Montreal has all the hallmarks of a great European city, and so much more.
Montreal is easy to access from the rest of North America by train, plane, bus, or car, but its chic European vibes make it feel refreshingly far from home. French-colonial roots give it charm (the language, markets, cafes, and boutiques), while other factors—the city’s unique mix of personalities and demographics, its beautiful parks, the St. Lawrence River, and the surrounding Quebec countryside—make it a one-of-a-kind destination you’ll want to visit again and again.
INSIDER TIPThe city really comes to life in the warmer months, from late spring to early fall. Expect frequent snowstorms and below-freezing temperatures December through February (at least).
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Chic Neighborhood Strolls
If a standard of a good city is its walkability (which it should be), Montreal rates high. Downtown easily connects to the city’s trendy and more residential neighborhoods through a few central boulevards, public parks, bike paths, and a pretty user-friendly metro system. Exploring the area around Mont Royal—the city’s largest park, monument, and a great walk in itself—you’ll find Mile End and The Plateau, multicultural neighborhoods brimming with charm in the form of trendy boutiques, international food markets, and small bars and restaurants.
INSIDER TIPDrive or take the Metro to Verdun, a quaint, mostly residential neighborhood, for a gorgeous long walk along the St. Lawrence River.
The Best Public Parties
Montreal is full of free or affordable ways to enjoy the city streets and public places, like the International Jazz Festival, drawing throngs of visitors to its free acclaimed concerts at the end of each June. On Sundays during the summer, dance along with the tam-tam drummers in Parc du Mont Royal, and at Piknic Electronik in Parc Jean-Drapeau. In warmer months, city streets are filled with sidewalk sales, local vendors, and celebrations, like on the colorful, pedestrian-only blocks of Rue St. Catherine in the Gay Village.
INSIDER TIPFor cute, low key events like Italian movie screenings, carnivals, dance lessons, and concerts (and plenty of gelato, of course) check out Little Italy.
Really Charming Side Trips
Exploring the beautiful Quebec countryside around Montreal, you’ll find adorable little inns, wineries, and cabanes–à-sucre—the traditional sites of maple sugar production. It’s just a couple of hours up the St. Lawrence River to charming and historic Quebec City, home to cobblestone streets, small bistros, and the castle-like Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac Hotel—a destination worthy of a whole trip on its own.
INSIDER TIPInsider Tip: It can be nice to have a car if you plan to explore Montreal’s surroundings, and, if you’re coming from the East Coast, the drive to Montreal (either through Upstate New York or Vermont) is simply gorgeous. But plan for strict parking enforcement within the city, and long lines at the border during holidays and peak season.
First Nations like the St. Lawrence Iroquoians, early French missionaries, fur trade opportunists, British colonists, and large waves of immigrants are all part of Montreal’s rich historical identity. A good place to dig into Montreal history is at the Pointe-à-Calliere museum—where visitors trace the city’s archaeological and historical origins, and view the ruins of Montreal’s earliest settlements, including cobblestoned Old Montreal and the McCord Social History Museum.
Oysters, Stinky Cheese, and the Market of Your Foodie Dreams
Dairy tastes better in Montreal than it does in the States: everything from yogurt to cream cheese is made with that divine real stuff, and in the stinky cheese category, you’ll find a dizzying array of unprocessed, unpasteurized goodness. Cheese and more can be found in the Jean Talon Market, a European-style haven of fresh produce and specialty goods. The oyster shop at Jean Talon is a pure, unadulterated form of mollusk joy: pull up a stool and wait while the world’s finest oysters (local and beyond) are shucked right in front of you.
Boutique Shopping and Vintage Finds
Montreal shopping highlights include: this incredible discount jeans store, one of the world’s cutest bookshops, literally everything you didn’t know you needed along Rue St. Hubert, and seriously good vintage scores, ranging from costume pieces and antiques to clothes from your cool-cousin-in-art-school’s closet. Many of the best vintage stores and hip boutiques are along the blocks of St. Urbain and St. Laurent that stretch from the Mile End to Plateau neighborhoods.
Haute French Cuisine and a Million (Cheaper) Worldly Eats
Montreal is littered with adorable little French bistros and old school Paris brasseries, serving menus of traditional staples like steak tartare, duck confit, and escargot. Foodie destinations like Joe Beef and Au Pied du Cochon take cues from Quebec culture and go for a more rustic, populist vibe, inventing dishes of smoked game, foie gras, and terrines that are indulgent and, well, meaty. Beyond the white tablecloths and long reservations, there are traditional Quebecois diners and delicious greasy spoons, vegetarian havens, Korean bibimbap, Italian pastries, Vietnamese banh mi, Indian thali, Greek souvlaki, and so many other casual delights to be discovered while wandering hungry.
Sidewalk Cafes, Inside and Out
When warm weather hits, cafes cram as many tables as they can onto small areas along Montreal sidewalks, where people-watching (over a café allongé or St. Ambroise Pale Ale) is at its peak. During a soccer game or almost any other sporting event, coffee shops like Cafe Olimpico are indistinguishable from ones in Europe, filled with hipsters, Francophones, Euro transplants, and regulars sipping espresso—all shouting along to television results.
Montreal’s Mixed Identity
Being the biggest, most populated city in the Quebec province, Montreal is also the most anglo-phied and internationalized (much of rural Quebec speaks only French). Many Montrealians speak two languages (if not three or five), but you’ll notice some other clear divides between Anglo and Franco worlds. A historic spirit of rebellion and independence runs deep throughout the province and its city, and you’ll often see fliers and signs announcing protests, strikes, and fundraisers around issues both global and local.
Some traditions—like waiting in line outside the steamy windows of St. Viateur or Fairmount Bagels, ordering a smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz’s Delicatessen, or trekking up Mont Royal—belong not to Canada, France, or Quebec, but to Montreal.
Wild and Weird Nightlife
No two nights out in Montreal have to be the same (or ever have to end): you can dance all night at clubs with pools, with chilly Russian themes, or inside an old bank, or curl up at a cozy brasserie or wine bar. There’s a variety of art and entertainment any night of the week, including avant-garde acts, Franco theater, burlesque shows, and cutting edge local music mixing French and English. Luckily, there is also plenty of late-night poutine to sustain you.