Things to Know Before Traveling to Montreal, Quebec

Things to Know Before Traveling to Montreal, Quebec

Montreal, I’ve tried to leave you. I really have. I’ve traveled the world and lived life on the road. I even made the move and briefly fell in love with your arch-nemesis, Toronto. But no matter how far I wander, I’m always drawn back by your allure. 

There really is no place like you, even though people constantly try to compare you to other cities. Sure, you have adorable houses and cobblestone streets like Paris, but you’re gritty like New York without all the requisite anxiety. With you, I can let my hair, and mustache, down. I can wake up late and go for some of the best croissants outside of Europe. I can dance like a hippie at Tam-Tams or Piknic Électronik. In summer, I can spontaneously bike around until I find a hopping terrasse, and when it gets cold, I can head inside to catch a drag show or snuggle up in a low-lit speakeasy. 

Any way you cut it, you and your French-Canadian joie de vivre are simply irresistible.

Montreal, je t’aime. Here’s why.

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Plateau Mont-Royal is known for being laid-back and artsy. | Patrick Donovan/Moment/Getty Images

Wander through Montreal’s unique neighborhoods

Many North American cities are built for car travel. Montreal is not most North American cities. It’s a city of narrow streets, enormous parks, and lush green back alleys (or ruelles vertes). Which is to say, Montreal is meant to be strolled, and the entire city is easily accessed by metro.

Taking things by foot is the best way to really immerse yourself in the neighborhoods that give the city its unique verve, historic flavor, and unique artistic flair. Objectively declaring the coolest neighborhood in Montreal is a near-impossible task sure to spark feverish debate. However, Plateau-Mont-Royal might just win the popular vote. Its colorful buildings—especially those around Square St. Louis—are truly stunning. Plus, the Plateau is conveniently located near iconic delis, trendy cafes, the St. Laurent club strip, and the city’s prettiest parks including La Fontaine, Laurier, and the mountain.

For the city’s hottest restaurants and a spot on the water, Saint-Henri is where it’s at. Meanwhile, the Mile End (which is technically in the Plateau borough) isn’t as hip as it was back when Arcade Fire and Grimes were hanging out there, but it’s still a cool area to grab an Airbnb. Little Italy makes good on its name thanks to its wealth of espresso-slinging cafes and carb-intensive eateries, while the historic Old Montreal remains a must visit for first-timers thanks to its four centuries of history and grandiose architecture, tourists tripping on the cobblestones and all.

Still trying to decide where to explore in Montreal? Here’s a breakdown of the coolest neighborhoods according to a local (a.k.a. yours truly).

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Montreal’s bagels can go head-to-head with New York’s | Fairmount Bagel Bakery

Eat your way through one of North America’s best food cities

Surely you’ve heard of Montreal’s famous foods, from colorful macarons to arguably the world’s greatest bagels. Perhaps even their famous rivalries—St. Viateur vs. Fairmount for bagels, Schwartz’s vs. The Main for smoked meat, La Banquise vs. Chez Claudette for poutine, Romados vs. Ma Poule Mouilée for Portuguese chicken—but there’s just so. Much. More. As a melting pot of 1.8 million, Montreal is a place where global flavors come together to create one of the best food experiences on the continent.

There are your gluttonous classics like Anthony Bourdain-approved Au Pied du Cochon and Joe Beef. Then you’ve got Damas for exquisite Syrian, L’Express for fine French cuisine, and Sushi Momo for vegan sushi. Markets like There’s also a fiercely competitive cheap(ish) eats scene including Arepera, Falafel Yoni, and Tacos Frida, and you’d be remiss not to try Montreal-style hot dogs (a.k.a. “steamies”) at the Montreal Pool Room, an old-school joint that dates back to 1912.

From incredible pizza to succulent dim sum, open-air markets to posh fine-dining destinations, there’s truly something for every taste. I could go on forever—but I’ll leave the best picks to the experts, instead.

Get swept up in Montreal’s vibrant nightlife

Americans have long made pilgrimages to Montreal to party, from back in the Prohibition days when alcohol was illegal, to now, since the drinking age is 18 in the US. Rowdy tourists and the bachelorette parties usually get their kicks downtown on Crescent and St. Catherine streets, or in touristy Old Montreal—but there are better places to have a night out that aren’t thronged with college freshmen trying to slur out drink orders in broken French.

You’ve got hip dives like Notre-Dame-des-Quilles with its indoor bowling alley, twinkly-light date spots like Le Majestique, speakeasies like Le Mal Nécessaire, breweries like Dieu du Ciel!, and classy wine bars like Pullman. Of course, there are also your clubs for a big night out like Apt. 200. Throw in a healthy brewing and distilling scene and you’ve got one of the best places for a night out anywhere.

So while I’m not going to tell you that you’re not going to have fun in the touristy areas, trust me: Montreal’s best bars, speakeasies, and clubs are where you’ll want to be when the sun goes down.

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Montreal is one of Canada’s greenest cities. | Mike/iStock /Getty Images Plus

Getting outdoors is just part of the experience

Despite being Canada’s second-largest city, Montreal is the country’s third greenest, which, given the fact that Canada is overflowing with natural wonders, is pretty astounding. What’s more, Montreal’s outdoors game is as much about quality and variety as it is sheer quantity. Along with moments spent leisurely wandering the aforementioned parks (plus Jarry, Jean-Drapeau, and dozens of other enormous green spaces), chances to escape to quiet, laid-back outdoor spaces are in no short supply.

In Saint-Henri, you can bike, canoe, or kayak along the historic Lachine Canal; in Verdun, you can stroll along the Wellington promenade or lounge on the shores of one of Montreal’s many beaches (or have a unique urban beach experience at the Old Port); or head to the Jardin de Sculptures de Lachine to stroll or bike through an open-air art gallery.

The streets are filled with festivals and culture

Montreal likes to keep busy. There are some days where more than a dozen festivals are happening at once, and it’s impossible to choose which one to attend. You’ll give yourself FOMO just thinking about it.

In the summer, the world’s biggest artists play at Osheaga and its electronic younger sibling Île Soniq on Parc Jean-Drapeau, an island that’s easily accessible by bike or metro. Then you’ve got Just for Laughs and the Montreal Jazz Fest, two world-class festivals in Quartier des Spectacles, as well as Montreal’s Circus Festival and the MURAL graffiti festival. And the fun doesn’t stop in winter when the city turns out dozens of different exhibits at Nuit Blanche or the chilly outdoor dance party that is Igloofest.

But it’s not just festivals keeping things lively in Montreal. The PHI Centre has state-of-the-art interactive exhibits that meet at the confluence of art, design, and science. You can get a taste of Montreal’s surprisingly salacious roots with a cabaret at Chez Mado. If that isn’t enough to fill a week or three, check out the exhibits at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts or head to the east end for the Botanical Gardens, Olympic Stadium, Insectarium, Planetarium, or freshly-renovated Biodome, all of which you can find at Espace pour la Vie.

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Joel Balsam is a Canadian freelance journalist and guidebook author who writes for Lonely Planet, National Geographic, TIME, BBC Travel, and more. His home base is Montreal, but he can often be found tasting his way through a packed market somewhere.

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