Montreal celebrated its 375th anniversary in 2017, and one of the best ways to appreciate the city and its history is to get out and explore its extraordinary outdoor spaces.
Base yourself at the new Hotel William Gray in Old Montreal. This boutique property opened in the summer of 2016 in a 1773 home that first belonged to its namesake. Despite this history, the hotel’s 127 design-driven rooms and suites occupy a gleaming new eight-story tower adjacent to the original structure, with a rooftop terrace offering some of the best views of the city center and the St. Lawrence River. Stop for a sunset cocktail before dinner at the hotel’s signature restaurant, Maggie Oakes, which is helmed by a former Top Chef Canada contestant Derek Bocking.
Take a Bike Tour
To get a true sense of the city, though, it is essential to get out and about. A fun way to get the lay of the land and a little fresh air is to book a tour at Ça Roule Montréal, a local bike-tour company around the corner from the hotel.
The group offers architecture-focused tours, street-food tours, and family-friendly excursions, along with personal bike rentals. Their three-hour daytime tour is a great option for cyclists of all levels. Meet your guide at Ça Roule’s office at the edge of Old Montreal and then hop on your bike for a quick cycle down to the waterfront. There, you’ll hear a brief history of Montreal’s founding and take in the geography of the river, its islands, and the city itself.
Next, you’ll bike through the Latin Quarter, past traditional row houses to verdant La Fontaine Park, where Montrealers enjoy afternoon walks or quick naps on the lawn. Then it’s off to explore the trendy streets of the Plateau neighborhood, stopping for one of Montreal’s famous bagels at St-Viateur (try the sesame). If you have time, your tour might also include a snack of pasteis de nata tarts at the Portuguese bakery and grill Romados. Go on, you’ve earned it.
Explore Mount Royal
Continuing your tour, you’ll cycle your way to the city’s enormous Mount Royal Park, whose slopes tower over the skyscrapers of downtown. From here, it’s a quick ride downhill past the neo-Gothic buildings and quads of McGill University and through the business district back to the bike shop. In three hours, you cover much of the city and learn not only about various moments from its nearly four-century history, but also about how the people who today call it home live.
If you feel inspired by your ride, you might make your own way back to Mount Royal Park to explore its leafy paths. Inaugurated in 1876, this mammoth public park was the creation of revered landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed New York City’s Central Park. Many of Olmsted’s grand plans for the park never came to fruition because of an economic downturn in the 19th century, but the area is still majestic and one of Montrealers’ favorite places to play. You’ll find them walking, jogging, and mountain biking in the warmer months and tobogganing, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing in the winter.
Though visitors are free to explore on their own, the Les Amis de la Montagne, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Mount Royal since 1986 and operating out of the park’s Smith House, are happy to arrange guided tours and activities. Be sure to stop by the Kondiaronk Belvedere overlooking the city skyline and stroll along the edge of serene Beaver Lake.
Float Along the Canal
Spend another day exploring a different, wilder side of Montreal. Once a bustling industrial artery, the Lachine Canal runs nine miles through the heart of the city, from Lake St. Louis to Montreal’s Old Port. Today the canal is more of a nature lover’s paradise, its banks lined with grassy paths and its placid waters perfect for kayaking.
Aquatic outfitter H2O Adventures, based at a dock right across the footbridge from the Atwater market, operates from May through mid-September. Visitors can rent kayaks, pedal boats, and small electric crafts to explore the canal’s main Peel Basin. Every other Saturday morning in the summer, the company offers a guided kayaking tour that includes an out-of-water portage over the St. Gabriel locks and a picnic lunch. You’ll also get a history lesson on the industrial-era buildings, like the Five Roses flour mill, that remain along the canal. It feels surreal to float down the emerald waterway past the enormous hulks of factories—given new life as residences and offices—as the modern skyline of Montreal comes into view. This is truly where past meets present.
Follow the Green Road
Back on land, it’s just a quick walk along the same side of the canal to the kiosk of cycling outfitters Ma Bicyclette. They rent out touring and mountain bikes, along with electric-assist bicycles that make the miles fly by. They even offer tandem bikes for families. Folks can rent by the hour, the day, or the week, and the staff are happy to pore over maps to point out the best routes through the city.
The real draw for cyclists is the Route Verte. Widely acknowledged as one of the best cycling and multiuse path networks in the world, the Route Verte comprises more than 3,200 miles of track that run throughout the province of Quebec, including several spurs in Montreal.
Part of the trail passes just in front of Ma Bicyclette’s stand. You can start there, riding through some of the city’s sleepier riverside neighborhoods to a major stretch that runs along the banks of the St. Lawrence, then loop back to the Lachine Canal and Ma Bicyclette. The ride takes about three hours. Along the way, you can stop at the tranquil Parc des Rapides (Des Rapides Park) bird sanctuary next to the roaring Lachine rapids. Continue to the spot on the river where a permanent wave forms and spend a few minutes watching the surfers and paddleboarders take turns shooting its curl.
On your way back along the Lachine Canal, you might even have time to stop at Terrasse St-Ambroise, a microbrewery and outdoor beer garden and the perfect place to while away a few afternoon hours.
There are plenty of wonderful reasons to visit Montreal, including its fascinating history and its full roster of arts and music festivals; however, the city’s fabulous landscapes are what truly set it apart as a world-class destination. To get a feeling of the city’s soul, explore the wild stretches of the St. Lawrence and the grandeur of Mount Royal Park by boat, bike, and foot.