1. Eat like a Local
Eating is an important aspect of any visit to Montreal. French Canadian food ranges from hearty and unaffected to gourmet. Try to get a sampling from as wide a range as possible, which will be friendly to your tastebuds and pocket book.
For example, visiting a fresh-food public market is a great way to mingle with Montrealers and eat local foods without spending a lot of money. Have lunch or breakfast at the market and pick up some food for later.
The biggest, most popular public markets are the Jean Talon, Atwater (especially known for its extensive flowers and greenery), Maissoneuve, and Lachine. All of these Montreal markets offer fine foods and related products and have a bakery or other places to eat. They are open year-round every day of the week except for certain holidays.
In addition to these four major markets, there is an abundance of seasonal neighbourhood markets and metro station markets.
See a full listing of Montreal public markets, including directions and hours.
Montreal is probably most famous for its smoked meat sandwiches and bagels - both culinary derivatives from the Montreal's Jewish population. For smoked meat, try Schwartz's Deli, which has been around since 1928, but be prepared for a wait no matter what time of day you're there.
Montreal bagels are smaller, denser and less bready than New York style bagels. St. Viateur's is the place to go in Montreal to sample bagels made the traditional way - boiled, then baked in a wood-fired oven. Check out the pictures of celebrities who have visited the shop as you wait for your order.
A traditional Montreal breakfast is a good, inexpensive way to sample French Canadian food. La Binerie on Mont Royal serves hearty fare like baked beans, créton (fatty pork spread seasoned with onions, cloves and maybe cinnamon, nutmeg or garlic), tourtiere and other high-fat, high protein foods that will fuel your day. Diner decor and a friendly owner complete the experience.
2. Visit a Montreal Museum
Montreal museums include those that focus on the city's history to those that showcase art, bugs, the solar system and more.
Save money with the Montreal Museums Pass if you are planning to visit several Montreal museums.
Visit 30 or so participating Montreal museums free of charge on Montreal Museums Day held annually at the end of May.
3. Get Festive at a Montreal Festival
Montreal Festivals go on year-round, but summer is especially festival season. Some of the bigger festivals include:
- Fête des neiges is an outdoor winter festival held over three consecutive weekends at the end of January/beginning of February in Parc Jean-Drapeau.
- The Montreal Highlights Festival celebrates with fine food, fireworks and the Montreal All-Nighter, also known as Nuit Blanche, which is part of this urban festival held every February.
- The Montreal Beer Festival gets the summer started in early June.
- The Montreal Jazz Festival, held every June/July, offers about 500 concerts, of which three-quarters are free of charge, and hosts about 2000 musicians from over 20 countries.
- The Montreal Divers/Cite Festival is one of Canada's largest and most jubilant gay celebrations, held in Montreal every July.
- Just For Laughs Comedy Festival, held every July, has grown in popularity and reputation and today features some of the world's greatest comedians and has spawned a television show that is broadcast internationally.
4. Take Advantage of BIXI Bike Rental
The BIXI Bike rental network in Montreal is truly progressive in Canada. BIXI docking stations are located throughout Montreal, which is a city with a well developed bike path system. You can pick up or drop off a BIXI bike at any one of the BIXI stations when they are in operation from May to November.
BIXI rental is more affordable for short distances. The maximum rental period is 24 hours, so if you are looking for a longer term bike rental, consider a private bike rental shop.
BIXI rental payment is done using your credit card at the docking station, kind of like a parking meter, or subscribing ahead of time online. Note that a deposit fee will be applied to your credit card for each bike rental.
Once you pay a flat fee for either a one-time rental or yearly membership, you pay for the length of time you use the bike after an initial free 30 mins. A two-hour BIXI rental costs $10.50, with each additional half hour costing another $6 (so a three-hour rental would be $22.50, four hours $34.50 etc., as of 2011).
Be sure to read our reader comments from people who have used BIXI. There's a range of opinions on whether the service is worth it. These responses may help inform your own choice.
5. Get a View of Montreal from Mont Royal Summit
Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Empire State Building in New York City, Mount Royal (Mont Royal - pronounced mawn-row-yal in French) and in particular, the Mont Royal Cross, acts as a natural landmark and way to orient yourself in Montreal.
Hike, bike, drive or take a bus to the top of Mont Royal and enjoy the great view and park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, famous for his work on Central Park in NYC. Mont Royal Park includes a small, man-made lake, playground, lookouts, and walking paths. Access to the park without a car is free.
6. Drink in the Sights from a Montreal Patio
Montreal - in all its European-ness - has many a patio on which to wile away an afternoon. Sometimes the best ones are those you just stumble across when you're thirsty, but if you want to set your patio destination, try the following:
- Some of the nicest are on rooftops in Old Montreal, where you can enjoy a view of the St. Lawrence River and Old Port. Try Hotel Nelligan or Le St. Sulpice or pop your head into any hotel or restaurant and ask if they have a patio - they are often hidden.
- Touristy, yes, but Le Jardin Nelson is big on ambiance. This multi-tiered, lush patio is in Place Jacques-Cartier adjacent to the Old Port. It is open rain or shine thanks to its great awnings and parasols.
- Splurge on a drink at the Ritz Carlton's Le Jardin complete with duck pond.
- Many pubs across the city have outdoor seating areas, including the Le Sainte-Elisabeth, which has a charming terrace steps away from Sainte Catherine Street.
- See our Top 10 Montreal Terraces
7. Stroll Old Montreal
Once a fortified city, Old Montreal is today a safe and vibrant community of hotels, restaurants, boutiques, rich in 17th & 18th history and charm - truly unique in North America.
Old Montreal is best explored on foot. The historic charm of this Montreal neighbourhood is best appreciated at a leisurely pace and allowing for frequent stops. However, if narrow, hard-to-navigate cobblestone roads and limited parking aren't enough to dissuade you from bringing a car, check this map of Old Montreal parking (PDF).
One of the first things you will notice in Montreal is how fashionable the people are. Tap into Montreal's fashion scene by shopping where the locals shop.
- Simons - look for the green awning of this budget friendly department store that has trendy clothing and houseware.
- The Underground City is a network of underground paths connecting shopping malls, metro stations, cinemas, food courts and more. Especially for inclement weather, including those bitterly cold Montreal winters, the Underground City is a comfortable way to shop. Look for the RÉSO signs for underground entrances.
- Old Montreal - this gorgeous, historic neighbourhood is a bit trinkety and overpriced as far as shopping goes, but their are many fine art galleries. And souvenirs, such as maple syrup t-shirts, fleur de lis may be nice items as gifts or to bring home; it's just too bad every other shop sells the same thing. Wander up to Place Jacques-Cartier's Artist's Way to peruse original art - but do lots of comparison shopping before you buy.
- St. Catherine, Montreal's main shopping strip, has all the familiar big brand name stores (Mexx, Gap, Roots, H&M) and department stores, from Simons to upscale Ogilvy's.
- Try the Plateau and Mile End neighbourhoods for independent boutiques, vintage shops and just overall artsier wares. Fun, trendy, young Montreal areas with more than just great shopping. If nothing else, simply take a walk down Saint-Denis Street and over to Saint-Laurent Boulevard (not too far from Parc Jean Mance), two streets that boast hundreds of great restaurants, boutiques, and shops, populated by hundreds of well dressed beautiful people.
9. Grab a Drum and Head to the Tam Tams
Tam Tams is an outdoor drum jam on Sunday afternoons that is much more exhilarating than it may sound. Begun weather permitting, from about May - October at the east base of Mont Royal, around the monument to Sir George-Étienne Cartier (the angel statue). Actually, you don't even have to grab your drum. Most people are there as spectators and everyone is welcome to this free event. The fun and funk is in full swing by about 2 pm.
For more information, including directions and photos, see Guide to Tam Tams
10. Take a Guided Tour of Montreal
Guided tours of Montreal are an obvious choice for first-time visitors looking to get acquainted with the city, but even veterans to this rich, historical, multi-cultured city will benefit from the expertise of a guide.
Viator has about a dozen tours, from ghost tours to day trips and standard sightseeing bus tours. Read the review section of each tour to get a better idea what it's really like.
Visites de Montreal has been taking people around the city since the mid-1980s offering a range of visitor services and guided tours, including culinary and city tours.
Other tours to consider in Montreal include a Harbour Cruise, Double Decker Hop-On, Hop-Off, and Amphi-Bus Tour, which is half land, half water tour.