10 fantastic things not to miss in Montreal, Canada
Montreal is much more than Europe in North America. Canada’s second largest city has its own I do not know what and certainly its own energy; it is a bilingual city which is also very multicultural. The city straddles history and high tech in creative and exciting ways, and you’ll see it in its exciting multicultural food scenes, world-class festivals, bike-friendly roads, and the way nature and downtown life- city coexist happily. Montreal is easily accessible by train, car or plane and is very friendly.
1. Dine at a classic French bistro
L’Express on rue Saint Denis is a beloved Montreal institution and a French-style bistro so authentic you’ll think you’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up in Paris. The black-and-white-tiled restaurant with a classic zinc bar looks like a neighborhood spot, but it’s nonetheless inspired many of the city’s current hot chefs, including David McMillan of famed Joe Beef restaurant (he’s a regular at L ‘Express). Waiters in black jackets and long white aprons hand you the hand-written menu, then bring out a jar of pickles and fresh baguette with homemade churned butter while you wait for classic bistro fare like celery remoulade, marrow bone poached in coarse gray salt, steak and fries, or classic grain-fed chicken with mustard sauce, followed by Paris Opera for dessert. The wine list is superb and well priced.
Pro Tip: Dinner alone? Take a seat at the bar alongside regulars who could be part of Montreal’s literary or artistic circles, and enjoy the lively atmosphere over a glass of Croze Hermitage. You will be very well received.
2. Festival Season
Many people believe that there is nothing better than Montreal in the summer. A festive atmosphere runs through the city, the café terraces are full and after a long winter everyone seems to be savoring every second of the warm days and nights. And, in the summer, the city is abuzz with jazz, comedy, theatre, fireworks and circus festivals, each of the highest caliber. Many concerts are outdoors (and often free). It is easy and pleasant to walk from one venue to another (most are concentrated on Place des Arts, near the city center) to attend a show. There really is an embarrassment of wealth, and it’s tempting to want to do it all.
Pro Tip: Visiting in summer? Check out the Montreal 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 thoroughfare in the city, is where Jewish immigrant families grew up in the early 20th century. Among them was the novelist Mordecai Richler who lived on St Urbain, a street of houses with typical exterior spiral staircases. Poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen, meanwhile, grew up in upscale Westmount, but moved to that neighborhood (which eventually gentrified) in his later years.
You can see the oversized mural commemorating Cohen on Saint-Laurent.
Any visit to Jewish Montreal necessarily focuses on food. At the top of the list, the famous Montreal bagels. The two most well-known brands are St Viateur and Fairmount, and people are usually firmly, passionately and stubbornly on one side or the other. On Saint Laurent, you’ll find Schwartz’s Delicatessen, home of Montreal’s signature smoked meat sandwich. Saint Laurent is also home to the new Jewish Museum of Montreal, which aims to ensure the legacy of Jewish life in Montreal by offering residents and visitors new ways to interact with the city’s Jewish past and present. This includes great walking tours themed around specific interests, including history, music, and food.
Pro Tip: Stop by Wilensky’s Light Lunch next to the Fairmount Bagel Shop for a special: a toasted bologna sandwich on a bun always served with mustard. No substitutions. This frozen-in-time corner restaurant will take you back to the days of soda fountains and egg custards.
4. A visit to Jean-Talon Market
Taste, literally and figuratively, the unique multicultural flavors of Montreal at the city’s largest and busiest food market. The Jean-Talon Market has been drawing crowds to its little Italy since 1933. The sights of brightly colored vegetables and mouth-watering fruits draw you to stall after stall. There is also a tasty range of specialty shops with exquisite products specific to Quebec. Vendors are generous with samples and the market is the perfect place to pick up a baguette, foie gras or some of Quebec’s internationally award-winning cheeses for a picnic – or a few gifts like juicy blueberry jam from the Quebec.
Pro Tip: Improve your French vocabulary on fruits and vegetables. Although the market signs are in 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 help you get started.
5. Explore the city’s neighborhoods on a Bixi bike
Montreal was a North American pioneer of the self-service bicycle program. The city’s Bixi public bicycle system, launched in 2009, is still very popular. You can take an easy, flat walk along the scenic Lachine Canal. It begins in the Old Port and stretches for about 15 kilometers (a little over 9 miles) along a still working shipping channel. The entire route takes you through gentrified neighborhoods steeped in history with impressive industrial and residential architecture and flower-filled parks. At the other end there is a lovely sculpture garden.
If you’re feeling up for an adventure, use a Bixi as transportation to see more of the city. Dedicated cycle lanes will ensure you feel safe on the road, although it’s important to remember that in a city dominated by a mountain, some roads are steeper than others. Download the Bixi app (available on both the Apple App Store and Google Play), which provides a wealth of information including the nearest bike parking station, number of bikes currently available and the easiest and safest cycle routes.
6. A visit to the botanical garden
Go green at the Botanical Garden: 75 hectares (185 acres) of themed gardens and greenhouses make up one of the largest botanical gardens in the world, and the gardens are a popular outing across generations. (Who isn’t charmed by succulents grown in the shape of chameleons?) The garden’s 22,000 species and cultivars of plants, 10 exhibition greenhouses and themed gardens, including the popular Chinese garden, are very interesting. You’ll want to set aside several hours – and even then, you might feel like it’s not enough. The exhibitions and opening hours of the garden vary according to the seasons. Check the website for schedules and exhibits.
Pro Tip: If you come with children or grandchildren, do not miss the Insectarium on the site of the Garden. It is a fascinating space of living beetles, tarantulas, scorpions and thousands of arthropods.
7. A spa day on a boat
Relax in one of the most unique spas in town. The Bota Bota is a thermal water circuit where you alternate hot steam or sauna sessions, dives in cold water and rest. Housed in a converted ferry docked in the port of Old Montreal, it’s a wonderful place to spend time relaxing or enjoying a massage or spa treatment. Bota Bota also offers great views of the city. Swing in a hammock in the spa’s garden or take tea on an al fresco lounge chair 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 lay down
Fairmont, The Queen Elizabeth is a luxury hotel dating back to the old railway hotels that dominated Canadian tourism in the early 20th century. Halfway between Old Montreal and downtown and adjacent to Central Station, it is well located for exploring the city. The old hotel has recently been stylishly refurbished, so it has a good mix of old and new. Rooms also offer great views of Montreal’s old and new architecture, and there’s a great lobby bar for coffee.
But what makes the hotel truly unique is its place in music history. It’s where John and Yoko held their Bed-in for Peace in 1969, and the hotel recently completed a suite redesign in their honor. Now it’s the vintage two-room John Lennon and Yoko Ono suite. It costs a pretty penny to stay (about $3,500 a night). But if it’s not in your budget, and it is not occupied, you can ask to visit the suite.
9. A Montreal Canadiens hockey game
Nothing says Montreal more than a Canadiens hockey game at the Bell Center arena. The Montreal NHL team is an integral part of the city. (The Canadiens have been around since 1909) and its supporters are loyal through thick and thin. The team brings together Anglophones and Francophones, young and old, even athletes and non-athletes. Families pass season tickets from generation to generation and businesses have their fair share of seats, but there’s always a chance you could 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 NHL’s original six teams, like the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, or Boston Bruins.
10. An autumn walk through Mount Royal
Parc du Mont Royal, on the hill overlooking the city, is magnificent all year round, with many activities on offer, from live music on Sundays during the legendary concerts of Tam Tam to the boat on Beaver Lake or to snowshoeing in winter. But it’s perhaps most enchanting in the fall, when the foliage is intense shades of red, orange and yellow. It’s a hill, of course, so there are stairs to climb and moderately steep paths. If you don’t want to hike, you can take a taxi or drive to the Belvedere Observatory (which is also wheelchair friendly) for stunning views of downtown Montreal and the riverside mountains. South.