It may be Canada that stamps your passport when you arrive in Montreal, but at your first glimpse of the city’s cobblestone streets, sunny sidewalk cafes and wrought-iron balcony railings, you’ll feel as though you’ve been whisked off to Europe. From the French street signs and the high fashion of its upscale boutiques to the joyful elan of its people, Montreal feels more like Paris than a major North American metropolis. But of course it’s the latter too — it’s Canada’s second-largest city, home not only to its French-speaking majority but also to native English speakers and immigrants from all over the world.
Montreal balances its opposing forces gracefully, maintaining its historic old town area just across the St. Lawrence River from the innovative geometric architecture of Habitat 67, a modern experimental housing development. The towering office buildings in Montreal’s downtown core reach for the sky alongside Mont-Royal, the gentle mountain whose acres of parkland provide quiet respite just a few blocks from the city’s energetic commercial district.
Montreal’s contradictions don’t always sit so smoothly — the political and cultural differences between the French province of Quebec and the rest of English-speaking Canada have caused quite a bit of tension over the years. Montreal was founded by French Catholic settlers in 1642 as Ville-Marie and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The small colony survived years of harsh winter weather and bloody skirmishes with the local Iroquois only to be taken over, along with the rest of French Canada, by the British following the French and Indian War. Despite the British occupation, the present-day province of Quebec has staunchly maintained its French language and culture, leading to some 20th-century efforts to make the province its own sovereign nation. (In a 1995 referendum, voters narrowly elected not to secede by a 1 percent margin.) But despite this recent controversy, Montreal is a safe, friendly city, welcoming visitors of all languages and cultures with its signature charm and style.
Vieux-Montreal, or Old Montreal, was home to the city’s first European settlers, who arrived in the mid-17th century. Many of the homes and buildings have been restored and the old city has wonderful boutiques, sidewalk cafes and street performers. The center of the action is Place Jacques-Cartier, a pedestrian mall. Nearby, the Old Port is one of Montreal’s best-loved recreation spots; this waterfront park is a terrific place to take a stroll or sign up for speedboat expeditions and harbor cruises. You can even rent bicycles and in-line skates at Montreal on Wheels. See Old Montreal tours and excursions from Viator.
The grand and ornate Notre-Dame Basilica, an early 19th-century cathedral, boasts 228-foot twin towers and one of North America’s biggest bells. Inside are intricate wooden carvings, a magnificent organ with more than 7,000 pipes and a brilliant blue ceiling strewn with gold stars. Pop trivia: Celine Dion got married here in 1994.
Bike, walk or jog through Parc du Mont-Royal. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (of New York’s Central Park fame), it comprises nearly 500 acres of forest and winding paths, and lies atop the mountain in the heart of Montreal.
St. Joseph’s Oratory is a massive domed shrine that dates back to the mid-20th century. You may see pilgrims climbing the steps to the oratory on their knees. Take time to visit the small original chapel dedicated to Brother Andre, who was renowned for his healing gifts, and to wander through the gardens surrounding the church.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is the city’s premier repository of art representing numerous eras and styles, from 19th-century European masterpieces to Native American and Inuit artifacts.
Check out the sights in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, a neighborhood in eastern Montreal. This district played host to the 1976 Summer Olympics, and you can still tour the massive Olympic Stadium — take a ride up to the top of the attached tower for views over the city. One intriguing attraction that’s fun for kids and adults alike is the Biodome. Part zoo, part environmental museum, the Biodome is home to animals and plants in five re-created habitats: the tropical forest, the Laurentian maple forest, the St. Lawrence marine ecosystem, the Labrador coast and the sub-Antarctic islands. (The penguins are a fan favorite.) Also nearby are the lovely Botanical Garden and the kid-friendly Insectarium.
Test your luck at the Casino de Montreal, one of the world’s biggest. It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The predominant cuisine in Montreal is (unsurprisingly) French, but in recent years the city has seen an increase in other options from around the globe. For the best value, look for the table d’hote menu — a fixed-price menu of two to four courses offered at many restaurants across the city. Local specialties include poutine, a dish of French fries covered with gravy and cheese curds, and Montreal-style bagels — not to be confused with their New York brethren. (Bagels made in Montreal are smaller and sweeter, with a crispier crust.)
Modavie offers mouth-watering French bistro cuisine in a beautiful setting overlooking the waterfront and the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal. Be sure to sample the well-stocked wine bar. There are live jazz performances every night.
Chef Normand Laprise whips up an ever-revolving array of gourmet dishes at Toque!, one of the city’s most popular spots to splurge. For a truly indulgent meal, treat yourself to the seven-course tasting menu with wine pairings.
New Yorkers square off over pizza, Philadelphians over cheese steaks — but the big food rivalry in Montreal is between two popular bagel joints. Fairmount Bagel, founded in 1919, claims to be the first bagel bakery in Montreal; offerings include classics like sesame seed and poppy seed, as well as sweet options like chocolate chip and blueberry. Its chief rival is St-Viateur Bagel, which has been around since 1957 and has multiple locations around the city. Which place makes the better bagel? Try them both and see for yourself!
The Stash Cafe is a Polish restaurant tucked away in Montreal’s Old Town. It’s a perfect spot for a warm and hearty lunch when there’s an autumn nip in the air outside. Try the pierogi or the golabki (cabbage rolls stuffed with pork and rice, accompanied by potatoes and vegetables).
Chao Phraya is popular with locals and visitors alike who rave about the papaya salad, dumplings with peanut sauce and other dishes from the lengthy menu. Dating back to 1988, it was one of Montreal’s first Thai restaurants.
Restaurant Damas is a treat for those who love Middle Eastern cuisine. You can opt for the tasting menu, which offers a “traditional Syrian gastronomy experience,” or order a la carte from menu items such as fattet makdous (eggplant stuffed with lamb) and moujaddara (braised lentils). There’s a full range of hot and cold mezze dishes as well.
Shopping in Montreal
Montreal is a shopper’s delight — especially if you’re in the market for haute couture, fine furs, or French pastries or wine. Many of the major boutiques and malls can be found downtown (both above- and underground), but there are intriguing streets and stores all over the city.
The historic Marche Bonsecours dates back to 1847 and today houses a number of boutiques offering local artisan goods such as jewelry, crafts and leather products. The building also hosts rotating exhibitions of contemporary arts and crafts. There are several restaurants and cafes here for shoppers who need a break.
Rue Ste-Catherine is the heart of the downtown shopping district, and the place to find big department stores and outposts of major international chains.
Two major areas to whip out your plastic include Rue Sherbrooke, which is known for its tony designer boutiques and gourmet restaurants, and Boulevard St-Laurent, whose shops, galleries and restaurants offer a more multicultural atmosphere. Another area worth seeking out is the funky Quartier Latin, anchored by Rue St-Denis, where you’ll find trendy fashions and a wealth of restaurants.
Don’t let bad weather keep you from hitting the shops — if it’s rainy or cold, just retreat into Montreal’s Underground City, where you’ll find passageways lined with more than 1,000 stores. Many aboveground shopping complexes and hotels connect to this massive network, and it’s accessible from a number of Metro stations as well. Maps of the Metro network and Underground City are available at most Metro stations.
Foodies won’t want to miss a visit to Atwater Market, where fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, cheese and pastries make a feast for all the senses. The market has been serving Montrealers since 1933. Jean-Talon is a sister market in the Little Italy section of the city.