Editor’s Note: Viator recently held a contest to “Win Your Dream Travel Job” where we selected 4 finalists to travel the world shooting video. For 60 days, these teams traveled and filmed in some of the world’s top destinations, documenting their experiences along the way. Go here to read more about their Montreal adventures!
Considered to be “Canada’s Cultural Capital” and one of the world’s most livable cities, Montreal isn’t your typical North American city. With a huge French-Canadian population, a devotion to good food and drink, and a busy arts scene, Montreal is often considered to be very European. What you’ll find, however, is that Montreal is uniquely itself: no labels can be placed, because Montreal is purely Montreal.
To understand the city’s joie de vivre, you’ll simply have to come see it for yourself. Here’s our insider’s guide to Montreal.
Where to stay
Montreal is a very walkable city, and if you pick the right location, you won’t need to go far to reach most popular areas in the city. Consider staying in the Le Plateau Mont-Royal area, especially around St-Denis and St-Laurent (or Sherbrooke East). From here you have immediate access to some amazing nightlife and food action, and you’re only a 25-minute walk from Vieux-Montreal (the Old Port).
Otherwise, the downtown core of Montreal (Montreal Centre-Ville) is another ideal location. While it’s a bit further from the Old Port and centered on the more business side of town, you’re still mostly within walking distance to big attractions (or at least a cheap cab ride away).
What to do
Take advantage of the summer season, when restaurants and pubs open their terasses (outdoor decks) to the public and every week is a new festival. Montreal transforms when the summer season hits!
If you want an idea of how they party scene works, head over to Piknic Electronik in Jean Drapeau Parc. DJs spin here every Sunday from 3PM-9PM, and it’s mandatory for party-goers to bring meals to accompany their wine or beer. Warning: you WILL be persuaded to dance!
For the ultimate view of the city, skip the costly fee for the cable ride to the top of the Olympic Tower, and hike Mount Royal instead. Alternatively, grab a martini at the posh Altitude737 from atop one of the city’s highest buildings.
While renting one of the famous Bixi bikes is definitely a good idea for exploring, get out there on foot as well. Explore the bustling streets of Saint Catherine (and The Village), St-Denis, and St-Laurent. Wander through neighborhoods to find some of the city’s oldest and most distinct stone homes and apartments, often with colorful doors and trim. They make great photo opps!
But winter the city is not to be overlooked, either. Check out the city’s famous winter festival, the Fête des neiges de Montréal. For more partying opportunities, join the traditional Nuit Blanche a Montreal. Rent snowshoes at Jean Drapeau Park and beat down some snowy trails, or go outdoor skating on Beaver Pond at Mount Royal.
Eating and drinking
Food and drink are at the heart of the Montreal experience, and your dining options are limitless. Certainly hit up the most famous places: Schwartz’s for their smoked meat sandwiches, La Banquisse for their legendary poutine, or Fairmount for their Montreal bagels.
Other than those locations, try whatever tickles your fancy. The streets of St-Denis and St-Laurent are lined with restaurants and fast food joints, and most of them are very affordable. You can buy a great poutine for $6 at Poutine En Folie.
Don’t overlook the neighborhoods either, like Chinatown, Little Italy, or Little Portugal. And if you want fresh eats, head over to Atwater Market or Jean-Talon Market.
For drinking options, on St-Denis hit up La Distillerie for mason jars filled with inventive drinks, or Saint Sulpice for its massive outdoor beer garden. Le Saint Bock is an excellent brewpub, and its nachos are out of this world.
St-Laurent has some higher-end clubbing and dining scenes, like Big in Japan and Cafe Melies. But you’ll also find incredibly cheap grub, like $6 burgers and $3 beers at Patati Patata, and cheap jugs of beer at Bifteck.
“Apportez votre vin” means “bring your own wine.” Many restaurants accept this tradition: you just have to look for the sign, or call ahead. It’s a great way to save money if you’re on a tight budget!
Quebecers have their own way of doing things, and although they’re inherently Canadian, the culture here can be much different from other provinces. Here are some things to keep in mind before you come:
60% of the province speaks French. This doesn’t mean you can’t get by with English – Montreal is extremely bilingual, and if a waitress addresses you in French, don’t hesitate to respond in English. He or she will switch to English immediately, with a flawless accent.
If you’re driving, it’s important to know beforehand that all signs are in French (this shouldn’t be too much of a problem if you at least know the basics). Similarly, you can’t turn right on a red light. Be cautious!
French-Canadians do the “double-cheek” kiss. It’s extremely endearing, even if it takes you a few days to get used to it. We suggest putting aside personal space issues and welcoming this friendly greeting.
The best free thing to do: If you’re around Montreal on a Sunday afternoon, you cannot pass up the opportunity to participate in TamTams at Parc du Mont-Royal. This drum circle gathers here each week for an improv music-making session around the George-Étienne-Cartier monument. Initially you might think it’s a hippie fest: vendors spread their wares on blankets around the drummers, the smell of marijuana floats thick in the air, and everyone (quite literally) marches to the beat of their own drum.
But you’ll also find hundreds of Montrealers here sprawled out on blankets, having picnics, and drinking wine or sangria…simply soaking up the day and enjoying the amazing summer weather. When in Montreal, do as the Montrealers do.
If you only have one day: Get to know Vieux-Montreal: its cobblestone streets, historical buildings with stone facades, looming churches (like the Notre Dame Basilica) and rooftop restaurants/bars are out of this world. Wander between alleyways and check out some local art in action at Rue Des Artistes, or venture into one of the many art galleries or shop. There’s even a busy Christmas store!
When the sun sets, head to the top of Taverne Gaspar for the best views of the city, including the St. Lawrence River and the Town Hall all lit up in its glory.
The best thing to eat: We hate to sound so terribly cliché, but poutine really is one Quebec’s main attractions, and Montreal is no exception. Squeaky cheese curds and crisp fries covered in poutine sauce? Yes, please! Eat it whenever you can, and often.