A first timer's guide to Montreal

Montreal is Canada's second-largest city and offers much for travellers. The city takes its name from Mount Royal, the 233-metre high peak from which French explorer Jacques Cartier looked onto the surrounding landscape back in 1535.

Modern Montreal from Mount Royal Park - photo courtesy of Pixabay
Modern Montreal from Mount Royal Park - photo courtesy of Pixabay

Experience Canada: weave a stop in Montreal into a longer exploration of Canada with the likes of Travelsphere*, which offers great value tours to this North American nation direct from the UK.

An introduction to the city

Founded in 1642, the city is one of North America's oldest. The Old Montreal district, near the St Lawrence River, features cobbled streets and buildings that would not look out of place in northern France, including the grand City Hall.

Yet Montreal also has a modern downtown core featuring skyscrapers and the Underground City, a sprawling complex of shops and businesses linked by 32 km of subterranean passageways.

If you've ever tried walking on the icy streets above ground in the depths of a Canadian winter, you'll understand its appeal.

Look at a map of Montreal and you'll see districts such as Little Italy, Mile End and Mile-Ex - to get beneath the city's skin, plan time to explore its neighbourhoods.

Do I need to speak French?

While French is widely spoken in Montreal, you don't need to be fluent to get by. If you have a smattering of the language, attempting to speak it is generally positively received. It's common for locals to switch to English when necessary.

Places to go in Montreal

Mount Royal Park

For outstanding views over the city and its skyscrapers, head to the Kondiaronk Belvedere, a terrace within Mount Royal Park.

This swathe of urban greenery was landscaped by Frederick Law Olmstead, whose work includes New York's Central Park. A footpath meanders to the peak, making for a pleasant walk in a park that's also popular with runners.

Impressive interior of the Notre-Dame Basilica, Montreal © Basilique Notre-Dame, Stéphan Poulin
Impressive interior of the Notre-Dame Basilica, Montreal © Basilique Notre-Dame, Stéphan Poulin

Notre-Dame Basilica

The Notre-Dame Basilica is one of Montreal's most celebrated buildings. Looking towards the church's neo-Gothic façade from the Maisonneuve Monument, which stands in memory of Montreal's founder on the Place d'Armes, you may think you've seen grander churches.

However, it's the ornate interiors - the ribbed vaulting of the ceiling, sculpted altar and an organ with 7,000 pipes - that wow visitors.

Bonsecours Market

The Bonsecours Market, which has a silver-topped cupola, is one of Old Montreal's most distinctive buildings and is a recognised National Historic Site.

In 1849, during social unrest, the market, which regularly hosted public functions, housed a session of parliament. Visit today and you can browse stores selling locally designed products, art galleries and the menus of cafés.

Montreal Olympic Park

Montreal hosted the 1976 Summer Games and the Olympic Park is its most obvious legacy.

It's home to a covered, 56,000-seat stadium, designed by Roger Taillibert. Learn about the park during a guided tour or by viewing the Since 1976 exhibition in the 165-metre tall Montreal Tower, the world's tallest inclined tower. The observatory, at the top, is a great place for urban panoramas.

Inclined Montreal Tower at the Olympic Park © Yves Tremblay - courtesy of Tourisme Montréal
Inclined Montreal Tower at the Olympic Park © Yves Tremblay - courtesy of Tourisme Montréal

Museums in Montreal

The city is home to several impressive museums. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts hosts an expansive collection of artworks and features a sculpture garden.

Then there's the free-to-visit Redpath Museum on the McGill University campus, Canada's oldest purpose-built museum. The collection here encompasses natural history and cultural artefacts.

Meanwhile, the interactive Montreal Science Centre, by the waterfront in the Old Port area, hosts regularly changing exhibitions and an IMAX cinema.

Things to do in Montreal

Sink a beer or two

For a lively atmosphere and variety of craft ales, you'll struggle to top visiting the Dieu de Ciel! brewpub in the Mile End district - don't miss the terrace which is the perfect place to while away a sunny afternoon.

If you like your beer with a side of sport, the cavernous Bier Markt in the downtown area also gives you a broad choice of brews.

Eat poutine and bagels

After a few drinks it's a local tradition to seek out a portion of poutine - essentially a Québécois take on chips and gravy lifted by the addition of cheese curds. Dunn's is a staple 24-hour option.

Get stuck into an indulgent city favourite - poutine © Alison Slattery - courtesy of Tourisme Montréal
Get stuck into an indulgent city favourite - poutine © Alison Slattery - courtesy of Tourisme Montréal

Alternatively, you could seek out fresh bagels. The long-established St-Viateur Bagels and Fairmount Bagels in Mile End are rated among the best.

Take your pick of pro sports

The city's most celebrated sporting franchise is the Montreal Canadiens, who play their home games at the Bell Centre. The club has won ice hockey's Stanley Cup more times than any other and passions run high at matches.

Over the summer and into autumn, the Montreal Alouettes play Canadian Football League matches at Percival Molson Memorial Stadium.

Finally, there's Montreal's Circuit Jacques-Villeneuve, a motor racing track on the Notre Dame Island in the St Lawrence River, which opens for public use when not hosting Formula 1's Canadian Grand Prix or other high profile events.

The circuit is within the attractive Parc Jean-Drapeau, which encompasses part of the neighbouring St Helen's Island.

Get in the festive spirit

Culturally, Montreal has a lot going on. It hosts Just for Laughs each summer, the planet's largest international stand-up comedy festival.

The Montreal International Jazz Festival is also a summertime event and draws the genre's leading musicians.

Get your toes tapping at one of the largest jazz festivals in the world - photo courtesy of Canadian Tourism Commission
Get your toes tapping at one of the largest jazz festivals in the world - photo courtesy of Canadian Tourism Commission

Locals have learnt to celebrate winter as a way of getting through it. Winter festivals include the Igloofest, where DJs get attendees dancing, and Montreal in Lights, which draws people outdoors to eat and see the city creatively lit up.

Join a tour of Montreal

Spade and Palacio offers guided walking and cycling tours that go beyond the obvious tourist attractions in downtown Montreal.

If you're a foodie, you're likely to enjoy the Beyond the Market tour, which visits the city's vast Jean-Talon Market plus food and drink outlets in the hip, multicultural Mile-Ex district.

Board an amphibious vehicle to see the Old Town from its cobbled streets before launching into the water of the St Lawrence River for views of Montreal's skyline.

With light-hearted commentaries, Amphi Tours includes landmarks such as the Notre-Dame Basilica and Jacques Cartier Bridge.

Day trips from Montreal

Saint-Constant, across the St Lawrence River, is under an hour from Montreal and home to Exporail, the Canadian Railway Museum.

You'll have opportunities to clamber aboard and beneath locomotives, see miniature trains in action and learn about the significance of the railway in Canada's settlement.

Exploring the Iîles-de-Boucherville by canoe © Sépaq, Jean-Sébastien Perron - courtesy of Tourisme Montréal
Exploring the Iîles-de-Boucherville by canoe © Sépaq, Jean-Sébastien Perron - courtesy of Tourisme Montréal

Visible from the city, îles-de-Boucherville National Park spreads across five islands in the St Lawrence.

You may see a green dragon, a species of endangered woodland plant, while following hiking and cycling trails. Stand up paddleboarding and kayaking count among the park's popular water-based activities.

Weather in Montreal

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Warm in summer, cold in winter and pleasant in between, you can find out more about the weather in Montreal and see when we think is the very best time to go.

Making the most of Montreal: browse the latest deals on holidays to Canada with Travelsphere, which offers itineraries that include stops in metropolitan Montreal.

More about Montreal

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  • Best time to go to Montreal
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Stuart Forster

Stuart Forster
Posted on Wednesday 24th July 2019 in: City Culture North America

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