Whenever travellers abroad ask me how to begin planning their first trip to Canada, my answer is immediate: Start with checking out the best things to do in Montreal.
As much as I love spending time in other Canadian cities, none is quite as compelling, in my honest opinion, as Montreal.
Whether you’re visiting to sample best food in Canada (including a handful of our most famous dishes) or to catch a rare glimpse of European flair in North America, fill out your days with these best places to visit in Montreal…
Top tourist attractions in Montreal
- Old Montreal
- Old Port
- Notre-Dame Basilica
- Montreal Botanical Garden
- Jean-Talon Market
- Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
- Lachine Canal
- Schwartz’s Deli
- Parc Jean-Drapeau
- McCord Museum
- Quartier des Spectacles
- Montreal Canadiens
- Mile End & Le Plateau-Mont-Royal
- St-Viateur Bagel
- Underground City
Wander about in Old Montreal
Even if you only carve out one day in Montreal, strolling among the charms of Old Montreal isn’t an experience you’ll shake anytime soon.
Anyone who’s got a hankering for Europe can get their fill among the cobblestone streets and 17th-century buildings that count hip restaurants, brasseries, art galleries, and souvenir shops among their tenants.
Start exploring Old Montreal along Rue St-Paul (Saint-Paul Street) where much the city’s most compelling old architecture radiates from (and, of course, some of the most Instagrammable places in Montreal!).
Be sure to leave some time while exploring Old Montreal to enjoy relaxing stroll along the Vieux-Port de Montréal and an ice cold bière artisanale in the always bustling Place Jacques-Cartier at the centre of the historic area.
Stroll around the Old Port (Vieux-Port de Montréal)
Located on the edge of Old Montreal, Old Port (Vieux-Port de Montréal) is among the top places to see in Montreal for tourists. The area stretches about two kilometres along the banks of the St. Lawrence River, and was once the city’s main trading port.
These days, the Old Port of Montreal is home to a handful of souvenir shops, food trucks, and amusing attractions including the Montreal Clock Tower, Tyrolienne MTL Zipline, Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History (Pointe-à-Callière Museum), and the Montreal Science Centre, one of the top family-friendly attractions in Montreal.
If you’re looking to catch some big views of the city on your trip to Old Port, be sure to hop onto the La Grande Roue de Montréal. This 60-metre-high Ferris wheel is the largest observation wheel in Canada and delivers 360-degree views over the city centre and the St. Lawrence River.
Marvel at Notre-Dame Basilica
Located on Place d’Armes on the edge of Montreal’s old town, Notre-Dame Basilica is one of Canada’s most recognizable landmarks and one of the top things to see in Montreal.
Although Montreal isn’t short on beautiful churches, Notre-Dame is something special. The exterior is built in a stunning symmetrical Gothic Revival style, but it’s the inside that will truly take your breath away.
As you enter the main hall of the church, you’ll be immediately greeted by a lofty stained-glass dome flanked by intricate religious sculptures along the walls and a spectacular 7,000-pipe organ.
To get the most out of your church visit, book yourself onto a guided tour in English.
Gaze upon the city from above at Mont-Royal
Plenty of greenery awaits in Canada’s second-biggest city, but no park in Montreal is more worthy of your attention than Mont-Royal.
Spreading out over 200 hectares and enjoying the highest point in Montreal, Mont-Royal present a relaxing escape from the bustle of the city below.
Besides strolling leisurely around Mount Royal, don’t miss out on the chance to scope out the city from above.
For the best views of downtown Montreal, head to the Belvédère Kondiaronk observation point near the centre of the park. Visit in autumn to catch Mont-Royal at its best under a lovely blanket of fall colours.
Relax in the Montreal Botanical Garden
While Montreal isn’t short on great greenspaces, one of the best things to do in Montreal is to explore the Montreal Botanical Garden.
Long considered one of the finest botanical gardens in the world, the 80-year-old garden assembles a collection of 22,000 plant species within its 30 themed gardens and 10 greenhouses.
Wandering about the Montreal Botanical Garden is like taking a trip around the world. The different areas & exhibitions of the garden invite you to explore the native flora of different world regions including Asia and, of course, North America.
In the area adjacent to the gardens you’ll also find a handful of other Montreal top points of interest including the Space for Life, Montreal Insectarium, the Biodome, and Montreal Olympic Park.
Grab fresh produce at Jean-Talon Market
Opened in 1933 in Montreal’s Little Italy neighbourhood, Jean-Talon Market is one of the largest open-air markets in North America and among the most interesting places to visit in Montreal.
Jean-Talon Market is the perfect escape in Montreal for both culture lovers and foodies. The merchant stalls here offer a wide array from fresh produce and international & local Quebec specialities including fresh local fruits & vegetables, artisan cheese & meats, and herbs & spices.
Aside from picking up fresh-to-eat food, Jean-Talon Market offers a number of workshops and demonstrations to help get patrons better acquainted with the Montreal food scene.
Browse the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Featuring over 44,000 works of art, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal) isn’t just one of the best museums in Montreal but among Canada’s most eminent art galleries.
As you peruse the museum, you’ll find thousands of paintings from local, national, and European artists. There’s also a wide array of historical artifacts here celebrating the history of Quebec and Canada.
Even if you’re not interested in browsing its exhibition, the architecture of the museum’s buildings—spanning several different styles from neoclassical to modern—are worth checking out.
After your visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, slip next door to Crescent Street, one of Montreal’s most popular eating & drinking streets.
Stroll along the Lachine Canal
Flowing through southwest Montreal between Old Port and Lac Saint-Louis, the Lachine Canal National Historic Site is one of Montreal’s most popular recreation spots and a fantastic place to escape the bustle of downtown.
Most visitors experience Lachine Canal with a walk or a bike ride along its 14.5-kilometre canalside path. Besides enjoying fresh air, there’s also an array of attractions along the way including Arsenal art contemporain Montréal in Little Burgundy, Atwater Market, Lachine Canal Park, and a number of historic red-brick factories along the way that speak to the canal’s industrial past.
Chow down in Chinatown
So, maybe Montreal’s Chinatown won’t feed your cravings for East Asia as well as Old Montreal fulfills your European ones. That doesn’t mean you should miss out on one of the city’s most interesting cultural corners!
Compared even to other famous North American Chinatowns (like Toronto, San Francisco or Vancouver), Montreal’s is a tad cozy, stretching out little more than a block in either direction.
Of course, the best reason to visit Chinatown isn’t simply for sightseeing, but to get a taste of its Asian delights with French-Canadian twist. Here are a couple of my favourite places to eat in Chinatown:
- Nouilles de Lan Zhou (1006 St Laurent): A Chinatown favourite featuring Lanzhou-style hand-pulled noodles in a hearty beef broth.
- Restaurant Orange Rouge (106 Rue de la Gauchetière Ouest): A hip Asian-fusion restaurant serving superb cocktails and Quebec craft beers.
- Pho Bac (1016 St Laurent): A Montreal classic delivering on some of the city’s best Vietnamese fare including their famous pho (Vietnamese beef noodle soup).
Delight in a Montreal smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz’s Deli
After an advance apology to all my vegan friends, it would be absolutely blasphemy to suggest visiting Quebec’s biggest city without trying a Montreal smoked meat sandwich.
One of the most famous Canadian foods, Montreal smoked meat is prepared much like the pastrami of New York only soaked to reduce the salt content and a smoked slightly longer to add flavour.
The most famous place to try Montreal smoked meat is Schwartz’s Deli on Boulevard St-Laurent. Their brisket served on rye bread with Kosher pickles and mustard is an absolute gem that’ll leave your mouth-watering for days to come.
Don’t have the patience to wait in the round-the-clock, round-the-corner line-up at Schwarz’s Deli? Try out Lester’s Deli in Outremont, a small family-run diner.
Get some fresh air at Parc Jean-Drapeau
Stretched out over two islands in the St. Lawrence River, Parc Jean-Drapeau is a massive greenspace that’s a favourite escape for locals and one of the best places to catch a breather when you visit Montreal.
The most endearing feature of Parc Jean-Drapeau is the 25-kilometre network of hiking & biking trails lined with artwork and sculptures by local artists.
On the two islands (Île Sainte-Hélène and Île Notre-Dame), you’ll also find a number of worthwhile tourist attractions including the Biosphere, Stewart Museum, Jean-Doré Beach, the Biosphère, Casino de Montréal, and La Ronde amusement park.
Get a history lesson at the McCord Museum
Offering one of the largest collections of historical artifacts in North America, the McCord Museum is one of the best museums in Montreal and one of the city’s top cultural attractions.
The museum, located across the street from McGill University, is well-known for its eclectic exhibitions, covering topics as disparate as fashion to hockey or indigenous art to textile materials.
Besides browsing its massive collection, the McCord Museum runs historical walking tours in the summer tourist season, taking in the sights & sounds of downtown Montreal.
Chase excitement in the Quartier des Spectacles
Located just north of the Ville-Marie borough, the Quartier des Spectacles is Montreal’s most famous nightlife destination and one of city’s more interesting corners to hang out at night.
The district wasn’t always so savoury. Once home to Montreal’s notorious red-light district and numerous—ahem!—gentlemen’s clubs, the Quartier des Spectacles has moved out many of its less wholesome elements to shed it’s former shady reputation and become a safe & fun downtown nightlife area.
If you’re visiting in summer, the area also hosts a number of popular festivals & events such as the world-famous Just For Laughs comedy festival.
In the northern fringes of the neighbourhood, also check out the Quartier Latin (Latin Quarter).
The area’s Rue Saint-Denis, well-known for its concentration of terrace bars & restaurants, is a less raucous alternative to the infamously wild nightclubs along Rue Saint-Catherine and Boulevard Saint-Laurent.
Watch a Montreal Canadiens game at the Bell Centre
As a fourth generation Toronto Maple Leafs fan, I can picture my grandfather and great-grandfather rolling in their graves at this suggestion.
I can’t, however, with good conscience not recommend immersing yourself into the chaos of a Montreal Canadiens game while visiting the city.
I’m sure you all know that hockey is like a religion in Canada. And alongside Toronto, Montreal is sacred ground for hockey fans.
Witnessing a Montreal Canadiens game firsthand will forever shake that crazy stereotype that Canadians are always polite & mild-mannered. (In fact, you might discover quite the opposite!)
Ready to embrace the insanity of hockey in Canada? Check availability for Montreal Canadiens tickets here.
Explore Mile End in Le Plateau-Mont-Royal
On my many visits to Montreal, I try to venture off into unfamiliar parts of the city. On my last trip, I found myself wandering into Mile End, a gem of a neighbourhood that’s one of the chillest places to hang out in Montreal.
Plying the streets of Mile End, a small enclave of the diverse Le-Plateau-Mont-Royal, you’re met with a multitude of hip restaurants, vintage record shops, relaxed cafés, and brasseries squeezing out some of Quebec’s best pints.
At night it’s a whole different story in Mile End with trendy cocktail bars and live bands setting the scene.
To scope out the best shops & hangouts in Mile End, start exploring Rue Bernard, Rue St-Viateur and Avenue Fairmount.
Munch on a Montreal-style bagel at St-Viateur
Like smoked meat, eating a traditional Montreal-style bagel should be high on your list of things to do in Montreal.
Fighting on behalf of my fellow countrymen, I’d have to say that bagels in Montreal trump even their still delicious counterparts in New York City, the other Mecca of the bagel universe.
(This New York vs Montreal food battle seems to be a thing, no?)
Both New-York-style and Montreal-style bagels are boiled in water before getting baked.
The biggest difference—and the critical factor in the taste—is that the bakers here immerse their bagels in water sweetened with honey and bake them in a wood-burning oven for a sweeter taste and crispier texture.
To drool over the best bagels in Montreal, head to the famous St-Viateur Bagel Shop (263 Rue Saint-Viateur Ouest) or, alternatively, Fairmount (74 Avenue Fairmount Ouest) in Mile End. Both shops are open 24/7.
Explore the Underground City
Quite a bit less mysterious than it sounds, Underground City is a network of tunnels underneath downtown Montreal.
The tunnels stretch out over 32 kilometres and connect various buildings & shopping centres in the city centre including Complexe Desjardins and Place Ville-Marie.
While it’s still not living up to its full potential with plenty of development still underway, Underground City is still a cool place to wander around. You’ll truly appreciate the tunnels most if you’re visiting Montreal in winter and need refuge from the cold. (And trust me: It is cold here in winter!)
The main entrance to Underground City is at Victoria Square near Notre-Dame Basilica, but you’ll find 120 other entrances strewn throughout the city centre.
Take a day trip to Montérégie
One of the best day trips from Montreal, the Montérégie region is the perfect escape from the city and a great way to see & experience some historical sites and outdoor adventure in the Quebec countryside.
As the region spreads out over 11,000 square kilometres, there’s a ton to see & do in Montérégie.
Among the most popular activities on a day trip is to sip your way through the wineries and craft cideries along the Montérégie Wine Route, learn how maple syrup is made at one of Quebec’s world-famous sugar shacks, or visit the national historic site of Fort Chambly.
Where to stay in Montreal for sightseeing
Although it’s one of the biggest cities in Canada, figuring out where to stay in Montreal isn’t such a large challenge. Most travellers would do well to settle within the core of downtown.
The areas in & around Old Montreal, Quartier des Spectacles, and the central business district are particularly appealing for visitors thanks to their proximity to the top points of interest in Montreal.
- Hotel Epik Montreal: Located in the heart of Old Montreal, this boutique is perfect for travellers thanks to its fantastic location. The rooms here blend eye-popping modern elements with classic features like exposed wood beams and stone feature walls. The terrace and common area are stunningly relaxing.
- Courtyard by Marriott Montreal Downtown: A surprisingly affordable option amidst the downtown core, this mid-range hotel features comfortable and spacious rooms with great city views. You’ll love a chance to unwind in the indoor rooftop pool and on-site restaurant after a long day of sightseeing.
- Renaissance Montreal Downtown Hotel: Located near Place Ville-Marie, this hotel is close to many of the top attractions and a great option for travellers wanting to hit up some of the city’s best shopping and eating alternatives. Retire to the rooftop bar for a relaxing nightcap.
- W Montreal Hotel: This fantastic luxury hotel, located in the historic Banque du Canada building on Victoria Square, is in a league of its own with its stunning contemporary style. The amenities are superb including a fitness centre, spa, and several on-site bars & restaurants.