We are very lucky to be located less than 200 miles south of Canada’s second largest city and the French-speaking cultural capital of North America.
If you don’t mind spending a little over three hours in the car each way, Montreal is an easily accessible locale for a quick weekend jaunt that truly feels as if you’ve crossed an ocean into Europe. English is spoken reluctantly, there is excellent bicycle infrastructure, and beautiful pastries await you on every corner.
Many in the Northeast are familiar with Montreal as a party/tourist destination where the drinking age is 18 and marijuana is now legal. While there’s more to this city than barely-legal bar-hopping, Montrealers do indeed love to tie one on, and there are bars, clubs and festivals to suit every taste throughout the city’s varied neighborhoods.
Almost every surface is covered in flyers advertising shows and concerts, ranging from big name headliners at the Bell Centre to obscure punk shows in someone’s basement.
I personally prefer staying in residential areas such as the Plateau, Mont-Royal or Mile-End and checking out the neighborhood pubs, bakeries and restaurants.
But, if it’s your first time in the city, and you’re interested in visiting tourist sights such as Old Montreal and the waterfront, the Botanical Garden/Olympic Stadium, Chinatown, etc, you will be pleased to find public transportation is great and the central areas are all highly walkable.
(For information on what kind of ID you need to cross the Canadian-U.S. border, and what sort of laws apply there, click here).
We try to visit Montreal at least once or twice every year, and have things down to a predictable formula. Here’s a list of stuff we do every single time we visit:
1) Rent Bixi bikes and explore.
Imagine if CDPHP bikes were available every quarter mile or so and our streets had protected and marked bike lanes with special traffic lights just for cyclists. This place is not a dream, it actually exists – though you have to cross a border to get there.
According to the city’s official tourism website, Montreal boasts more than 400 miles of bike paths and has consistently been rated one of the most bike-friendly cities in North America. Montreal’s Bixi bicycle rental system is a perfect way to get around the city and see the sights. I typically like to pay $5.25 for a full day rental of unlimited 30-minute rides and spend a few hours touring different areas.
If sharing streets with cars is not your thing, you can ride across the canal by the waterfront into Parc Jean-Drapeau, an expansive park on an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. From the Old Port area, you can also access the Lachine Canal bike path, which is very pretty.
2) Gorge on samples at a market.
Montreal is home to several fantastic public markets, selling everything: freshly caught oysters, seasonal produce, stinky cheese, you name it. There are many more markets throughout the city, but these are the two I’ve spent time at.
Marché Jean-Talon in the Little Italy neighborhood is the city’s most famous and expansive market, open 7 days a week. I especially love the beautiful rows of seasonal produce displays from farmers all over the province – and the free samples. You’ll see lots of people doing their shopping for the week and some tourists taking it all in. Nearby, don’t miss the cheese store La fromagerie Hamel!
Along the Lachine Canal, Marché Atwater is another year-round market held in a beautiful art deco building with a distinctive clock tower. Atwater Market is known for high-quality butcher shops and is a popular summertime destination for people riding bikes along the Lachine Canal bike path.
3) The Montreal-style bagel.
New York bagels are cool, but Montreal bagels are très cool. They are smaller, sweeter and denser than New York bagels, always baked in a wood-fired oven, and boiled in honey. Traditional seasonings include sesame and poppyseed.
Our favorite bagel destination is St-Viateur Bagel – there are multiple locations all over the city, but we usually go to the one on Mont-Royal Avenue with the giant bagel on the storefront. Fairmount Bagel and Bagel Etc. are also excellent, and there are a multitude of other options for adventurous diners. If you require more choices, you can find a list of 17 bagel spots at TimeOut Montreal.
4) Enjoy Montreal’s more relaxed drinking culture.
BYOB is alive and well in Montreal. Look for signs that say: “Apportez votre vin” – bring your own wine. Some, but not all restaurants will charge a corking (or is it uncorking?) fee. Supermarkets do sell wine, but under current provincial law, Quebec-manufactured wine and spirits can only be sold at SAQ (Quebec’s state-run liquor stores) or at the winery/distillery itself.
Beer culture in Montreal is spectacular, and the beer is refreshingly different to what’s brewing in upstate New York. While I am completely on board with the current hazy New England IPA trend, it’s nice to dabble in other styles when traveling.
Some of my favorite finds include the wonderfully fragrant 138 Gewurztraminer from Brasserie Harricana, Belgian-style Maudite from Unibroue, and Passion Houblon from Dieu du Ciel, an IPA brewed with passionfruit.
On a warm day, I love imbibing on the lawn of Parc Mont-Royal, which is perfectly legal as long as you’re eating a “meal” with your beverage(s) in an area with a picnic table. Sitting in the grass drinking can technically get you a ticket. Supermarkets, some bars and specialty beer shops sell cold individual cans and bottles.
If you’re on a hot date, Reservoir on Avenue Duluth in the Plateau has beautiful upstairs outdoor seating and a tasty menu to match.
5) Eat a great meal we can’t get around here.
With a population of almost 2 million, Montreal is a global city with a mind-boggling array of dining options to suit all budgets. The exchange rate is favorable and tipping customs are the same as at home. Don’t be surprised if servers refuse to speak English or seem grumpy about it, though.
Here’s a list of my personal favorites:
– La Banquise for a greasy poutine at 2 a.m.
– Pizzeria Napoletana or D’Agostino for proper pizza.
– Schwartz’s or Reuben’s Deli & Steakhouse for Montreal-style smoked meat sandwiches.
– Kazu, Biiru, or Kinka Izakaya for informal non-sushi Japanese.
– L’Express or Le Quartier General for a romantic, mostly-locals French meal.
– Au Pied Cochon or Maison Publique for hearty Quebecois working-class fine dining.
– Vua (many locations, we go to the one on Rue St.-Denis in the Latin Quarter) for a giant bag of takeout banh mi sandwiches to bring home. Only $5.25 for a big one!