This beautiful French-speaking city is the second largest in Canada after Toronto, and its considered the country’s cultural capital. While French and English are the main influences, Montreal is truly international with an energy and joie de vivre found only in the world’s top cities. If you’re looking to experience some of the best it has to offer, be sure to check off at least a few of these fabulous things to do on your itinerary.
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Get your heart-pounding at Eastern Canada's largest amusement park
La Ronde is Eastern Canada’s largest amusement park. It not only offers roller coasters that will get your heart jumping out of your chest, it’s world-renowned for holding two Guinness Records for its “Monstre,” the largest two track wooden roller coaster on the planet, and the largest wooden coaster in Canada. If you’ve got little ones with you, you’ll find rides for them as well, like the Le Galopant carousel. In addition to thrill rides and family-friendly rides, the park hosts live entertainment and special events, like a fireworks shop held bi-weekly throughout July.
Stroll Saint-Paul Street
There is a ton to see and do in Old Montreal, but if you don’t have a lot of time, walking down Saint-Paul Street will allow you to soak up the city’s famously European atmosphere. This is the epicenter of Old Montreal. While its barely a mile long, its cobblestones are lined with an abundance of eateries, bars, souvenir shops, boutiques and art galleries, tucked within some fantastic historic buildings. It dates to the late 1600s, when it was the center of the fur trade, as do the Marguerite Bourgeoys Museum and Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, which share an address here. On Saint-Paul’s eastern side is Marché Bonsecours, which houses Boutique des metiers d’arts Quebecois, a hub for local artisans and artists, including jewelers, glass blowers and apparel designers.
Hop aboard a horse-drawn carriage in Vieux-Montreal
For a romantic taste of European flavor, hop aboard a horse-drawn carriage and ride along the cobblestone streets and grand buildings in Vieux-Montreal. No matter what time of year, they’re easy to find and offer a fun way to explore the city. During the chilly winter months, you’ll be given a blanket to stay warm, and most drivers will narrate during the tour, providing background history of Old Montreal and its magnificent architecture. Legendary Olympic Park is a great place to tour, with its interesting historic quarter and entertainment district.
Catch the latest exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is the city’s largest museum, with its encyclopedic collection boasting more than 41,000 works. While the permanent collection offers a fascinating look at the country’s history of arts, the museum’s temporary exhibits are what visitors often rave about. It’s welcomed the works of artists like Warhol, Rodin, Chihuly and Gaultier among many others. The original temporary exhibitions typically combine artistic disciplines, including fine arts, fashion, design, music and film, and feature innovative exhibition designs. In late 2016, just in time for Montreal’s 375th anniversary in 2017, a fifth pavilion dedicated to international art will open its doors.
Take in the views from Mont-Royal
Mont-Royal, or Mount Royal, is considered the jewel or Montreal’s parks. Occupying part of a mountain in the middle of Montreal Island, the highest spot in the city can be found here, which makes it a perfect place to start your explorations of the city. Similar to New York City’s Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower in Paris, it serves as a natural landmark to help you get oriented to Montreal. Atop the summit is a lookout that offers spectacular views of downtown and the mountains on the south bank. If you can manage it, catching the sunrise from here as the morning light slowly makes its way over the skyline is especially stunning.
At the entrance to the park, the Smith House is a heritage building offering information and reception services to visitors as well as hosting a restaurant.
Walk, ride or run the trails
Montreal is home to some of the most scenic trails you’ll find of any North American city. The Lachine Canal, which spans for nine miles (about 14.5 kilometers) offers has peaceful trails for walking, running and biking, away from the chaos of the city with kilometer markers positioned along the way. It starts near the Old Port and will bring you along the river past the famous canal before leading to Atwater Market, a perfect stop to pick up some of your favorite picnic fixings.
Picturesque Mont Royal Park is crisscrossed with a network of trails, including Avenue des Pins which leads to the city’s highest point offering stunning vistas from the top. You can start anywhere along the Plateau route and enjoy some of the best plateau views while trekking through Parc La Fontain, Parc Jeanne-Mance and along the cobblestones of Duluth Street.
Check out the Botanical Garden
This 75-hectare oasis sits in the heart of Montreal and showcases over 22,000 plant species and cultivars, as well as a planetarium, biodome, an insectarium, themed greenhouses and gardens, including the popular Chinese Garden. A place of harmony and contrast, it illustrates the age-old principles of the Chinese art of landscape design, with the architecture, water and plant and mineral selections all expressions of the dominant design principles of yin and yang. Its harmony is based on plants, water, stones and architecture, presenting itself as a sort of three-dimensional painting. The First Nations Garden was created in honor of the First Nations people, allowing visitors to rediscover the culture of America’s first inhabitants, while the Alpine Garden takes visitors on a tour of the botanical world from the Rockies to the Himalayas, and from the Alps to the Arctic tundra. Visiting this botanical garden, you’ll quickly understand why it calls the experience “a trip around the world.”
Visit the Notre-Dame Basilica
When architect James O’Donnell designed the Notre-Dame Basilica in 1824, he was said to be “so moved by the outcome that he himself converted to Catholicism.” Built in Gothic Revival style and adorned with intricately detailed statues and peaceful chapels, this grand church towers high above Old Montreal’s cobblestone streets of the historic district. Public tours are available, and include a 20-minute guided tour that offers an ideal introduction to the history of Notre-Dame Parish, the construction of the church, important architectural features and the many works of art inside the building. For those that want even more, a 60-minute guided tour is also offered, and will take you into some of the Basilica’s private areas that are normally off limits to the public, like the baptistery and galleries.
Sample the goods at the local markets
Visiting the local markets of just about any city offers a great way to mingle with the locals as well as get a taste of its culinary offerings and local produce, especially in the summer when almost everything is in season. That’s especially true in Montreal, where you’ll find items like those heavenly Quebec-birthed strawberries. The city happens to be home to the largest market in North America, Marche Jean-Talon, a massive covered market where chefs buy ingredients for their menus and the long covered aisles are filled with merchants selling all sorts of fresh fruit, veggies, flowers and baked goods. Delis and cafe restaurants with cozy patios flank the market, and Le Marche des Saveurs du Quebec, is one of the few places in Montreal that are entirely devoted to provincial specialties like fresh cheeses, smoked meats, maple syrup, preserves, wine and cider, and a large variety of gifts. If you’re looking for that perfect souvenir, this is a great place to find it.
People-watch while sipping java at one of the city's best coffee shops
Montreal is home to what seems to be an endless array of coffee shops. So how does the first time visitor decide where to go? If you’re looking to enjoy a great cup of java, a nice atmosphere and some good people watching, Café Olimpico is a simple but fun and lively spot with a steady stream of hip patrons sipping iced coffee on the terrace in the summer. Club Social is another highly rated coffee shop in traditional Italian-style, where lots of regulars enjoy hanging out, and catching rays from the terrace during the warmer months. For a unique experience, head to Paquebot Cafe, the first coffee shop in the city to serve coffee like a beer: it’s foamy, cold and on tap all year round. Or, for music with your coffee, check out Le Cagibi in the heart of the Mile End. It’s a cafe and concert venue all-in-one, hosting local musicians, artists and performers in a laid-back, comfy atmosphere.
Experience the creative scene in the Mile End
The Mile End is considered one of Montreal’s coolest places to be. A haven for artistic types since the 1980s, it’s home to a thriving creative scene that includes artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers. In fact, some say, this 10-block neighborhood conveniently sandwiched between Le Plateau du Mont-Royal and Little Italy, is the “most artsy neighborhood” in North America. Check out some of the local musicians by popping into some of the Mile End’s most iconic venues, like Le Cafe Depanneur, where bands play all day long. After dark, Casa del Popolo, is the place to be. If you’re a bagel lover, grabbing a bagel from St-Viateur Bagel is a must – not only is it open 24/7, but many have claimed that it makes the very best bagels in the world – and that includes New York’s.
Take a cruise from the Old Port
There are a number of boat tours and cruises that leave from the Old Port, which is the waterfront bordering Vieux-Montreal. On a sunny afternoon, you might want to embark on a lunch cruise with the Cavalier Maxim, the Petit Navire, Croisière Absolü, and the Bateau-Mouche, which offers three different river cruises. Croisière Absolü hosts one of the most popular cruises, a weekend brunch cruise with gourmet fare, as well as guided history trips throughout the day, a fireworks cruise and gourmet dinner cruises leaving from the King Edward Pier.
For a more thrilling, and wet experience, Lachine Rapid Tours, which operates from May through October, takes passenger on wave-jumper power boats on the roiling Lachine Rapids of St. Lawrence River.
Explore the Biodome
The Montreal Biodome is housed in the former Olympic bicycle-racing stadium and features four distinct ecosystems: a tropical rainforest, a Laurentian forest, a polar environment and the St. Lawrence marine setting. While taking a stroll through the various ecosystems, you’ll notice a change in temperature, and see some of the animals that inhabit these environments, including monkeys that leap from branch to branch, brilliantly-colored birds perched high up in the trees, playful otters, waddling penguins and the always adorable water horses, otherwise known as hippos. It’s a great way to learn about Canada’s ecosystems, and a must-experience for nature lovers.
Taste local craft beers
Montrealers love a good craft beer and take the art of microbrewing very seriously, which is why you’ll notice that most brewpubs here are always packed. If you want to taste some of the best the city offers, you might want to have an expert show you around, by taking the Montreal craft beer guided tour. Otherwise, for the largest selection of beer you’ll find in all of Canada, head to Le Saint-Bock, which has 40 taps serving housemade, local and imported craft beers, along with 850+ available by the bottle. Not only that, but the servers are all brew connoisseurs who can help you make the best choice or even help you figure out which beer it was that you loved so much when it tried it last summer, but all you know is that it has a little bit of a peach taste.
Learn about Montreal's history in the beautiful Chateau Ramezay
Learning about Montreal’s history is a great way to get to know the ins and outs of the city and who lives here, and there may be no better way to do it than to visit Chateau Ramezay, the former home of French governors that dates back to 1705. One of the finest examples from the ancient regime, it features 15 interconnecting rooms with a ballroom of mirrors, as well as mahogany galore. American generals used is as a headquarters during the revolution, and Benjamin Franklin himself held meetings here when trying to convince the Canadians to join the cause. Today, the building serves as a repository for Quebec history, with a collection of some 20,000 objects that allows visitors to relive more than 500 years of history, from the pre-contact Amerindian era to the 20th century.
Experience the foodie scene
Montreal is considered one of the world’s top foodie cities – in fact, it’s home to more restaurants per capita than New York City. A visitor thrust onto the city’s dining scene will find every type of cuisine in pretty much every form, which can make trying to decide where to eat a nearly overwhelming task. The best way to experience it is by joining a food tour, though even that isn’t an easy to decision, with so many to choose from. Mile End, with its thriving foodie scene and artist community, is a good place to start, and Local Montreal Food Tours offers a three-hour guided tour in this neighborhood, visiting six tasting locations with a variety of cuisine, from famous bagels to vegan fare and decadent chocolates.
If you just want to dine at one of the city’s best restaurants, Les Deux De Montarvie ranks No. 1 on most lists. Located in the Mile End district, this French/international eatery is a trendy spot among foodies with its creative dishes served in a cozy, unpretentious, slightly offbeat atmosphere.