In 1535, when French explorer Jacques Cartier set foot on the river island that would become Montreal, its place as a major centre of Francophone language and culture was assured – even after the British took possession in 1760.
Today, French-Canadian joie de vivre and sophistication, mixed with a striking sense of collective creativity, plenty of gritty street art and the odd dash of student-fuelled mayhem, makes Montreal the Great White North’s undoubted cultural capital, as well as a hotspot for distinctive food, fashion and shopping. And of course, being in Canada, there’s also ample outdoor fun within easy reach.
Here’s a city guide to the top things to do in Montreal.
With its centuries-old architecture, cobblestone streets and horse-drawn carriages, Old Montreal, the city’s historic heart, is a living museum.
The highlight is Gothic Revival Notre-Dame Basilica, whose sky-blue ceiling glitters with gold stars, but other places worth stopping in on a heritage stroll include Pointe-à-Callière. Layers of Montreal’s rich history are revealed at this excellent archaeological site and museum.
A deeply conservative Catholic society for centuries, Montreal was transformed in the 1960s, and showed off its fresh, modern outlook by hosting the 1967 World’s Fair, and then the 1976 Olympics.
The striking geodesic dome that was Expo 67’s American pavilion (now the Biosphère environment museum) has become a symbol of Montreal, as is the Olympic Stadium. Take the funicular to the dramatically inclined torch tower’s tip for the best views in town.
For many Montrealers, the city’s culture begins and ends at another stadium, the Bell Centre, where their beloved Canadiens play.
Try to catch a game and feel the city’s ice-hockey-fuelled heart beat. It’s definitely one of the top things to do in Montreal.
Montreal is also crazy for festivals, especially in summer, when the world’s biggest jazz and comedy festivals take over. In this hometown for several circuses, including Cirque du Soleil, the Montreal Cirque Festival in July is also a must.
Summer days are long and nights are often balmy, so take advantage of thousands of free alfresco festival events, as well as the international fireworks competition when the best-of-the-best pyrotechnicians dazzle over several weeks.
Listen to a podcast of our tips for top things to do in Montreal:
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is a must-see, especially the collection of Inuit sculptures and Canadian landscapes by the pioneering Group of Seven. Or see the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal’s abstract paintings by Les Automatistes, who kick-started the city’s embrace of modernity.
The three big Montreal culinary specialities are poutine, smoked meat and bagels.
That’s right, bagels, which are so good they’re exported to New York. The premier source for these distinctively crisp, ever-so-slightly sweet hoops of deliciousness are the original Fairmount and St-Viateur shops, where you can watch bagels pulled straight from the oven, 24 hours a day.
Another gift from the Jewish community is smoked-meat sandwiches, best enjoyed at Schwartz’s deli. But the ultimate Montreal fast-food experience is poutine at La Banquise. Also open 24/7, it’s the global epicentre for this homegrown hot mess of French fries, cheese curds and gravy.
Fine dining options include one of Canada’s most celebrated French restaurants, Toqué!, under the stewardship of Chef Normand Laprise. Maison Boulud at the Ritz Carlton hotel is renowned for its elegant setting and service. In the warmer months rooftop wining and dining is de rigueur, though it often eludes visitors. Ask your concierge to call and book. My insider recommendation: Terrasse Nelligan, among Old Montreal’s heritage architecture.
Three-quarters of the world’s maple syrup is made nearby, and the March-April harvest tempts cityslickers en masse to the countryside’s cabanes à sucre, or sugar shacks, for a traditional feast with free-flowing maple. Sucrerie de la Montagne is among the most charming. It’s open all year round.
Anywhere, anytime, you can buy maple syrup in Montreal.
Délices Érable et Cie is dedicated to everything maple, from candy to tea. Le Marché des Saveurs du Québec also has an extensive maple range, and many other gourmet goodies from nearby regions, including ice cider, a divine dessert tipple similar to ice wine.
Downtown’s Rue Ste Catherine is one of North America’s top fashion destinations, hosting international brands including Victoria’s Secret, Zara and Sephora, as well as department stores: luxe Ogilvy, always-on-trend Simons, and The Bay, founded in 1670 as a fur-trading business.
This UNESCO City of Design’s more quirky and unique temptations tend to be found in the inner-city neighbourhoods of Mile End and the Plateau. Good bets are Avenue du Mont-Royal (discover stylish Montreal souvenirs at Artpop), Rue St Denis (Fluevog’s funky shoes) and Boulevard St Laurent (Eva B’s vintage clothing).
For top things to do in Montreal that will leave you feeling revitalised, pretty parks and green spaces abound.
Most notable is the Botanical Gardens, a vast, fascinating place well worth the entrance fee, especially during autumn’s stunning Chinese lantern display, Gardens of Light.
Mont Royal, the mini-mountain on downtown’s doorstep, is an easy option for picnics, winter sports, autumn colour and oh-so-close city views.
Hundreds of craft breweries thrive in and around Montreal. Possibly the favourite way for locals to relax is sampling the changing beer menus at a microbrewery, such as Dieu du Ciel!
If you prefer high-energy relaxation, La Ronde amusement park’s heart-pumping rides are one Métro stop from downtown, or take a short stroll from Old Montreal for the extremely wet and wild Lachine Rapids jet boat adventure.
Five tours we love
Old Montreal is the oldest section of the city and a tapestry of remnants from different eras. This 1.5-hour walking tour will give you a broad introduction to the area. See where it all begin in the all-but-forgotten Place Royale. You’ll take a stroll down bustling Place Jacques-Cartier and see many local artists selling their works. Explore rue de la Commune – home to innovative eateries, hip cafes and pumping bars. Pick up plenty of restaurant tips along the way.
Montreal has a decidedly sweet tooth and a long history of fine chocolate making, and you’ll meet the most passionate chocolatiers on this 4.5-hour walking tour. Learn about chocolate production from every conceivable angle and era – and taste-test many of the city’s sweetest delights.
You’ll soon discover that Montreal is all about art. It’s everywhere. So join a 2-hour street art tour along Saint Laurent Boulevard and learn more about the city’s most prolific street artists and their work. You’ll also get to sample some tasty street-food morsels along the way.
We told you the bagels are good. Now munch your way through Montreal on the Beyond the Bagel walking tour. Explore the city’s Jewish culture and heritage in the neighbourhoods of Mile End and the Plateau, and enjoy tastings of some of the best bagels in town.
This walking tour takes you to a number of eclectic brew houses and bars in and around the Old Port. Enjoy no less than eight craft beer samplers, one whiskey and three delicious bar snacks as you explore this fascinating part of the city.
Do you have any tips for top things to do in Montreal? We would love to hear from you. Please send us a message.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Patricia Maunder has been a media professional for 20+ years, working in print, online and radio for outlets such as The Age, Montreal Gazette and ABC. Currently based in Melbourne, she considers Montreal her ‘other’ hometown after living there from 2012 to 2016. Patricia has travelled in every continent except the one that’s beckoned since she was a child – Antarctica. A travel writer as well as an arts journalist, she enjoys culturally themed journeys such as Barcelona’s Art Nouveau architecture and Jordan’s ancient ruins, as well as nature-based adventures, from polar bear spotting in northern Canada to hiking Peru’s Inca Trail. Patricia loves action-packed itineraries, but is also right at home relaxing over cocktails in cool bars and afternoon tea at grand hotels.