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The best things to do in Montreal in winter

The best winter activities in Montreal make for the ideal winter playground, whether you're looking for family-friendly fun or a big night out.

Written by
Gregory Vodden
&
Laura Osborne
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UPDATE, winter 2022: Montrealers know how to make the best of the cold season. We get up and out of the house with a list of the best things to do: There’s tons of skiing near Montreal and ice skating, sure, but there’s also tons of festivals that rival the city’s summer counterparts, a ton of nightlife events, and comforting eats in the city’s best restaurants and New Year's Eve parties. Bundle up and don’t let the season pass you by.

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Where to find the best things to do in Montreal in winter

Dance the night away at Igloofest
Photograph: Toshimi Juan Muniz

1. Dance the night away at Igloofest

A much-loved annual electronic music festival held in Old Montreal, Igloofest began inconspicuously in 2007 and now easily draws crowds in the tens of thousands. Running from mid-January to the beginning of February, the festival increasingly boasts heavy-hitters in the electronic music scene and is managing to convince growing numbers of attendees that the best way to keep warm when the deep freeze sets in is to put on your best one-piece snowsuit and dance the night away.

Get dazzled by Montreal en Lumière

Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Festival MONTRÉAL EN LUMIÈRE

2. Get dazzled by Montreal en Lumière

Montreal’s largest and most comprehensive winter festival during the last week of February, Montreal en Lumière features extensive outdoor activities, music concerts, dance, theater and circus performances, art and technology exhibits, wine tastings, remarkable fine dining at some of the city’s best restaurants, and an almost endless display of lights strung up through the city to lead you between attractions. If that’s not enough to get you out of the house, we don’t know what will.

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Rue Wellington in Montreal was named coolest street in the world according to this year’s Time Out Index listRue Wellington—home to Promenade Wellington, the main drag—is flanked by one of the best restaurants, and one of the best new restaurants in the city, so there’s no questioning its cool factor. Add some next-level cocktail bars, stellar brunch spots, and some of the best sandwiches in town, and you've got a winning combination.

Hosted in a former bathhouse, this kinky costume party has a very strict dress code, helpful Pinterest reference board and some no-nonsense rules. The Carnavalesque Snow Ball—hosted by Cirque de Boudoir—promises to gather the best-looking crowds, and some of the most extreme fetish entertainment in the city. Featuring electronic music from the best DJs, live burlesque, gogo dancers, circus performances, a dungeon, and a special midnight countdown with host Plastik Patrik, this party is going to be off the hook.

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Stay up all night at Nuit Blanche
Photograph: Nuit blanche à Montréal / Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

5. Stay up all night at Nuit Blanche

Tracing its roots back to Helsinki, nuit blanche celebrations have become internationally popular. Montreal’s particular take on the festival as a part of Montreal en Lumière (every year in March) sees nearly 300,000 stir-crazy nighthawks looking to get out of doors and experience the almost 200 cultural activities going on around town. These include—and are far from limited to—poetry events, dance pieces, theater performances, art exhibitions and culinary experiences. One of the best parts is getting around, as the metro is open all night to make sure you get home by dawn.

Eat your heart out at a sugar shack
Photograph: Alison Slattery

6. Eat your heart out at a sugar shack

Maple syrup is a truly one-of-a-kind product exclusive to this part of the world and few institutions can better celebrate it than the local producers themselves. Au Pied de Cochon might be the most well-known of the local sugar shacks for its legendarily creative and decadent meals heavy on foie-gras, duck fat and, of course, maple sugar in all its forms (running from August to November and February to May). Sucrerie de la Montagne is a sugar shack with the feeling of a small village and a preference for the traditional techniques of yesteryear. Make sure to try their fresh baked bread! La Cabane à Sucre Handfield is an estate that dates back to 1850 and is also thoroughly committed to traditional sugar shack fare—the difference with Handfield is that they offer menu adjustments to accommodate low fat, low sodium, vegetarian and gluten-free diets to ensure you can bring the whole family along.

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Montreal’s coolest pop-up bar, Riverside Bar, is bringing glamorous igloo vibes and seriously n’ice cocktails to Saint-Henri. In a city known for its epic nightlife—think best bars, hidden drinking dens and speakeasies and downtown pre-game spots—this ice bar by the Lachine Canal is the perfect addition. In addition to the ice palace vibes, “Hiverside” (Riverside’s winter alter-ego) will be serving up hot and cold cocktails, along with non-alcoholic mocktails. 

The Esplanade Tranquille in the Quartier des Spectacles—a gigantic free outdoor rink—has stepped up their winter game and is putting on a next-level light installation experience for skaters that is completely free. From 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. every day, colourful, interactive video projections follow skaters as they move across the ice. Twice the size of the The Rink at Rockefeller Center, you can expect 70s vibes on Saturday nights thanks to all the musical disco hits (hello, Donna Summer!), and classical vibes (Mozart and more) on Wednesday afternoons.  

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Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica is already one of the city’s major attractions for good reason, but during the winter months? The basilica hosts a light and sound show called AURA. Produced with the help of Moment Factory, a well-known local multimedia studio and the end result is a mesmerizing mix of coloured light, organ music and timeless architecture.

Tour the city’s cross-country trails
Photograph: Eva Blue / Tourisme Montréal

10. Tour the city’s cross-country trails

Skiing is a popular and easy-to-learn winter sport for all ages, and Montreal is home to a whole host of excellent cross-county skiing venues equipped with chalets, rental services and facilities to go along with its 200km of well-maintained trails. The city’s most popular spots include the easygoing novice trails of Parc Jean-Drapeau, the Botanical Gardens or the Lachine Canal, intermediate trails in the enormous Cap-Saint-Jacques park, and advanced trails with challenging inclines on Mount Royal, right in the middle of the city.

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It may be small, but it has mega-swagger: With its restaurant rows, swank hangouts and a strong reputation for live entertainment in the city, the best things to do in the Mile End of Montreal are as many as they are varied. Making up the northern section of the grander borough of Plateau-Mont-Royal, it’s known as one of the city’s trendiest neighbourhoods thanks to its music venues and festival grounds; a bevy of cafés with the best coffee as well as some of the best bakeries; and tons of iconic food ranging from decades-old standard-bearers of the best bagels to long line-inducing ice cream and its own share of the best restaurants. It’s the combination of both new and old that make this such a fun neighbourhood an attraction worth visiting on a day trip or a night out.

Luminothérapie is a recurring light and sound exhibition that takes place in the Quartier-des-Spectacles festival grounds in downtown Montreal from the end of November to the end of January. Previous years’ installations have included Domino Effect, a lighthearted installation featuring 120 brightly coloured dominos that created a dizzying array of effects and sound as participants discovered various ways to interact with them; or there’s Impulse, a series of 30 public seesaws that created dynamic light and sound emissions on their own and dramatic light and sound symphonies when taken together. All in all, it makes a great substitution for shorter daylight hours.

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Strap on some snowshoes
Photograph: AlexandreCv

13. Strap on some snowshoes

Snowshoeing has been an important mode of transportation for the indigenous peoples on the island of Montreal long before the arrival of the first European settlers, and that tradition lives on today. Montrealers may not walk the streets with a pair on, but there’s lots to ground to cover beyond trips to the dépanneur. Nearly all of our favourite nature trails to be found in places like Parc Angrignon, Parc-nature de l'Île-de-la-Visitation, the Morgan Arboretum and many others are open to snowshoeing during the winter months.

Indulge your need for speed with some sledding
Photograph: Eva Blue / Tourisme Montréal

14. Indulge your need for speed with some sledding

For those with a daredevil streak, the city has dozens of hills that are just begging to be tobogganed on. Popular spots include the former Alpine ski track in Parc Francesca-Cabrini, the unintimidating hill in Parc Ahuntsic (perfect for young children), or the long steady run on Westmount’s Murray Hill (aka King George Park). The city has also begun tracking snow conditions borough by borough specifically for sledding opportunities, so be sure to check them out before hitting the slopes.

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Nothing signals the holidays more than that first skate of the season, and there are loads of municipally-run outdoor rinks open from mid-December to mid-March to choose from. A small admission fee gets you access to the Bonsecours Basin, a favourite for its location right on the water in the Old Port, accompanied by light displays, music and rentals on site. Alternately, Beaver Lake offers free admission as well as rentals on site, and is probably the quintessential Montreal outdoor skate with its location on the summit of Mount Royal. Other popular choices include Parc Jean-Drapeau with its circuitous refrigerated ice trails and unparalleled views of the city’s skyline, or our favourite local pick-up-hockey rink at Park Toussaint-Louverture.

Bring the whole family to Fête des Neiges
Photograph: Eva Blue / Tourisme Montréal

16. Bring the whole family to Fête des Neiges

The Fête des neiges de Montréal (the Montreal Snow Festival) is a family-oriented festival that spans four weekends during the winter, January to February, and is dedicated to getting adults and children alike outdoors to enjoy musical concerts, dancing, ice sculpture competitions, films, karaoke, sledding, hockey and food trucks. All of that’s conveniently clustered around the Jean-Drapeau metro station on Île Saint-Hélène.

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It may not have the flair of New York’s Times Square, but Montreal’s Place Jacques-Cartier has a whole lot going for it. There’s a lineup of local musicians performing on a large outdoor stage, the area provices an excellent vantage point onto the lighting displays of the Jacques-Cartier Bridge, and don’t forget the prequisite fireworks displays over the Saint-Lawrence River with a dance party that doesn’t let up until the early morning.

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Taste the local terroir with an ice wine and cider tour
Photograph: Kava Tours / routedesvins.com

19. Taste the local terroir with an ice wine and cider tour

The nearby countryside may not rival the old-world terroirs for traditional winemaking, but the outer limits of the city have a developed and robust ice wine and cider culture. There are a fair number of nearby vineyards and breweries offering events and tastings independently, but for the stress-free experience, tour companies offer all-included minibus day trips to a selection of producers and activities include tastings, tours of the facilities, and gourmet meals starring the producer’s unique offerings. Kava Tours is probably your best bet for this.

Witness a harrowing ice canoe race
Photograph: Défi canot à glace, Michel Émond

20. Witness a harrowing ice canoe race

Not for the faint of heart, Montreal’s Ice Canoe Challenge in early March involves ice canoeing teams racing from the Old Port’s historic clock tower to Parc Jean-Drapeau on Île Saint-Hélène. The entire length of the race is intense, particularly the passage through St-Mary’s Current, known for its treacherous waters. Spectators have a particularly good view of the action the entire length of the race, largely owing to the racers’ close proximity to the shoreline throughout.

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Downtown Montreal’s holiday shopping circuit goes out of its way to keep things festive with the likes of the legendary high-end window displays at Ogilvy’s, as well as decorations, music performances, and multiples of Santa’s Village. The greatest amenity of all is the Underground City—thanks to the sprawling underground tunnels linking the city’s entire downtown shopping network together—so you never need to peak your head outside if you don’t want to. Maybe eat at Time Out Market while you're "down" there!

More things to do in Montreal in winter

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