Ten Things To Do In Montreal

by Gray Cargill on September 10, 2010

Horse and Carriage

Horse and Carriage in Old Montreal

Montreal is one of my favorite cities for many reasons. Let’s be honest: The first reason is that it’s the closest large city to where I live, which makes it easier for a weekend getaway than say, Boston or New York. The fact that Montreal residents are bilingual makes it a terrific international destination for the solo traveler. You’ll hear French spoken throughout Montreal (and you can practice yours if you like), but you don’t need to know the language to get around easily. Once people realize you can’t speak French, they easily switch to English.  There are many things I would recommend one do during a solo trip to Montreal, including:

1. Climb Mont Royal. How many cities have you been to that have a mountain in the middle of them? Okay, it’s a small mountain, but it doesn’t feel so small when you’re hiking to the top.  You can hike from the base to the top; drive to a parking lot, park your car, and hike the remainder of the way; or take the #11 bus from the Mont-Royal metro station.  However you get there, you will be rewarded with spectacular views of the city.  So bring your camera.  There is a lodge designed like a chalet with restrooms and a snack bar at the top.  Don’t feel nervous about hiking alone. If you go during the day (especially on the weekend), there are always plenty of other people around.  Be prepared for the weather.  I’ve been to the top of the mountain in extreme heat and on very cold, windy days, and neither is pleasant if you’re not dressed properly.

View from Mont Royal

View from Mont Royal

2.  Explore Old Montreal (Vieux-Montreal).  With its cobblestone streets and old stone buildings and churches, this is the part of the city where its history is most present.  The city is one of the oldest in North America, founded in 1642. It does tend to get a bit crowded with tourists, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.  Take a stroll down the length of St. Paul Street, stop to watch the street performers in Place Jacques Cartier, perhaps indulge in a horse-drawn carriage ride, stop at a cafe for some refreshment, and most of all: Enjoy the people-watching.

Place Jaques Cartier in Old Montreal

Place Jaques Cartier in Old Montreal

Manga People

You never know who you'll see on the streets of Montreal

3. Visit one of its old churches. Notre Dame Basilica is the most famous and obvious choice, of course, but sometimes it’s closed to the public for weddings.  If it is, don’t fret: You can go down the street to the Notre Dame de Bonsecours Chapel, the oldest chapel in Montreal, known as the “sailors church”, which is impressive in its own right.  Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys (1620-1700), the Canadian Church’s first woman saint, is interred here.  Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys founded the first school in Montreal and oversaw construction of the chapel. There is a museum attached to the chapel, and you can go up in the tower for great views of Old Montreal, and then down into the crypt.

Notre Dame Basilica

Notre Dame Basilica

View from the Tower

View from the Tower of the Notre Dame de Bonsecours Chapel

The Chapel Crypt

The Crypt (I swear I didn't notice the "no photography" sign until it was too late)

4.  Go shopping. If it’s above-ground shopping you want to enjoy, try St. Catherine Street. But you must also check out the Underground City. Montreal has 33 kilometers (about 20 miles) of interconnected, underground shopping malls.  Hotels and office buildings are also linked via the Underground, which you can reach via several metro stations–among them, Bonaventure, Peel, Place Des Arts, and McGill.  The Underground is open all year long, but is especially enjoyed during the deep-freeze of winter.

Place Desjardin Underground

Place Desjardin Underground

5.  Enjoy the food.  In all my trips to Montreal, I haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s available in this city for food.  But it’s fun to try.  There are restaurants for all budgets and tastes here.  Despite the popularity of things like smoked meat, poutine, and beaver tails, there are also some great and healthy vegetarian restaurants in the city, for instance Le Commensal veggie buffet and Pushap Indian restaurant.  There are many fine dining restaurants, though my budget hasn’t allowed me to sample nearly as many of those as I would like.

Lemeac

Lemeac

Lunch at Santropol

Lunch at Santropol

6. Visit one of the fresh markets.  There are several to choose from, and Atwater and Jean-Talon are open year-round.

Produce at Jean-Talon Market

Produce at Jean-Talon Market

7.  Spend a day at the Botanical Gardens (seasonal). This is a worthwhile outing best done during the summer.  There are lovely gardens here, including their Chinese and Japanese gardens and their rose garden.  (I was devastated when my camera broke during my last trip to the gardens and ruined all my pictures.) If you really want to make an evening of it, too, check out the Planetarium.

8.  Visit one of Montreal’s many museums. There’s the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and the Canadian Centre for Architecture, among others. I especially recommend the McCord Museum of Canadian History if you’d like to learn about the history of the country you are visiting–or more about your own country, if you’re Canadian.

9. Visit the Casino de Montreal.  This isn’t my favorite casino (Las Vegas has spoiled me too much), but it’s attractive and large and offers a few hours of entertainment if that’s what you’re looking for.   There are several floors of games (both slot machines and table games), though not as much variety in the machines as I would have liked to have seen.  There are also some nice restaurants here, and the buffet is quite good.

10. See a Cirque du Soleil show if one is available during your visit.  Montreal is the hometown of Cirque du Soleil, so it makes sense to see  a show on its home turf if you can.

Bonus tip:  Do take advantage of the metro (subway) to get around the city.  It’s perfectly safe and easy to figure out.

Jeff September 14, 2010 at 5:06 pm

Great tips. I just wrapped up my fifth Montreal solo over Labor Day weekend, and would like to add the World Film Festival to that list (Montreal has festivals going constantly). You can also rent the cute “Bixi” bikes with just a credit card swipe anywhere in the city. And my pick (so far) for a rarified club experience is Santos in Old Montreal, right on St. Paul. More fun with a pal, though . . . I was the only solo in the place!

Anonymous September 14, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Great tips! Thanks, Jeff!

Kelly Johnson September 14, 2010 at 12:08 am

I’d love to join a Tweetup next time you’re in town! Montrealer, born and raised here and I love it! Great article that does my city justice 🙂

Harjit September 14, 2010 at 1:19 pm

I’ve organized a successful photo walk in Montreal before. Started at Notre-Dame Cathedral, old port, Chinatown. Rue Sherbrooke, Rue St. Catherines, etc. Tweetup would be cool. Lets hook up. I’m @Hoorge on Twitter.

Anonymous September 14, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Sounds like we should plan a Montreal tweetup in the not-too-distant future!

Anonymous September 14, 2010 at 7:00 pm

I am going to start collecting names and emails for my next trip. Will be in touch. Thanks for the kind words!

Harjit September 13, 2010 at 1:10 pm

Chinatown is another location.
St. Joseph’s Oratory near Mont Royal is a must see.
Westmount is an a ritzy location or better know as the English Montreal. Houses here are a must see. Ex-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney lives here. If you do the Mont Royal scenic visit, you are right there. You hit Mont Royal, St. Joseph’s Oratory, and Westmont within minutes.
Another must see near there is the cemetery. It’s the largest cemetery in North America, and you won’t get the gist of it until you see it. Just amazing.
Head down to Lachine and stroll around the canal.
La Salle, good place for Indian stuff. Want to see multiculturalism, just drive heading East on Jean Talon starting from Decarie (Hwy 15). Indian, Italian, Lebanese, Greek, and other cultures and their businesses.
For shopping, the suggested Underground City is excellent. But, if you want a great massive Mall, drive up North to Laval and visit Carrefour Laval.
McGill University campus is a nice visit as well. Lots of history and fine architecture.
The touristy spots are nice and all and it’s good to see and say that you did it. But, if you truly want to see Montreal, explore out.
Alright, I’ll throw this out there too. Montreal is also known for it’s open culture, sex stores, and strip clubs. The ones on St. Catherine Street are touristyfied. If you need suggestions, I can provide them. If you didn’t know, the largest sex store / intimate store in North America is called Boutique Seduction and is located off of Highway 40 West (Ouest) and Highway 25.

By the way, I used to live in Montreal, before moving to Vermont. Therefore, my vast knowledge of the city.

Anonymous September 13, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Thanks for the thorough suggestions, Harjit. It’s true, you can keep busy in Montreal for a very long time exploring out away from the city center. And of course, there’s also La Ronde for the amusement park crowd. 🙂

Ayngelina September 12, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Highly recommend the contemporary art museum which always has really interesting exhibits.

Anonymous September 12, 2010 at 7:53 pm

I’ll bet. Haven’t made it there yet myself, but it’s on my list.

Lisa at Wanderlust Women September 12, 2010 at 1:43 pm

Loved your foto from the Mont. All good ideas and to the list I would add the light show at Notre Dame – it’s breathtaking and fills in the blanks on Montreal’s history.

Anonymous September 12, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Thanks, Lisa!

Earl September 12, 2010 at 4:52 am

Having grown up in Boston, my family used to take a trip to Montreal 1-2 times per year. It is such a great city, although I don’t think I’ve done half the things on your list! Plenty to do on my next visit…

Anonymous September 12, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Oh, hey, neighbor! There will always be plenty of things to do in Montreal.

Anonymous September 11, 2010 at 11:17 pm

You’re very welcome, Simon. I hope you get an opportunity to visit Canada soon!

Eurotrip Tips September 11, 2010 at 10:06 pm

Approved by a Montrealer! 😉

Great Top 10. Your selection is excellent for the first-timers. Plus, you chose sights in different neighbourhoods, which is a great way to explore the city.

Nice job!

Anonymous September 11, 2010 at 10:29 pm

Thanks, Marie-Eve, that means a lot to me coming from a Montrealer. I’m terribly sorry I didn’t set up a Tweetup when I was in Montreal recently so I could meet you. I was going to, but then time got away from me and it was too late once I was on my way to Canada. Hopefully, there will be another opportunity in the not-too-distant future.

Eurotrip Tips September 13, 2010 at 3:02 pm

I hope so too. 😉

Sabina September 11, 2010 at 12:36 pm

I love Montreal too. I didn’t realize the underground city is so massive! The street performers are the most unique and entertaining I have ever seen. And – unlike your recent Brooklyn post – your lunch at (at Santropal) actually looks good!

Anonymous September 11, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Hey–regardless of the way they looked, those sweet potato fries in Brooklyn were really good. 🙂 You should have been there on this trip, we saw a blues musician who was so good we couldn’t believe he was performing in the street.

Sabina September 12, 2010 at 1:42 pm

Hi, Gray. Actually, I was talking about that salad pizza you ate.

Anonymous September 12, 2010 at 7:56 pm

Oh, that wasn’t in Brooklyn, that was at Toasties in Manhattan. Yeah, it looked kinda weird, but trust me, it was fabulous! (You have to like veggies, though.)

Elizabeth September 11, 2010 at 2:19 am

I took a solo trip to Montreal 2 months ago. I did many of the things you suggest, including visiting the McCord Museum. There’s a Cirque du Soleil exhibit at the McCord with costumes, photos, and videos.

Anonymous September 11, 2010 at 2:32 pm

The McCord is really a worthwhile trip for many reasons.

I Feel Bad September 10, 2010 at 9:20 pm

I would like to see Montreal. Thanks for sharing this wonderful pictures with us.

Anonymous September 10, 2010 at 3:37 pm

I’d love to go somewhere French-speaking outside of France–Montreal is top of my list!

Anonymous September 11, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Knowing how much you like French things, Christine, I’m sure you’d love it.

Caroline Schafer September 10, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Thanks Gray for capturing Montreal’s essence in your article! There is so much to do there, even if you aren’t with anyone. Just sit in an outdoor cafe and watch people go by or go sit on the grass at the McGill campus and read a book!

Anonymous September 11, 2010 at 2:30 pm

Exactly, Caroline.

Anonymous September 10, 2010 at 1:08 pm

I think #10 is my number one reason to visit Montreal. What I’d like to do is visit the Cirque du Soleil training facilities, but can you actually do that?

Anonymous September 11, 2010 at 2:29 pm

Don’t know, I’ve never tried. I imagine you could if you asked. You probably could in Vegas too if you ask as a member of the media.

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