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