Montréal is one of our favorite places in North America: a total jewel of a city, filled to the brim with dreamy architecture, cozy neighborhoods, and no shortage of cafés, restaurants, and cultural contributions to explore.
The city has been a popular destination ever since the 18th century, when it became a renowned fur-trading hub due to its coveted location on the beautiful Saint Lawrence River.
While fur-trading has gone by the wayside in the intervening years on the Île de Montréal (Montréal Island), Montréal continues to be considered a center of culture, finance, and fun for a variety of reasons. Much of the architecture dates back hundreds of years, and has been lovingly and painstakingly preserved, and it has an astounding number of museums, symphony halls, and, of course– churches. In fact, when author Mark Twain visited in 1881, he famously exclaimed that “you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window”!
It’s easy to fly into Montréal’s large international airport, Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (YUL), and it’s not far at all from the U.S. border with the state of Vermont. If you’re extending your visit to Ottawa or Toronto, the train is your best bet– the fantastic VIA Rail runs several trains a day from both cities, taking only a few hours. While French is the official language of Montréal and the greater Québec region, you’ll get by just fine in English in most places, and the city is super multicultural and multilingual overall.
Once you get to the city, there is a fantastic public transport system, the Société de transport de Montréal, that has a wide-reaching metro. This is honestly one of the best train systems we’ve ever been on. It’s easy to reload your fare card, the trains are reliable, fast, and clean, and the system links all over the city– making it easy to stay in a more residential area and take the train anywhere you need to go.
You will never be bored in Montréal, and could visit again and again with no shortage of neighborhoods, nightlife, restaurants, markets, and parks to explore. There’s so much to do that we’ve rounded up a few of our favorites below, and crafted a 2-day “weekender” itinerary that packs in all the must-see’s for a successful first visit.
Montréal Top 5:
- Get your heart pumping on a brisk walk up Mount Royal, the hill that the city is named for.
- Stroll around Vieux-Montréal, the old area of town. This gorgeous neighborhood is filled with architectural marvels, cozy cafés, and beautiful churches. Don’t miss Notre-Dame Cathedral, the city’s basilica.
- Sample Montréal delicacies like poutine, bagels, and other goodies at cafés and markets around town, such as Atwater or Jean-Talon.
- Spend some time exploring the 20,000 varieties of flora and fauna at the Montréal Botanical Garden.
- Nearby, check out the Montréal Olympic Park, home to the 1976 Olympic Games.
Weekender Guide: MTL Edition
As we recommended in our Toronto guide, start your day with a coffee at Canada’s much-loved coffee chain, Tim Horton’s. It’s no secret that we are obsessed with Tim Horton’s… but, if you’re feeling a little more fancy, check out Montréal originals Café Olimpico or Café Myriade.
Next, get those steps in early with a trek up Mt. Royal, the 3-peaked hill for which the city is named. This activity can get quite crowded, so it’s in your best interest to head over there in the morning. The park at the top offers sweeping panoramic vistas of the city beneath, as well as almost 700 acres of parks, trails, and shady spots to catch your breath. There is also a lovely church up here, St. Joseph’s Oratory. If you’re visiting in winter, you can also ski, snowboard, and sled here!
Tip: There is parking at the top of Mt. Royal if you’d like to drive up, but we definitely recommend walking up if you’re able– it’s super enjoyable and one of the quintessential things to do while you’re here.
If you’re looking for a way to recuperate the calories you’ve just burned walking up Mt. Royal, we have just the place for you. Bordering nearby La Fontaine Park is the ultimate place to try poutine in Montréal– La Banquise. Poutine is a can’t-miss snack while you’re in town, a regional specialty and a salty, delicious, not-so-healthy treat. You can’t go wrong with La Classique– the quintessential fries topped with gravy and cheese curds, but La Banquise has taken it all a bit further, with toppings options galore, from Mexican themed to vegan and beyond. This is definitely a pretty divey place, but it’s super charming and gets really busy!
If poutine is not something you want to try (it’s fun to try once, but it’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea), you should definitely check out St-Viateur bagels for a slightly healthier (though not by much!) treat. It’s also not too far from Mt. Royal, and is one of the authorities on the “Montréal-style bagel”, slightly smaller and sweeter than their NYC counterparts.
After bagels and/or poutine, it’s time to hit downtown! On either side of Mt. Royal sit the campuses of the University of Montréal and McGill University. If you’re a fan of college campus architecture, McGill in particular certainly does not disappoint! Conveniently, McGill also backs up right onto the downtown area of the city, so it’s easy to meander through the campus to get there.
First, spend some time walking around the Golden Square Mile area, or Mille Carré Doré. Check out the lovely Victorian architecture, and perhaps stop for a bite to eat or a snack around here. Also nearby is the The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, or Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal. This museum is fantastic and really, really worth a visit! Established in 1860, it is Canada’s oldest museum, and also its largest.
In the afternoon, spend some time exploring the Underground City, a subterranean maze of shops and restaurants measuring 30 kilometers! Not only is this place enormous, but it’s all underground, lending it a really neat vibe. Don’t miss a coffee at Tunnel Espresso Bar in the Cathcart passageway section, and refer back to this handy map often!
In the evening, watch the sun set in nearby Vieux Montréal. The Old Port area is so romantic and beautiful, and there are tons of restaurants to choose from– such as the renowned (but very, very pricey!) Le Club Chasse et Pêche, or our personal favorite, Jardin Nelson, which has a gorgeous outdoor patio and live music. You can also take advantage and pop into the Notre Dame Cathedral now (well-worth the $5 CAD admission!) or wait to visit during the daytime. We also really recommend just relaxing in the area, sitting in a park or public area like Place de la Dauversière or Vauquelin Place.
If you’re into clubbing, Montréal is a fantastic place to do so, with one of the best nightlife scenes in North America. Clubs in Montréal stay open all night long, from the student pubs near McGill to the old-school mainstays like Stereo, hyped DJ scenes like Datcha or La Rouge, or the ultimate bar-hopping experience at 4-building music venue L’Axe du Mal. In general, Crescent Street is the place to go for bars and clubbing, known as Montréal’s “Party Central.” You can also take a lower-key approach and visit one of the city’s many, many rooftop bars, such as Terrasse Perché, with gorgeous views of the twinkling port.
One of Montréal’s most pleasant surprises is the jaw-dropping Montréal Botanical Gardens. Boasting 185 acres and 20,000 species of distinct flora and fauna, you could easily spend the entire day here– easily! The gardens have beautiful walking trails, as well as 10 different pavilions. The Japanese and Chinese pavilions were a particular favorite. The downside is that admission is fairly steep at $20 CAD for adults and $15 CAD for students… but it’s absolutely, absolutely worth it. You can also purchase a joint ticket for the nearby Biodôme for $37 CAD ($27 CAD for students), though we did not do this.
After taking your time exploring around the Gardens, head over to the nearby Montréal Olympic Park, which hosted the 1976 Olympic Games. Today, you can still visit the Olympic Stadium, as well as the Montréal Tower, with a glass funicular that overlooks the city. We’d recommend the view from the top Mt. Royal, personally, but the more city views, the better!
As we mentioned before, the Biodôme is also a super neat museum, if you’re still in the mood for one! During the Olympics it served as a velodrome (which is an area for track cycling, according to Google!) but it has been converted into a science museum that has recreated 5 distinct ecosystems inside: a Tropical Rainforest; the Gulf of St. Lawrence’s underwater life, the Laurentian Maple Forest (typical of the Québec region); the Labrador Coast’s birds, including darling puffins; and Sub-Antarctic Islands, which are home to penguins.
Not too far from the Botanical Garden and Olympic Stadium, you can check out cool open-air farmers’ market Marché Jean-Talon for your fill of pastries, cheese, produce, and more from local vendors, conveniently located in Montréal’s Little Italy.
Another longstanding market option located closer to the Mt. Royal area is Marché Atwater, which is known for its more gourmet goods, like oils and spices. After perusing at Atwater, check out the Lachine Canal Park— first built in 1825 as a “canal to China” (hence its name), today it is a serene and leafy park, complete with a fabulous bike path that spans the 13.5 kilometers between the Old Port and Lake Saint-Louis. There are 5 locks along the canal, and the whole area is very “industrial-chic.”
Next, head back to Vieux-Montréal, as it is absolutely worth seeing in the daytime. Be sure to really revel in the centuries-old architecture, cobblestone streets, and cute alleyways, and take some time to window shop or perhaps stop for a crêpe or an ice cream cone. If you want to be extra-touristy, check out the Grande Roue de Montréal Ferris wheel, which is 60 meters tall at its tallest. There is also excellent people-watching and live music in Place Jacques-Cartier, and don’t miss a walk along the newly-renovated Grand Quai walking path.
We hope you enjoyed our guide to the one-of-a-kind Montréal. Have you been to MTL? Let us know what you think in the comments! And be sure to save our guide for later on Pinterest here:
And lastly, of course, don’t miss our other Canada content, that you can find below!