Montreal: The City of Saints

Considering how I was already in France for my business trip to Paris, a lot of people assumed I’d take a few days off and travel around France or Europe. You can imagine their surprise when I told them that I didn’t and instead flew back to Canada to spend the weekend in Montreal.

I already had plans to go to Montreal that weekend and it just so happened that it lined up quite nicely with my trip to Paris. It would’ve been nice to spend that extra time in Europe but hey, it is what it is. So that’s how I ended up going from the French capital of Europe to the French capital of North America.

Old Montreal
The streets of Old Montreal.

Montreal is a nice city. I’ve been a bunch of times throughout my life but the last time prior to this trip was back in 2013, so it’s been a while. And even when I went then, it was for an event so I didn’t really have much time to check out the city.

This time, the plan was to actually walk around and see what the city has to offer. It’s always kinda exciting to sight-see in another Canadian city because Canada is such a big country with so many things to see. It’s so cool to be able to fly to another place with different cultures, customs, and in this case, language, and still be able to find so much familiarity.

For example, I wanted to buy some stuff so I went and found a Shoppers and a Loblaws. In Montreal, they’re called called Pharmaprix and Provigo respectively, but they’re still literally the same store with the same layouts and products. It’s kinda cool.

Old Port of Montreal
A Ferris Wheel by a frozen river.

That level of familiarity makes Montreal a pretty comfortable place to visit. Despite being from a different city in a different province in Canada, I never felt like a true foreigner. It was kind of a nice feeling, especially when you contrast it with my experience in Paris where I felt like I was a total outsider.

Montreal is a francophone city and so the linguistic difference alone makes it a very different city to Toronto or Vancouver. That said, English is so widely spoken in Montreal that I never had a problem getting around or talking to people.

Really makes you think though. In the anglophone parts of Canada, you’d be hard-pressed to find a person that was actually bilingual in English and French. I mean, I’m living proof of that. I studied French for a solid nine years of my life and yet I wouldn’t be able to speak it to save my life.

In a way, it’s somewhat inspiring me to brush up on my French a bit.

Ice on the St Lawrence
Sheets of ice on the St Lawrence.

Considering how I was there in the winter, I got a chance to experience the fabled Montreal winter. The weather actually wasn’t that cold when I was there though, just barely below negative, but there was still noticeably more snow there than in Toronto.

I guess in a way that’s not too terrible because it means you could enjoy being outside without freezing your ass off. In general, it seemed like there were more people walking around the city than in Toronto. For example, we went to the Old Port and there were a bunch of people there just hanging out by the water or skating on some outdoor rink.

I literally cannot imagine people doing that here so it was cool to just walk around there. Plus, we saw a bunch of giant ice sheets floating around the St Lawrence which was kinda cool.

Mont Royal Skating
Outdoor skating on Mont Royal.

Outdoor skating seemed like a good idea so we also went to Mont Royal to both check out the view and to do some skating. The skate rink at Beaver Lake was kinda nice. I’ve always enjoyed skating and I honestly think outdoor skating is the best way to enjoy it.

There’s something about being outside that just beats any experience in an indoor rink in my opinion.

Mont Royal in general was also a pretty nice walk. The snow was nice and fluffy, the lights were nice and warm, and so it felt pretty comfy. We even saw a bunch of raccoons doing raccoon things too which was kinda cute.

Two Raccoons in a Tree
I thought raccoons hibernated in the winter.

At the top of the “mountain” is the Belvédère Kondiaronk. There was a plaque there that said that Mont Royal was the reason why Montreal is called Montreal. That was probably more interesting that the view, which was solid but really not that exciting. Really did make me wish that Toronto had a panoramic viewpoint of the city that wasn’t a condo though.

Another notable sight that I went and checked out was the Notre Dame. I couldn’t go into the Notre Dame in Paris because it was under reconstruction so the Montreal one was the first one I could go into. Despite that, I thought that I might’ve been hitting a bit of “church-fatigue” after seeing so many churches already in France.

But man, Montreal’s Notre Dame is really nice. The outside of the church isn’t that spectacular but the interior is really nice. The shrine is so intricately detailed and there’s this beautiful blue and gold colour that really stands out.

Notre Dame Montreal Interior
The inside of Montreal’s Notre Dame.

Another interesting thing is that the stained glass windows of the basilica doesn’t go over biblical events like every other church. Instead, it covers the history of Montreal and features key players like Jacques Cartier and the aboriginal people he met. That was pretty neat.

No trip to Montreal is complete without some solid food. Being the largest city in Quebec, there’s a lot of options for Quebecois food, the most famous of which has to be poutine.

I didn’t really know where to go for poutine so I just googled it and one of the recommendations was La Banquise, a diner known for their poutine and craft beers. We had to wait outside and then wait even longer inside to get a table but it was totally worth it.

There were so many different types of poutine and the portions were amazing and the taste was even better. Definitely one of the best poutines I’ve had in my life.

La Banquise Poutine
Bacon, hot dogs, mushrooms, gravy, cheese curds, and fries.

I’m also not really sure if this is a thing or not but I always think that Quebec is known for their breakfast/brunch diners. It might be because of Cora’s or something, but I’ve always had that association. We went for brunch one day as well and as you can imagine it’s just a ton of great food.

American diners are nice too but I think that they’re sometimes just too unhealthy. Too much grease and fried food. I’ve always thought that the French Canadian diners just seem to offer a healthier selection of food but also just keeps the calorie spirit alive. It’s nice.

Overall, I enjoyed my time in Montreal. It’s cool to be able to go somewhere that’s not super far from Toronto but still have such a different vibe and culture. I could definitely see myself spending more time there.

Orlando: The Fantasy City

So I have totally fell behind on my travel posts. I’ve normally been pretty good at writing them but the last two months has been a complete blur. In November alone I went to four countries so there’s a decent amount to write about.

But before I start writing about the more exotic places, I need to clear out my backlog of American cities that I visited as part of work trips. The last one I wanted to write about this year was my trip to Orlando, which was around late October.

I’ve been to Orlando with my family when I was younger but as usual, it’s always a different experience when you go as an adult. You get to do things at your own pace and you get to dictate the rules in terms of what you want to do and where to go.

Lake Eola
An empty lake in the middle of the city.

When people think of stuff to do in Orlando, probably the most common thing people think about is Disney World because well, it’s Disney World.

I didn’t go to Disney World this time but while I was planning my trip, I realized that there’s like nothing to do in Orlando except visit theme parks.

It’s pretty amazing because if you go to Tripadvisor and look up things to do in Orlando, you literally only just get theme parks until 14th place, which is International Drive, a street where a lot of the theme parks are located.

Icon Park during the Day
Icon Park during the day.

Wikipedia says that Orlando contains 5 out of 10 of the most visited theme parks in world, which is impressive in and of itself. So when I was thinking of a subtitle for this post, I really wanted to use “The Theme Park City” but I already used that for Singapore of all places.

I don’t regret using that for Singapore since I really thought that Singapore felt like a giant theme park. Orlando feels different though because it doesn’t feel like a theme park, it just has so many of them. It’s like they just decided that real life sucks and they wanted to build out all of these places where you can escape from reality.

Since this was a work trip, we didn’t have a lot of time to actually do much in the city but me and my coworker decided to stay an extra two days to go check out Harry Potter World at Universal Studios.

Hogwarts
I’ve finally made it to Hogwarts.

First, this is #CAPITALISM at its finest because Harry Potter World is split up between two of Universal’s parks so if you wanted to see the entire thing, you had to buy entrance to both of them, which naturally costs more. But that’s how they get you because of course you’re going to do that.

That said, it was actually a really nice experience. I like Harry Potter but I’m definitely not a diehard fan or anything. But when we walked into Diagon Alley and I saw the dragon and buildings, it honestly felt really magical.

As a designer and developer, I love creating things that provide memorable experiences and it really goes to show that if you have all the money and resources, you can really create something special. Like, you could make the same experience in virtual experience and already be incredibly successful but they were like nah and just turned fantasy into reality.

Diagon Alley
A dragon in Diagon Alley.

The attention to detail was incredible and the quality of the environments was amazing as well. It really felt like you were in the movies. They had everything from special currency, themed food and drinks, gimmicky wand stuff, and of course all the callbacks to the books and movies.

It was nice and definitely worth the money.

Aside from the Harry Potter stuff, they had a bunch of other themed things like Transformers, Fast and the Furious, and much more. It’s interesting because at the end of the day, everything in these parks are just fancy skins that are designed to evoke some sort of nostalgic feeling or memory.

They do a great job at it too. It’s actually really cool to just walk around the park and take it all in.

Jurassic Park x Harry Potter
There might be magic dinosaurs beyond these fences.

Another park that we ended up going to was Gatorland, which is a very different type of theme park with the theme being well, alligators. Instead of focusing on fictional or fantastic elements, Gatorland is a wildlife sanctuary where they just collect a bunch of alligators.

Those that know me know that I have this weird phobia of lizards. I can’t stand them and one of the reasons why I hate Florida is because they have so many lizards just crawling around. Oddly enough, I have zero fear of alligators so I actually really wanted to go to Gatorland.

Not only was the place incredibly scenic, they had a lot of gators and a lot of fun shows and experiences. Me and my coworkers ended up doing the feeding which meant you had a chance to throw slabs of beef at alligators before taking a picture with them.

You’re literally just like a meter away from like a hundred gators, which as you can imagine is really cool.

Gator Photos
Yes, those are real alligators.

In my opinion, a place called Gatorland can only either be incredibly disappointing or surprisingly fun. In this case, it was definitely the latter. Gatorland was awesome.

Aside from theme parks, we also checked out a few things in the city, but oddly enough, everything we checked out was themed in some aspect. For example, we went to Icon Park which isn’t a theme park, but rather some sort of outdoor hangout area with a bunch of restaurants and a Ferris wheel.

The park was pretty chill and we had a good time just eating ice cream by the Ferris wheel. It was neat because we watched a dude propose to a girl which was the first time I’ve seen that happen in real life. The girl said yes and the group asked me to take a picture of them.

I hope the picture turned out ok.

Icon Park at Night
Icon Park at night.

Another place of note that we went to was a speakeasy downtown called Hanson’s Shoe Repair. I’ve been enjoying going to speakeasies lately since they’re interesting and in this case, fits with the whole themed theme.

The place was kinda neat, you needed to find their password online to get in and the place had this old timey shoe repair theme going on.

Overall, Orlando is an interesting place. I don’t think I’d ever go back for Orlando, but rather go back for one of the many parks they have there. They’re not the cheapest things to visit but they really are special. Worth checking out a few of them if you have the time and money.

San Francisco: The City with Two Bridges

Last year when I went to San Diego, I took an extra couple days off afterwards and went to Santa Cruz. I wrote about those two cities in previous blogs but I actually also went to San Francisco as well.

I was there for literally only 24 hours though and I felt like it wasn’t really enough time to get a good enough feel to write about it, so I didn’t. I figured I’d go back eventually and I’d write about it after that.

So, in October I went to San Francisco for work and now I figure it’ll be a good time to write about.

View from Lombard Street
The view from Lombard Street, the “crookedest street in the world”.

As a dude in tech, San Francisco, and the Bay Area in general, constantly comes up in conversation. I feel like everyone I know has either worked and lived there, or know someone who has. It’s pretty fascinating.

With so many big companies and start ups in the area, the city itself feels pretty busy and dense. The density is definitely interesting because I’ve been to some pretty densely populated areas before but San Francisco just feels different.

Not really sure how to explain it, but I think it’s something to do with the uniformness of the place. In a lot of other densely populated places, you have a lot of skyscrapers and other buildings to help you navigate through the area.

Old SF Street Car
An old street car.

San Francisco on the other hand just seems like a very uniform jungle. All the buildings are like the same height and they’re all packed incredibly tightly next to each other. In that way it seems like when you’re in the downtown area every area just feels very enclosed.

It almost feels like the only thing that changes from street to street is the elevation. There are some damn steep streets in San Francisco. I don’t get how people manage to parallel park on those streets. It blows my mind.

When you’re within the city proper, there isn’t a lot of open space, but once you head out a bit more and into the periphery, the city opens up a bit more.

The Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is quite fine.

There’s a few big parks in San Francisco that were pretty great to walk through. One of them is Presidio, which contains the Palace of Fine Arts as well as leads to the Golden Gate Bridge. The Palace is actually really amazing.

It’s an amazing structure that looks like it should be a courtyard in some fancy European palace or something. Walking through there was pretty cool and I was actually pretty mesmerized at the sheer coolness of it.

On the other end of Presidio lies the Golden Gate Bridge, which in my opinion, is probably the most famous bridge in the world. If not number one it’s definitely up there. It’s a long and beautiful bridge that spans across the bay and it’s become the symbol of San Francisco.

SF from the Bridge
San Francisco from the Golden Gate Bridge.

The bridge itself is pretty nice and you can walk on it, but I think the best part of the bridge are the views. Not only can you get a decent view of the city from the bridge, but I really think that the bridge is just pretty cool to look at and it makes the views of the harbour that much nicer.

There’s another park called Golden Gate Park, which oddly enough does not contain the Golden Gate Bridge. That park is huge and it’s a nice place to get away from the hustle and the bustle of the city. There’s a lot of random things in the park as well and it really reminds me of Central Park in New York City.

There’s also Land’s End which is situated by the coast somewhere in between the two parks I just mentioned. I went there at night and I think that that park is the best of the three for sights. You get this wonderful view of the water, the cliff, and the bridge, and makes for a pretty nice stroll.

Golden Gate Bridge from Land's End
The Bridge from Land’s End.

I love cities that have stuff like this. Cities are great and all but sometimes you want to just take a break and disconnect a bit and go for a walk in nature. Cities that have large urban parks like these feel so necessary to help people recompose themselves.

In that sense, I think that San Francisco is amazing since it has both the big city stuff and so many nice parks. It’s especially nice that SF is by the ocean because as I’ve mentioned many times before, I love the ocean.

Being right on the water also means that the waterfront is another major sightseeing location in San Francisco. The city itself lies on a peninsula and a series of piers and wharves just line the entire northeast corner of it. Again, great place to just walk around and take in the sights and the sounds.

The Oakland Bridge
The lesser known bridge in SF, the Oakland Bridge.

For example, the Ferry Building area has a bunch of great restaurants and even better views of the Oakland Bridge, which I honestly didn’t really think about much before going there, but then realized that that was also a really great bridge. It was nice just sitting by the water and looking out into the harbour.

The Fisherman’s Wharf area is also pretty cool. There’s a lot of touristy things there so you’re paying a premium on a lot of the stuff you’re buying and eating, but it’s a fairly lively place and there’s a lot of random stuff to see there, like the sea lions.

There’s also Alcatraz which is right off of the coast. You can take tours to the island but I’ve yet to do it. I really want to do the sunset tour but I’ve missed it both times I’ve been to SF and so I have to go back and check it out sometime.

Sea Lions by the Wharf
A bunch of sea lions by the wharf. And one cheeky seagull.

I think in general, San Francisco is a nice city but it really depends on where you are. I’m not a huge fan of the downtown core area with the endless rows and rows of faceless buildings. Another part of that is also the homeless population. San Francisco is an incredibly rich city now but it wasn’t always the case.

As a result, the wealth disparity in the city is incredibly high and there’s a large homeless population. I’m not gonna lie, there are certain areas that feel incredibly sketchy just because there’s so many homeless people.

I remember I was taking an Uber to the airport and we drove by this area of the city that just had so many homeless people there. It kinda surprised me because of the sheer disparity and contrast. Certain areas of San Francisco which are so fancy and luxurious but then two streets down everyone is living in tents and shopping carts.

It definitely adds to the character of the city that’s for sure.

A Museum and a Church
A new museum and an old church.

Overall, I think San Francisco is a pretty decent city to go check out. The food is pretty decent and there’s a lot of stuff to check out and do from museums, naturey stuff, and city stuff. And of course, there’s a lot of job opportunities too.

That said, it’s an incredibly expensive city. I’d definitely go back but after going two years in a row, I think I’m good for now.