From sugar shacks to poutine, from hockey games to burlesque shows and world-class museums, ride a bike or climb Mont-Royal in the incredible city of Montreal.
Like many of the world’s greatest cities, Montreal is best experienced while wandering: taking in a street festival, climbing Mont Royal, walking the riverfront or exploring the eclectic boutiques and restaurants of the city’s vibrant, diverse neighborhoods. Our favorite experiences in Montreal include kid-friendly museums and architectural wonders, International Jazz Festival and indigenous art exhibits, off-the-beaten path neighborhood explorations and rustic day trips, and, of course, the best bagels, smoked meats and poutine you can find. And when you need a place to stay, we’ve got lots of hotel recommendations.
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A chalet, a lake, a large wooded forest, and a series of trails make this 764-ft hill overlooking the city seem larger than life. Frederick Olmstead, of Manhattan’s Central Park, designed Parc du Mont-Royal in the 1870s with the goal of providing natural respite from city life. Much of the park is kept intentionally overgrown and wild, with a network of trails leading through densely wooded areas. An observatory at the hill’s peak gives way to panoramic views of the city and the forested mountain down below. Winter options for scaling the mountain include a series of snowshoe and cross-country ski trails, a toboggan run, and a snow tubing course.
Have a Picnic in Parc La Fontaine
An 84-acre sprawl in the middle of the Plateau neighborhood, Parc La Fontaine is especially gorgeous in late summer and early fall when the leaves are starting to turn. Green lawns full of picnickers slope around two large ponds and a fountain, where you can paddleboat in warmer months and ice skate in winter. For provisions, stop at Ma Poule Mouillée for Portuguese rotisserie chicken, or Boulangerie Mr Pichot for croissants. Then head to the Depanneur across the street to purchase beverages: of the many great reasons to picnic in Montreal, one is that you are legally allowed to sip wine or beer in public parks as long as you are also picnicking.
Related: Fodor’s Montreal Guide
Eat Portuguese Chicken
The Montreal food scene is made great by the multiculturalism of the city, a melting pot of immigrant cultures far beyond the anglophone and francophone influences. A casual food favorite and must-try for any visitor is Portuguese chicken, rotisserie bird with the perfect amount of grease, spice, and deliciously cooked meat. For a few dollars, enjoy a sliced, roasted chicken in a fresh bun with mayonnaise, tomatoes, and lettuce, or purchase a whole or half chicken with salad and french fries for a group picnic. Coco Rico, Romado’s or Le Coq Rico are all solid outposts for this local favorite.
Related: How to Spend 3 Days in Montreal
Visit St. Viateur Bagels
Sure, you’ll hear differing opinions on whether these sweeter, denser bagels stand up to their New York distant cousin (they do), but it’s worthwhile either way to walk through the steam-filled windows of this small shop in the Mile End and stand in line while watching the many steps of production for these fresh delicacies. Montreal bagels are always made in a wood-fired oven, and, to the delight of patrons, still shaped by hand in an open-air shop in this establishment (Fairmount Bagel a few blocks over is a fine choice, too). Grab a dozen hot to go, and don’t forget the cream cheese: Montreal spreadable more resembles creme fraiche and puts the processed American version to shame.
Shop the Boutiques of Le Plateau
The casual chicness of this city is displayed nowhere better than the Plateau, where little shops, pubs, and restaurants showcase the most of French-Canadian style on tree-lined streets and in gorgeous old buildings. From downtown, you can walk up St. Laurent Boulevard, poking your head in and out of the hippest small boutiques and furniture stores along the way. Stroll over to St. Denis and Lorimier streets for second-hand stores, vintage goods, record shops, and small pubs and cafes.
Window Shop on St. Hubert
While you may not actually be in the market for dollar-store kitchen items and over-the-top gowns and quinceanera dresses, taking a stroll through the shops on Ste. Hubert is entertainment enough for an afternoon. This pedestrian mall, a few minute’s walk from Jean-Talon Market, lends a different shopping experience than chain stores or high-end boutiques elsewhere in town. You’ll find yourself drawn to the colors of busy storefronts selling everything from children’s toys to bedazzled wedding dresses. When shopping leaves you depleted, visit El Tropical, a Salvadoran outpost for pupusas: thick corn tortillas stuffed with cheese and other goodies.
Visit the Foodstuffs Stores of Little Italy
Home to an Italian immigrant population (the second largest in Canada) dating back to the 19th century, the shops and cafes of La Petit Italie can be found along St. Laurent Boulevard in the Rosemont neighborhood (mostly between St. Zotique and Jean-Talon Streets). Here you’ll find incredible kitchen supplies, rare pasta, espresso, cheeses, and canned foods. Don’t miss Anatol Spices, a tiny, family-owned shop with a dazzling array of seasonings, including house-made mixes for grilling or poultry, at prices way below your local supermarket. Hungry after a day of shopping? Crowd into a table at Pizzeria Napoletana for BYOB and deliciously authentic pies.
Spend a Morning at Jean-Talon Market
For the foodie, this European-style open market is like a trip to the finest art museum. Working your way into the market, you’ll find flowers and plants, a vast array of fruits and vegetables (sample from the fresh plates of produce offered by the merchants), an oyster bar, live lobsters for the choosing, fresh sausage, tea, and more specialty goods. The market’s center is home to ready-made food stands, crepes, samosas, Turkish pastries and more, and picnic tables for lunching. Don’t miss out on the small brick-and-mortar stores that flank the market’s exterior: among them possibly the best Poissonnerie (seafood store) in town, a dry goods shop, a kitchen supply store, and a Halal butcher.
Explore the Gay Village
Founded in 1869, Montreal boasts the first openly gay business in North America, Moise Tellier’s apple and cake shop. These days, the city’s tourism board largely markets Montreal and Le Village Gai as tourist attractions for LGBTQ communities everywhere. Once a tiny nook carved out of downtown, The Village now includes several metro stops and is great for strolls, shopping, people watching at an outdoor cafe during the day, and partying at night. In warmer months, a gorgeous section of Rue St. Catherine becomes a pedestrian walkway with sidewalk sales and various fairs. At night, mingle with drag queens at Cabaret Mado, or dance until the late morning at Stereo.
Shout Along at a Hockey Game
Nothing is more Canadian than hockey, and at a Canadiens (locally called “Habs”) game at the Bell Centre, the fighting, shouting, and general enthusiasm provide entertainment for even the most reluctant sports fan (though the beer is pricey). If you’re a hockey historian who can’t make it to game, you can catch a show at the Cineplex Odeon Forum on Rue Ste. Catherine in Ville-Marie, a former Habs stadium-turned-movie theater, while reveling in hockey spirit and nostalgia in the stadium-style seats and Habs memorabilia. Another hockey-filled option is the Arena St-Louis, a local locale for hockey games and open skating during the winter, and equally entertaining roller derby games during summer. The PBR is cheap year-round. And here’s where to stay if you’re in town to watch.
Carriage, Bike, or Stroll Through Old Montreal
A small, cobblestoned corner of the city by the St. Lawrence River where French settlers first arrived, Old Montreal is a romantic mix of early European and North American history and architecture. Shops and restaurants are touristy in this part of town, and your time is best spent winding through the old lamplit streets, either on foot, bike, or by horse-drawn carriage, and marveling at the architecture. Must-stops along the way include the Basilica and a walk through Bonsecours Market, once Montreal’s central market, and now the home of gourmet food, exhibits, and boutiques. Make your way down to the Old Port for a spectacular view of the St. Lawrence River.
Explore the Underground
During the long winter, many Montrealians take refuge from the wind, snow, and below-zero temperatures in a series of walkways, subway tunnels, and underground shopping centers known as Montreal’s Underground City, or RESO. Over 30-km of tunnels include 9 hotels and 2,000 shops and connect you to some of Montreal’s best sights and neighborhoods without ever having to step above ground and out into the cold. While much of the Underground City goes unappreciated by bundled-up commuters and students, tourists experience a fun, new way to travel to their favorite destinations and a true marvel of urban planning.
Rent a Bike
Montreal is an enthusiastic bikers’ city even in the colder months (you’d be surprised at how many riders face a snowstorm), with eclectic bike shops and plenty of accessible routes. It’s also home to some of the first city-wide rental bikes, with over 500 BIXI stations now throughout the city. Pay $2.95 for a 30-minute trip (swipe your card at one BIXI station and return it to any other station around town), or $5 a day, with discounted membership packages if you plan on riding frequently.
INSIDER TIPFor a scenic 15-km cross-city trip, bike along the Lachine Canal all the way to Rene Levesque Park on the river.
Indulge in Late-Night Poutine
Many a late night in Montreal ends with a greasy plate of poutine (fries drenched in gravy and cheese curds) but you don’t actually have to wait until the wee hours of the morning to enjoy this decadent Canadian rite of passage. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a neighborhood or busy street corner without its own poutine counter. Among the best are La Banquise in the Plateau, for the classic dish at any hour, or one of the Poutineville locations, for inventive combinations with extra ingredients like bacon, hot dogs, and feta cheese.
Spend Sunday Morning with the Tam Tam Drummers
On Sundays during the warmer months, hoards of locals and tourists gather around the George-Etienne Cartier statue at the base of Mont Royal for a giant drum circle including drummers, DJs, and other performers—an all-around entertaining morning activity. It’s unclear when drumming became a staple of this Sunday hangout spot, popular for sunbathers, musicians, and friends since the 1860s, but the festivities now begin in the late morning and continue until sunset. On Sunday nights, the revelry continues at Parc Jean-Drapeau for Piknic Electronik, a weekly outdoor music festival.
Eat a Smoked Meat Sandwich
The famous Montreal smoked meat sandwich involves the perfect balance of overstuffed, thick slabs of cured brisket, rye bread, and yellow mustard. Some say that the long line at Schwartz’s Deli is overrated, and head out instead to the equally classic, but off-the-beaten-path Snowdon Deli, Jarry Smoked Meat, or Le Roi Du Smoked Meat (open late night). Whichever you choose, you can argue that packing into the crowded shop and taking in the smells, sights, and shouts while waiting your turn in line is an essential part of the experience.
Attend a Burlesque Show
In a city of nightlife lovers, you don’t want to pass up on the chance to see the raunchy, comedic talent and flurry of glitter, feathers, and fishnets that is a burlesque show in Montreal. Showcases at The Wiggle Room range from traditional burlesque to wildly entertaining and comedic themes like Led Zeppelin and Fresh Prince-themed shows. At Arabesque Burlesque, drop in on a beginner dance class or sign up for a whole workshop. Culminate your experience by attending the 3-night Montreal Burlesque Festival in October.
Visit a Sugar Shack
These charming cabins in the woods outside of Montreal are the longstanding traditional homes of maple sugar and syrup production. Plan a visit during “sugar time” and you’re in for a sweet treat: February through April, many cabanes à sucre offer tours, carriage rides, demonstrations, and multi-course feasts inside their charming digs. At Sucrerie de la Montagne, ride in a horse-drawn sleigh or wagon before an all-you-can-eat rustic Quebecois meal and live music entertainment. Popular Montreal restaurant Au Pied du Cochon has its own sugar shack, slightly more chic and commercial (and quick to fill up) than the family-owned ones you’ll find. About an hour from Montreal, L’Hermine is one of the only shacks you can visit year-round (feasts only take place in winter and spring). If you can’t make it out of the city, the neighborhood of Verdun holds an annual sugaring festival every March.
Marvel at Habitat 67
Originally the project of a McGill architecture student, this rambling, neo-futuristic structure along the St. Lawrence River was completed in 1967, when it became a pavilion for the World’s Fair Expo taking place in Montreal that year. The massive concrete apartment structure—with its panoramic series of interlocking block buildings, bridges, and walkways—has become an architectural icon, but you don’t need to be a design buff to enjoy the structure: it’s just really fun to look at. You can view Habitat 67 from the Old Port in Montreal. For a more in-depth experience, cross the river and take a 90-minute guided tour.
Take the Metro to Verdun
While Verdun is now technically a borough of Montreal, this quaint riverside destination was first founded as its own city in 1671, making it one of Canada’s oldest settlement cities. About a 25-minute metro ride from downtown, you’ll find cute shops, bars, and restaurants in Verdun’s downtown, along Wellington Street. The entire riverfront is dedicated to green space, where locals bike, stroll, play games, and swim in the river (or at the large city pool) during the warmer months. The Nivard-De Saint-Dizier House, built upon an almost 6,000 years old prehistoric archaeological site, is a preserved 1700s French-style rustic house and museum. Admission is free.
Walk the Art Galleries of Rue Sherbrooke
Along busy Rue Sherbrooke and its surrounding side streets, between the Peel and Guy-Concordia Metro stations, you’ll find over a dozen of the city’s finest art galleries. Take Galerie Valentin, for example, showcasing both contemporary and historical paintings, sketches and sculptures, or La Guilde, with arts and crafts by Canada’s Inuit and First Nations’ artists. End with a tour at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and a stroll through its sculpture garden. Keep in mind that the majority of galleries are closed Sunday and Monday.
INSIDER TIPNeed a break between gallery gazing? Stop for dumplings at Qing Hua.
Take in the Architecture of McGill University
Often dubbed the “Harvard of Canada,” the main campus of McGill, Montreal’s acclaimed (and oldest) university, has sat at the base of Mont Royal in downtown Montreal since the mid-1800s. In the early days of the university, the campus consisted of one building (James McGill’s country home) and a few acres of cow pasture. Today the campus buildings, made of gray limestone and surrounded by complimenting green space, are the oldest collection of preserved buildings outside of Old Montreal. Don’t miss the gorgeous stained glass windows—in Memorial Hall and at the entrance of the Arts and Architecture Library—honoring students who fought and died in WWI.
Attend a Festival
Montreal International Jazz Festival continues to be one of the city’s most popular events, and with good reason: it’s the largest jazz fest in the world, it’s free, and it takes place in late June and July, during Montreal’s most beautiful weather. Then there’s Osheaga, Montreal’s giant lollapalooza-like event, held each summer in Parc Jean-Drapeau on Île Sainte-Hélène, and featuring indie and popular contemporary music acts. Others head to Montreal during Canada’s Grand Prix weekend to see the Formula One racers, or to an African film festival, a Folk Festival, or a festival dedicated to circus arts (complimenting the city’s popular Cirque du Soleil). Things inevitably die down (or freeze over) during the winter months, but the city has designed a few winter-themed fests to keep things lively: Montreal en Lumière lights up downtown with art, music, and culinary events; and Fête des nieges, a family-friendly outdoor event, makes the most of popular winter sports and activities.
Celebrate Canada at the McCord Museum of Social History
Conveniently located across from McGill’s main campus on Rue Sherbrooke, McCord is a multi-media exploration of the peoples and histories that have created Montreal, Quebec, and greater Canada. Permanent exhibitions feature Montreal fashions and textiles, an array of textual archives from city plans to family diaries, and a collection of over 16,000 indigenous artifacts, honoring and telling the history of Canada’s First Nations peoples. Rotating collections feature Canadian artists, cultures, and histories. Upcoming 2019 programming includes temporary exhibits by artists Kent Monkman and Hannah Claus, a historic toy exhibit, and an extensive Polaroid collection. Free entrance on Wednesdays after 5 pm.
Anchor Up at the Old Port
Along the St. Lawrence River in Old Montreal, and a 20-minute walk from Downtown, the Old Port is a great place to pack a day with activities and burn off energy, especially if you have kids. For a good time, you can do as little as walk the pier, watch street entertainers from a cafe terrace, or take in the views from atop the ferris wheel. Depending on your budget and your crowd, there’s something more for everyone: there are two museums in the vicinity, an Imax theater, an aerial obstacle courses and interactive pirate exhibit, boat rentals, and even a floating spa.