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Vieux-Montréal / Old Montreal
Photograph: Tourisme Montréal/Stéphan PoulinVieux-Montréal et Vieux-Port: Place Jacques-Cartier

Best things to do in Old Montreal

Discover hidden gems among the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal, our ground zero for some of the best attractions and activities

Written by
Daniel Bromberg
Laura Osborne

Visiting Old Montreal is a one-stop-shop for some of the best things to do in this city, and walking through the neighbourhood alone is one of the city’s best attractions. The near-400-year history of the area reveals itself as you wander through its cobblestone streets, narrow alleyways, and shadows of its towering structures that once served as some of the most important facilities of the Port of Montreal.

The distinct charm of this area can be chalked up to its charismatic architecture, ease of walkability and the diversity of bars, restaurants, museums and boutiques that line its streets in all directions. Any given walkthrough will help remind you that Montreal once stood as the economic heart of Canada, painting a beautiful portrait of the wealthy financial institutions once backed by Scottish and British merchants. There’s so much more than meets the eye: Here is a list of a few of the most fun and fascinating things to do in Old Montreal.

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Grab a cup of third wave coffee
Photograph: Freddy Arciniegas

1. Grab a cup of third wave coffee

The historic area of Montreal has played a big part in the local third wave coffee scene, as independent cafés serving the city’s best coffee have set up shop in high-ceilinged industrial spaces, former banks (otherwise known as the most romantic coffee shop in Montreal) and even in a high-end clothing store. The rapid growth and evolution of third wave coffee looks good on Montreal.

Take in the view
Loïc Romer

2. Take in the view

Scaling the 192 steps of the Old Port Clock Tower can offer a glorious view of the entire harbour, as well as an impressive glance at the city skyline and the Saint-Lawrence River. This replica of the Big Ben in London was an important feature of the port due to its function as a clock (what else?), but also served as a memorial to the sailors who lost their lives at sea during wartime.

Spoil yourself
Photograph: Bota Bota

3. Spoil yourself

On the western edge of the Old Port located at the mouth of the Lachine Canal lies Bota Bota, a spa installed on an anchored boat in the shadow of Silo No. 5, a massive grain silo that is also part of ongoing discussion for redevelopment. This renowned spa (one of the best spas in the city) offers a variety of packages for those interested in going for a soak or just soaking in the sun, all with a spectacular view of the historic district and an on-site restaurant for your convenience.

Hit the streets
Photograph: Laurène Tinel | Tourisme Montréal

4. Hit the streets

If you’re new to the city, we recommend booking a walking tour with a professional tour agency to really get to know the ins and outs of the area. But a self-guided tour from one neighbourhood to the next is also an easy thing to pull off in one of the most walkable cities in the world—by foot or by bixi bike.

Take a spin
Photograph: La Grande Roue de Montréal

5. Take a spin

One of the Old Port’s newest attractions is the 60-metre tall Ferris wheel that remains open year-round thanks to its temperature-controlled cabins. A true feat of engineering, the Grande Roue de Montréal stands as Canada’s largest observation wheel and offers another opportunity to view the city and its surroundings from an aerial perspective. There are discounts for families, as well as a yearly pass for true fanatics.

Learn about the history of the city
Photograph: Courtesy Société des musées du Québec

6. Learn about the history of the city

If you’re on the hunt to learn more about the city and its foundation, look no further than museums such as Pointe-à-Callière, which provides an archeological insight into Montreal’s past, or the sociohistorical Centre d’Histoire de Montreal, now serving its final year in a former firefighter station across from Place d’Youville. There’s also Chateau Ramezay, located across from the Montreal City Hall and adjacent to Place Jacques-Cartier, which offers several portrayals of the city’s history as well as a wonderful French colonial garden in its backyard.

Discover the visual arts scene
Photograph: Richard-Max Tremblay

7. Discover the visual arts scene

For a more artistic perspective, head over to the Phi Centre (or any number of the stellar art galleries in town) to catch one of its interactive exhibits, concerts or film screenings, or swing by the DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art (you’ll know which one it is by the red, third-storey window). Yoko Ono’s GROWING FREEDOM is at centre stage this summer as the city celebrates the 50th anniversary of the famous bed-in at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel, where John Lennon composed the anti-war song Give Peace a Chance. Admission here’s free, a luxury that’s best not squandered.

Shop ‘til you drop
Photograph: The Montreal Fashion Society

8. Shop ‘til you drop

Saint-Paul Street, with its dozens of trendy restaurants and stunning lofts, prestigious art galleries and boutiques—including the lovely Maison Pepin—all act as the main thoroughfare and is where most tourists find themselves as they stroll the dimly lit streets in warm, summer evenings. You'll also find some of the best shopping in Montreal here.

Eat your way through the historic quarter
Photograph: David Boyer

9. Eat your way through the historic quarter

No one would argue that Montreal is a gastronomic heaven, and this is especially evident in Old Montreal. Grab lunch and an espresso at Olive & Gourmando, or dine at foodie destinations such as Le Bremner, Caffe Un Po' Di Piu, or the newly opened Monarque, all shining examples of the culinary delights found in this once-industrial district’s restaurants. If brunch is your thing, you're also in the right place, and those with a sweet tooth shouldn’t miss all of the patisserie shops with desserts that are simply to die for.

Sip one in style
Photograph: © Alison Slattery - Two Food Photographers - Tourisme Montréal

10. Sip one in style

Old Montreal’s got a particular concentration of some of the city’s best rooftop bars. Whether it be for lunch or to indulge yourself with a happy hour treat, climb (or take the elevator) to the roof of one of the many hotels as you people-watch and enjoy the sights from above. 

Catch a show
Photograph: Théâtre Centaur

11. Catch a show

English-speaking tourists will be comforted to know that there is at least one last refuge for public theater at the Centaur Theatre which offers a rotating schedule of affordable plays. Minutes away from the theatre is McGill Street, on the western edge of Old Montreal, which is lined with choice retail, Michelin star-level establishments and even traces of the ancient fortifications of the city.

Sneak off into some hidden addresses
Photograph: @dan.esteban

12. Sneak off into some hidden addresses

Montreal has a long history as North America’s sin city, dating to the Prohibition Era and well beyond. When it’s time to grab one at a cocktail bar, follow the locals as they disappear into hidden, underground speakeasies or street-level restaurant/bars.

Watch a majestic light show
Photograph: Susan Moss

13. Watch a majestic light show

What about churches, you say? While you will undoubtedly find yourself outside the Basilica of Notre-Dame, it’s what awaits you indoors that continues to impress the masses. We can pretty much guarantee that you’ve never seen a Roman Catholic church like the Notre-Dame Basilica. Provided you have the time, it’s worthwhile to purchase tickets for the Aura lightshow which plays nightly for $25.

Navigate the underground
Photograph: Fitz & Follwell / Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

14. Navigate the underground

If you found yourself intrigued by the old financial district, enter the World Trade Centre off Saint-Jacques Street to be dazzled by the 11 unique facades, a gorgeous Greek pool, a chunk of the Berlin Wall and even some traces of the old city walls, all under a spectacular glass canopy. This also connects to the RÉSO, or the Underground City, which can be quite convenient for winter travelers.

Get playful
Photograph: Tourisme Montréal/Stéphan Poulin

15. Get playful

Who can forget the playfulness of Place Jacques-Cartier, a gathering place for street performers and artists whose friendly faces greet you as you walk by, on your way to marvel at the Beaux-Arts style City Hall or heading south to the river’s edge. And don't forget the restaurants

Wander along the river
Photograph: Tourisme Québec - André Rider

16. Wander along the river

As Old Montreal continues to explode in popularity, countless renovation projects are underway as more commercial spaces are opening, paving the way for more worthwhile experiences. Just south of de la Commune Street lies an expansive park that stretches the length of the Old Port, connecting the city to an integral piece of Canadian history. Visitors can immerse themselves in the sights and sounds of the port by visiting the newly reconstructed Grand Quai, discovering the educational events at museums like the IMAX and Montreal Science Centre, or stroll the lengthy boardwalk from end to end.

Feast your eyes
Photograph: Rob Davis

17. Feast your eyes

With the City of Montreal being the official home of the Cirque du Soleil, each time a new show goes on tour it opens here first. Look for the tent in the Old Port to take in Guy Laliberté’s newest creation.

Feed your adventurous side
Photograph: Étienne Lechasseur

18. Feed your adventurous side

Word to the wise for families: Those with an appetite for adventure will find themselves with plenty of options on the eastern end of the Old Port where you’ll find a zipline, a pirate ship theme park and a labyrinth-style escape room all within a few metres of each other. While these are all paid activities, they stand as great options for energetic kids who tire easily with standard sightseeing stuff.

Glide on ice
Photograph: Stéphan Poulin | Tourisme Montréal

19. Glide on ice

Lucky enough to be in a city of four seasons, the city is transformed as the weather changes and new activities abound. In winter, the small body of water in the shadow of the Grand Roue Ferris wheel freezes over and becomes the Natrel Skating Rink, open to those who feel like skating under the lights of the neighbourhood. There are several festive events and thematic nights throughout the winter season such as fireworks and live music.

Turn up the heat
Photograph: Igloofest, Léa Lacroix

20. Turn up the heat

Perhaps the largest international outdoor winter music festival in the world, Igloofest has become synonymous with the start of each winter season as electronic DJs descend on Montreal to raise the temperature (and the volume) on the piers. Taking place over three weekends every January and February, this is one ice-cold party you don’t want to miss. Just make sure to dress warm, but in something you can remove parts of—once you start dancing, things can get a bit heated.

Dance it off
Photograph: Karel Chladek

21. Dance it off

Old Montreal has blossomed over the last decade as one of the central hubs of the city’s nightlife. There are loads of happening nightclubs here, all of which are guaranteed to be packed full of partygoers on Thursdays through Saturdays. Most venues focus on electronic dance music, but you may get lucky with reggaeton or hip-hop nights, depending on where you go.

Hunt down this curio
Photograph: Marguerite-Bourgeoys Museum and Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel

22. Hunt down this curio

The Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, now commonly referred to as the Sailor’s Church, is not to be missed if you’re here for curious destinations (or on a religious pilgrimage). Nearby, on Saint-Louis Street, you can still find examples of original wooden houses built outside the old city walls which remain standing in defiance of innumerable odds over the last few centuries.

Find what’s fresh
Photograph: Hoi Do Photography

23. Find what’s fresh

At the southern end of McGill Street lies the Marché des Éclusiers, a small marketplace and outdoor bar area dedicated to highlighting the best Quebec products on the market. The area focuses on creating a communal space where producers and consumers alike discover eco-responsible and sustainable food options in an informal, laid-back waterfront setting.

Marvel at the artwork
Photograph: Olivier Blouin

24. Marvel at the artwork

On the eastern end of this heritage district, marvel at the spectacular Marché Bonsecours, built in 1844 and currently used primarily as a space to learn about (and purchase) indigenous works of art. It also serves as the site of the international World Press Photo exhibit every fall which features award-winning visual journalists’ work from the year prior.

Lie on the sandy shores
Photograph: Miguel Legault

25. Lie on the sandy shores

Perhaps the most leisurely activity on offer in the Old Port area is grabbing a sunny spot on Montreal-based landscape architect Claude Cormier’s Clock Tower Beach. Open during peak summer months, this stretch of sand on the edge of the harbour offers ideal tanning conditions and yoga classes ($10) to boot. It’s also a great spot to catch the fireworks ($5) a few times per summer. The only catch is that swimming isn’t available here.

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