When 16th century French explorer Jacques Cartier set foot on the river island that would become Montreal, its place as a major centre of Francophone language and culture was assured — even after the British took possession in 1760.
Today, French-Canadian joie de vivre and sophistication, mixed with a striking sense of collective creativity, plenty of gritty street art, and the odd dash of student-fuelled mayhem, makes Montreal the Great White North’s undoubted cultural capital. The city is also a hotspot for distinctive food and fashion, and there’s ample outdoor fun within easy reach.
Enjoy this Montreal travel guide.
Montreal for history lovers
With its centuries-old architecture, cobblestone streets and horse-drawn carriages, Old Montreal — the city’s historic heart — is a living museum.
The highlight is Gothic Revival Notre-Dame Basilica, whose sky-blue ceiling glitters with gold stars, but other places worth stopping in on a heritage stroll include Pointe-à-Callière. Layers of Montreal’s rich history are revealed at this excellent archaeological site and museum.
A deeply conservative Catholic society for centuries, Montreal was transformed in the 1960s, and showed off its fresh, modern outlook by hosting the 1967 World’s Fair, and then the 1976 Olympics. The striking geodesic dome that was Expo 67’s American pavilion (now the Biosphère environment museum) has become a symbol of Montreal, as has the Olympic Stadium. Take the funicular to the dramatically inclined torch tower’s tip for the best views in town.
Top cultural experiences in Montreal
For many Montrealers, the city’s cultural make-up begins and ends at another stadium — the Bell Centre — where their beloved Canadiens play.
Try to catch a game while you’re in town. It’s quite an experience!
Montreal is crazy for festivals — especially in summer when the world’s biggest jazz and comedy festivals take over the city. This is the hometown for several circuses (including Cirque du Soleil), and the Montreal Cirque Festival in July is also well worth attending.
Summer days are long and nights are often balmy, so take advantage of thousands of free alfresco festival events, as well as the international fireworks competition when the best-of-the-best pyrotechnicians dazzle over several weeks.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is a must-see, especially the collection of Inuit sculptures and Canadian landscapes by the pioneering Group of Seven. Also check out the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal’s abstract paintings by Les Automatistes. They kick-started the city’s embrace of art modernity.
As you explore the city, you’ll soon discover that Montreal is all about art. It’s everywhere — on alley walls, in shop windows, and on the easels of the many portrait artists in Place Jacques-Cartier. Join a two-hour street art tour along Saint Laurent Boulevard and learn about the city’s most prolific street artists and their work.
Great places to eat in Montreal
The three Montreal culinary specialities are poutine, smoked meat and bagels.
That’s right, bagels, and they’re so good they’re exported to New York. The best places to try these distinctively crisp, ever-so-slightly sweet edible hoops are the original Fairmount Bagel and St-Viateur Bagel stores. At both locations you can watch the bagels being pulled from the oven 24 hours a day.
Another gift from the Jewish community is smoked-meat sandwiches, best enjoyed at Schwartz’s Deli. But the ultimate Montreal fast-food experience is poutine at La Banquise. Also open 24/7, it’s the global epicentre for this homegrown hot mess of French fries, cheese curds and gravy.
Fine dining options include one of Canada’s most celebrated French restaurants, Toqué!, under the stewardship of Chef Normand Laprise. Maison Boulud at the Ritz Carlton hotel is renowned for its elegant setting and service. In the warmer months rooftop wining and dining is de rigueur, though it often eludes visitors. Ask your concierge to call and book. My insider recommendation: Terrasse Nelligan, among Old Montreal’s heritage architecture.
Three-quarters of the world’s maple syrup is produced near Montreal, and the March-April harvest tempts city slickers en masse to the countryside’s cabanes à sucre (sugar shacks) for a traditional feast with free-flowing maple. Sucrerie de la Montagne is among the most charming sugar shacks. It’s open all year round.
Where to shop in Montreal
Anywhere, anytime, you can buy maple syrup in Montreal.
From candy to tea, Délices Érable et Cie is dedicated to everything maple. Le Marché des Saveurs du Québec also has an extensive maple range, along with many other regional gourmet goodies — including ice cider (a divine dessert tipple similar to ice wine).
Downtown’s Rue Ste-Catherine is one of North America’s top fashion destinations, hosting international brands including Victoria’s Secret, Zara and Sephora, as well as department stores: luxe Holt Renfrew Ogilvy, always-on-trend Simons, and Hudson’s Bay Company — founded in 1670 as a fur-trading business.
This UNESCO City of Design’s more quirky and unique retail temptations tend to be found in the inner-city neighbourhoods of Mile End and the Plateau. Good bets are Avenue du Mont-Royal (discover stylish Montreal souvenirs at Artpop), Rue St-Denis (Fluevog’s funky shoes) and Boulevard St-Laurent (Eva B’s vintage clothing).
Ways to relax in Montreal
For things to do in Montreal that will leave you feeling revitalised, pretty parks and green spaces abound.
Most notable is the Montreal Botanical Garden — a vast, fascinating place well worth the entrance fee — especially during autumn’s stunning Chinese lantern display.
Mount Royal — the mini-mountain on downtown’s doorstep — is an easy option for picnics, winter sports, autumn colour and amazing city views.
Hundreds of craft breweries thrive in and around Montreal. Possibly the favourite way for locals to relax is sampling the changing beer menus at a microbrewery, such as Dieu du Ciel!
If you prefer high-energy relaxation, head for La Ronde amusement park and its heart-pumping rides. The park is located just one Métro stop from Downtown.
Alternatively, take a short stroll from Old Montreal to the Clocktower Pier at the Old Port and join Jet Boating Montreal on their extremely wet and wild Lachine Rapids adventure.
For more inspiration, visit www.mtl.org.