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.
Montreal is famous for its mix of European and North American culture, the food scene, embracement of winter, and of course hockey. And while you may mainly think of the city as a cold-weather destination, summer is also delightful (for both weather and activities), not to mention it’s one of the best places on the continent for leaf-peeping in the fall. There’s plenty in the city for all types of travelers, here are the best things to do in Montreal.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT MONTREAL?Famously cold, winters are predictably chilly. But spring (March, April, and May) and fall (September and October) are extremely pleasant and aren’t too crowded. July and August are typically top months for tourists–so expect higher prices and bigger crowds.
Before you visit Montreal, check the latest information about COVID-19 requirements, guidelines, and restrictions.
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The city’s 764-ft high namesake (in French “Mont-Royal” and “Montréal” have a near-identical pronunciation to Anglophone ears) contains numerous paths, a chalet, a lake, and a large wooded forest that give a larger than life allure to the hill. Frederick Olmstead, of Manhattan’s Central Park, designed Parc du Mont-Royal in the 1870s intending to provide a 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 activities options include a series of snowshoe and cross-country ski trails, a toboggan run, a snow tubing course, and a skating rink complete with rental options.
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 start to turn. Green lawns full of picnickers slope around two large ponds and a fountain, where you can paddle boat in warmer months and ice skate in winter. For provisions, stop at Ma Poule Mouillée for Portuguese rotisserie chicken, or Boulangerie Mr Pichot for pastries. Then head to the Depanneur (convenience store) across the street to purchase beverages. One of the many great reasons to picnic in Montreal is that you are legally allowed to drink alcohol in public parks as long as you are also consuming food.
Eat Portuguese Chicken
The Montreal food scene is influenced by the mix of cultural influences present, beyond the anglophone/francophone binary typically attributed to the city. A casual food favorite and must-try for any visitor is Portuguese chicken. The rotisserie bird is the perfect mélange of grease, spice, and perfectly 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. Campo, Jano or Barroso are all solid outposts for this local favorite.
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 spread 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 quintessential 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 quinceaneradresses, taking a stroll through the shops on Ste. Hubert is entertainment enough for an afternoon. This pedestrian mall, a few minutes’ 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.
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 Petite 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 one of the numerous clubs.
Shout Along at a Hockey Game
Montreal is the perfect city to witness this very important part of Canadian life. The Canadiens (or “Habs” for “Les habitants” in French) recently made it to the finals for the first time in years and reinvigorated the city’s passion for the team. Catch a game at the Bell Centre, where 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 a 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. Alternatively, head over to the Arena St-Louis, a popular local hang for hockey games and open skating during the winter. Equally entertaining are the roller derby games during summer where the PBR is cheap year-round. And here’s where to stay if you’re in town to watch.
Wander 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, so your time is best spent winding through the old lamp-lit streets, either on foot or bike, and marvel 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 where you can enjoy the Clock Tower beach in the summer.
Explore the Underground
During the long winter, many Montrealians take refuge from the wind, snow, and sub-zero temperatures in a series of walkways, subway tunnels, and underground shopping centers (all easily accessible by the metro) known as Montreal’s Underground City, or RESO. Over 30-km (20 mi) 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 amazing city for bikers, even in the colder months (you’d be surprised at how many riders barely blink at a snowstorm), with eclectic bike shops and plenty of accessible well-maintained routes. It’s also home to some of the first city-wide rental bikes, with over 500 BIXI stations now throughout the city. Prices begin at $1 CAD (about $0.78 USD) for a one-way trip depending on the duration and it’s a “pay as you go”/per minute system. You can swipe your card at one BIXI station and return it to any other station around town. Alternatively, the BIXI app allows for convenient renting. There’s also 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 are the traditional homes of maple syrup, AKA where the Canadian staple is produced. Typically found in the woods outside of Montreal, cabanes à sucre offer much more than just sweet treats for sale. Plan a visit during “sugar time” (February through April) and many 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 complete with 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. 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
First founded as an independent city in 1671, Verdun is one of Canada’s oldest settlement cities. The quaint riverside destination is now technically a borough of Montreal and is about a 25-minute metro ride from downtown. You’ll find cute shops, bars, and restaurants in Verdun’s downtown, mostly along Wellington Street. Local favorites include Les Street Monkeys for Cambodian food and for amazing ice cream and pastries, Alice&Theo. 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 La Guilde, for example, 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 on Mondays.
Take in the Architecture of McGill University
Often dubbed the “Harvard of Canada,” the main campus of McGill, Montreal’s oldest and most renowned university, has held its’ idyllic location at the base of Mont-Royal in downtown Montreal since the mid-1800s. At the founding of the university, the campus consisted of not much more than a single building, James McGill’s country home, and a few acres of cow pasture. Today, the campus buildings are the oldest collection of preserved buildings outside of Old Montreal. Made of gray limestone and surrounded by a sprawling green space that will make you forget you’re in the middle of one of Canada’s largest cities. 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, most events are free, and it takes place in late June and July, a beautiful time of the year to visit Montreal. 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 the Black Film Festival, the 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 neiges, 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 2022 programming (celebrating the museum’s 100th birthday) includes temporary exhibits by artist Niap, a collection that pays homage to traditional tools and objects created by indigenous women in the Far North, and photographer JJ Levine, which challenges gender binaries. Free entrance on Wednesdays after 5 p.m.
Anchor Up at the Old Port
Located a short 20-minute walk from Downtown, along the St. Lawrence River in Old Montreal, the Old Port is a great place to burn off any energy (or all the poutine you’ve been consuming) with numerous activities on offer. Not to mention plenty for kids. For a good time, you can simply 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 who you’re traveling with, there’s something for everyone; both the Montreal Science Center and the Montreal Archeology and History Complex are located nearby as well as an Imax theater, an aerial obstacle courses, and interactive pirate exhibit, and boat rentals.
Located in the quiet and leafy Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie near Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, the city’s Jardin Botanique (Botanical Gardens) sprawls over 185 acres. Wander the 10 exhibition greenhouses or one of the Cultural Gardens; Chinese, First Nations, and Japanese for a bit of travel without going far! If you’re feeling energetic, the famous Montreal Biodome is nearby, where you can explore five different ecosystems under one roof! Adult tickets cost $22 CAD (~$17 USD) and children $11 CAD (~$8.50). If you’re an avid gardener or plant enthusiast, don’t miss The Great Gardening Weekend held in late May.
Spend a Day at the Spa
Montreal may be known for winter activities, good food, and endless festivals. However, it’s also a great place to just relax and there’s no lack of choice! Scandinave Les Bains Vieux-Montreal of course, Old Montreal is perfect for those that want a Nordic-inspired experience, complete with water circuits and saunas. Make it an indulgent treat and combine a spa and hotel stay at Le Spa de l’Hotel Le St-James. You can pair steam baths, massages, and facials with a meal at one of the best restaurants in the city and an overnight stay inside a lovely historic building. And of course, Bota Bota, a renovated ferry boat on St Lawrence and an institution in the city since its opening can’t be missed! Enjoy views on one of five decks while you relax in hammocks, on a massage table, or in a spa.
Peruse Atwater Market
This daily marché public is located near the Lachine Canal and is the perfect place to pick up some goodies for a picnic! In addition to the numerous stands selling everything from cheese to organic produce to fresh herbs, the Art-Deco building is considered one of the most beautiful in the city. In the warmer months, gardeners and florists set up colorful stalls with amazing floral creations for sale. Also in the summer season (typically beginning in April), the walls are removed for a more open floor plan. Once you’ve purchased your tasty snacks, enjoy them along the Canal, at one of the market picnic tables, or on the large patio with a view.
Explore Vegan Restaurants
Montreal is easily known as a foodie city, but in recent years it’s also become a haven for those with a vegan diet. Even if you’re not opposed to consuming animal products, this is the perfect city to try out a few plant-based meals, who knows you may return from your visit with a whole new view of where your food comes from! Local favorite Oplante in the Village serves up Asian-inspired favorites such as sushi and General Tao chicken with a vegan twist of course. Resto Végo located Downtown is a mainstay of the city, having served up veggie meals for over 40 years and thus should not be missed! If you’re in the mood for comfort food, Bowhead Pub in le Plateau offers yummy favorites like burgers, tacos, and more with a robust wine, beer, and cocktail menu.
Take a Day Trip to Charron Island
Just a quick 15-minute river shuttle ride away (also accessible by autoroute if you prefer to drive) from Montreal Mercier Downtown, is the westernmost island in the Les Îles-de-Boucherville archipelago. Roundtrip tickets cost $10 CAD (just under $8 USD) and departures are at least once every hour but can be more frequent during busy periods. Note that since Charron Island and Les Îles-de-Boucherville are Société des établissements de plein air du Québec (SÉPAQ) parks, you’ll need to pay an entrance fee in addition to the cost of the ferry. Purchase online here. Hike, bike, or simply sunbathe during the summer months and when the snow begins to fall, enjoy miles of trails for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. This is still a relatively hidden gem in the city, so you’ll be free of major crowds and mostly hanging with locals.