A Montrealer’s guide to Montreal

Canada is on everyone's lips, and there's a reason why. With the help of two locals, Livia and Laure, we've taken a closer look at how to best spend your time in the country's second-largest city, Montreal

Spending a day in the park is one of the Montrealers' favorite activities
Spending a day in the park is one of the Montrealers' favorite activities

Canada is the shining light of cool in North America. And Montreal is no exception. With the country celebrating its 375th birthday this year, the festive vibe in Canada’s second most populated city, situated in francophone Quebec, is in full swing.

Music and cultural festivals, prestigious expositions, food trucks, nights under the stars, pop-up markets and concerts — there’s no shortage of ways to keep entertained throughout the year. Let’s not forget all the reasons why Montreal is a wonderful place to live: a European charm coupled with a strong North American spirit, a quiet and affordable lifestyle, an eclecticism and open-mindedness, and a growing gastronomic scene that’s popular among foodies.

With everything this wonderful city has to offer, how should you make the most of your time in Montreal? We agree it can be a bit overwhelming, so to help you along, we’ve thought about a few sites, activities, moments, places and mini itineraries that reveal some of Montreal’s many facets.

Luxury, tranquility and delights in Old Montreal

Spend a "slow" afternoon at Bota Bota, a floating spa in the heart of the Old Port of Montreal

Spend a “slow” afternoon at Bota Bota, a floating spa in the heart of the Old Port of Montreal © Bota Bota

Yes, discovering this historic and charming neighborhood without falling into tourist traps is possible! Start with a coffee and a slice of avocado toast at Tommy before strolling through the beautiful cobblestone streets of Old Montreal full of neo-classic and victorian architecture. Stroll along Saint-Paul street while window shopping local fashion houses like Michel Brisson, Cahier d’exercices, SSENSE, and Philippe Dubuc located on Saint-Pierre street.

Take a cultural pit stop at the Phi Centre and DHC/ART, where all forms of art are expressed, from contemporary to virtual reality. After you’ve been inspired, head over to the Crew Collectif & Cafe to discuss it all. Housed in a magnificent historic building belonging to the Royal Bank of Canada, it was recently converted into a cafe and collaborative space, featuring exquisite pastries from Christian Faure.

A “slower” alternative could consist of spending an afternoon at Bota Bota, a floating spa in the heart of the Old Port of Montreal. Here, you can enjoy their Nordic water circuit baths, or maybe even a Swedish massage. It’s worth going just for the breathtaking view! Finish off your day in Old Montreal over poké bowls at Venice, a drink at the tucked away speakeasy The Coldroom (find the secret entry, ring the doorbell and hope to be let in) or the newest hot spot Bord’elle.

Cultural stroll in downtown Montreal

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts showcases temporary exhibits from around the world

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts showcases temporary exhibits from around the world

Eclectic and avant-garde, Montreal’s art scene attracts as many big names as it does emerging artists. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts showcases temporary exhibits from around the world, while contemporary art enthusiasts will find their happy place at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal – a gallery featuring every form of expression, from digital works to paintings. Don’t miss their famous “Nocturne nights” where you can visit exhibitions, attend a live performance or a gallery talk with an artist or curator, have a bite and enjoy a drink.

The Belgo Building, at the heart of the Quartier des Spectacles and home to over 30 art galleries and artists’ studios, and the Darling Foundry, a 3,500 m2 visual arts venue, are worth visiting. The latter sometimes opens the doors to its resident art studios to facilitate discussions between the artists and the audience – a truly unique experience. Heading west, we also recommend the contemporary art complex at Arsenal, a fascinating art gallery located in the industrial neighborhood, Griffintown.

Living la dolce vita in the Plateau and Mile End

Snap an insta-moment and admire the colourful houses in Mile End/Plateau

Snap an insta-moment and admire the colourful houses in Mile End/Plateau

A district of artists with strong French ties can be observed along the streets and within cafes and local restaurants. Does the neighborhood offer “slow life” vibes? Definitely! Capture a picture-worthy moment among the colorful houses on the streets of Drolet, Henri-Julien and Laval (between Avenue Des Pins and Avenue du Mont-Royal). No visit to this neighborhood would be complete without a walk along Boulevard Saint-Laurent, nicknamed The Main, with its unique energy and giant murals, replaced each year during the Mural Festival.

The Plateau offers that quintessential European charm reflected in its small businesses and restaurants. Sip on a latte on Moineau Masqué’s hidden terrace, savor decadent cookies at Café Névé and create lasting memories at any one of the delicious restaurants on Avenue du Mont-Royal and Laurier street. And no trip to Montreal would be complete without trying a poutine (French fries and cheese curds topped with a light brown gravy), preferably at La Banquise for the most authentic experience.

Swing by neighbourhood institution Café Olimpico for a cup of coffee in the sun

Swing by neighbourhood institution Café Olimpico for a cup of coffee in the sun © Emmanuel Milou

In the north-west of the Plateau, you’ll find the Mile End, a multicultural neighborhood where a large Hasidic Jewish community, long-time immigrants, and millennials coexist. We love it for the brunch – a Sunday ritual in Montreal – at spots likes Arts Café, Sparrow, Butterblume or Farine.

Tea time at Cardinal Tea Room is also worth the trip. Join the debate on who makes the best coffee or bagels by visiting some neighbourhood foodie institutions. Café Olimpico or Club Social? Saint-Viateur Bagel or Fairmount Bagel? The choice is yours!

A Montreal tradition: spending an afternoon in the park

Enjoy the rhythm of the tam-tams at Mount Royal

Enjoy the rhythm of the tam-tams at Mount Royal

On a beautiful sunny afternoon, families and friends flock to Montreal’s numerous parks with their picnic baskets and colorful blankets in tow. Partake in a beach volleyball game at Jeanne-Mance park, a round of pétanque at La Fontaine park, alternate between ping-pong and pool at Laurier park, or take refuge at Jarry Park before diving into their free public pool.

If you want to be immersed in nature, don’t miss one of the most important Montreal’s landmarks: Mount Royal park. The city’s green lung was inaugurated in 1876 and conceptualized by Frederick Law Olmsted, the man behind many American parks including New York City’s Central Park. This little mountain is bustling with life. It’s where you can find the best view of the city.

It has long been a haven for joggers, walkers, cross-country skiers, snowshoers and skaters. Every Sunday in the summertime, those who love to relax can be found enjoying the rhythm of the tam-tams, an improvised drum circle where the outdoors and “joie de vivre” collide. Be warned, you might also run into people dressed up in medieval costumes, re-enacting their favorite Lancelot tales. There’s always something to keep you entertained!

A local secret: hidden gems in the industrial Mile Ex

Start your day in Mile Ex with a coffee from Dispatch Coffee

Start your day in Mile Ex with a coffee from Dispatch Coffee © Raphaël

Welcome to the Marconi-Alexandra area, better known as the Mile Ex. This industrial neighborhood north of the Mile End is undergoing a transformation. A well-known secret among locals, the Mile Ex is an area you need to dive into to appreciate, preferably with a Bixi Bike, a bike-sharing service created by the city. Go from Dispatch Coffee, who roast their owns beans, to Pick-Up Depanneur for a pulled pork sandwich, a neighbourhood institution.

On Saturdays, between noon and 5:00pm, visit Never Apart, an industrial space with a private pool and garden, whose mission it is to educate on equality and conscious living through their exhibitions. Their art openings and theme nights are a must-see.

For lunch, we love the picnic baskets from Dînette Triple Crown, which you can enjoy at the Little Italy park across the street. For a drink, try Alexanderplatz Bar, a seasonal bar with Berlin flare, or finish your night off at Manitoba, a restaurant known for its local cuisine, or new restaurant Marconi (in honor of the neighborhood).

Still have energy? Cross over from Mile Ex to Parc Ex to experience rock, punk or grunge concerts at Bar Le Ritz PDB, or step into the beautifully retro and modern Brasserie Harricana to taste their artisanal beer.

All the flavours of Montreal’s markets

Spend an afternoon browsing the Atwater market for local produce

Spend an afternoon browsing the Atwater market for local produce

One of the best ways to discover all the flavors Montreal has to offer is through the public markets. In the north of Little Italy, the Jean-Talon Market showcases produce from all of Quebec’s regions and features gourmet stands to eat on-the-go. In the south-west, the art deco style and proximity to the Lachine Canal aren’t the only reason to visit the Atwater market – it’s also where you can find many specialty products.

In the summer, visit the Satay Brothers’ street food stand for authentic Malaysian and Singaporean bites, it’s a must try! Keep a close eye on other Montreal markets and fairs featuring local artists, such as Puce Pop, the apparel atelier called Le Marché des Ateliers Capitol or the souk@sat, where Quebecois creations take centre stage.

The South-West on a Bixi

Cycle along the Lachine Canal for truly unique views of Montreal

Cycle along the Lachine Canal for truly unique views of Montreal

Take the bike path along the Lachine Canal to explore the South-West area of Montreal using a Bixi. We suggest stopping along the canal to take in the unique sights of nature mixed with industrial buildings – a view with character! During happy hour, check out Canal Lounge, a cafe-bar-on-a-boat reminiscent of Paris or Amsterdam, equipped with a beautiful sunset backdrop.

Finish the night at one of these “slow food” restaurants: H4C, le Vin Papillon or Candide. Between their eco-responsibility, natural wines and creative local cuisine, these three establishments are sure to please!

Where to stay in Montreal

Montreal offers great accommodation opportunities. Looking for a luxurious treat? We recommend the Hôtel Gault; its beautiful 19th-century building’s façade hides refined contemporary design and amenities.

If you travel with your family, you may choose the fully equipped and modern apartments of leQube, while the Gîte Le Simone B&B is an ideal choice, located a couple of minutes walk from the Berri Uqam subway, if you are looking for affordable places.

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Follow Livia Posteuca and Laure Juilliard from Slow Journeys Magazine on Instagram, and read their post on slow travel – the art of taking your time on vacation