The City of Montreal has a mystique that is especially alluring to Americans. Maybe it’s the well-preserved Old City with historic buildings, cobblestone streets and charming businesses that reminds us of a more easily accessible European experience. It does help that vibe when nearly everyone speaks French in Montreal, and when they speak English it is with a delightful accent. Regardless, this Canadian melting pot seems to be on everyone’s hot list, and here are our top reasons to visit Montreal right now.
Top Reasons to Visit Montreal
Aside from its ridiculous charm, gorgeous cityscapes, incredible food and friendly residents, the city of Montreal has an appeal unlike any other city in North America. The city is an island, or a series of them actually, bounded by the St. Lawrence and Prairies Rivers. This separation from the Canadian mainland may give Montreal its whiff of “otherness”, which leads to a wonderfully quirky character that values art, design and simple beauty in all things.
As recent visitors, we walked the clean and safe streets in constant amazement at how smartly designed everything seems to be. From an American perspective, it made me envious of the people that live here. It also left me wondering about affordable real estate and cost of living and if we could swing a French-Canadian pied-a-terre.
Honestly, we were more than a little surprised at how much we liked it here. We’d heard many good things, and our expectations were surpassed. Here are some of our top reasons to visit Montreal right now:
- It’s a great alternative to Europe.
- The food scene is insane.
- The city lives and breathes art.
- The weather is totally doable.
- The destination is easily accessible.
1. It’s a Great Alternative to Europe
Want a European experience without the hefty price tag of airfare or the long distance jet lag? Montreal felt like a welcoming alternative – emphasis on the welcoming part. When some say Paris can feel a little off-putting to Americans, Montreal leans forward with a friendly smile and a double-cheeked kiss.
As one of Canada’s largest cities, the greater Montreal metro area is home to more than 4 million people. Even so, residents live comfortably in a variety of neighborhoods, from historic to high-rise to suburban. Located in Canada’s Québec province, the city is centered around Mt. Royal, which gives Montreal its name.
The French influence here is strong, but the locals are quick to note their extreme independence from France. In reality, their language is a different variation that my American ears could not detect but is quite evident when you hear the two dialects spoken together. It seems the French migration from Europe began in the mid 1600s, and French rule continued until 1760. The city was known as a strong trading center, and the gateway to the interior of Canada due to its role as a port city.
Independent and proudly Canadian, the City of Montreal has found a happy medium between its French roots and its modern personality.
Things that Will Make You Feel Like You Are in Europe
Cobblestone Streets in the Old City
In the original neighborhood where modern-day Montreal was born, the streets are still paved with individual stones that harken back to European roots.
Notre Dame Cathredral
Central to the Old City, the cathedral spires soars high and the stone walls with ornate stained glass windows. This feel like so many European masterpieces.
The mix of buildings from the 1600s with modern sleek skyscrapers. The successful blend is much better displayed than in many large European cities.
Montreal is famous for a specific dish – poutine. But the city is a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities and customs that make for a rich tapestry of tasty dining options.
Sophisticated Transit System
The underground Metro runs throughout the city and burbs. In addition, several other forms of transportation connect across the metropolitan grid to make everything easily accessible.
While there are plenty of sunny days, even during the warm summer here you might be caught in a downpour. Umbrellas are commonplace all year around.
2. The Food Scene is Insane
Let’s get poutine out of the way since it seems to be very polarizing. I love it. Some do not. Poutine is a uniquely Montrealian dish made from french fries, cheese curds and gravy. So delicious! It can be topped with additional things like bacon (yum) crunchy fried onions, steak, mushrooms, sausages and more. It ranks as one of the top reasons to visit Montreal right now. Really at any time.
Having said that, poutine is not for everyone. Good thing Montreal is a foodie capital with a plethora of restaurants for any taste and budget. Here are some of the places we sampled that were so good they blew our minds.
Recently opened to rave reviews, the stunning spaces at Hiatus are positioned at the top of a skyscraper. With 360-degree views of the city, this is a special place to visit in Montreal. The cuisine here is elevated too, and we had some of our tastiest dishes here such as an interesting dish called Chawanmushi made with scallops, lardons, mushrooms, asparagus and more. The pork and halibut entrees were also delicious. This place is a must – if not for the sweeping views alone.
Jellyfish Crudo & Charcoal
This was our favorite dining experience in Montreal, because of the quality combination of innovative cuisine and a lively, welcoming atmosphere. We took our time to savor the dishes we ordered at Jellyfish, including the tuna crudo and the avocado carpaccio appetizers. For the main course, we raved over the rotelle with oxtail ragu, parmesan and bone marrow.
Baked Goods at Olive & Gourmando
We are suckers for a good bakery, and Olive & Gourmando is an excellent one. Simple and very casual, guests can order at the counter and munch on a croissant to go. Or you can wait for a table and enjoy a variety of breakfast choices. I inhaled my Peach French Toast with creme anglaise and nut crumble, which was the perfect balance of not-too-sweet flavors.
Vegan at Tendresse
This restaurant was recommended to us, and we are glad it was. Although we don’t normally choose vegan options, our palates responded welcomingly to the interesting flavors and textures at Tendresse. The vegetable dumplings with chili oil and peanut sauce and the potato millefeuille with sunflower cream, pan-fried beans andmushroom duxelle were particularly tasty.
We saved this restaurant for our last night, and it was the perfect way to end a fabulous visit to Montreal. Damas serves Syrian specialty dishes in elegant rooms decorated in warm red colors and lanterns reminiscent of the Middle East. The food is over-the-top delicious, and potions are enormous. We could have shared the Fattet Mozat (lamb shank, rice, tahini yogurt sauce, crispy pita, pistachios, cashews, and ghee) but I gobbled it all myself.
3. The City Lives and Breathes Art
This is a creative city deeply invested in displaying their talents in all sorts of interesting ways. It is the founding headquarters of Cirque du Soleil, and those incredibly creative minds have spurred a bevy of artistic endeavors. Art is all forms is highly regarded in Montreal, and the locals are very proud of this rich devotion as it is displayed across the city. This is yet another of our top reasons to visit Montreal right now.
A relatively new addition to Montreal’s streetscape is The Ring, hanging between two buildings in the downtown core. Meant by its creator to symbolize the continuous connection of Montreal with its residents and visitors, The Ring is an enormous, measuring nearly 100 feet in diameter and weighing 50,000 pounds. Gleaming in the day, it is illuminated at night in an array of colors. It’s a must-see.
Here are some ways to enjoy art in Montreal:
Take a Walking Tour
When in Montreal, you can take a walking tour to enjoy plenty of public art throughout the city. Our very knowledgeable and entertaining tour guide René Lemieux led us across the city at a brisk pace, covering history, art, literature, food and local customs along the way. We saw parts of Montreal we would have never known to explore, and even took a dip below the streets to explore the city’s famous underground pedestrian walkways. From the Golden Mile and the shops of Sainte Catherine’s to the colorful Village, the walking tour helped us get our bearings.
Murals For Days
Montreal may be the city that embraced street murals first. If not, it has certainly become synonymous with the streetscape here. Literally everywhere you go, on nearly every block, walls are adorned with stunning artistic creations. They range in style and size – from one to nine stories high! There are too many to list, but you can take a tour of them here with Spade & Palacio.
Visit the Notre Dame Cathedral
During the day, this 17th-century French-inspired Gothic-revival cathedral is impressive in size and stature. At night, the inside comes alive with a special light show set to music. This show is called Aura and is a breathtaking avalanche of moving light, images, colors and shapes set to music. If you plan to see the show, reserve tickets well in advance because the best times sell out quickly.
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
The Montreal is home to more than 40 museums and we had time to visit one of the best. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was showing a variety of art exhibitions including one dedicated to indigenous Columbia. We also enjoyed many of their other collections on display, so make sure you wander around a bit. The museum campus actually incorporates several other buildings on this block, so leave time to walk across the street to see more.
There are a dizzying number of visual and performing arts festivals throughout Montreal and across all seasons. Whether it’s circus acts or sports, music or ice festivals, there are things going on nearly every day of the week. Although there are too many to list here, the Montreal Tourism website has a number of helpful links and a calendar to find options that match your taste and timeframe.
4. Weather Schmeather
There are reasons to visit Montreal right now if you want to avoid winter weather. Right now, the temperature is what we call “Autumn Chilly”, where locals and visitors bundle up in their warm Fall sweaters and boots. Snowflakes may have fallen but nothing serious. In the summer when we visited, days were warm and even a little humid. We wore shorts and did not need sweatshirts during the day, and jeans at night when the weather dipped below 70-degrees F. It was very pleasant and comfortable.
As the days grow shorter and the air gets colder, Montreal can reach staggeringly low temperatures in the winter. It’s not uncommon for snow and ice conditions to bring temps down to as low as minus 20 degrees F or more. Locals are prepared for this, and even welcome it. Lakes, ponds and rivers freeze over to allow for winter activities like skating and ice fishing. A network of underground tunnels burrows beneath the downtown neighborhoods for some 20 miles of paths. If you don’t want to walk the streets of Montreal in the winter, you can go from passage to passage without ever hitting the cold air. Shops and cafes line these tunnels, which connect to the metro and other major transportation hubs.
5. Easy to Get To, Easy to Get Around
One of the things we loved most about Montreal is how easy it is to get around. Infinitely walkable in good weather, the city is at your footsteps if you feel the desire to explore. The Metro is also an easy hop from one station to another, and the city is well-routed for public transit above and below ground.
There is also a whopping 20 miles of underground pedestrian walkways for people to traverse the city center when weather is rough. We had the opportunity to tour a length of these tunnels, and they are clean, well-lit, efficient and full of life and character. Think of these as an underground mall of sorts, lined with shops, restaurants and underground entrances to the businesses and residences above. Very good idea.
We flew direct from San Diego to Montreal in just over five hours, and the fare was very reasonable. In fact, Montreal’s Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport is within close proximity to the city center and offers flights from about 30 different carriers. A major hub for Canada, the airport has direct flights to many destinations in the US, Europe and more.
Hotels are plentiful and we enjoyed the central location of the Warwick Le Crystal Hotel.
For More Information About Travel to Montreal
To access tons of information about visiting Montreal, go to Tourisme Montreal for all the details.