A beginner’s guide to visiting Montreal
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It had been more than a decade since I’d last crossed the border into Canada on a high school trip to Quebec. So, when I discovered I’d be returning to Montreal for a work trip without much notice and an entire weekend to fill, I started scouring the internet and messaging every friend and colleague who had ever been to this cosmopolitan city up north.
If it’s also your first time visiting Montreal, it’s an accessible taste of Europe: Everyone speaks English, it’s incredibly walkable and the food is as close as you’ll get to Paris without flying across the Atlantic. Here’s where to get your morning coffee, where to bed down and everything else you need to know for a first trip to the City of a Hundred Steeples.
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Where to eat and drink in Montreal
Almost every time my stomach started grumbling, I checked out restaurants in the Plateau and Mile End neighborhoods. When in doubt, you can walk or Uber to these areas and wander until you see a menu that fits your needs.
Where to get the best bagels
There’s one thing everyone will tell you about eating in Montreal: Get the bagels. Montreal’s distinctly sweeter take on the Jewish classic is hand-rolled, boiled in honey-infused water and finished in a wood-burning oven.
Find them at Fairmount Bagel, the 24-hour St-Viateur Bagel Shop or, if you want something a bit less traditional, one of four Hinnawi Bros locations. At Hinnawi Bros you can get breakfast sandwiches crafted with Montreal bagels (I ordered the Végé with avocado, mozzarella, bell pepper, grilled onions, cucumber and other toppings).
Where to eat poutine
The other thing you’ll probably feel compelled to order during your first trip to Montreal is poutine. The simple Québécois dish consists of French fries smothered in squeaky cheese curds and rich brown gravy. You can find it pretty much anywhere in the city (including the hot dog stand Chez Ma Tante and the retro diner Greenspot), but the novelty of snacking on poutine at some odd hour of the morning means a trip to La Banquise, which is open 24/7 and has dozens of varieties on the menu.
The best restaurants in Montreal
For lunch or brunch, Olive et Gourmando is one of the most popular spots in the city. You’ll find it on an attractive street in Old Montreal. The pressed sandwiches are a highlight, so consider the “Poached Egg on Your Face” panini with slow-roasted tomatoes and raw milk cheese or the smoked brisket and cilantro pesto mayo “Mr. Miami,” served with a side of jalapeño pineapple chutney you’ll want to put on everything. I didn’t order a salad, but regretted that when I saw massive bowls of greens, herbs, pumpkin seeds and vegetables passing through the cozy dining room.
For a traditional Parisian bistro experience without flying to France, there’s L’Express on Rue Saint-Denis. The kitchen stays open late and turns out chicken liver pâté, quiches, duck confit — you get the idea. Vegetarians may want to skip Au Pied de Cochon (read: pig’s foot), a Plateau institution that has an entire section of the menu dedicated to foie gras. But if this temple to meat is at the top of your dining list, make a reservation and order the duck in a can: garlic, thyme, balsamic, duck breast and, of course, more foie gras.
A playful mix of traditional Québécois and British fare, dinners at Bar George include quail stuffed with liver and pork mousse, beef Wellington with mushrooms and prosciutto and a veal chop with Yorkshire pudding and whiskey sauce. If you’re on a budget, trade the Wellington for a burger at lunch. The rapidly changing St. Henri neighborhood welcomed Elena last year, a great spot for thin, crusty pizza and wine (because, really, what else could you ask for?).
You’ll probably want to try at least one of chef Marc Cohen’s three restaurants (owned in partnership with Sefi Amir, Ethan Wills and Annika Krausz). You can get a sandwich at Boucherie Lawrence (or stock up on charcuterie), sit down for a casual meal at Larrys or splurge on dinner at Lawrence, which reopened after a serious facelift in 2018.
La Diperie, a local ice cream institution that’s best known for its dipped cones, has expanded far beyond its original location in the Plateau. But this cozy shop remains a popular place to stop on a warm night for simple soft serve dipped in unexpected flavors and fun toppings. You can eat your dessert outside in front of the painted turquoise wall and, of course, take one for the ‘gram.
Where to drink
One of the most beautiful bars in the city, Big in Japan, is hidden behind a nondescript black door. The candlelit space is the place for Japanese whiskeys and sake. Other great spots include Terrasse Nelligan (a seasonal rooftop crowning Hotel Nelligan) and the 25-seat Cloakroom Bar, hidden inside a former 19th-century mansion.
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What to see and do in Montreal
It’s not called the City of a Hundred Steeples for nothing. Everywhere you look in Montreal, there’s an elegant church tower, spire or dome rising above the relatively low city skyline. One of the most famous is the Notre-Dame Basilica, a 17th-century structure that will transport you straight to Paris with its twin Gothic Revival towers and stunning stained glass. It’s not to be confused with the equally popular Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, one of the oldest in the city, dating back to 1771. Located in Old Montreal, it overlooks the harbor.
Also a replica of a famous European landmark, the sprawling Mary Queen of the World Cathedral is evocative of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The downtown cathedral is crowned with a green copper dome and guarded by 13 patron saints from around Montreal.
On the summit of Mount Royal is the Saint Joseph’s Oratory. It’s the largest church in Canada, but it’s not the only reason travelers flock to Mount Royal. More hill than mountain, this vast 495-acre green space was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (the same visionary landscape architect responsible for Central Park in New York City). Here, you can spend a warm summer afternoon walking, cycling, or picnicking; come winter, there’s ice skating, snowshoeing and sledding.
For a celebrated spa experience in Montreal, Bota Bota is on a ship located in the city’s Old Port. Spread across five decks are saunas, baths, pools and treatment rooms.
And if you do find yourself in Montreal during the winter, make sure to visit during the Lumière Festival. For 11 days (typically from late February through early March), the frozen city is transformed by colorful light installations, live art and music performances, culinary exhibits and more. In 2020, the festival — now in its 20th year — will run from Feb. 20 to March 1. It’s free and open to the public.
The best museums in Montreal
Art lovers will love the Contemporary Art Museum of Montreal (MAC) and the city’s Museum of Fine Arts. Both are located in the Ville-Marie borough.
For history buffs there’s the Pointe-à-Callière (the Museum of Archaeology and History) with artifacts dating back to the prehistoric aboriginal habitation of Montreal, as well as a variety of temporary exhibits (think: explorations of French cuisine or the legacy of circus arts in Montreal).
Where to stay in Montreal
Accor’s historic Montreal hotel has been a fixture downtown since it debuted in 1958. It has hosted British royals and John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Bed-in for Peace. In 2017, the property — directly connected to Montreal’s main Gare Central train station — got a top-to-toe refresh by Sid Lee. Request a room with a view of the Mary Queen of the World Cathedral across the street from the Fairmont, and, if you have status with Accor, use your complimentary welcome drink to try one of the signature cocktails at Bar Nacarat, the upscale lobby bar that spills out onto a terrace during the summer.
Every bit a W, down to the loud house music emanating from the Bartizen dining room and the generous use of gold pleather furniture, this hotel is conveniently located in downtown Montreal. Use your Marriott points (from 40,000 per night on off-peak dates) to stay at this Category 6 property.
Splurge at this Category 7 grand dame — one of the oldest Ritz-Carlton properties on earth. Since it opened in 1912, the elegant property has been a fixture of the city’s culinary and social scenes. If you don’t want to drop hundreds of Canadian dollars on a room (expect to spend roughly $500 per night even during the shoulder season) it’s a great place to redeem a free-night certificate (rooms start at 50,000 on off-peak dates). Or, make a reservation at Maison Boulud or pop by for the brand’s famous afternoon tea.
Putting an end to a dry spell for luxury hotel development in Montreal, the Four Seasons officially opened in the city’s Golden Square Mile this May. It’s home to the first-ever Canadian restaurant by star chef Marcus Samuelsson. With a stunning and subtle gray-and-dusty-pink color scheme elevated by accents of white marble, polished gold and ample velvet, this hotel redefines Canadian luxury — but it doesn’t come cheap. If you’re going to bed down here, be sure to book through the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts (FHR) program if you have The Platinum Card® from American Express or The Business Platinum Card® from American Express. That way, you’ll earn 5x points on prepaid bookings on amextravel.com and receive exclusive perks, like a complimentary upgrade upon arrival when available and a property credit.
What to skip
For travelers, time is precious, so don’t waste it shivering in the biting cold or overpaying for mediocre attractions.
“Unless you have kids and it’s raining or frigid, skip the Biodome,” travel writer and author Grace Per Lee told The Points Guy. “It’s just an indoor zoo.”
A former Montreal resident told TPG that Montreal in winter is overrated. Another tip: “Avoid downtown, because you really want to venture into the interesting neighborhoods. [Old] Montreal can be tacky, but it’s charming.”
Oh, and you should certainly try the poutine — but maybe not at every meal.
Getting to Montreal
With frequent nonstop flights of less than an hour and a half and daily trains from major stations on the East Coast of the U.S., Montreal is an easy weekend getaway. (Though I took the 13-hour train one-way from New York to Montreal and wholeheartedly recommend that you fly.)
If airfare into Montreal is higher than you wish it were, miles and points represent a great opportunity to keep cash in your wallet. From cities such as Chicago and New York City, you can fly to Montreal for as few as 7,500 Avios on a flight operated by American Airlines. From points farther away in the U.S., Canada typically prices in a similar way to domestic destinations, so it should be attainable from 12,500 miles each way via programs that still use traditional award charts.
You need your passport, but fortunately, you won’t need to brush up on your high school French. Although it’s the second-largest city in the world where a majority of the population speaks French (after Paris, of course), you can pretty much count on everyone speaking English, too.
Canadian currency and tipping
For some time now, $1 U.S. has gotten you about 1.30 Canadian dollars (CAD). This means that something priced at $100 in CAD would cost you about $75 U.S., making Montreal an affordable destination for U.S.-based travelers. Just be sure you’re paying with a card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees.
Tipping is customary in Canada, so expect to leave between 15% and 20% when dining out and drinking, much as you would in the U.S. However, during my visit, I found that a gratuity was occasionally included, so double-check your bill.
Fortunately, tipping in Montreal is a piece of cake. Rather than handing off your card to the waiter and doing hasty math in your head, it’s customary for waiters and other servers to bring over a handheld terminal, which will likely prompt you to tip either by a percent or a fixed amount. Usually, you’ll be able to choose if you want the payment to process in U.S. or Canadian dollars (always pick the local currency).
If you’re planning to ride the Société de Transport de Montréal — the city’s public transport network which includes buses and an underground metro — you no longer need to worry about fare vending machines only accepting chip-and-pin cards. Using your favorite credit card for travel rewards, you can buy a single ticket (3.50 CAD or $2.66) or a pass. Consider buying the three-day pass (19.50 CAD or $14.84) or the one-week pass (26.75 CAD or $20.36), valid on unlimited rides.
You can take Ubers in Montreal, but I was surprised to find that Lyft is not yet available in this city (though there are reports the ride-hailing service is on its way). There are plenty of cabs in Montreal, but it’s said that an Uber can be significantly cheaper.
The best time to visit Montreal
Montreal is a year-round destination, with warm, sunny summers and a ski resort just two hours north of the city for winter.
If you can stand the frigid temperatures, traveling to Montreal in winter can be a great opportunity to take advantage of deeply discounted hotel room rates and flight deals. Another reason to visit Montreal in the winter? The giant EDM dance party known as Igloofest and the aforementioned Lumière Festival.
Of course, if you can’t stand the cold (or snow), a summer visit to Montreal probably makes more sense. Montreal’s event calendar is stacked in the summer, especially during July. Consider pegging your trip to Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival.
Shoulder-season travel, when the weather is milder, can also confer great travel deals with fewer crowds.
For travelers who love history, art and food, Montreal is a fantastic destination that works well as a long weekend getaway. And though it has many of the trappings of a European vacation, you’ll discover elements that are unmistakably and wonderfully Canadian, not to be confused with (or traded for) anywhere else on Earth.
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