures indicate the city has some of the highest numbers of bilingual citizens (French and English) in the country; a visit here can feel as if you’ve hopped the Atlantic. “The Port of Montréal – Vieux-Port de Montréal – is the old-world center of the city,” says David Kepron, a Montréal native, IRDC 2016 presenter and the vp of global strategies at Marriott Intl. (Bethesda, Md.). “The streets are [reminiscent of] being in Paris … lots of restaurants, nightlife and things to do.”

Go For a Stroll

Adjacent to IRDC’s home base this year (Le Westin Montréal hotel) is the historic Old Montréal neighborhood (aka “old town”), full of cobblestone streets, an array of art galleries and notable sites such as the Notre-Dame Basilica. This Gothic Revival-style church, built in the 19th Century (and the first to be built in Canada), saw a 1984 visit from Pope John Paul II and hosted Québec native Céline Dion’s wedding in 1994.

Along the nearby Saint-Paul Street is the Bonsecours Market, a two-story, domed, former public market. Built in the 1840s, it houses boutiques peddling goods from Québec designers, along with several restaurants where you can pause for sushi or belly up for a local microbrew. For a more picturesque pit stop, Kepron recommends going skyward to the rooftop bar at the Hôtel Nelligan, which overlooks the Basilica and the Old Port.

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Retail thrives here with several shopping districts peppered throughout the city, including the seven-mile-long Saint Catherine Street, where the likes of Hudson’s Bay, Maison Birks, Apple, H&M and Sephora mingle with smaller shops like local vintage clothing store Boutique 1861 and Montréal-based luxury apparel and accessories chain M0851. For a subterranean, weather-free experience, explore Montréal’s vast Underground City made up of more than 19 miles of tunnels that link hotels, offices, metro lines and shopping centers, such as the upscale Les Cours Mont-Royal downtown.

Along Sherbrooke Street West, once called Golden Square Mile due to the scads of wealthy families living there, you’ll find Toronto-based department store Holt Renfrew and other high-end shops, as well as the independent leather goods boutique Want Apothecary.

Change of Pace

Montréal is abuzz with development as new neighborhoods emerge with cafés, local markets and retail. “Ten years ago, Le Plateau-Mont-Royal was one of the only quarters where you could find all of those services,” says Veronick Lalonde, project manager for Montréal-based architecture and design firm Ædifica. She notes that areas such as Villeray, Mile End, Rosemont and former industrial section Griffintown are a few of the trendier neighborhoods that have undergone revitalization in recent years.

Out and About

What’s more, Lalonde says Montréal has become a cycling city: “There are bike paths all throughout the downtown core, and there is a bike-sharing system called Bixi,” she says.

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Even amid the city’s modern, progressive attitudes, some stalwarts of Montréal’s culture remain. “During warm weather, sidewalk cafés and rooftop terraces are packed,” says Debbie Kalisky, director of retail development at design firm GH+A (Montréal). “Regardless of the neighborhood, outdoor cafés are ubiquitous. Montréalers love to wine and dine outdoors.” Several choice places to do so include Northern Italian restaurant Le Richmond in Griffintown, meat-lovers paradise Joe Beef in Little Burgundy, French bistro L’Express in Le Plateau-Mont-Royal and downtown deli Schwartz’s, which was purchased in 2012 by a consortium that included Céline Dion and her late husband René Angélil.

And there are the festivals, which, according to Lalonde, are part of what makes life in Montréal so great. “It’s the mix of culture in art, food, the appreciation of life in general and the entertainment all year long.” 

Check out the August digital edition for a directory of must-see Montréal hot spots!

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