10 Montréal “musts” for first-time visitors
A first-time visit to any city can be overwhelming. What to see? What to do? And most importantly, how to prioritize it all? To simplify your initial Montréal visit, we’ve compiled a list of crowd-pleasin’ attractions. Think of it as a “greatest hits” list of what to see and do in a diverse and exciting city.
In no particular order, here are ten activities and attractions that first-time Montréal visitors might want to put on their “must see” list.
Climb Mount Royal (The Lookout)
Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (the same landscape architect who crafted New York’s Central Park), the mountain park at the heart of the city is the city’s most iconic landmark—and the most popular place to snap a Montréal selfie. Reach the top of Mount Royal Park by walking up the stairs or with a guided tour. The viewpoint that overlooks the downtown is called the Belvédère Kondiaronk, named after a local Huron Chief. In the chalet at the summit, visitors will find washrooms and a small canteen for refreshments. Give yourself a breezy two hours.
Spree on Sainte Catherine Street
As one of the longest commercial strips in Canada, Sainte-Catherine Street is the perfect place for a little retail therapy. You’ll find a full roster of international fashion brands. But don’t miss the regional retailers, such as Montréal-made leather goods at M0851, the coolest kicks at Little Burgundy and a plethora of options at beloved department store Simons. If you’re in the market for a diamond, Maison Birks is Canada’s most prestigious jeweller (and they’ve recently opened a luxury hotel adjacent the boutique). The popular Eaton Centre mall is currently getting a five-star makeover and will include a Time Out Market. You might notice some construction along the street—it’s all part of a long-term plan to make the city shine!
Eat Emblematic Montréal Cuisine
Part of the joie de vivre culture of Montréal includes chowing down on great grub. Sink your teeth into a juicy smoked-meat sandwich at world-famous Schwartz’s deli. Discover why Montréal locals fervently adore their bagels at the wood-fire bakeries on Fairmont or St. Viateur. (Hint: the bagels are dipped in honey water before baking). Finally, sample our notoriously delicious poutine at resto La Banquise.
Discover the ‘New’ Old Montréal
A first-timer’s visit to Montréal is not complete without meandering through the charming cobblestone streets of Old Montréal. With juxtaposed architecture dating back as far as 1685, visitors have the opportunity to see—quite literally—how the city first began developing. But it’s the new developments that keep people coming back to the old district. Moment Factory’s Aura transforms the interior of the Notre-Dame Basilica into a symphony of lights and effects that bring the building to life. Out on the streets, the ghostly projections of Cité Memoire tell the story of the city via a free multi-lingual app. And for those searching for a different view over the city, La Grande Roue de Montréal gives visitors and locals alike a new angle over the angled rooftops of the Old Port.
Ascend To Saint Joseph’s Oratory
Montréal is North America’s capital for religious heritage. It’s not every day that you can visit one of the most popular catholic pilgrimage sites in the world. Saint Joseph’s Oratory is a Montréal masterpiece—the pièce de résistance among a city of one thousand stunning churches. The oratory is home to a magnificent Rudolf von Beckerath organ, which is ranked among the ten most prestigious in the world. Also, the basilica’s huge dome reaches 97 meters making it second only in height to Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome. Temporary exhibitions are available throughout the year. Ride the metro to Côte-des-Neiges station and then walk the divine staircase to the oratory.
Montréal contains a vast network of pedestrian walkways—33 kilometres (20 miles) of connecting passageways, to be exact—beneath street level. During the winter months, approximately 500,000 people circulate on this network daily, using the passages to connect with offices, trains, shops, and restaurants. Referred to as RÉSO (“network” en français), the system connects the city’s convention centre, a dozen major hotels, and a handful of shopping malls. The easternmost entry is through Complexe Desjardins, but this stunning mall right across from Place des Festivals (interior fountain included) is only the beginning. Grab a PDF map right here, and get started on a truly “sub” urban adventure.
Montréalers love to eat. Sure we’ve got our characteristic local food (see above), but one of the best ways to savour the city is to visit one of the local public markets. With a wide range of regional products from across Québec, Marché Jean-Talon—located in the heart of Little Italy—is the largest and most culturally diverse market in Montréal. For a smaller yet equally delicious option, the art deco-style Marché Atwater offers an array of specialty products and delicatessen treats. (Plus it’s located beside the picturesque Lachine Canal.) Wherever you go, be sure to sample seasonal treats such as maple syrup in the spring, strawberries in the summer, and Macintosh apples in the autumn.
Hit a New Plateau
The colourful spiral staircases of The Plateau neighbourhood present an iconic image of Montréal. In this quartier you’ll find a predominantly French-speaking community featuring an eclectic mix of artists, international students and young professionals, spiced with a healthy dose of other cultures and languages to raise the diversity quotient that much higher. For a glimpse of The Plateau, stroll along Mont-Royal Avenue. If it’s a sunny day, do as the locals do: grab a picnic and lounge beneath the leafy trees in peaceful Parc Lafontaine.
Go East (For A Feast of Attractions)
Montréal’s east side neighbourhood of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve is home to a handful of awesome attractions—all within walking distance to each other. Firstly, the Olympic Stadium is a grandiose remnant from the history-making 1976 summer games, and arguably the most recognizable architectural structure in the entire city. At the soaring inclined tower of the stadium (even taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa), visitors can ride an elevator for a bird’s eye view of the cityscape. The Olympic Park provides a backdrop for a slew of events. On the first Friday of every month from May through October, eat great food in the open air at First Fridays, featuring 50 of the city's gourmet food trucks. If you're a skateboarder, try the Esplanade's new Vans skatepark. Across the street, the Montréal Botanical Gardens feature seasonal installations such as the much-loved Chinese lantern festival in the autumn months.
Find Your Art Beat
Montréal is a creative city. Artistic-inclined visitors will relish the multiple museums and galleries, home to both historic and modern works. As one of the most important institutions in North America, Montréal’s Museum of Fine Arts is the premier stop for any art aficionado. The multiple rooms contain painting, sculpture, graphic art, photography, and decorative art objects, and the gallery prides itself on world-class temporary exhibits. For a more modern approach, visit Canada’s leading museum dedicated exclusively to contemporary art. The Musée d'art contemporain features a permanent collection, however the curators truly flex their modern muscles with the numerous multimedia events. At the McCord Museum, you’ll find collections of costumes, decorative art, aboriginal objects, paintings, and prints. While less focused on art, Pointe-à-Callière is the place to learn about Montréal’s history—a narrative infused with creativity. Finally, the Phi Centre showcases art in all its glorious forms—check out the event schedule for a listing of live performances.
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