Given that I was born and raised in Montreal and it is rightfully a hot tourist destination – it has great food, lovely views, a fun party scene, and is easy to get to – I thought I’d put together a post on what to see, do, and eat, in Montreal.
This post was originally written years ago but it has been updated as of 2015 to better guide people interested in visiting my former home!
My Personal Montreal Crash Course
What to do in Montreal
Much of the city’s activities are centred around the downtown core, now linked not only by subway but via Bixi Bikes as well.
- In the Old Port area, ride around to see the beautiful cobblestone streets and older architecture, offering up a great overview of how the city began to take shape. Don’t miss Basilica Notre-Dame, built in 1672 and currently the largest house of worship in North America. It stands at the edge of the Old Port and its sanctuary is a marvel of stone, statues, and stained glass. Also head over to Place Jacques-Cartier to watch the bustle and noise of the artists and movement, and walk around the water’s edge while you’re there. And if it’s summer, the Clock Tower beach is a fun place to spend an afternoon.
- Also in the summer, Sundays include the fun outdoor party at Piknic Électronik on Île Ste.-Hélène. The tiny island adjacent to Montreal easy to find (take the métro to Jean-Drapeau Park stop or use your Bixi bike!) and a perfect place to relax.
- I’d also recommend visiting Mont Royal, the tiny mountain looking down over Montreal. You can walk your way to the top, visit Beaver Lake and see the sunset over the city. In the summer, you can partake in a huge, free drum circle called Tamtams in Mont Royal park, happening every Sunday afternoon.
- Montreal is also known for its huge, sprawling Underground City (locally called RÉSO), and in winter months the many kilometers of tunnels (32km and counting!) provides a welcome respite from the biting cold. There is a PDF of this large network of underground tunnels here.
- If it is too cold for Mount Royal, get your view of the city from an evening drink at Altitude 737 bar, overlooking the downtown core.
- If exploring local food and markets is your thing, then don’t miss the bustling Atwater or Jean-Talon freshmarkets and their eye-opening selection of fresh cheeses and produce.
- Built for the 1976 Olympic Games, the Olympic Stadium and Olympic Park are a worthwhile visit, especially if you have time to stop in at the nearby BioDome and Insectarium, a great day trip with kids.
- In the rain, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is always a fascinating way to spend an afternoon, with rotating exhibitions and creative hands-on events in a beautiful modernist space.
Montreal: City of Festivals
Montreal is well known for its many festivals. Most famous is the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, where streets are closed off with hundreds of jazz shows, free and paid, taking over the spirit of the downtown core. A new free street art festival MURAL has been making waves in the summer. It celebrates the creativity of urban art as it links up with music, dance, film, and street installations during the festival’s length.
For more festivals, including the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival, and the Montreal World Film Festival, a summer series of fireworks shows, and the winter extravaganza, “IglooFest”, please see the Montreal Tourism Board’s festival page. To list them all out here would take up this entire post, but I wanted to highlight a few as it’s definitely a highlight of the city.
Winter activities in Montreal
Despite the fact that my eyelashes often froze together in the winter months, Montreal in the winter is not all ice and cold. The city has an infectious spirit and an ingenious tendency to ignore the weather in favour of fun. With over 26km of underground passageways (and art!), even those who want to avoid the cold can find something to do around town.
- Écorécréo provides cross-country ski lessons, as well as rentals for skis, snowshoes, and sleds. For those who are feeling particularly adventurous, dog sled lessons are also available. Located in Parc Jean Drapeau, you can spend the morning outdoors and then head inside to the Biosphere to learn more about the environment you just enjoyed.
- Montreal hosted a Hypothermic Half Marathon on February 15th,. A winter training challenge for runners, the 21km run is held around Canada – and in the US city of Eden Prairie, Minnesota – from January to March. A hilarious “look I have my fingers and toes!” writeup here. If winter running is your thing, you can check the Quebec marathon calendar for updates for next winter.
- If running is not for you, what about fishing? For winter months, ice fishing is available right inside the city, at the Bassin de L’Horloge (Montreal Yacht Club). Booking prices are available here. Note that they do not include the cost of the fishing permit, which is mandatory and also available on-site. Ice fishing in a metropolis is a rare feat.
- For those who like to skate, Patiner Montreal is an open source map that shows the free skating rinks around the downtown core. Skates can be rented throughout old Montreal, but specifically at the Old Port. From there, map out a skating route that takes you through the old city.
- If indoor skating is preferred, try doing so in an office building at Atrium Le 1000. Located in the lobby of Montreal’s tallest building, this indoor rink is a strange addition to the central business district, but one well worth experiencing before you leave town.
- Montreal’s winter extravaganza, the Fête des Neiges (festival of snow), is on every winter, also at Parc Jean Drapeau. Weekends bring families and pets to the park to experience the array of outdoor activities, from skating, tubing and sledding to outdoor concerts, no matter the weather. Open from 10am-6pm the Fete is an ideal time to get a concentrated feel for a Montreal winter, all in one go.
- For those 18 and over, IglooFest is a weekend event that brings out even the grumpiest travelers through the winter months. The Old Port of Montreal becomes the backdrop for a rowdy electronic music scene, dancing outside as the music reverberates off the frozen water.
- The annual Montreal en Lumière festival is an 11-day behemoth that brings together food, culture, and a lot of light shows. One of the larger winter festivals around, its food and wine track has fueled its popularity, pairing local chefs with international ones as they cook for days. While some of the food events are quite expensive, the website does let you search by budget, with a list of available activities from $5-25 (as well as those for higher budgets too).
- And last but not least, the world-famous Nuit Blanche (white night), a party from dusk to dawn that has thousands and thousands of revellers dressed in white and dancing the whole night through. Restaurants and museums stay open late – some until 3am. A night to remember.
Where to eat: some of my favourite Montreal restaurants
Montreal is known for a wide panoply of gastronomic delights, and you’ll never run out of fun places to eat.
- For starters: BAGELS. Fairmount or St. Viateur are each an ideal place to sample Montreal-style bagels, which taste different from all others I’ve tried (they’re much thinner, crunchy outside and soft inside – and in my biased opinion, much better!).
- Then head to Schwartz’ Deli for Montreal-style smoked meat, a world-famous smoked beef that comes with a side of dill pickles. I’d also make sure to try poutine, our provincial dish of double-fried french fries, heaps of squeaky cheese curds and hot gravy (aka cholesterol in a bowl).
- The best place to sample poutine is at La Banquise – try the original before venturing off into the french fry unknown! Another great poutine spot is at one of the many La Belle Province diners in the city.
- Montreal is also known for pairing terrific, elegant food with bring your own wine (BYOW) restaurants. One of my favourites is Khyber Pass, for Afghani cuisine.
- For cheap eats Montreal Blog has a list of their picks for 2015 and Eater Montreal also has their “12 hottest cheap restaurants” for Montreal in 2015. One of my favourites of all is Cuisine de Bangkok, in the upstairs area of the Le Faubourg shopping mall. What you miss in ambiance you get in food – the photo above is from there!
- For more upscale dining, there is no shortage of choice. Liverpool House, the little sister of always-packed Joe Beef, offers fois gras, a sizeable wine list, and Montreal-style calf’s liver. Chic gastropub Laurence serves tender meat and fresh seafood in a comfortable setting, with delicious brunches on the weekend. BarBounya takes traditional Turkish fare and presents it with care, often combining stunning presentation with delicious food.
- Finally, if you’ve got really a budget be sure to check out Normand Laprise’s world-renowned Toqué restaurant for delicate French food and Martin Picard’s wildly popular Au Pied du Cochon.
The bottom line
Come visit: you won’t regret it – though you might come away a few pounds heavier.