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. So I thought I’d put together a post on what to see, do, and eat, in the city, with additional notes to follow for fellow celiacs who need to be a bit more careful about what they eat.
Below, you’ll find my thoughts on what to see and how to make the most of a cold winter visit, as well as the best rooftop bars and my picks for restaurants that you absolutely ought to try.
I hope you enjoy my city!
An Opinionated Guide to Montreal
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.
- For an evening drink, there are some great terrasses, rooftop bars that overlook the city. I’d recommend Terrasse Bonsecours, SAT FoodLab‘s rooftop bar, Terrasse Place d’Armes (open for lunch and dinner in the summer months) in the Hotel Place d’Armes in the Old Port area of the city, and Terrasse Nelligan. Note that because of Montreal’s cold winters, these rooftop bars are only open in spring and summer months.
- If exploring local food and markets is your thing, then don’t miss the bustling Atwater or Jean-Talon fresh markets 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, and growing up my family would trundle down to the downtown core to watch jazz in the summer, right in the middle of the streets. When I tell people to visit Montreal, I implore them to time it for the city’s most famous festival, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. 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.
Also note that Montreal Museum Day happens once per year, where the city’s full roster of museums are free to enter. For 2016, it is May 29.
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. I wanted to post some of the winter highlights if you visit Montreal during its subzero months.
- 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 in Montreal
Montreal is known for a wide range of gastronomic delights, and you’ll never run out of fun places to eat. Every summer when I return to visit my family, I’m excited to try the new restaurants that have sprung up in my absence. The city’s contemporary chefs focus on farm-to-table foods from Quebec, with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients and a deep understanding of flavors. Ethnic food options abound, and I grew up on a steady diet of not simply local food but also Ethiopian and Indian and Vietnamese fare.
- For starters: bagels. To he or she who says that Montreal bagels are the same as elsewhere, bite your tongue. Before my celiac diagnosis, these were my staple and when I ate bagels in New York I found them to simply be rolls with holes in them. Not the same! Fairmount or St. Viateur are each an ideal place to sample Montreal-style bagels. For more about what makes Montreal bagels special, see here.
- Then head to Schwartz’ Deli for Montreal-style smoked meat, a world-famous smoked beef that comes with a side of dill pickles. Laden with yellow mustard and served on rye bread in heaping meat portions, it’s an institution and for non-celiacs should not be missed.
- The best place to sample poutine is at La Banquise — try the original before venturing off into the french fry unknown. Readers have also highly recommended Poutineville and Chez Claudette for poutine that they truly enjoy. I can’t sample these two since they use wheat in their gravy but I’m passing on the suggestions! For celiacs, Cote-St-Luc BBQ has fries fried in separate oil, and the gravy is made with corn starch and not wheat flour, making it the only place I’ve found to consistently serve gluten-free poutine as a matter of course.
- Montreal is also known for pairing terrific, elegant food with bring your own wine (BYOW) restaurants. One of my favourites is Khyber Pass, for delicious Afghani cuisine. If you’re in the West Island, Aryana on des Sources is my pick. I love their pumpkin appetizer and the Kabuli palau.
- 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.
- For cheap and delicious Thai food, head to 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 Lawrence 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.
- If you’ve got a higher budget Martin Picard’s wildly popular Au Pied du Cochon, Normand Laprise’s Toqué!, and the mid-to-high range Shinji, for Japanese food.
- I will eat more when I return to Montreal in the summer of 2016 but until then Eater Montreal has a list of their hot 2016 restaurants to try, including a handy map.
- And of course, the best for last. My favourite choice for Vietnamese food is the incredibly delicious Pho Tay Ho, right at the corner of Saint-Dennis and Beaubien. While their soups are great I go for the bun cha. Portions are huge, wait staff are friendly, and it never disappoints.
The bottom line: Come visit. You won’t regret it – though you might come away a few pounds heavier.
Best Books to Read about Montreal
Pre-trip reading always makes your time in a new place more interesting. Many books are set in Montreal, and reading them always makes me envision a wander around my city, reliving the characters in my mind.
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, by Mordecai Richler. Richler’s great wit and wry commentary on being an immigrant in Montreal made his books a popular requirement for schools as I was growing up, and this book remains one of his classics. The Guardian also has a good roundup of the places still standing in town that are featured in his books, in their “Mordecai Richler’s Montreal.” The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is part coming-of-age story, part family sitcom, and wholly enjoyable. I’ve read it many times and keep a copy at my parents’ place for my visits.
This Island in Time: Remarkable Tales from Montreal’s Past, by John Kalbfleisch. This book has no reviews on Amazon (I should get on that), but it is a fascinating tome about the crazy spies, royal tourists, priests, fur trappers, and more that made up the foundation of what is present-day Montreal. Engaging book, and highly recommended if you want an understanding of the city’s short but busy history.
The Tin Flute, by Gabrielle Roy. Set in the 1940s, the book follows one woman as she grows up within the slums of Montreal, during a time of war, poverty, and social stratification. A really interesting book that was originally written in French and then translated into English.
The Favourite Game, by Leonard Cohen. Many know Cohen for his songwriting, not writing, but this semi-autobiographical book follows a man named Lawrence Breavman as he grows up in Montreal.
Sacré Blues: An Unsentimental Journey Through Quebec, by Taras Grescoe. I first read Taras via his excellent The Devil’s Picnic, a book about why places ban certain foods or activities. In Blues, explores the Quebec of the early 2000s, from a referendum issue to separate from Canada to fears about assimilation within an English-speaking country, to sense of humor and its relationship with France. Entertaining and an insight into some of what makes Quebec so different.
Balconville, by David. The bilingual play follows English and French-Canadian characters of Montreal’s working class, living in an area of town called “Balconville” because of the many balconies that line the buildings. A classic for us who grew up there, but great that it is available now in Kindle format to give an insight into the urban areas that founded the Montreal that we know today.
The History of Montreal: The Story of Great North American City, by Paul-Andre Linteau, translated from the French by Peter McCambridge. This book covers more than the “This Island in Time”, opting to start in prehistory and zoom all the way to the 21st century. One of the few long history books of Montreal in English, it’s a good primer of influences from the rest of the world and the city’s confluence of cultures.
I hope this guide makes your time in my hometown more interesting and delicious!