Looking for the top things to do in Montreal? Spending a few days on business and have some time to spare? Montreal is a great city for a city trip, with plenty to do for a day, and more than enough great sights for a week or longer, in any season! I visited Montreal in the height of summer, in July 2014. Or as they say in Montreal, in the height of the construction season. Like many of my readers I was in the area for business, but stayed a little longer to see the city.
Montreal is located on the Saint Lawrence River, where it was established as a trading post and fort of the French colonial empire, just like Quebec, the ‘other’ big city in the French-speaking part of Canada. This French heritage gives Montreal a very different look and feel than most other cities in North America. It is much more European in a way, and in that sense also very different from Toronto, the largest city in Canada.
Weather can be very cold in this part of the world, but that doesn’t mean you should take Montreal off your bucket list 9 months per year. The city is perfectly adjusted to the harsh climate in winter. Most notably with its massive ‘Underground City’, a long series of underground connections between many major office buildings, hotels, museums, stations and shopping malls in downtown Montreal. You can explore the city for days without the need to feel any of the cold outside! In summer it can be very warm too, but the riverside setting in the Saint Lawrence valley mostly provides for a cool breeze.
Please follow me on a virtual tour along the top-5 sights of the city of Montreal:
My first impression of Montreal is the typical North American view of square housing blocks and shopping malls. How wrong can you be!
Interestingly Montreal was the final destination of the McDonnell-Douglas MD-11 Passenger trijet. I flew on one of the very last flights of this aircraft model with KLM, from Amsterdam to Montreal. The last commercial flight of a passenger MD-11 was on 25 October 2014.
#1 – Vieux Montréal – Old City and Harbor
For a long time Vieux Montreal was a walled city on the river. A trading post and fort in a rough and often hostile environment, far from the old world in Europe. This is where Montreal was born in 1642, as ‘Ville Marie’.
The Old Harbor, or Vieux Port, can hardly be called ‘old’. It is a hypermodern riverfront leisure park, with marinas, the Science Museum, board walks, entertainment and food.
Although it feels more European than North American, the food truck hype has definitely made it to Vieux Port! Quebec-style Poutine!
One of the biggest attractions in Vieux Port is the home base of Cirque du Soleil. This is where most new shows have their world premiere!
At night Vieux Montréal turns into the place to go for dinner and drinks. Cobblestone streets, old restaurants, great outdoor terraces and lots of people adding to a great very European atmosphere!
You find the innovative #MTLmoments selfie-frames all over Montreal. Use it for your selfie when visiting and don’t forget the hashtag when posting on Instagram!
#2 – Downtown and Underground City
Difficult to see from above ground is the largest underground city in the world! Locally known as RESO, or La Ville Souterraine, this is the place to go for shopping, eating, drinking and going out. Cool in summer, warm in winter. Discover the bottom half of Montréal!
Downtown is home to all big brands, as well as great specialty shops like the Biermarkt, where both local as well as many international beers are sold and served.
Downtown is mostly very modern, but also has several classic buildings, like these on Rue Peel.
Check this view of downtown from my hotel room at the Le Centre Sheraton Hotel. Very conveniently located on central Boulevard Rene Levesque, right in the middle of the action.
When the BIXI bike sharing service was introduced to Montréal in 2009 it set the world standard. This same system is now used in hundreds of cities over the world, including Washington, London, Paris and Vienna. This is the original! Cheap and convenient.
The various parts of the city have dedicated bikelanes, making bicycling a fast, cheap and healthy way to get through the city. Beware when going to McGill University though. The slope towards Mont Royal is tough by bike!
#3 – Basilique de Notre-Dame de Montréal
The heart of the old city is the impressive Basilique de Notre-Dame de Montréal, on Place d’Armes. Not too impressive perhaps from the outside…
But with the richest classic church interior of the North American continent! Theatrical perhaps. You can easily spend a few hours just gazing at the rich decorations. As the locals say: If you haven’t seen Notre Dame, you haven’t seen Montreal!
#4 – Parc Jean-Drapeau and Ile Sainte-Hélène
Taking the Navettes Maritimes ferry to the other side of the river brings you into a different world. The two islands that make up Parc Jean-Drapeau are turned into one big leisure area. No cars, large green zones, sports facilities and a few very interesting museums make this a great day in the great outdoors, without leaving the city.
The first site to visit after leaving the ferry is the old Fort Ile Sainte Hélène. Built as an arsenal by the British forces in 1820, it now houses the Stewart Museum, where you will learn about the origins of Montreal and Canada.
At a 10 minute walk from the ferry and the Fort you will find this wonderful structure. The Montreal Biosphere is a symbol of the 1967 World Expo that was held here. It now houses the Environment Museum.
Most locals know the island mainly for the large Six Flags ‘La Ronde’ amusement park. Apart from the usual rides, this park is famous for its fireworks festival pond. Several competitions are held during summer, which can be viewed from La Ronde, or from Vieux Port (from where I watched).
#5 – Mont Royal
You can’t miss the Mont Royal mountain in the middle of the city. With its summit of 233 meters it dominates the mostly very flat river valley. Most of the hill is a public city park.
Highlight of Mont Royal Park is the Kondiaronk Belvedere at the Chalet Mont Royal. At the balcony you have a great panorama over the city, overlooking downtown towards the river.
The best view in the city!
Practical information: Montreal is well connected to the rest of the world by the Pierre Elliott-Trudeau international airport. Montreal is a few hours away from Quebec to the East and Ottawa and Toronto to the West, well reachable by train and car. Montreal is only about an hour away from the US border. A weekend trip from US New England cities north of Boston is a realistic endeavor. Montreal is not super expensive. Public transport is very good and very cheap and I already mentioned the great BIXI bike sharing service. All international hotel chains are represented, most notably along Boulevard Rene Levesque in downtown.
Most of the city is located to the west of the Saint Lawrence River, with a few key sights at the two islands that form Parc Jean-Drapeau. [Click to enlarge]