A vibrant North American city with a historic French core, Montreal has something to offer even the most demanding of tourists. It is also a great introduction to French culture with terrific dining options and a real sense of history.
With four universities sprawled across its center, Montreal is a decidedly young town – which means there’s never a shortage of events to attend, from art festivals to concerts, and many of them are free. And where there are students, there are bargains, so good food can be had for very reasonable prices. Lodging is another matter entirely. High season kicks off with the Grand Prix Formula One race in June and lasts well into July, with the Just for Laughs comedy festival, so hotel rooms at these times are both scarce and expensive. A good alternative would be to stay in European-style bed and breakfasts, which are available all over the city, though most are a little off the beaten track.
Despite its large size, the city is made to be explored on foot, and Old Montreal (Vieux Montreal), where the first French missionaries put down roots, is an excellent starting point. Formerly a walled city, this area fell into disrepair as the business district moved away; thankfully, it was restored and beautified in the early 1990s. Now you can meander through the cobbled streets and narrow passages off St. Paul Street or stop for a coffee on the terrace of one of the many cafés in Place Jacques-Cartier. The silver-domed Bonsecours Market is a must-see. Canada’s one-time parliament turned Montreal City Hall turned market is now a thriving cultural center with many boutiques featuring local art and products.
If the summer heat – or winter cold – becomes unbearable, head into Notre Dame Cathedral where homegrown chanteuse Céline Dion held her fairytale wedding. The gothic style basilica is actually the brainchild of New York architect James O’Donnell, hired in the early 1800 to upgrade the original seventeenth century chapel.
Museums abound in the historic district of Montreal, though most are much smaller than European museums and can be easily toured in under an hour. The ambitiously named Château Ramezay, once the residence of Montreal’s French governor, is really more of a manor, but it houses an impressive collection of Native Indian and Québec art and photographs. Afterwards grab a ‘Beaver tail’ – a fried dough snack dusted with sugar and cinnamon – and head down to the Old Port for a leisurely walk along the river.
Montreal derives its name from Mount Royal – Mont Réal in old French – the mountain that rises at its very heart. The smallish mountain is worth the trek year-round for an impressive view of the city. St. Joseph’s Oratory occupies the western slope of the mountain and, as the largest shrine in the world devoted to St. Joseph, is a stunning homage to his purported healing powers. Nearby is the picturesque campus of McGill University, one of the oldest universities in Canada.
For a feel of the real pulse of the city, go east towards St. Lawrence Boulevard and St. Denis Street. The two parallel streets run the length of the city and, between them, contain most of Montreal’s bars and nightclubs. Driving and parking along those streets is no mean feat, especially weekends, so you’re better off cabbing it or using public transportation when checking out Montreal’s nightlife.
Montreal’s upscale neighborhood, the Golden Square Mile is also worth a stroll. Some of the trendiest boutiques lie in the Victorian buildings along this part of Sherbrooke Street, as does Montreal’s Fine Arts Museum. Nearby Crescent Street is another nightlife hub, with the city’s best Irish pubs and chicest restaurants.
Since hardy Montrealers won’t let something like frigid temperatures stop them in their tracks, they’ve built an entire city underground. No trip to Montreal is complete without exploring the underground passages, lined with shops and restaurants that criss-cross the heart of downtown.
What Montreal Is
Montreal is a multicultural town. The French settled it, the English turned it into an industrial powerhouse, the Italians built its metro, and the list goes on. The many settlers brought the best of their cultures to Montreal, so some of the greatest finds – from ethnic jewelry to exotic foods – can be discovered in the little family-run shops that pepper the city.
Montreal is teeming with activity. From skiing – yes, in the middle of town, courtesy of Mount Royal – skating and tubing in winter, to rafting and riding the rapids along the St. Lawrence river in summer, there’s never a shortage of things to do. For a list of what’s happening when you’re in town, pick up MontrealScope magazine. It’s free and available at most hotels and tourist attractions.
Montreal is pothole ridden. Rough winters turn the roads into pock-marked stretches and navigating them is a driving tour de force. If you’re not getting out of the downtown proper, save yourself the frustration and take the public transit.
What Montreal Is Not
Montreal is not stuffy. Unlike residents of other large business centers, Montrealers are a friendly lot and will take the time to give you directions when you ask.
Montreal is not smoker friendly. Smoking was recently banned from all businesses and indoor spaces, and that includes restaurants, bars and cafes. So if you enjoy a smoke with your beer, Montreal will definitely put a damper on your fun.
Montreal is not prudish. Don’t be surprised if you come across a topless bar nestled between a family restaurant and a shoe store right along St. Catherine Street.
Montreal gets overcrowded during Grand Prix weekend. If you’re not a Formula One fan, you can get the same party town feel, minus the huge crowds and hiked up prices, in August, when the NASCAR Busch series race takes place.
The Montreal Museum Pass offers you access to 3 of the city’s museums for 3 days, $75, tax included. The $80 pass has the additional advantage of giving you access to the public transit system and will save you quite a bit of money on metro and bus fare. It’s available at most hotels as well as the Tourist Center (1255 Peel Street, off St. Catherine Street).
The weather is fickle in Montreal, even in the summer, so make sure to bring along some warm clothes for those not so pleasant days.
Time to Visit: Late spring and early fall are the best times to visit Montreal. Temperatures are balmy (70s and 80s) and the entire city is decked with flowers by May. Visiting during the Indian summer in late September will give you a chance to see the tree leaves turn varying shades of red while the weather is still warm enough to be outdoors (60s and 70s). Winters are long and cold, but very few days are bitterly so and they mostly occur in January. Severe snowstorms are also common in January and can slow the city’s transportation down to a crawl. Summers are hot and humid (80s and 90s), but always a good time to visit.
Currency: Canadian Dollar
Tipping: Restaurants don’t include service charges, add 15%– roughly the same amount as the taxes – to your bill.
Taxes: Almost everything here is taxed, so expect to pay around 13% on top of the indicated price, whether you’re buying clothes, souvenirs or food.
Language: English and French
Transport: Montreal’s metro ($3/ticket, website) will take you to all the major sights in the city and it’s easy to use, since it consists of only four lines. Buses also run regularly and cover the entire island of Montreal. Shuttles are available from the airport to the downtown area and are a cheaper alternative to taxis (approximately $40 from airport).
Immigration: Americans and EU citizens do not need visas to visit. However, Americans now need passports to visit Canada.
Where to Stay
Editor’s pick: Auberge Bonsecours is a charming little inn right on St. Paul Street in Old Montreal. The hotel is housed in renovated stables and the owners were careful to retain the historic character of the building but update it with all the modern amenities. The rooms are decorated in the warm tones of French Provence style and all are equipped with private bathrooms – which is not a given in old hotels. But there’s a catch: the hotel only has 7 rooms, so book early. Rates from $100 before tax, buffet breakfast included.
353 St. Paul East, 3 minutes from Bonsecours Market, 514-396-2662
Angelica Blue Bed and Breakfast is conveniently located within walking distance of the shopping district on St. Catherine Street and Old Montreal. All 5 rooms have a somewhat eclectic décor, but do have private bathrooms, some even with Jacuzzi. You may be asked to remove your shoes or boots before you step in so as not to damage the lovely wood floors – but don’t worry, slippers are provided. Rates from $85 before tax, breakfast included.
1213 St. Elizabeth Street, 514-844-5048
Sofitel Montreal is elegant, comfortable and unpretentious. The Fine Arts Museum is close by and the restaurants of Crescent Street are a short walk away. Rates from $180 before tax.
1155 Sherbrooke Street West, 514-285-9000
For travelers on a princely budget, try the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth. The hotel is a Montreal landmark and a favorite among stars and heads of state. John Lennon wrote Give Peace a Chance in one of its suites. Rates from $250 before tax.
900 René Lévesque Boulevard West, 514-861-3511 or 1-800-257-7544
Eat and Drink
Montreal rivals New York as a capital of restaurants and cafes. Dining out is a favorite local pastime, especially in winter when the weather restricts activity, and there’s an abundance of world cuisines to sample all over the city. Small, family-owned restaurants offer the best ethnic fares and often for under $15 per person (tax and tip included). Lunch starts around noon and is served in most restaurants until 3pm. Dinner is an early affair in the city, starting at 6pm with many places closing by 10pm or 11pm on weekdays.
For the business crowd, it’s common to have a drink after work on Fridays, between 5pm and 7pm, so bars are usually very busy at this time. Between its Anglo-Saxon and French heritage, the city has garnered some of the best beers and wines in the world. For a sample, check out Hurley’s Irish Pub (1225 Crescent Street, website).
Le Cheval Blanc on rue Ontario (809 Ontario East, 514-522-0211, website) was the first brewpub in Montreal and some of their beers are available around town, as is the nearly lethal La Fin du Monde. At 9% alcohol, “fin” is a pretty accurate description of the effects it might have on your night. Unlike most of Canada, beer and wine can be bought in grocery stores in addition to the state-run liquor stores.
Some of Montreal’s specialties are also among the cheapest meals to be had. Stop for smoked meat at Schwartz’s Deli (3895 St. Lawrence Boulevard, 514-842-4813, website). The place is always packed and you might have to line up, but it’s worth the wait. Poutine, a Québécois dish of French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy, has to be experienced at La Banquise (994 Rachel Street East, 514-525-2415, website). This diner offers over a dozen variations on the dish and is open 24 hours, so you can hop over after a night of clubbing on nearby St. Denis Street. Lovers of cheese won’t be disappointed either – Quebec has over 300 varieties of cheese. A great shop to pick up some cheese is Fromagerie du Marché Atwater in the Marché Atwater (Atwater Avenue, 514-932-9731).
Many of the medium-range restaurants offer dinner and a show. Le Milsa (1445 Bishop Street, 514-985-0777,website), a Brazilian Churrascaria or rotisserie, lets you sample a broad variety of barbecued meats while watching a Carnival style dance show. Dinner for two, with unlimited servings of meat, is around $85, tax and tip included. La Menara (256 St. Paul Street East, 514-861-1989, website), with its Thousand and One Nights decor, has some of the best Moroccan food in town. Savor their couscous while watching the belly dancers sway to the rhythms, all for under a $100 for two, tax and tip included.
To dine à l’Européenne, make sure you have at least three hours free and head into Caprice Fondue (70 Prince Arthur Street, 514-845-0183) in the lively Plateau district. Their fondue menu – starting with cheese fondue, followed by your choice of meat or seafood fondue and capped with a chocolate fondue – will leave you thinking fondly of this French resto-bar. Dinner pour deux costs around $90, tax and tip included.
For a real splurge, make reservations at la Queue de Cheval (1221 René Lévesque Boulevard West, 514-390-0090, website) an upscale steak house. Their prime beef is excellent, as is their wine selection, but expect to pay around $200 for dinner for two.
You’ll find outdoor and indoor cafes all over the city, but still one of the best – and cheapest – is Tim Horton’s (website). The chain is the Canadian equivalent of Dunkin Donuts and most Canadians swear by its coffee. Try the French Vanilla coffee, if you like sweet, or sample their Iced Cappuccino, a.k.a. Iced Cap, in the summer.
Botanical Gardens. The Chinese and Japanese gardens are beautiful, especially in the fall, when they are lit up by colorful lanterns.
4101 Sherbrooke Street East
Admission: High season (May – November) $18.75, $14 students, $17.50 seniors, ages 5 – 17 $9.50, ages 2 – 4 $2.50;
Low season (November – May) $13.50, $10 students and seniors, ages 5 – 17 $6.75, ages 2 – 4 $2
Hours: May 15 – Sept 4 every day 9am – 6pm, Sept 5 – Nov 2 9am -9pm, Nov 4 to May 14 9am – 5pm. Closed every Monday from November to May.
Chateau Ramezay on Notre Dame Street, just east of the Basilica. The gardens are worth a look in the summer and access to them is free.
Admission: $10, $9 seniors, $8 students, ages 5 – 17 $5
Hours: June 1 – Thanksgiving, 10am – 6pm; Thanksgiving – May 31, Tue – Sun 10am – 4:30pm
Fine Arts Museum, in the heart of the Golden Square Mile, has a decent collection of European art. Desmarais Pavilion contains art from around the world while The Hornstein Pavilion houses Quebec Art.
1379 & 1380 Sherbrooke Street West
Admission: Viewing of the permanent collection is free however a donation is appreciated. Temporary exhibits are $22 for adults, half price after 5pm during evening hours. Admission is half price for adults on Wednesdays from 5pm – 9pm
Hours: Tues, Sat & Sun 11am – 5pm, Weds – Thurs 11am – 9pm.
Mary Queen of the World Basilica is modeled after St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, but about one third of its size.
1085 Cathedral Street on the corner of René Lévesque Boulevard
Mount Royal Park is a great place for a picnic or just to get a good picture of the city.
Notre Dame Basilica on Notre Dame Street West. Entrance to pray is free, but visitors have to pay a $5 entrance fee.
St. Joseph’s Oratory just off Queen Mary Road on Mount Royal. You can climb the countless stairs to reach the oratory – or drive. Either way, the view from the terrace is breathtaking and extends all the way to the Laurentian Mountains.
Crypt and Basilica open March 31 – September 1.
Three malls border McGill College Avenue in the heart of downtown Montreal: Place Montreal Trust to the west, the Eaton Center to the east and Place Ville Marie to the south. All three offer a wide range of stores for all budgets and have the usual big North American brands.
St. Catherine Street is a shopper’s paradise. You’ll find upscale department store Ogilvy’s at its western end and the Hudson’s Bay Company department store, known simply as The Bay, further east. In between, a plethora of boutiques will satisfy every taste and wallet.
Those with more eclectic tastes might prefer St. Denis Street. Trendy shops and unusual fashion boutiques are the ordre du jour in this area.
Things to Bring Back/Buy
Maple syrup and maple products top the ‘to buy’ list. You’ll find a large variety at the Canadian Maple Delights shop in Old Montreal (84 St. Paul Street East).
Native Indian art and products at Indianica (79 St. Paul Street East) make great gifts.
Montrealers are also proud of their hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens, and you can pick up their official merchandise at the Canadiens store in the Bell Center (1260 de la Gauchetiére Street West).