Mount Royal, arguably the centerpiece of Montreal, was named in honor of King Francois by explorer Jacques Cartier, who claimed Canada for France. Montreal still feels European in many ways—it has countless classical buildings, 2 million native French speakers, and a laid-back way of life. Mount Royal’s surrounding green space is the place to be every Sunday in the summer for the Tam-Tams, a free weekly festival with drum circles, dancers, and vendors. At the event, you can bring your own bongos and beat along to the rhythm, or just kick back on a blanket and enjoy the sun. In winter, meanwhile, people take to the park for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and sledding.
Neighborhood Spotlight: Old Montreal
French settlers founded Montreal along the St. Lawrence River in 1642. You can still get a glimpse of the early colonial period by strolling through Old Montreal, a downtown district filled with museums, street performers, historic squares, and cobblestone streets.
- Marché Bonsecours: Watch glass-blowing demonstrations and browse art and jewelry made by local artists at this market space housed in a fetching neoclassical building.
- Pointe-à-Callière Museum: A living archeological site. Go downstairs and you can see the original foundations of Montreal; elsewhere there are artifacts from the First Nations indigenous groups on display, and, in the fifth-floor restaurant, a great view of the waterfront.
- Notre Dame Basilica: Though not as lauded as its Parisian counterpart, this Victorian Gothic church is spectacular in its own right, with a deep-blue ceiling speckled with stars, woodcarvings of religious scenes and figures, and a 7,000-pipe organ.
- Other neighborhoods to check out: The city’s strong indie-music scene is centered in the Mile-End neighborhood; the pedestrian-friendly streets of Plateau Mont Royal make it a nightlife and entertainment hotspot, with lots of walk-up art galleries and black-box theaters.
- Poutine: A greasy delight composed of French fries covered with cheese curds and brown gravy. La Banquise is the consensus favorite for the dish, but you can try unique variations at shops around the city.
- Bagels in Montreal are sweeter and crispier than their NYC counterparts; they’re typically boiled in honey-flavored water and cooked in a wood-fired oven. Sample the offerings at St-Viateur Bagel and Fairmount Bagel, both located in the Mile-End neighborhood.
- International flavor: A thriving immigrant population translates to diversity in dining options. Sample moutabal—a purée of eggplant, tahini, and lemon juice—at the Syrian Restaurant Alep or try tapas at Portuscalle, a popular Portuguese establishment.
- Smoked-meat sandwiches: More than 80 years of smoke buildup has accumulated on the walls at Schwartz’s deli, where you can chow down on sandwiches served with pickling spices and yellow mustard on rye bread. Long lines are common, but it’s worth the wait.
Where to Stay
- Near the downtown tourist spots (upscale): The stone-clad Old Montreal Castle has stood near the banks of the St. Lawrence River in Old Montreal since the early 20th century. Its marble pool area looks like it was pulled straight from a Roman emperor’s residence, and hotel rooms come with full kitchens and stainless steel appliances.
- Near the downtown tourist spots (mid-range): Le Petit Hotel is charming, no-frills, and situated right on the main street of Old Montreal, near Notre Dame Basilica.
- Near McGill University: The prestigious campus is about a 5-minute walk from the classy Le St-Martin Hotel Particulier Montreal; the Place des Artes theater district is also nearby.