With cobbled streets, charming shops, busy markets, numerous architectural landmarks, and indisputable Old-World charm, Montreal is rightfully called “The Paris of Canada”. Still, everyone who is familiar with the city knows that there is more to Montreal than this rather simplistic comparison. On a purely visual level, the architecture of the city reflects the juxtaposition of the old and the new that is so typical of the cultural capital of Quebec. On the one hand, Montreal tells the story of two colonizations, first by the French, and then by the British, while the modern architecture of the ultra-modern business district tells the story of the city’s newest transformation, as well as those that are yet to come. On the other hand, Montreal’s perfect waterfront location and the surrounding mountains give the city its own unique charm, with some unexpected open/outdoors sights competing for attention with the city’s top urban attractions. In essence, the city represents Canada at its multifaceted best, with tradition meeting modernity, English meeting French, funky fusion restaurants meeting traditional French pastries, and roaring, open wilderness meeting the easy-going, trendy 21st century metropolitan lifestyle.
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WHAT’S THE BEST TIME TO VISIT MONTREAL?
Overall, the best time to visit Montreal is anytime between April and September. If you are a fan of festivals, though, you can visit as early as March, with the famous Nuit blanche à Montréal on March 2-3. While the spring certainly is chilly, Montreal is often listed among the best spring destinations. Come any earlier than that, however, and be prepared to experience below-zero temperatures and plenty of snow. The festival season lasts all summer, with events such as the Osheaga Music Festival and Montreal Cirque Festival. These festivals and the warm temperatures attract hordes of tourists, which start to clear out somewhat in September.
Since balmy temperatures last almost until November, this period is the best time to visit Montreal if you really want to narrow it down. October is highly recommended due to hotel vacancies, mild temperatures, and gorgeous fall foliage complementing the unique charm of the historic Canadian city.
A FEW FACTS ABOUT MONTREAL
Boasting a population of more than 1.7 million, Montreal is the largest city in Quebec, the second-most populous province in Canada, and the only one with a predominantly French-speaking population in the country. Most of the locals are bilingual, however. The city is built on a large 30-mile island where the Saint Lawrence River and the Prairies River meet the Ottawa River. The name of the city, Montreal, comes from Mt. Royal, a relatively large hill or a smaller mountain of volcanic origins. The hill, located just west of downtown Montreal, is an extension of the Monteregian Hills. It is famous for having three peaks: Colline de la Croix (the tallest one at 233 m/764 ft, also Mont Royal proper), Colline d’Outremont, and Westmount Summit.
There is a height restriction in effect in Montreal, limiting all buildings to a height of 200 meters, so as not to contrast the view of Mont Royal. The only building higher than 200 m in the city, the 1000 de la Gauchetière tower, was built in 1992 as an exclusive project. In addition to this and other attractions, the city’s extraordinary metro stations are surprisingly among the most intriguing things to see in Montreal. Each of the 68 stations was designed by a different architect and features unique artwork and specific themes.
Among the city’s many claims to fame, it is worth mentioning that the 1976 Summer Olympics were held in Montreal. These particular Olympic Games are known by many as the Games when Nadia Comaneci scored a perfect “10”, a score which is yet to be matched. Nowadays, the Olympic Park is a popular tourist attraction, widely considered to be one of the best things to see in Montreal.
ONE DAY IN MONTREAL ITINERARY
Follow this guide and make the most of your trip even if you’re short on time. These are the top sights and things to do on your one day in Montreal.
Visit the Space for Life Museum & Montreal Botanical Garden First Thing in the Morning
A visionary project, Space for Life is a museum district near the Olympic Stadium. Conceptualized to bring together the four most important natural museums in the city, Space for life is much more than a museum; it is a comprehensive movement that invites its visitors to participate and commit to preserving our planet’s biodiversity. The four museums incorporated in Space for Life are the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium, the Montreal Biodome, the Montreal Insectarium, and the Montreal Botanical Garden.
Visiting this place dedicated to collaboration, learning, and sharing is one of the most meaningful and engaging things to do in Montreal. The Montreal Botanical Garden is the crown jewel of the whole project, occupying 185 acres of exotic and native flora, with gorgeous thematic gardens (such as the Chinese lantern garden), and 10 greenhouses. The Montreal Botanical Garden is widely considered to be one of the most important gardens of its type in the whole world. Due to its extensive collection, biodiversity, and preservation efforts, it was named a National Historic Site of Canada in 2008. The botanical garden and the nearby insectarium, with more than 250,000 specimens, are great places to visit on your own or with the family.
You could easily spend a day or two exploring the impressive, well-manicured grounds, the beehives, the butterflies, and the greenhouses. However, you will have to show some restraint if you want to have enough time for all the other cool things to do in Montreal, as well. To save up some time, you can secure your entrance here.
Check Out the Nearby Olympic Stadium
Another place to visit in Montreal where you could spend a whole day, the Montreal Olympic Park is a great area to walk around and relive the 1976 Olympics. The Montreal Tower is a very impressive landmark near the stadium, notable for being the tallest inclined tower in the world. With an incredible 45-degree angle and a height of 165 meters, the tower is an extraordinary architectural achievement. The Tower Observatory is open to the public, so don’t miss the chance to experience spectacular 360º panoramic views of the city. The view is so amazing that it was awarded three stars by the famous Michelin Guide, which is the highest rating possible.
There are both organized and self-guided tours of the stadium and the tower, focusing on the Stadium’s history during and since the Olympic Games. An extra tip: From May-October, the largest food truck event in the country is held in the vicinity on the first Friday of the month. If your one day in Montreal happens to be Friday, keep it in mind as a great opportunity to try something new.
Explore the Old Port of Montreal
After an hour or two at the Montreal Olympic Park, take a short walk to the nearby subway station (Pie-IX) and ride the subway for 6 stops, approx. ten minutes. Exit at Saint-Laurent subway station and then walk southeast on St. Laurent Boulevard. As you make your way towards the Old Port of Montreal, you will see a number of theatres, dance halls, art galleries, and music venues along the way (Espaces des Artes, VOX Contemporary Image Center, Club Soda, Société des arts technologiques, Monument-National), as well as Gates of China Town (North Paifang), a notable historic landmark.
The Old Port of Montreal is located in Old Montreal, the oldest section of the city, famous for its 17th-century narrow cobblestone streets, charming buildings, and architectural remains. The port, which was in use as early as 1611, stretches for more than two kilometers along the western bank of the St. Lawrence River. The historical area was first used as a trading post by French trappers and fur traders.
If you are visiting Montreal with kids, you may also want to check out the Montreal Science Centre, with interactive exhibits focusing on science and technology. Exploring this cool and massive place is among the most wholesome, fun things to do in Montreal.
Walk Over to Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal
About 5 minutes on foot from the museum, you will find the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal. It is so close that you can see the towering Gothic Revival spires of the church from the waterfront, just behind the first buildings. The basilica is located on Place d’Armes, a historic square with a monument to Paul de Chomedey, the city’s founder, in its center.
The Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal was built in 1824 in the Gothic Revival style, with countless decorative details highlighting the timeless beauty of this place of worship. Examples include vibrant stained-glass windows, intricate wooden carvings, masterful religious statues, deep blue vaults with golden stars, and a priceless Casavant Frères pipe organ from 1891.
Visit the Montreal Archaeology and History Museum (Pointe-à-Callière)
Overlooking the Old Port of Montreal just south of the basilica, the unmistakable contemporary white façade of the Montreal Archaeology and History Museum invites visitors to explore the interactive exhibits and archeological digs inside. Another designated National Historic Site, the museum is located on top of the “birthplace of Montreal”, the site of the original French settlement from 1642. The impressive excavations are all connected by an underground circuit. The tour of the museum includes a multimedia show at the very beginning, essentially a trip back in time, followed by a tour of the pavilions covering thousands of years of history.
As an aside, in terms of time management, unless you are a robot and show superhuman restraint, it is unlikely that you will have enough time to visit the Montreal Science Centre, the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal, and the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History. The best course of action is to pick one of the three – naturally, the one that appeals to you the most – and then consider checking out one of the other two if you have enough time.
Set Aside Some Time for Lunch
After a hectic morning and early afternoon filled with sightseeing, you will need a good lunch to keep you going. Luckily, the Old Port district is jam-packed with excellent restaurants, coffee shops, patisseries, and eateries. Stash Café, located literally just 100 meters from the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History, represents the best the historic Old Montreal has to offer.
Serving traditional Polish dishes at a fraction of the price that other restaurants in the area are charging, the place has quickly become a favorite place to visit in Montreal, for locals and visitors alike. With live piano music, friendly service, and artsy, warm, and intimate atmosphere, Stash Café is the number one choice for lunch or a late brunch. Menu highlights include the sausage and dumplings, krokiety, creamy mushroom soup, pierogis, and schnitzel.
The nearby Mandy’s is a good alternative if you are looking for a healthy/veggie option. The healthy eatery has a seasonal menu with numerous salad and soup options with high-quality ingredients. The space is very cute and design-savvy, with a nice patio during the summer months.
Continue Where You Left off by Visiting the Barbie Expo or the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
There are so many things to see in Montreal that you will constantly have to cut corners and make compromises. If you are a fan of shopping and haute couture fashion, then you absolutely cannot miss the Barbie Expo, located in Les Cours Mont Royal, the most exclusive mall in the city. The Expo’s impressive collection of more than 1000 dolls is the largest of its kind in the world. The dolls are dressed in gorgeous creations by the world’s most famous designers. The outfits that the miniature fashion icon is wearing can actually be purchased at the upscale boutiques in the mall.
Alternatively, you might be more interested in The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, a large museum housing visual works by artists from Canada and Québec, in addition to contemporary art from all over the world. Located on the legendary Golden Square Mile area of Sherbrooke Street, this museum is larger than any other museum in Montreal, including the museums mentioned previously. With exhibitions covering a wide range of artistic disciplines such as fine arts, design, fashion, music, and film, the museum attracts 1.3 million visitors each year, making it the eighth-most visited museum in all of North America.
You can reach both of these attractions by taking bus 715-O from Musée Pointe-à-Callière to Centre infotouriste de Montréal (11 stops), followed by a short walk.
Enjoy the Sunset from Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal
Whether you choose the Barbie Expo or The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the easiest way to get to Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal is to hop aboard Bus 166-N at Station Guy-Concordia (Guy / De Maisonneuve) and exit at Oratoire Saint-Joseph, directly in front of the magnificent church.
Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal is a Catholic basilica atop Westmount Summit, one of Mont Royal’s three peaks. This place of worship is notable for being the largest church in Canada, with one of the largest domes worldwide. You can go inside and take a tour of this massive building, surprisingly quiet considering its monumental size. The carvings and the architecture are a particular highlight, as well as the friendly, enthusiastic staff.
Make sure to take in the panoramic view of the city, which can be a real spectacle at sunset. After that, you can make your way to some of the other lookouts, such as the Summit Circle Look Out, Mount Royal Park, or Belvédère Kondiaronk for sweeping views of downtown Montreal at night.
Return to Old Montreal’s Rue Saint-Paul
Considering the time of day, the best way to return to downtown Montreal is to call an Uber or a taxi. Lined with charming cafés, boutique shops, and restaurants with food from every corner of the world (including Portuguese, Indian, Japanese, etc.), Rue Saint-Paul, the city’s oldest street, is still one of the best spots in Montreal to go for a walk in the evening. The street got its name from Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, who built himself a house there in 1650. It is a great place if you want to shop for souvenirs or find a nice spot for dinner.
Restaurant L’Orignal is located slightly to the west on Rue Saint Alexis. It is an outstanding, upscale restaurant serving local Québécois seafood and farm-to-table game dishes. The oysters, boar shank, duck breast, and rabbit pot pie are among the best and most popular dishes, with considerably more generous servings compared to neighboring jazzy & fine dining restaurants. The cabin-like ambiance with subdued lighting and hewn timber lining the walls creates a uniquely Canadian atmosphere and a comfortable, warm vibe.
Experience the City’s Nightlife
In case relaxing dinners are not really your cup of tea, you can also skip the last step and head straight to Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill on Mackay Street, 500 meters west from Lucien L’Allier metro station. The bar is set in a brick-wall semi-basement, with a taproom/dimly lighted public house atmosphere and a small stage where artists play live jazz music. While most visitors come here for the music exclusively, the place is also pretty famous for its pasta and other casual fares. The bar’s cozy atmosphere is perfect for chatting and socializing with a couple of drinks while listening to some genuinely great performances.
For something a bit more exciting, you can take the subway (line 2) from Lucien L’Allier to Berri-UQAM and check out Stereo After Hours, a sleek nightclub on St. Catherine Street. With a phenomenal, world-class sound system, reasonably-priced drinks, and great DJs, Stereo After Hours is the best place to visit in Montreal for dancing into the wee hours of the morning. The crowd is also very friendly and you can expect your privacy to be respected (no photos).
WHERE TO STAY IN MONTREAL?
Hôtel Birks Montréal
1240 Place Phillips, H3B 3H4 Montréal
A stylish 5-star hotel with Art-Deco inspired common areas and tastefully-designed rooms that combine modern elements with details reminiscent of traditional luxury, Hôtel Birks Montréal is the perfect choice for travelers looking to experience the best of Montreal. Only 400 meters from the Museum of Contemporary Art, the property is located in the heart of Montreal, perfect for touring the city and shopping. The Restaurant Henri Brasserie Française is located at the hotel, as well as Hôtel Birks le Spa.
AC Hotel by Marriott Montreal Downtown
250 René-Lévesque O, H2Z 1Z8 Montréal
A bit more modern compared to the previous property, AC Hotel by Marriott Montreal Downtown dazzles its guests with its wide-open spaces and sleek black and white surfaces contrasted with warm wooden details. The bold, sharp design lines underline the hotel’s uncompromising commitment to providing first-class service and superior amenities at an outstanding value. Highlights include an excellent indoor pool with glass walls and stunning views of the city, as well as comfortable, air-conditioned rooms with YouTube and Netflix access on flat-screen TVs.
Le Dauphin Montréal Centre-Ville
1025 De Bleury, H2Z 1M7 Montréal
With a central location in Montréal’s business district and several subway stations in the vicinity, Le Dauphin Montréal Centre-Ville is focused on convenience, accessibility, and comfort. The rooms testify to that fact, with a Mac computer, free Wi-Fi access, a flat-screen TV with Apple TV, and an iPod docking station ready to make the guests feel as welcome and as relaxed as possible. The hotel’s location is ideal for sightseeing on foot, and the complimentary breakfast with numerous options certainly helps to get your one day in Montreal off to a great start.
347 Saint Paul Est, H2Y 1H3 Montréal
Auberge Saint-Paul is a modern, hip hostel located on Rue Saint Paul, the oldest street in the city. Fresh, colorful, and practical, the hostel easily pulls off the stripped-back industrial design without taking it too far. The rooms are all air-conditioned and come with free Wi-Fi, and some offer great views of Old Montreal. While Auberge Saint-Paul’s location is unbeatable (Montreal Notre-Dame Basilica is a 3 minutes’ walk away), the hostel’s main features are its great vibe, friendly staff, and homely feel, with guests who are willing to chat, meet new people, and discover all of the exciting and fun places to visit in Montreal.
DAY TRIPS FROM MONTREAL
Montreal city tours, guided sightseeing tours, ice wine tours, helicopter tours, and numerous day trips from Montreal are just some of the ways to make things a little bit easier on your one day in Montreal or, alternatively, to switch it up in case you decide to stay for a while longer. Of course, there are options for every budget, from free walking tours to the exclusive Pink Cadillac Sightseeing tour of the city.
Mid-range options include the private boat tour on the St-Lawrence river at the old port of Montreal, the Laurentian Mountains Day Trip From Montreal, and the Small-Group Quebec Wine Tour from Montreal with Gourmet Lunch or Cheese Tasting.
EXTRA TIPS FOR VISITING MONTREAL
There are many languages spoken in Canada, but the two main ones are English and French. Although Montreal is home to one of the largest francophone populations in the world, the locals do speak English, allowing you to easily get by. Even so, put in the effort to learn at least a couple of basic expressions in French.
Montreal is a great city for shopping due to its singular European chic and influence. Good places for shopping include the Saint-Catherine Street and its department stores, the Simons Centre Ville shopping mall, Saint-Denis St & Saint-Laurent Blvd., Sherbrooke Street, and The Underground City.
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