A Guide on What to See and Do in Montreal.
I’m always blogging about exotic foreign places and it hit me that I’ve never posted photos or written anything about the city where I lived for 25 years. But it sometimes hits me as it did recently – Montreal is a great city. It is vibrant (there is always some kind of festival going on in the summer), it has great and affordable dining (fantastic food of every nationality), and is scenic and clean with a lot of green places and some nice viewpoints looking over the city. It is a very safe city by North American standards. Montreal is the nightlife capital of Canada, it is also renown for its beautiful women. It is also a cosmopolitan and cultural city full of small boutiques, restaurants, and cafes with a very European character. You can get great coffee, fresh croissants and baguettes around every corner.
Where to stay when you are in Montreal? It all depends how long you are here and how you get around. If you are here only a day or two, I suggest you stay in a downtown hotel or in Old Montreal. If you are here 5 days to a week, I suggest staying the the Plateau Mont-Royal (which is generally less expensive). And if you’re a bicyclist then I really recommend staying on the Plateau – from here it’s very easy to get anywhere by bike.
Auberge de la Fontaine – on the Plateau Mont-Royal, facing Park Lafontaine.
Omni Mont-Royal Hotel – in the heart of downtown on beautiful Sherbrooke St. You can walk up the mountain from here. Well located, well priced.
Le Saint-Sulpice Hotel – situated in Old Montreal. This is a great hotel – when I worked this is where we would set up our clients.
HIGHLIGHTS OF MONTREAL
Sightseeing in Montreal has to start in Mont Royal Park, the mountain (actually more like a big hill) situated in the heart of the city. The rest of the city is flat so it’s a great spot to get orientated; from the chalet at the summit you see the whole of downtown, the river and Ile St. Helene and Ile Notre-Dame (the 2 islands in the St. Lawrence), as well as right across the river to the south shore. From downtown, just walk up Peel street until you hit the park, follow the path to the stairs, then walk all those stairs to the summit where the chalet is. The views are great and it is a good place to watch people as well. Most scenic hike in Montreal: After looking at the views from the summit, walk back to the top of the stairs (but don’t go down) and take the path to your left. This path skirts the top of the mountain and has some really nice viewpoints over the downtown area before turning east and giving views over the eastern end of Montreal; the river, the Jacques-Cartier bridge, the Olympic Stadium, Parc Lafontaine and Le Plateau Mont-Royal district. If you continue on that path it will bring you down some stairs to a viewpoint that is very popular with tour buses. At that point, you can either go back along the trail and head back down the stairs to downtown, OR, continue from the viewpoint down to the Plateau Montreal district (covered later). To do this latter option; just after the viewpoint you’ll see a dirt walking path on your right. Go down. It zig zags down through the park and will eventually take you down to the monument on Park Avenue. From there you can cross the street and explore the “Plateau”.
There’s lots to see in Mont-Royal park but I think I’ve covered the best above (although Beaver Lake, “Lac aux Castors”, is also very scenic and should be seen and walked around if you have the time. You can also rent a paddle boat there).
* I’ve mentioned walking up the mountain from downtown. Another alternative is taking the No. 11 bus from metro Mont-Royal, it’ll bring you right up to the summit.
Organized Tour: If you don’t have much time, this 6 hour tour covers the highlights of Montreal including Mont Royal Park (it also includes entry to Notre-Dame Basilica). Recommended.
Related: The best views in Montreal (many are in Mont Royal Park)
Old Montreal is the #2 spot to be seen after the mountain. It’s touristy, but it is always a nice area to walk around and foreign tourists always seem to enjoy it because of the historic buildings and relaxed ambience. Start at Notre Dame Cathedral. This gorgeous church was built in 1824 and is the single most popular tourist site in Montreal. The square facing the church, Place D’Armes square, has a fountain and a statue and is surrounded by other historical buildings such as the Aldred building (built in 1931 in art deco style, resembles New York’s Empire State building), the New York Life building (built in 1888, the oldest skyscraper in Canada), and the Bank of Montreal head office (constructed in 1847). Other highlights: rue St. Paul (the oldest street in Old Montreal, now housing art galleries, restaurants, and offices), Place Jacques Cartier (a large, pedestrian-only square where you’ll see street artists, restaurants, and outdoor terrasses) and Bonsecours Market.
There are some good activities for the kids along the port and it’s always nice being by the water, especially in the summer. There are tons of bars and restaurants in Old Montreal, most on the high-priced side. See this post for the best bars with a view. Overall, a great place for the whole family.
Organized Tour: This 2 hour tour concentrates only on Old Montreal and includes entry to Notre-Dame Basilica.
Downtown is where you’ll find some nice shopping centers and all the usual big retailers that you see in every city. You can walk down Ste. Catherine Street and you’ll find all that along with trendy bars and cafés and strip-joints (Montreal is famous for strip joints). There are a couple of streets full of bars and terraces: Crescent Street, Peel street, and St. Denis are the most popular. Crescent is full of terraces, it’s really the place to go to hang out for a beer on a hot day and just people watch. There are tons of great drinking spots in Montreal, you don’t have to look far. But downtown Montreal is also picturesque and has some impressive sights: highlights include Dorchester Square for views of the Sunlife building and Queen of the World Cathedral, McGill University for its beautiful campus, and the stretch of Ste. Catherine from University street to Place Des Arts. Along the way you’ll see some old churches and squares with views of the downtown highrises. Downtown is also famous for the underground city; you can navigate most of downtown and its shopping centers through a network of passages. Great for shoppers, especially in the winter.
Organized Tour: The Downtown is covered in the 6 hour Highlights tour that I mentioned at the top of this post. Excellent tour and if you’re only in Montreal a day or two this tour covers the major highlights.
Le Plateau Mont-Royal district (ie. “The Plateau”) is really worth seeing. It’s 10 minutes by subway from downtown (to metro Mont-Royal) and is the cultural heart of Montreal. It is a very European looking neighborhood with some great restaurants including BYOBs (bring-your-own-wine restaurants) boutique stores, B&Bs, cafes, and pastry shops. Avenue Mont-Royal is fun and trendy, yet not touristy and has some nice restaurants. Avenue Laurier is a bit quieter, more family orientated, and also has a few very nice restaurants and boutique stores. The neighborhood also has some pretty parks (Parc Lafontaine, Parc Laurier). I really recommend staying in this area instead of downtown, it’ll be cheaper and more interesting.
Walking from the Plateau back downtown can be done in about 40 minutes. I recommend walking down rue St. Denis, another street full of terraces, restaurants and upscale shops. About mid-way between Avenue Mont-Royal and Sherbrooke is Rue Duluth which has a concentration of BYOB restaurants.
Also: The Plateau is known for its “Green alleys”. The Best Green Alleys on the Plateau Mont-Royal.
The Botanical gardens and Biodome (both next to the Olympic Stadium). All next to the Pie-IX metro station (or take bus 24 from downtown. It goes down Sherbrooke St. and drops you off right across from the Botanical Gardens).
Ile Ste-Helene and Ile Notre-Dame (where they hold the Montreal Grand Prix). The two islands are really worth seeing; both have beautiful gardens and streams, Ile Ste-Helene has great views of downtown Montreal from across the river and has quiet bicycle paths, while Ile Notre Dame has the casino, the race track, as well as a man-made beach that is popular in the summer. They are both quiet and peaceful and easily accessible from downtown by bike. Or take the metro to metro Jean-Drapeau on Ile Ste-Helene. Also recommended, when coming back from the islands, ride your bike (or walk) across the Jacques Cartier bridge. It gives great views of the city and the river down below. By the time you get back downtown you’ll have had your exercise.
Montreal is a fantastic place to ride a bike (recently voted #1 North American city for cycling) and you can now cover most of the most scenic attractions just staying on the bicycle path. There is a bike path that cuts right across downtown, so even if you’re staying at a big downtown hotel you can get on the bike path and head off anywhere. I strongly suggest renting a bike (just google “where to rent a bike in Montreal”and you’ll find a place close to where you are. The official website of Velo Quebec (the cycling organization). If you go to their office at Park Lafontaine you can get a map showing all of Montreal’s bike paths.
All the places I’ve mentioned up top are along bicycle paths. So if you’re a biker they’re all easy to get to.
Another nice bike ride: from Old Montreal to the Lachine Canal and follow the bike path down the canal until you get to the Atwater market (about 15 minutes max.). It’s a really nice place to sit down for a coffee. You can even follow the bike path waayyy further, up to Dorval.
Organized Tour: This bike tour/sightseeing tour covers the highlights of downtown and Old Montreal. Recommended if you’re on limited time. But if you have more time (and a bike) I recommend you get yourself a map and sightsee on your own. Montreal is a great city to get around on a bike and you can see all the places I’ve mentioned above if you plan out your trips with a map.
Tip: With Kids
If you have kids you HAVE to see the Biodome and the Tower Observatory. I wrote about them here. They’ll also enjoy “La Ronde”, the large amusement park on Ile Ste-Helene. You can also take them skating downtown at 1000 de la Gauchetiere. Or go on a cruise on the river. Many more things to do but that should get you started.
The above will keep anyone busy for about 3 or 4 days.
Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (code: YUL) has direct flight connections to many of the world’s major cities.
Restaurants (and bars)
There are many great restaurants in Montreal. Many in Old Montreal and downtown can be expensive – my preferred areas for restaurants was always the Plateau Mont-Royal where you’ll find nice bistros or BYOB restaurants (where you bring your own wine). I have a few recommendations on this post. Restaurants come and go quickly in Montreal however so beware…
If you’re looking for places to go for a scenic drink, have a look at my post covering the 3 bars with the best views in Old Montreal.
I’ve already mentioned that Montreal is a great biking destination. If you enjoy biking make sure to do some here. That includes the bike tour I mentioned above.
If you enjoy museums have a look at this post covering the best museums and how to see them on the cheap. This 2ndpost covers the best museums on Ile Saint-Helene (which are also worth discovering).
Take a cruise on the St. Lawrence. There are many options and it doesn’t have to be expensive.
There are many food tours in Montreal. Here I review a food tour and also cover other options.
Want a Helicopter Tour of Montreal? Have a look at this. Montreal is phenomenal from above.
We didn’t own a car when we lived in Montreal. It’s an easy city to explore using public transport. BUT if you want to go to Mont-Tremblant (very popular any time of year), the Granby Zoo, or the Eastern Townships then I would recommend that you rent a car. We’ve always used Rentalcars.com. Rates usually start around $45 Canadian/day (ie $34 US these days).
I’ve got tons more on Montreal if you look over here.
Have time for more of Quebec? See our guide to the Top Places to Visit in the Province of Quebec.