There’s an undeniable energy to Montreal, a French-speaking city (don’t worry; you’ll be fine using English) that seduces all the senses. Heaps of heritage underpin this idyllic island metropolis at the nexus of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers. While Montreal’s old-world architecture, modern gastronomy, urban street art, and mix of cultures ignite flickers of Paris and New York, Quebec’s largest city is in a class of its own. The months of May and June are ideal to discover Montreal’s centuries-old history and dynamic atmosphere. This guide is all you need to be captivated by this sensational city.
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Old Montreal: For an immersive experience in this cutting-edge city, first delve into its past in Old Montreal. Wander the cobblestone streets, where you’ll instantly be drawn to sites like Pointe-à-Callière Museum and awestruck by AURA, an immersive multimedia experience at landmark Notre-Dame Basilica, a Gothic-Revival stunner. Be sure to stop in for a snack at one of the area’s atmospheric spots like Le Petit Dep, a quaint cafe and deli full of treats from local producers.
Place des Festivals: Live entertainment and festivals galore are part of Montreal’s DNA, and this award-winning community gathering place is its beating heart. Place des Festivals, recipient eight architecture and design awards since 2009, is in the Quartier des Spectacles, an area dedicated to urban entertainment. Every June, in the square, mingle with locals at the free outdoor concerts of Francos de Montréal and tease your ear with some of the best French-world music or attend the city’s international jazz festival which kicks off at the end of the month. For a fun and unique activity, try 21 Balançoires (21 Swings), a collaborative musical installation that invites people to make a melody as they swing.
Food markets: It’s no secret that Montrealers are serious gastronomes — Town & Country magazine previously named the city “the new food capital of North America.” For a primer on the local food scene, eat and explore your way through the city’s five public markets, like Atwater Market in up-and-coming Southwest borough, one of the largest flower market in Montréal and a fantastic place to fill up on fresh, local discoveries. Venture beyond the market by foot to explore Saint-Henri and Griffintown, two neighborhoods known for their cool shops and cafés where you’ll find some of Canada’s top restaurants like wine bar Le Vin Papillon and its older sibling Joe Beef, the inventive Italian cuisine of Nora Gray, Foxy (where everything is cooked in a wood oven) and the dynamic Arthur’s Nosh Bar known for its delectable brunch. Still hungry? Take a food tour to discover more of Montreal’s culinary heritage.
Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel and Marguerite-Bourgeoys Museum: It’s a rare occasion when you can climb up to the tower of a religious edifice. Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel's balcony, open to the public, offers sweeping city views. Who’s that statue of a woman overlooking the chapel? It’s the “lady” referenced in Leonard Cohen’s song Suzanne. To get the lowdown about these fascinating monuments, join a tour of the Marguerite-Bourgeoys museum (reopening on May 8, 2020) , the 300-year-old chapel, and the archeological site below. Launching in 2020 is the new permanent exhibition Oser Marguerite celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Montreal pioneer who established New France’s very first school and after whom the museum takes its name.
Cirka: Montreal’s first craft distillery open to the public bottles the essence of Quebec’s northern boreal forest in its handcrafted spirits. All Cirka’s products are made with non-GMO Quebec-grown corn, including Gin Sauvage (literally “wild gin”), which is infused with more than 30 botanicals, giving it heady pine, floral, and fruity notes. Tours are offered at this distillery near the Lachine Canal National Historic Site, plus you can learn how to create an original cocktail in its mixology classes.
4 Origines Microbrasserie: Settle into the taproom at 4 Origines Microbrasserie to sip its handcrafted beers inspired by Montreal’s heritage, such as Côté Canal, a dry-hopped American session IPA (it’s only 4.2% ABV), and Apriknot, a pale ale brewed with apricot tea. Peek at the production process through the taproom windows, or go deeper and talk to the brewers when touring the operations. You won’t find a restaurant at 4 Origines, but you’re welcome to bring food for your own “brewery picnic” in the taproom or alongside the canal.
Cidrerie Michel Jodoin: Discover a different side of Quebec’s imbibing culture at Cidrerie Michel Jodoin. This artisanal cider house is located in Rougemont, just 45 minutes from Montreal, where you can hike mountain trails overlooking apple orchards. Join a tour and tasting of the cidrerie and distillery to discover a dozen traditionally-made ciders, from sparkling to still and ice to crackling, as well as apple-based spirits such as vermouth and eau de vie.
Bar St-Denis: Settle in with the locals at this casual new bar and eatery; two of its owners are former chefs from Montreal’s celebrated Au Pied de Cochon. Bar St-Denis welcomes guests to unwind in the exposed-brick space with a cocktail or refreshing glass of Quebec cider. The kitchen is open until 1 a.m. so there’s plenty of time to nibble through the small menu’s superb bites like chicken croquettes (nuggets) and falafel, a nod to co-owner Emily Homsy’s Egyptian roots.
Monarque: Father and son Richard and Jérémie Bastien have had Montreal’s gourmets salivating since they opened their new French restaurant. Four years in the making, the 1845 building has metamorphosed from old hotel into a showy space. Monarque’s trio of rooms each has its own menu, where you can indulge on appetizers such as bone marrow or Burgundy snails in the brasserie (bistro), tuck into grilled venison tartare and tarte tatin (tart with carmelized apples) in the salle à manger (dining room), or opt for an intimate evening in the private dining room, which has its own kitchen.
New Gourmet Food Halls: To satisfy to the ever-growing appetite of the local culinary scene, three new gourmet food halls (think renowned chefs, three-service menus, and beautiful public gathering spaces) have recently opened downtown Montreal. At Le Central, culinary creativity and multiculturalism is the word. There, icons from the city’s gastronomic scene rub shoulders with up and coming restaurateurs. For a festive social experience, head to Place Ville Marie’s brand new indoor garden and glass pavilion, home to Le Cathcart Restaurants et Biergarten. Described as a “a collaboration of restaurants” by acclaimed Chef Antonio Park, this social space is a local hot spot for drinks and delicious eats, from high-end to fast-casual dining. Time Out Market Montréal, parent with the popular Time Out Markets in Lisbon, Miami, New York, Boston and Chicago, brings together 16 eateries, three bars, a demo kitchen, and a cooking academy under one roof at the Eaton Centre. This foodie destination has been carefully curated by the editors of Time Out Magazine and promises to show you the best of the city from food to culture.
Marcus Restaurant + Terrace: One of the best spots to catch the sunset overlooking the city’s iconic Mount Royal, is the expansive outdoor patio at Marcus Restaurant + Terrace in the Four Seasons Montreal. This elegant restaurant by Marcus Samuelson, Swedish Ethiopian chef and restaurateur who calls New York home, specializes in luxury surf and turf. Here, expect stackable seafood towers, to hand-crafted cocktails and amazing wines, for a dining experience you won’t forget.
Mount Royal Park: Public art, religious monuments, historic landmarks, and urban wilderness all make Mount Royal Park a magnet for locals and visitors alike. This 470-acre urban retreat has wooded paths for cycling and hiking, and jaw-dropping panoramas of the cityscape and St. Lawrence River. Stroll through an area called the Glades to see 11 sculptures gracing the lush landscape facing Smith House (peek inside to see its exhibits). Go back even further in time by discovering landmarks like the 98-foot Mount Royal Cross. It was raised in 1924 in homage to the original wooden structure placed 1643 by Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, a French missionary and co-founder of Montreal.
Cité Mémoire: When dusk descends on Montreal’s streets, buildings surrounding Champ-de-Mars (a public green space) become the screens for Cité Mémoire’s Grand Tableau, one of the productions put on throughout the city by Montréal en Histoires. On weekends, massive projectors display 375 years of Montreal milestones like the 1680–1750 Beaver Rebellion and colorful characters such as hockey legend Maurice “Rocket” Richard. Amplify the experience by downloading Montréal en Histoires’ interactive app, choosing your walking route, connecting to the city’s free wifi, and taking a visual stroll back in time.
Old Montréal and the Old Port: Cobblestone streets, iconic architecture, and non-stop action in the heart of the city, welcome to Old Montréal, a district that blends centuries of history with modernity. For spectacular views of the city, take a ride on La Grande Roue de Montréal, Canada’s tallest observation wheel or “fly” over Bonsecours Island with MTL Zipline. If you prefer to keep both feet on the ground, wander through the 19th century buildings,boutiques, designer shops, galleries, and studios of Saint-Paul Street, which once was Montréal’s main street. A stop a Marché Bonsecours one of Canada's finest heritage buildings and a bustling marketplace that showcases Québec artists, is also a must for those looking to bring home something that can’t be found anywhere else.
Betina Lou: This eponymous Montreal-based brand founded in 2009 focuses on creating timeless essentials like sweaters made with fine wool. Betina Lou’s collection is sold in its workshop-boutique, which also offers the gamut of Canadian-designed goods from socks and undies in punchy colors and versatile kimono jackets for women, plus pants and shorts for men, home goods, and more.
Maison Pepin: Siblings Lysanne and Patrick Pepin curate the best of fashion, home, and art, with a strong focus on Canadian talent, at Maison Pepin. Whether you’re looking for the perfect handbag, locally-made houseware, beautiful furniture or rich wall art, this little piece of urban paradise, complete with a café and green spaces will have you charmed.
Frank and Oak: Eco-conscious materials (think recycled wool and hemp) and production methods are at the forefront of Frank and Oak, created in 2012 by Montrealers Ethan Song and Hicham Ratnani. Its collections are as varied as they are coveted, with blazers and suits hanging in its stores alongside everyday gear like denim, sweatshirts, and comfy tees for men and women. Each boutique is built with sustainable materials and designed in partnership with Canadian artisans. Plan your new wardrobe with an in-store stylist and book a barber to complete your look while you relax with an espresso or kombucha.
MURAL: Gaze in wonder at the in-your-face murals lining Saint-Laurent Boulevard during the eleven-day MURAL festival every June. This international celebration showcasing top talent from around the globe features a behind-the-scenes tour where you can learn about the democratization of urban art. While exploring, make sure to walk over to Crescent Street to see the multi-story Tower of Songs mural created in honor of Montreal-born artist Leonard Cohen.
Cinéma du Musée: Housed inside the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), the new Cinéma du Musée adds to the city’s flourishing cultural scene. This 291-seat venue has been transformed into a hub for independent film, screened in the original language and subtitled in English or French. The cinema also collaborates to host special events, like the International Festival of Films on Art, the world’s largest festival of its kind.