With its gorgeous architecture, hip nightlife, and amazing food scene, you’ll quickly realize why Montreal is the perfect place to go when you’re looking for European grandeur, but don’t want to make the trek across the Atlantic. A long weekend here will help you brush up on your French, let you stuff your face with poutine, and make you realize you don’t need to leave the continent to feel cosmopolitan.
Downtown Montreal is a great place to get acquainted with the city, with a lively crop of bars, restaurants, theaters, art galleries, and department stores (with a few historical churches thrown in every few blocks). If the weather is bad, remember that this part of town is mostly connected by the tunnels and passageways of the Underground City. Spend a few hours in the world-famous Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which serves not only as one of Canada’s oldest museums, but has the best collection of Canadian art anywhere in the world.
Afterwards, there’s no better place for your first meal than at Joe’s Beef, where you can sample some of the best locally produced and hearty meat dishes the city has to offer. Make sure to reserve a spot as far in advance as possible—this is one of Montreal’s most popular restaurants.
Afterwards, take a quick stroll to Rue St-Catherine, where you can cap the night off at one of the city’s many excellent jazz bars, like Upstairs Bar & Grill. If you’re planning a trip in the summer, try to be there for the Jazz Festival, where the entirely of St-Catherine is turned into one nonstop jazz club, with plenty of free live performances, beer gardens, and street food.
You can’t be in Montreal very long without someone asking your opinion on the classic Montreal bagel. To sum it up: Montreal bagels are made differently than the New York-style ones you’re probably used to—they’re baked in a wood-fired oven, and end up being smaller, thinner, and sweeter. Taste the difference yourself by starting your day at the famous St-Viateaur Bagel & Café; there are several locations throughout the city, but the original in Mile End will let you get a sneak peek at the bakers at work. There’s no dining area, so grab your order (try the classic all-dressed, or everything bagel) and enjoy it on a bench outside the shop.
From there, you can stroll down to Parc du Mont-Royal, the city’s main park and a relaxing respite from the noise of the city. You can explore several different hiking paths, picnic in the open lawns, and even ski in the winter. But the real goal is to make it to the top of Mont-Royal itself. Follow the signs to the Chalet Du Mont-Royal, where you’ll be rewarded with an unforgettable view of the city, the river, and the mountains beyond.
After you work up an appetite, it’s time to try the most famous of Montreal grubs: poutine. Honestly, you’ll find plenty of places to enjoy a plate in the city, with options ranging from the high-end foie gras poutine at Au Pied de Cochon to greasy late night food stands. La Banquise is somewhere in the middle, which makes it the perfect introduction. The casual eatery has nearly 30 different versions of the dish, but you can’t go wrong with La Classique: French fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds. It’s certainly not for everyone, but it’s hard to resist trying a bite while you’re here.
Next, walk off some of those calories by strolling down Boulevard St-Laurent and exploring the funky, eclectic shops. Enjoy an early cocktail at La Distillerie No. 1 (they do a mean Old-Fashioned), and then bar-hop with the college students at the laid-back bars on Rue St-Denis. If you feel like dancing, the Latin Quartier is the place to be (true clubbers can venture out to Rue Crescent, but keep in mind this is a very young, very party-hard atmosphere, with bachelor and bachelorette parties galore).
For a late night bite, stop by another famous Montreal institution, Schwartz’s Deli. It’s open 24 hours, but even if you go late, you’ll still most likely have to wait in line to experience one of their legendary sandwiches (any smoked meat on rye will do).
Start off your last day with brunch in Mile End, one of the more up-and-coming neighborhoods in the city. Lawrence offers modern takes on a traditional English breakfast, along with some excellent homemade scones and clotted cream. If the wait is too long for you, head a few doors down to Boucherie Lawrence, the restaurant’s butcher shop that specializes in local meat from small producers.
Next, the best good-bye to the city is a visit to its oldest part, the neighborhood known as Vieux-Montreal. A quaint and lively mix of churches, chapels, and cobblestones, this is where French settlers first built the town in 1642. Even though it’s undoubtedly the most touristy part of the city, the architecture and atmosphere is gorgeous and you can still find a few choice shops and bars to stop for a break amid the tourist jumble. Spend a few hours walking around, making sure to stop by the most famous cathedral in Montreal (and perhaps all of Canada), the stunning Basilique Notre-Dame-de-Montréal. A couple hours at the Musée D’Arachéologie et D’Historie Pointe-a-Calliere (Montreal’s history museum) will fill you in on the history around you—be sure to take the trip down to the spooky archeological exhibition that shows you the actual foundations of the city.
Eventually make your way over to the Old Port, where you can take one last view of the St. Lawrence River. There are plenty of activities here, from paddle boating and ferry rides to street performances and zip lining.
Where to Stay
Since you’ll be exploring several different neighborhoods during your trip, it’s best to stay in Old Montreal or downtown, which are readily accessible by metro, cabs, and even walking if you’re feeling active. Downtown hotels tend to be more family-friendly, but can be expensive and sometimes fancy, like the Ritz Carlton or the Hyatt Regency. For a more intimate vibe, check out some of the trendy boutique hotels in Old Montreal; Hôtel Gault (a former cotton factory) and the super affordable ALT Montreal Griffintown are great options.
When to Go
Montreal is freezing in the winter and crowded in the summer, so spring and fall are usually the ideal times to visit (fall has the added bonus of some gorgeous foliage). But the summer also has a bevy of festivals happening, so depending on your interests, events like the Montreal Jazz Festival make facing the crowds worth it.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Montreal Guide