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From exploring the boutiques and brunch spots of Mile End to taking in the panorama at the top of Mount Royal, there are so many fun things to do in Montreal, Canada. A little bit European and a little bit Canadian, Montreal is a city that loves good food, good art, and getting outside at every opportunity, no matter the weather. In the spirit of its French settlers, Montreal teems with joie de vivre.
Montreal—just an hour north of the New York state border—is so close to us that it’s criminal we haven’t explored it before. A cancelled flight meant that we got to see every mile between Philadelphia and Montreal twice (including our beloved Saratoga Springs), and it was absolutely worth the drive. We found outstanding architecture, lively markets, and even got to try a speakeasy or two for good measure. Montreal is basically our perfect city, and we loved every moment of our long weekend exploring what it has to offer.
Things to do in Montreal
See the view from Mount Royal
Just west of downtown, a small mountain breaks up the city landscape. Mount Royal—for which Montreal is named—is a beacon to locals and tourists year-round for hiking, biking, and even snowtubing.
The real draw of Mount Royal is the view from the top. The moment we stepped into the wide plaza at the Kondiaronk Belvedere, the panoramic view of Montreal’s skyline was astounding. If you look carefully, you can see all the way to the St Lawrence River. Coming here is one of the best things you can do when you visit Montreal.
Lance is obsessed with poutine, so it was a given that we would be eating our share of this Canadian specialty on our trip to Montreal. Although the concoction—fries, gravy, and cheese curds—may not be the prettiest looking dish, it’s quite delicious, especially after a night out.
Poutine is everywhere in Montreal, but we headed to the restaurant consistently named the best in the city for our indulgence—La Banquise. Their famous poutines are available 24 hours a day with all kinds of toppings. The classic poutine didn’t move us, but The Savoyarde, which comes with bacon, onion, Swiss cheese, and sour cream, was unbelievable.
Kayak in the canal
Just steps from the Atwater Market is one of the nicest places in the city to enjoy the outdoors—the Lachine Canal. The 9-mile canal runs from Montreal’s Old Port to Lake Saint-Louis, providing a great place to have fun on a sunny day during a Montreal summer.
From mid-May to mid-October, you can rent a giant swan paddle boat or learn to kayak just a few minutes from downtown. There’s also the option to canoe or even rent an electric boat to cruise the canal at a faster pace.
Marvel at the unique buildings
We’ve never thought of ourselves as being particularly into architecture but from Rotterdam to Riga, we’ve found ourselves drawn to interesting buildings. Montreal is the perfect place to find a wide variety of styles and buildings that just make you go “hmmm.”
For twisted staircases and brightly-colored Victorians, Plateau Mont-Royal is the place. One of the coolest neighborhoods in Montreal, it has lots of Instagram-worthy homes and cafés.
Not far from Plateau Mont-Royal, the Notre-Dame Basilica built in the Gothic Revival style will have you feeling like you’re in France. Also not to be missed is the Montreal Biosphere, which looks like a transparent Epcot center. If you head to the Old Port or spend time at Bota Bota, you’ll see Habitat 67, a unique hosing development that looks like a game of Tetris gone awry.
Try a Montreal bagel
When we first heard about bagels in Montreal, we were more than a little dubious. After living in New York, it was hard to believe that anywhere else could really have a bagel worth writing home about. But the ones at Fairmount and St-Viateur are worth a stop for your carb fix in Montreal.
Montreal bagels are a touch sweeter and denser than what most people are used to. Boiled in honey-infused water before being baked in a wood-fired oven, they are still shaped by hand while customers look on. Pick up a couple to munch on while you walk around Mile End.
Visit the food markets
There’s just something about markets. There are so many bright colors, enticing smells, and appealing displays. The energy and atmosphere of a local market always guarantees a good time, and the Montreal markets deliver on that in spades. They’re some of the most lively places to go in Montreal.
The two biggest and most tourist-friendly markets in Montreal (yes, we went to four) are Atwater Market and Jean-Talon Market. Both have a wide variety of fresh produce, prepared foods, and restaurant stands offering everything from Turkish specialties to lobster rolls to pulled pork. In Little Italy, Jean-Talon, which has a multi-cultural feel, stretches for several blocks and includes food, flowers, and an array of handmade goods. Atwater, along the Lachine Canal, teems with plants, local and imported produce, and fabulous specialty stores. Either (or both!) is worth a stop depending on where your Montreal itinerary takes you.
Relax at Bota Bota
Everyone knows what it’s like to return from a vacation more worn out than when you left because you’ve tried to fit in every activity under the sun. That’s why–from Steamboat to Sicily and lots of places in between–we always try to take a moment of relaxation at hot springs or a spa, if that’s an option. Bota Bota absolutely fits that need—a unique experience and an indulgent spa all in one.
Bota Bota is a boat-turned-spa that’s permanently anchored in the St. Lawrence River. You can follow their water circuit, which includes a steam bath, cold bath, sauna, and more. They also offer a variety of spa treatments like facials, massages, and pedicures. There’s even a restaurant. Our favorite part was just hanging out in the one of the heated pools watching the sunset over downtown. Without a doubt, a break here was one of our favorite things to do in Montreal.
Spend some time in the Gay Village
The Gay Village is colorful area literally and figuratively. It’s one of the best places to visit in Montreal for shopping, people watching, wandering, and partying. During the day, you can hang out at an outdoor café, and at night, you can mingle with drag queens at Cabaret Mado or dance to techno until well after the sun comes up at Stereo. In the summer months the area is even brighter when rainbow decorations take over the heart of The Village along St. Catherine Street East.
Indulge in a smoked meat sandwich
A Montreal smoked meat sandwich is a mountain of salted, spiced cured beef brisket on rye bread with yellow mustard. There are no vegetables, no elaborate condiments. The proportions seem off, and there’s certainly nothing fancy about it.
The idea of the smoked meat sandwich didn’t move us, but we still felt compelled to try one. Instead of making a special trip to one of the delis that specialize in this Montreal treat, we ordered one at a local bar that had less than the typical two inches of meaty goodness. In one bite, we were hooked. Next time, we’ll be heading to Snowdon Deli, Jarry Smoked Meat, Smoked Meat Pete or one of the other kings of smoked meat to try it the proper way.
See Notre-Dame Basilica
The Notre-Dame Basilica is one of the most impressive churches we’ve ever seen and is undoubtedly one of the top things to see in Montreal. On the outside, the Gothic Revival-style building looks more like it belongs in France or Germany than Canada thanks to its two towers and decorated façade. But it’s the inside that really sets the Basilica apart from other churches.
The interior of the Notre-Dame Basilica is a festival of purples, deep blues, reds, and golds. The star-laced ceiling and altar have a unique glow, almost as if they’re lit from within. The front and sides are filled with hundreds of wooden carvings, artwork, and stained glass (much of which depicts Montreal’s history rather than biblical scenes). In the evenings, a spectacular, immersive light and sound show takes over the cathedral, making the colors even more remarkable.
Go on a hunt for street art
Colorful street art just makes a city seem so happy. We seek it out at every opportunity. But, in Montreal, finding murals didn’t take any work at all. All we had to do was walk down the street.
Saint Laurent Boulevard, one of the busiest streets in Montreal, is a particular hub of street art. In just a few blocks, we saw dozens of murals. One parking lot between the Boulevard and St Dominique St. near Rue Prince Arthur East is practically a gallery.
If you happen to visit in the summer, check out the annual Mural festival. For 11 days, more than 80 urban artists from around the world create new murals. In August, the Under-Pressure festival lets you see even more artists in action.
Visit a speakeasy
Since visiting an awesome speakeasy in Nashville a couple of years ago, we always try to include these unique bars when we travel. Though not exactly a secret, they take a little bit of effort to find—like you’re uncovering something that only a few people know about. Without fail, they have a unique atmosphere and serve up killer drinks, often in concoctions you wouldn’t typically think of.
Montreal has about a dozen speakeasies scattered around the city. We had the chance to visit the Cold Room, a basement that housed a 19th century cold room serving merchants in the square above. There’s no sign advertising the place, so you have to know where you’re going. But, once inside, it’s a spirit-lover’s paradise.
Explore the pop-up spaces
Every city has pop-up restaurants and bars these days, but Montreal has several more substantial pop-up experiences that are worth checking out, especially in the summer. One favorite is the annual Village au Pied-du-Courant, a public space that includes everything from street food and live music to markets and dance showcases. If you’re looking for anything fun and creative in the summer in Montreal, it’s probably here.
On our visit, we loved checking out the Clock Tower Beach in the Old Port. It’s a mini vacation in the heart of the city. With sand, beach chairs, umbrellas, and plenty of places to relax, it’s a little oasis right on the St. Lawrence River.
Spend time in the Old Port
“Vieux Port” in French, Montreal’s Old Port has a 400-year history dating back to the time when fur trading was the economic engine of the day. Today, its purpose has changed from the exchange of goods to entertainment and enjoying the outdoors.
Each year, more than 6 million people come to the Old Port for Montreal sights like the Ferris wheel, the Montreal Science Centre, river cruises, and the Clock Tower and its summertime beach. We enjoyed grabbing lunch at the food truck and watching the people on the zip line soar high above our heads. In the winter, the Old Port is the place for ice skating and even ice fishing.
Enjoy Old Montreal
The oldest area of the city, Old Montreal is a cobblestoned neighborhood where French settlers made their home when they first arrived in the 17th century. As a result, it has a high concentration of historic buildings and a very European flair. The restaurants and shops in the area are a bit touristy, but it’s still fun to browse and weave your way around the street performers who inevitably stake their claim to a bit of room on Place Jacques Cartier.
If you have limited time, stroll down Saint Paul Street for the maximum amount of atmosphere. Wander by the storefronts, revel in the flowers or winter decorations, and pause for a moment on the benches, if the weather allows. If being inside is a better option, visit the boutiques and exhibits in Bonsecours Market, the 150-year-old market on Saint Claude Street.
See Montreal by bicycle
I’ll be honest—there is a lot of construction in Montreal and a distinct lack of parking in a lot of places. That makes driving a bit of a hassle. The good news is that as soon as the ice is gone, there are bicycles everywhere. Make like a local and grab one.
Every April, the city’s fleet of over 6000 Bixi share bikes pops up at over 500 stations throughout the city. For $5 a day or $2.95 for a half-hour, you can grab a bike and go exploring.
Enjoy the green space
One of the things we loved most about Montreal was the amount of green space in the middle of the urban landscape. And it’s not just Mount Royal. It seemed that every few blocks, we encountered a new park and space for people to enjoy outside.
In the middle of the Plateau neighborhood, Parc La Fontaine takes up an amazing 84 acres. Originally a farm, the park has lots of lawn area for picnickers to enjoy around the ponds (hint: you can drink beer and wine in public parks if you’re also eating) and plenty of room to walk and bike. In colder weather, ice skating is popular.
We also enjoyed Saint Louis Square in Plateau Mont Royal. Sitting by its beautiful fountain and grabbing a drink at the charming café was a perfect opportunity to rest our feet from exploring Montreal. Finding Parc Lahaie in the midst of Mile End, our favorite Montreal neighborhood was also a treat. There’s also Sir Wilfrid Laurier Park, Jarry Park, and well…the list goes on. Montrealers love their parks.
Sample maple syrup
Quebec produces a massive 75% of all the maple syrup, or sirop d’érable in French, on the planet. This isn’t garden variety, manufactured high-fructose corn syrup—this is the delicious stuff that comes right from maple trees. It’s been made this way for centuries, and in the late winter and early spring, you can watch the sap coming right from the trees at sugar shacks around the province.
With the abundance of maple syrup, it makes sense that Montrealers love it and that it’s marketed as a top souvenir for tourists. We found all varieties of maple syrup and related candies, candles, and more at the markets around the city. Right on Saint Paul Street in Old Montreal, you can taste everything from maple vinegar to maple jelly to our favorite maple and sea salt popcorn at Délices Érable et Cie.
Shop to your heart’s content
There are a seemingly endless number of places to shop in Montreal for everything from souvenirs to vintage clothes to high-end handbags.
The tourist areas in Old Montreal are the best for maple leaf-emblazoned everything to take home with you. When it comes to trendy clothes and boutique furniture stores, look no further than Saint Laurent Boulevard, while nearby Saint Denis Street is great for second-hand clothes, decorations, and record stores. Sherbrooke Street is the high-end shopping street, with art galleries and luxury shops. Department stores and more mid-priced options can be found on St. Catherine Street.