Best things to do in Montreal
What is it: In the heart of Old Montreal, the first Gothic revival church in Canada stands as a grandiose testament to the city’s religious heritage. Dating back to 1824, the historic monument boasts an imposing Casavant organ with upwards of 7,000 pipes and the Gros Bourdon, the largest bell in North America.
Why go: Bathed in blues and stained glass, the basilica’s richly ornamented edifices are crowned by the nave’s high-vaulted azure ceilings, dotted in a canopy of gold stars. Tickets for a light show and organ performance are also available, but a visit for the architecture alone would suffice.
What is it: European in feel, Old Montreal’s narrow cobblestoned streets and old-world edifices harken back to as early as the 17th century, when the first settlers arrived. A quick promenade to the Old Port’s riverside boardwalks offers stunning views of the Clock Tower and Jacques Cartier Bridge.
Why go: Still bustling, the old city center is filled with landmarks like Bonsecours Market, Aldred Building and City Hall. Art galleries and trendy eateries like Crew Collective & Café, Olive & Gourmando and Barroco bring modern prestige to historical buildings in novel and savory ways.
What is it: A fixture in Little Italy since 1933, this open-air public market is one of the oldest and largest of its kind in North America. Flower, fruit and vegetable stands showcase the best of the local harvest alongside specialty vendors of cheese, charcuterie, pastries and other artisanal products.
Why go: Fresh Quebecoise produce may be the market's main draw but temptations from surrounding eateries such as Le Petit Alep, Café Saint-Henri MJT and El Rey Del Taco are also worth a gander.
What is it: Built for the 1976 Olympic games, the Olympic Stadium’s 45-degree angled tower is still the tallest inclined tower in the world and is worth a trip to the top for westward views of the city. Next door, the Biodôme (which is set to reopen in 2019) recreates natural North American ecosystems, including the Sub-Antarctic Islands habitat made famous by its playful penguins.
Why go: Every Sunday, the esplanade in front of the stadium lights up with Fiesta Olympica, a free-entry Latin-themed dance and food festival. On the first Friday of every month, 50 food trucks congregate in the same area, creating an impromptu outdoor food court of the city’s best meals on wheels.
What is it: Credited with making smoked meat—not pastrami—a staple of the Montreal diet, Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen has been churning out the schmutz on The Main since 1928. Once partially owned by French-Canadian songstress Celine Dion, the institution is as much a cultural landmark as it is a deli.
Why go: Lined-up around the corner outside and packed shoulder-to-shoulder inside, patrons show up in droves for the special: a medium-fat smoked meat sandwich with a side of fries, a pickle and Cott’s Black Cherry Soda.
What is it: Both literally and figuratively at the center of the city’s crowded craft beer scene, this Mile End-based brewpub keeps over 15 beers on tap, ranging from experimental oak-aged sour beer to hoppy new wave IPAs and a maple-infused scotch ale.
Why go: The Aphrodisiaque, a dark and velvety cocoa and vanilla stout, ranks as one of the best beers in the world and is made on site in the in-house brewery.
What is it: Most Montrealers agree that a visit to the bagel shop is a must, but they’re split down the middle when it comes to choosing between Fairmount and St-Viateur Bagel. Since the shops are only a Mile End block apart, it’s worth to taste test both varieties to find out which side of the bagel rivalry you’re on.
Why go: Softer on the inside and sweeter than the New York style, Montreal bagel-makers tend not to trifle with frivolous flavors. Classic sesame with Liberté cream cheese is the way to go.
What is it: Docked at Atwater Quay, just behind the similarly named market, this Bateau Mouche turned floating bar is a fun summertime watering hole. Dubbed Canal Lounge, the spot’s menu focuses on classic cocktails and reasonably priced tap beers.
Why go: Montreal may be on an island, but restaurants and bars of the floating variety are few and far between. Plus, the Canal Lounge’s rooftop deck offers waterside views that can’t be beat.
What is it: Atop the Society for Arts and Technology’s (SAT) location on St. Laurent sits the Satosphere, the first modular and immersive theater of its kind. More than 150 speakers and eight video projectors are used to bring digital installations to life in the futuristic 42-foot-tall dome.
Why go: A little-known secret of the SAT is that it’s home to one of the Latin Quarter’s best rooftop patios. Outside on the third-floor terrace, the silver Satosphere becomes the backdrop for inventive cocktails and seasonal menu options from Labo Culinaire.
What is it: Easily accessible by subway, car, bike or river shuttle, Parc Jean Drapeau is spread across two islands in the St. Lawrence River southeast of Montreal. With open green spaces, the park offers an outdoorsy escape from the city and hosts big events like Osheaga, Piknic Electronik and the International Fireworks Competition.
Why go: For those into sports and recreation, there’s no shortage of things to do on the island, from hiking and kayaking to visiting the beach or the aquatic complex. When the Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve isn’t being used for the Grand Prix, cyclists and rollerbladers are welcome to run laps. If you’re more into entertainment, visit the casino or the La Ronde amusement park.
What is it: Within the Place des Arts complex of the Quartier des Spectacles is the MAC, Canada’s largest museum dedicated to contemporary art. Already architecturally ambitious, the museum—which houses almost 8,000 art pieces—is set to undergo a massive glass-covered makeover next year.
Why go: Before the MAC closes in January 2019 and establishes temporary headquarters elsewhere, make sure to see one of the museum’s most well-known pieces, La Voie lactée by Geneviève Cadieux. Installed on the roof of the museum, the looming photo of a woman’s sensuous lips has been a part of the city’s skyline since 1992.
What is it: Every June, Mural Festival transforms The Main into a massive block party and urban art gallery as international artists are invited to make the city their canvas. Festivities over the 11-day period include art exhibitions, guided mural tours, the Grill St. Laurent food festival and, of course, parties galore.
Why go: Even if you can’t make it for the festival, street art can be admired along Saint Laurent all year round. Kevin Lido’s nine-story mural of Leonard Cohen on the side of the Cooper Building continues to inspire pilgrimages by numerous street art and music devotees.
What is it: Each summer, the world’s largest jazz festival kicks into full swing in the Quartier des Spectacles neighborhood, with free and ticketed concerts in outdoor and indoor venues.
Why go: Don’t worry if jazz isn’t your jam. Organizers have been known to book an eclectic array of headliners, which over the years has included the likes of Lauryn Hill, Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys.
What is it: This reclaimed public space on the edge of the St. Lawrence River in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve has been reimagined as a beachy art commune. Installations merge with playgrounds, pavilions, gardens and games in the eclectic open market.
Why go: On a warm summer night, with the iconic Jacques Cartier bridge in the background, the village’s beer garden is an ideal spot to catch live music and Montreal’s annual International Fireworks Competition.
What is it: Montreal gets down to funny business every July when the world’s largest international comedy festival opens in clubs and theaters across the city. Whether you go for the all-access express pass or stick to scoping out free shows, the program is packed with plenty of live acts.
Why go: The four-day festival has a reputation for being the scouting grounds for up-and-coming talent. The likes of Rowan Atkinson, Drew Carey, Jon Stewart, Kumail Nanjiani and Flight of the Conchords all have the festival to thank for catapulting their comedic careers.
What is it: Weather permitting (and sometimes not), summertime Sundays are spent in Mount Royal and Jeanne-Mance park under the watch of the Sir George-Étienne Cartier monument. Slackliners, circus performers, larpers and casual picnickers gather in droves on the mountainside, with the Tam-Tam drum circle and dancers pounding out a rhythmic soundtrack.
Why go: Hippies and hipsters come together at this free and freewheeling weekly festival. Although there’s a light police presence, authorities tend to have a laissez faire attitude toward drinking and recreational drug use during Tam-Tams.
What is it: While situated in a restored heritage building in the heart of Old Montreal, this multipurpose art venue favors the avant-garde with exhibitions, film screenings, concerts and special talks. A permanent Virtual Reality Garden installation is a premier destination for artists working in the immersive format.
Why go: The centre’s curators and programmers have a knack for booking up-and-coming artists and also surprisingly big stars. Musicians like Madonna and Diplo have made special appearances at the intimate venue, and local filmmakers Denis Villeneuve and Xavier Dolan have held special screenings and events here as well.
What is it: Montreal is more often associated with wintry scenes than it is with summer, but the quasi-Califonication of part of the city’s riverside is underway. Named after the Expo-era Brutalist block housing complex it sits adjacent to, Habitat 67—aka H67—is a natural standing wave in the St. Lawrence river, perfect for hanging ten.
Why go: Surfers are pulled in by the wave’s ability to reach heights of up to two meters, which is pretty high by river standards. More novice river water enthusiasts can also paddle downstream to the Lachine Canal’s bunny rapids.
What is it: Head down to the Old Port for a floating spa experience on a modern ferryboat. The Nordic water circuit stimulates and relaxes as you move from dry sauna or steam bath to cold dip, finishing in the whirlpool on the middle deck, which boasts impressive views of Old Montreal.
Why go: Thanks to a partnership with two local cinemas, a selection of Cannes Film Festival movies will be screened for patrons at dusk from an inflatable waterproof screen.
What is it: Every summer, the busiest thoroughfare in the Gay Village is transformed into a festive, pedestrian-only walkway. Running along Saint-Catherine from rue Berri to rue Papineau, 70 special art installations and more than 50 terraces are dotted along the stretch—creating a stunning visual.
Why go: More than 180,000 balls float over the street, forming an 18-colour rainbow. Designed by Claude Cormier, the multicolored ball canopy is picture perfect from below or above. To get an overhead view, find the bridge near the TVA building or visit one of the village’s rooftop terraces.
What is it: Each January, thousands of toque and mitten-clad electronic-music revelers descend upon Jacques-Cartier Quay in Old Montreal for the coldest outdoor music festival in the world.
Why go: Despite its frigid temperatures, the winter dance party is one of the hottest electronic music events of the year. People fly in from across the globe to dance under a wintry sky to cold beats spun by some of the world’s best EDM DJs.
What is it: Grab tickets to see one of Montreal’s rough-and-rowdy women’s roller derby team's home games. Founded in 2006 as the first flat-track league in North America, the organization now includes five fiercely competitive teams.
Why go: Montreal’s Roller Derby League ranks as one of the best in the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. And while it’s not every day that you get to see women crushing it in a rink, these gals also know how to seriously dominate puns. Names like Bomb Jovi, VelvetOnTheGround, Miracle Whips and Banger Management pack an extra punch into the hard-hitting affair.