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. Spring is an ideal time to discover Montreal’s centuries-old history and dynamic atmosphere. This guide is all you need to be captivated by this sensational city on a spring weekend getaway.
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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 Centre d’histoire de Montréal (check out the temporary exhibition, Explosion 67. Youth and Their World, a behind-the-scenes look at the lives Montreal’s young people when the city hosted Expo 67) and awestruck by the curved dome of Notre-Dame Basilica, a Gothic-Revival stunner. Discover this landmark’s grandeur and heritage in a modern way during the interactive multimedia show AURA. 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 community gathering place is its beating heart. When you see the 235-jet interactive fountain (Canada’s largest) you’ll have arrived at Place des Festivals, adjacent to Quartier des Spectacles, an area dedicated to urban entertainment. In the square, check out free performances like Martin Messier’s Inner Vision (part of Festival TransAmériques), and 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 Jean-Talon in Little Italy, one of North America’s largest open-air markets. Chat with local merchants, then fuel up on crepes, artisanal cheese, freshly baked bagels, and modern or nouvelle French-Canadian cuisine. Still hungry? Take a food tour to discover more of Montreal’s culinary heritage.
Marguerite-Bourgeoys Museum and Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel: 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 museum, the 300-year-old chapel, and an impressive archeological site. Then check out temporary exhibitions such as the work of Claude Lafortune.
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.
Cidredie 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), or tuck into grilled venison tartare and tarte tatin (tart with carmelized apples) in the salle à manger (dining room).
Le Blumenthal: Historic architecture, music, and Montreal-style cuisine meld at Le Blumenthal, situated in a century-old building overlooking entertainment hub Place des Festivals. This new bistro serves standout dishes like grilled octopus and the classic moules et frites (mussels and fries). Weekend brunch tantalizes with upscale items like salmon tartare and salmon mousse piled on a chewy bagel and crowned with poached eggs and avocado sauce.
Colette Grand Café: Housed inside trendy Canadian fashion mecca, Holt Renfrew, Colette Grand Café is a celebration traditional French fare with a modern, light-handed approach. Slurp briny oysters from the raw bar, or fuel up on delicious dishes such as black kale salad, and wild mushroom rigatoni that are central to Holt Renfrew’s H Project. A dollar or two from each order goes to WWF-Canada to support its efforts to protect the habitats of Canada’s polar bears, among other animal species.
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 10 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 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.
Clock Tower Beach: It can be hard to tear yourself away from the city core’s cobblestone streets, iconic architecture, and non-stop action, but you get both respite and exhilaration at Clock Tower Beach. Located five minutes from downtown in the Old Port, this manmade oasis on the banks of the St. Lawrence River boasts sandy shores, a boardwalk, and gorgeous vistas of the Jacques-Cartier Bridge, Île Sainte-Hélène, and Old Montréal. For more heady views, this time from 197 feet above the city, take a ride on the La Grande Roue de Montréal, Canada’s largest observation wheel.
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.
M0851: For more than 30 years, this Montreal-based brand has been designing and crafting bags, jackets, outerwear, and accessories for men and women. M0851’s fashionable and functional collections, made from fine leather, cashmere, silk, and other crush-worthy materials, can be found in its four concept boutiques, decked with the company’s own furnishings.
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 six-day MURAL festival. 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.
Fondation Phi: This private contemporary art museum located in Old Montreal holds court in two heritage buildings. Fondation Phi stages a handful of compelling events and major exhibitions annually. Check out their current exhibitions and upcoming shows.
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 upcoming International Festival of Films on Art, the world’s largest festival of its kind.