Montreal is much more than Europe in North America. Canada’s second-largest city has its own je ne sais quoi and definitely its own energy; it’s a bilingual city that’s also very multicultural. The city straddles history and high tech in creative and exciting ways, and you’ll see this in its exciting multicultural food scenes, world-class festivals, bike-friendly roads, and the way nature and downtown living happily coexist. Montreal is easily accessible by train, car, or air and is very user-friendly.
1. Dinner At A Classic French Bistro
L’Express on rue Saint Denis is a beloved Montreal institution and such an authentic French-style bistro, you’ll think you took a wrong turn and ended up in Paris. The black and white tiled restaurant with a classic zinc bar feels like a neighborhood place, but it’s nonetheless inspired many of the city’s current hot chefs, including David McMillan of celebrated Joe Beef Restaurant (he’s an L’Express regular). Waiters in black jackets and long white aprons hand you the hand-scripted menu, then bring out a jar of cornichons and fresh baguette with house-churned butter while you wait for classic bistro dishes such as céleri rémoulade, poached bone marrow with coarse gray salt, steak frites, or classic grain-fed chicken with mustard sauce, followed by Paris Opera for desert. The wine menu is superb and well priced.
Pro Tip: Dining alone? Grab a seat at the bar alongside regulars who might be part of Montreal’s literary or artistic circles, and enjoy the buzzy vibe over a glass of Croze Hermitage. You’ll be made to feel very welcome.
2. Festival Season
Many are those who believe that there is nothing better than Montreal in summertime. A celebratory atmosphere runs through the city, the cafe terraces are full, and after a long winter, everyone seems to relish every second of the warm days and nights. And, in summer, the city is abuzz with jazz, comedy, theater, fireworks, and circus festivals each of the highest caliber. Many concerts are outdoors (and often free). It’s easy and pleasant to walk from one venue to the next (most are concentrated in the Place des Arts, close to downtown) to take in a show. There’s really an embarrassment of riches, and it’s tempting to want to do it all.
Pro Tip: Visiting in summer? See Montreal’s summer festival guide here.
3. A Walking Tour Of Jewish Montreal
Explore the community behind some of Montreal’s most iconic dishes and famous sons and daughters. The area around Saint-Laurent Boulevard, a main artery of the city, is where Jewish immigrant families grew up in the early part of the 20th century. They include novelist Mordecai Richler who lived on St Urbain, a street of houses with typical outdoor spiral staircases. Poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen, on the other hand, grew up in the swish neighborhood of Westmount but moved to this area (which was eventually gentrified) in his later years.
You can see the outsize mural commemorating Cohen on Saint-Laurent (one of two murals painted in his honor; the other is downtown).
Any tour of Jewish Montreal focuses necessarily on food. Topping the list are Montreal’s famous bagels. The two best-known brands are St Viateur and Fairmount, and people are usually firmly, passionately, and stubbornly in one camp or the other. On Saint Laurent, you’ll find Schwartz’s Delicatessen, home of Montreal’s iconic smoked meat sandwich. Saint Laurent is also home to the new Montreal Jewish Museum, which seeks to ensure the legacy of Jewish life in Montreal by giving locals and visitors new ways to interact with the city’s Jewish past and present. This includes great walking tours themed to specific interests including history, music, and food.
Pro Tip: Stop at Wilensky’s Light Lunch next to Fairmount Bagel shop for a Special: a grilled bologna sandwich on a bun always served with mustard. No substitutions. This frozen-in-time corner restaurant will draw you back to the days of soda fountains and egg creams.
4. A Visit To Jean-Talon Market
Get a taste, literal and figurative, of Montreal’s unique multicultural flavors at the city’s largest and liveliest food market. Marché Jean-Talon has been attracting crowds to its Little Italy location since 1933. The sights of vibrant colored veggies and mouth-watering fruits draw you to stand after stand. There’s also a tasty array of specialty shops with exquisite products specific to Québec. Vendors are generous with samples and the market is a perfect place to pick up a baguette, foie gras, or some of Quebec’s international award-winning cheeses for a picnic — or a few gifts such as jam from juicy Quebec blueberries.
Pro Tip: Brush up on your French fruit and vegetable vocabulary. Though signs in the market are in both French and English, French predominates and it’s fun to try your hand at shopping in French. Our picks for 7 Of The Best Language Apps For Travelers will get you started.
5. Exploring City Neighborhoods On A Bixi Bike
Montreal was a North American pioneer of the bike-sharing program. The city’s public Bixi bike system, launched in 2009, is still immensely popular. You can take an easy, flat ride along the scenic Lachine Canal. It begins in the Old Port and runs for about 15 kilometers (just over 9 miles) along a still-working boat canal. The whole route takes you through gentrified, history-filled neighborhoods with impressive industrial and residential architecture and flower-filled parks. At the other end, there’s a lovely sculpture garden.
If you’re feeling up to the adventure, use a Bixi as your mode of transportation for further touring the city. Dedicated bike lanes will make you feel secure about driving on the road, though it’s important to remember that in a city dominated by a mountain, some of the roads are steeper than others. Download the Bixi app (available from both the Apple App Store and Google Play), which gives a wealth of information including the nearest bike parking station, how many bikes are currently available at it, and the easiest and safest bike routes.
6. A Visit To The Botanical Garden
Get your green on at the Botanical Garden: 75 hectares (185 acres) of thematic gardens and greenhouses make up one of the world’s greatest botanical gardens, and the gardens are a popular outing across generations. (Who isn’t charmed by Succulents grown into the shape of chameleons?) The garden’s 22,000 plant species and cultivars, 10 exhibition greenhouses, and thematic gardens including the popular Chinese garden are a lot to take in. You’ll want to set aside several hours — and even then you might not feel like it’s enough. The garden’s exhibitions and hours vary with the seasons. Check the website for times and exhibits.
Pro Tip: If you’re visiting with kids or grandkids, don’t miss the Insectarium on the Garden’s site. It’s a fascinating space of live scarabs, tarantulas, scorpions, and thousands of arthropods.
7. A Spa Day On A Boat
Unwind at one of the city’s most unique spas. Bota Bota is a water circuit spa, where you alternate sessions of hot steam or sauna, cold water plunges, and rest. Set in a transformed ferry docked in the port in Old Montreal, it’s a wonderful place to spend some time relaxing or indulging in a massage or spa treatment. Bota Bota also offers great views of the city. Swing in a hammock chair in the spa’s garden or have tea on an outdoor lounger overlooking the experimental Habitat apartment building designed for Expo ’67 that faces the spa on a nearby island.
8. A Tour Of The Room Where John And Yoko Had Their Lay In
Fairmont, The Queen Elizabeth is a luxury hotel dating back to the old railroad hotels that dominated Canadian tourism in the early 20th century. Midway between Old Montreal and downtown and adjoining the Central Train Station, it’s well situated for exploring the city. The old hotel was recently stylishly revamped so it offers a good mix of old and modern. Rooms also have wonderful views over the old-meets-new Montreal architecture, and there’s a great lobby bar for coffee.
But what makes the hotel really unique is its place in music history. This is where John and Yoko staged their Bed-in for Peace in 1969, and the hotel recently completed a redo of the suite in their honor. Now it’s the vintage-loaded two-room John Lennon and Yoko Ono Suite. It costs a pretty penny to stay in (approximately $3,500 a night). But if that’s not in your budget, and it’s not occupied, guests can ask to visit the suite.
9. A Montreal Canadiens Hockey Game
Nothing says Montreal more than a Canadiens Hockey game at The Bell Centre Arena. The Montreal team of the NHL is part and parcel of the city. (The Canadiens have been around since 1909) and its fans are loyal through thick and thin. The team unites Anglophones and Francophones, old and young, even sports and non-sports fans. Families hand down season tickets from generation to generation and businesses have their fair share of seats but there’s still a chance you can score a ticket on game day. Even if you’re not a hockey fan, you’ll love the experience and feel the electricity in the air.
Pro Tip: While any game is a treat, the ultimate is a game against one of the Original Six NHL teams, such as the Toronto Maple Leafs, the New York Rangers, or the Boston Bruins.
10. An Autumn Walk Through Mont Royal
Mont Royal Park, on the hill that dominates the city, is beautiful all year, with many activities on offer, from live music on Sundays at the legendary Tam Tam concerts to row boating across Beaver Lake or snowshoeing in winter. But it is perhaps most enchanting in fall, when the foliage is intense shades of red, orange, and yellow. It’s a hill, of course, so there are some stairs to climb and moderately steep paths up. If you don’t want to hike, you can cab or car it to the Belvedere observatory (which is also wheelchair friendly) for amazing views of downtown Montreal and the mountains over on the south shore.