Montreal is the largest city in Quebec province and the second-largest city in Canada. This northern city is full of amazing attractions and easy to be explored on foot, on a bike, or on the upper deck of London-style Hop-on Hop-off buses.
Montreal has a very European feel and unique among other North American cities. The city is called “Paris of Canada” for its love for festivals, street art, good food, and enjoying life to the hilt.
The streets are alive and buzzing with French and English conversations. People sit and relax at many cafes and restaurants. There are several universities in Montreal with students from Canada, the United States, and Europe. All that just adds to the city’s vibe and its multicultural atmosphere.
Even Montreal is a big and cosmopolitan city and yet it is made for people. In summer there are lots of green areas and small parks where residents can relax, walk around, ride a bike, or make a picnic. It’s safe and you can walk and get a different experience at every street and corner. People enjoy staying late dining out, partying or just simply cycling with the family through the streets.
Montreal is one of my favorite cities in North America. We lived there for two short years. But it always has a special place in my heart. It is unique, it is special, it is charming and it’s a heaven for foodies. People of Montreal definitely know how to have a good time and approach most things they do with French chic and spontaneity.
In this post I want to share my experience of how to discover Montreal and 7 best things to do in this city:
1. Wander around Old Montreal & Old Port
Start your visit by exploring the oldest part of Montreal – Old Montreal (Vieux-Montreal).
Walk along St. Paul Street for that old European charm. It’s a pure pleasure to walk the cobblestone streets dated back to the 17th century. The old limestone buildings bring a lot of flavor to this area. Don’t miss to stop at the unique place called Bonsecours Market or Marche Bonsecours for locals. If you go inside, you’ll find it an ideal place for shopping for gifts and souvenirs.
The most popular part of Old Montreal is the area called Old Port (Vieux-Port de Montreal). It was established around 1611 as a trading post among French fur traders who ventured into the wilderness of the region.
Today, the Old Port stretches 2 km along the shores of the St. Lawrence River and one of the most popular places with tourists and locals. The pedestrian street Place Jacques-Cartier comes to life especially during the summer months, when restaurant’s terraces stay open until very late, and when many street performers keep visitors entertained.
The Old Port was re-developed in the 1990s to make it more attractive to tourists and locals. According to the statistics, the impressive six million tourists visit this area each year. One of the best things you can do is to stroll along the riverfront on foot or cycling on the bike with Segway rentals available everywhere. Also, there is a giant IMAX theater and the Montreal Science Center.
There are so many events, festivals and shows happen in the Old Port. Each season brings something new and different to the calendar. But I want to mention the most popular events: the annual outdoor music festival, the famous Montreal’s Festival of Lights, the Matsuri Japan festival and in the winter Igloo fest which draws tens of thousands.
2. Notre-Dame Basilica
Notre-Dame Basilica is one of Montreal’s oldest buildings and it’s a short walk from picturesque St. Paul Street. The Basilica was built in an impressive Gothic Revival style, standing 200 feet high.
This beautiful building is one of my favorites. I always feel overwhelmed by its architectural beauty and grand, colorful interiors. The deep blue ceiling is dotted with golden stars. The stained glass windows show scenes from the city’s religious history. Hundreds of rare wood carvings grace the interior. The whole interior is a blast of colors in blues, reds, silver, and azure.
If you want to get inside you have to pay an admission fee around $6.00, unless you want to attend a Catholic mass. Even Notre-Dame is a religious place, it has an active calendar for cultural events, with regular concerts and light shows being held throughout the year. It was also the setting of Celine Dion’s wedding to Rene Angelil.
3. Mary Queen of the World Cathedral
If you are like me and fascinated by the architecture, you should visit the magnificent Mary Queen of the World Cathedral. You can find this beautifully ornate church right in downtown Montreal.
The story behind its facade that the original building of Saint-Jacques Cathedral was burned to the ground in 1862. The new church was built in the same place and it was modeled after St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Mary Queen Cathedral is the third largest cathedral in Quebec.
Go inside and you will be fascinated with the paintings depicting early Montreal history. Don’t forget to stop and enjoy a few minutes of looking at the church baldachin covering the altar and the bishop’s mortuary chapel. Also, take note of the texts written in golden letters that decorate the inside of the cathedral.
4. Mount Royal Park (Parc du Mont-Royal)
I’m always a huge fan of looking at the city from above and Montreal has some great points to admire its beauty. One of the Mount Royal (Mont-Royal) is a small mountain in the middle of the city. Montreal’s spectacular Mount Royal Park offers one of the best views of the city below.
The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted – an architect of New York’s Central Park and offers acres of green space and different outdoor activities in the middle of the bustling city. It’s one of the best getaways from the hustle and bustle of the big city.
I would recommend driving to the top of the mountain to see the entire city stretched out below or you may walk to the top through one of the many trails. However, you can climb on top of Mount Royal by using steep wooden stairs that start at the base of the park.
When you reach the top, you will find the beautiful observation place with a historical Smith House on the background. It was built in 1858 and considered the last standing example of rural architecture of that period.
5. St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal (Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Montreal)
While in Montreal you might notice a big, green, round roof of the building standing tall in the city skyline. It belongs to St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal and the largest church in Canada.
The green dome of the Oratory was modeled after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and is the second highest in the world. The Basilica was built on the top of the hill with long rows of steps and amazing views of the city. The whole complex of landscape and architecture reminds me of the famous Sacre-Coeur Basilica in Paris.
There are a few interesting facts behind St. Joseph’s Oratory Basilica. According to the legend, “Brother Andre” was known to perform miraculous healing on the sick and injured. He built a small chapel on the slopes of Mont-Royal and dedicated it to Saint Joseph.
But with time it became very crowded and the demand for prayer space had grown. So, a larger church was built in 1917, and then expanded and completed in 1967. It hosts over 2 million visitors each year, many of whom come looking for healing.
If you want to explore the Basilica, visit a small original chapel, the gardens, the museum with religious and artistic exhibits. In summer I like to take a stroll through the basilica’s gardens. It showcases wide lawns and colorful flower beds.
6. Jean-Talon Market (Marche Jean-Talon)
One of the oldest public markets in Montreal is the Jean-Talon Market. It’s a heaven for foodies and one of my favorite places to visit on Sunday morning. The market is open throughout the year. Its busiest time in the summer and fall where up to 300 vendors from the city countryside come to display their fresh produce. No cars are allowed in the market streets over summer weekends. So, it will be easier to use public transportation, Uber or taxicab.
The market reminds me of a little village. Some merchants continue generations of market sellers. It’s very popular among locals and tourists. You can find all kinds of local fruits and vegetables, spices, oils, cheese, meat, fish and baked goods.
If you are at Jean-Talon Market don’t forget to visit the Premiere Moisson shop. Everyone loves it. It’s a bakery that makes bread, desserts, and sandwiches. It’s not a restaurant, but if you want to stop for a sandwich, dessert and coffee there is no better place. A very “French” experience. We love it. You can buy an amazing variety of pates, terrines and artisan bread.
If you are looking to appreciate the flavors of Jean-Talon Market, you should consider the Food Tour Of Montreal’s Little Italy including the Jean-Talon Market:
7. Shopping on St. Catherine Street
You cannot leave Montreal without visiting its main shopping hub – St. Catherine Street. This street is long and crosses the Montreal’s downtown from east to west. You can walk it for hours and find the local boutiques, high-end designers, chain department stores and small souvenir shops. There are plenty of restaurants, cafes, and bars along the street. In summer you can enjoy the drinks and meals outdoors while the street breaks into small and big patios on every corner.
Keep walking towards St Catherine West until you find Place-des-Arts. Recently renovated and expanded this place is a major cultural venue of the city. The city hosts numerous festivals each year and the most famous one is Jazz Festival. The admission to many attractions is free, so more people can enjoy the festivities.
Montreal is famous for its excellent restaurants that serve national and ethnic food. If you are a tourist, it’s easy to find a decent place to eat within a walking distance. The city is full of French bistros, patisseries, pubs, hipster bars, and fancy restaurants. On a sunny afternoon, terraced cafes and outdoor restaurants are filled with locals and tourists lounging in groups.
I would recommend to take one of Montreal popular food tours if you want to taste the delicious diversity of this city:
I would recommend visiting Montreal between mid-June and mid-October while the weather is decent for traveling and enjoying the outdoor activities. Montreal has 4 seasons with the height of summer being warm, sunny and hot. Winter months are cold and long here with several large snowstorms with a foot or more of snow on the ground.
If you are trying to escape a cold day outside, you would be happy to learn that Montreal is home to the largest “underground city” in the world. It sounds scary, but the underground city is one of Canada’s busiest shopping areas. You can access the network of underground paths and tunnels from the street, subway stations, and even major hotels. It will directly connect you to shopping centers, office and public buildings, night clubs, a movie theater, and many cafes and restaurants.
Other places to visit:
Museum of Fine Arts (Musee Des Beaux-Arts)
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is one of the prominent in the world and welcomes over 1 million visitors every year. It was founded in 1860 and made of three pavilions featuring the art from around the world.
Botanical Gardens (Jardin Botanique de Montreal)
Montreal Botanical Gardens is considered one of the most important botanical gardens in the world. It dates to 1931 and has a 200-acre collection of gardens and greenhouses. Each garden has a theme and there are flowers and plants from all around the globe.
Montreal Olympic Park (Parc Olympique)
Parc Olympique was built for the 1976 Olympic Games. It cost over $1.4 billion to build but was not completed until the 1980s. It was the subject of much frustration for many Montreal residents. However, it is a popular tourist attraction and offers visitors to view exhibitions and participate in many types of activities.
Have fun visiting and discovering Montreal!
Have you been to Montreal? If yes, did you enjoy it? If not, would you like to visit it?