I went on a quick trip to Montreal, Canada with my fiancé over the New Year’s break. We enjoyed three solid days of tasty regional food, quaint French accents, and gorgeous city vistas. Thinking of taking a little holiday? Here’s a quick Montreal bucket list, plus a few tips for first timers.
Six Things to Do
Biodome: Located at Olympic Park, the Montreal Biodome is an indoor-zoo that allows visitors to walk through replicas of four distinct ecosystems found in the Americas: tropical forests, North American forests, the Saint Lawrence Marine Eco-system, and a polar area. The penguins and roaming monkeys definitely entertained.
Mont Royal: This large volcanic-related hill gave the city of Montreal its name. We hiked from the 144 bus stop near the McGill Hospital up to a lookout near Chalet Du Mont-Royal and snapped some beautiful photos of the city. Visitors can also rent cross country skis, bicycles, and ice skates.
Bota Bota: When an old river ferry is turned into an upscale "floating spa" and restaurant, you get Nordic-inspired Bota Bota. Known for its water circuit and Instagram-worthy hot tubs, this was a highlight of our trip. Tip: If you go before 11am or on a weekday, you’ll receive a discount.
Old Montreal: As the name would suggest, this is the oldest neighborhood in Montreal. Some of the buildings and landmarks date back to New France, and most of the area was dubbed a historic landmark in the 1960s. Shops, pubs, and hotels line the quaint cobbled streets.
Jean-Talon Market: This open-air market is comprised of local vendors selling produce, meats, cheeses, fish, maple syrup, and more. It’s one of the largest public markets in North America, and still buzzes during the cold months. Sample a piece of something tasty and then wander around the surrounding neighborhood of Little Italy.
Notre-Dame Basilica: Located in Old Montreal, the beautifully ornate interior of this Roman Catholic site is worth viewing. Fun facts: Celine Dion married René Angélil here on December 17, 1994, and the stained-glass windows depict scenes from Montreal’s religious history.
Six Things to Eat
I wrote a longer post about exactly which restaurants we enjoyed while visiting, but here’s a short list of regional food that Montreal does right.
The Great Bagel Debate: Both St. Viateur and Fairmount are famous for their Montreal-style bagels. The dough is boiled in honey-infused water and then baked in a wood-fire oven, giving the bread a totally different taste than New York City’s rival product.
Poutine: This Canadian classic originated in the Quebec region, and is typically comprised of French fries, brown gravy, and cheese curds. Diners, pubs, and even some fast-food restaurants sell poutine, but 24-hour La Banquise is famous for their 30+ variations of the dish—including one topped with hot dogs and bacon.
Unpasteurized cheese: In short, Canada does not have the same laws in place when it comes to raw dairy. Be sure to try a slice at one of the open markets, and enjoy the fact that you’re chewing on a food that would be completely illegal in the United States.
Maple syrup: While Quebec’s maple syrup season typically begins in March, you can still find plenty of fresh canned or bottled syrup throughout the year. At Jean-Talon Market, we sampled both light and dark varieties from a local distributor. A small container of real maple syrup also makes for a fabulous souvenir.
French-inspired cuisine: Be sure to find an authentic French bistro for at least one of your meals. Sip a red Bordeaux and enjoy a steak tartare stuffed with capers, or duck confit and a side of potatoes. Bon appétit!
Smoked meat: New York is to Katz’s, as Montreal is to Schwartz’s. You’ll find this famous Jewish delicatessen on historic Saint Laurent Boulevard. The order of choice: a smoked meat sandwich on rye with mustard, a side of pickles, and a black cherry soda.
The drive from New York City was dotted with small upstate towns and rolling hills. We ran into minimal traffic—until the border crossing. For whatever reason (the holiday? Friday night?) we waited in long lines of red brake lights for 2 ½ hours at the St-Bernard-de-Lacolle Customs Office. To avoid our mistake, check this website ahead of time and be aware of other crossing sites.
If you are flying into Montréal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, you can catch a cab or the 747 Montreal-Trudeau/Downtown bus. It operates 24/7 and connects to eight downtown stops.
Tip: The 3-day unlimited L'Occasionnelle card is well worth the $18 if you plan on using the metro or bus at least five times during your stay. There are also weekly, monthly, and unlimited weekend passes available. Each single fare is $3.50.
Our Airbnb was located close to the Sherbrook Metro station in the Plateau/Mont Royal neighborhood, and averaged us about $71 per night. The location was ideal: two stops south and we were in beautiful Old Montreal; a five-minute walk northwest and we were surrounded by the cafes of St. Denis and shops of Saint Laurent.
The apartment was on the second floor of a stone building from the 1800s. Big beautiful windows let in streams of natural light every morning. Double-pane glass kept out most of the street noise. Our host was very thoughtful and left us fruit, coffee, milk, and chocolates. The only drawback was for my fiancé: At 6’2’’, his feet hung over the edge of the bed! But overall, our stay was enjoyable. If I was going back sans beau, I’d book this place again.
Most people speak French first and English second. This was a bit of a surprise to us, and we definitely had a few we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore moments. But it was enjoyable to travel somewhere so close to the United States with such a distinct culture of its own.
Some people who worked in the service industry greeted us by saying, “Bonjour, hi.” We would say the same back and then continue in English. If you’re asking someone a question on the street, it’s polite to ask if they speak English first with the phrase, “Parlez-vous anglais?” Rule of thumb: Better to butcher the phrase than offend the residents.
We only met one person who didn’t speak much English, but knowing some basic terminology was helpful throughout the trip. And yes, highway signs are en Français so know Est from Ouest!