The saying goes that Montreal is not a city to visit but a city to live in. It’s actually easy to do both, even on a short stay here. Explore the cobbled streets of Old Montreal, drink a latte in one of the Mile End’s many cafes, or hop on a ride-share bike to cycle through the city’s many parks, and you’ll be taken in by the diverse and young population that likes to take it easy. Here, quality of life, much more than money, power, and status, is tantamount.
Montreal took its name from the green mountain standing at its heart, the Mont-Royal (or Mount Royal). It received its kingly name from Jacques Cartier, the first French explorer to scale the peak in 1535. In 1876, the landmark became part of the Parc du Mont-Royal. If you haven’t reached the belvedere in front of the Chalet de la Montagne, from where you can almost touch the skyscraper, you haven’t totally been to Montreal. In 2017, the city inaugurated a self-guided walk that connects the mountain to the river, the Promenade Fleuve-Montagne. It’s definitely worth a try.
Set in Old Montreal, the Museum of Archaeology and History of Montreal rests on one of the most historically significant places in the city, the Pointe-à-Callière. On this very spot, where indigenous peoples traded with each other for thousands of years, the actual city of Montreal was founded in 1642. It’s also on this spot that Native American chiefs and French settlers signed the Grande Paix de Montreal in 1701, a peace treaty that insured the survival of the French colony. Today, a big part of the museum is underground.
After dusk, the walls of 23 buildings in Old Montreal come to life thanks to Montréal en Histoires, a series of projections that range from the funny to the poetic. A free smartphone app guides you through the different locations and provides commentary in both English and French. The interactive installation on Ruelle Saint-Dizier is awe-inspiring.
Neighborhood to Explore
Verdun is the neighborhood to discover these days in Montreal. As family friendly as it gets, this neighborhood boasts the best access to the river in the city. After shopping, buying a book, and having brunch on Wellington Street, head to the water. Visit an exhibit at the brand-new cultural center, Quai 5160, then take your dancing shoes for a spin at the outdoor dance floor next to the municipal greenhouse. Salsa, tango, bachata, and more each have their night of glory every week.
Everyone has his or her favorite café in Mile End: Café Olimpico or Club Social, a block apart on Rue Saint-Viateur, are both perfect places to people-watch and take in the neighborhood vibe. This is one of Montreal’s most vibrant areas, where university students, hipsters, game developers, and a sizable Hasidic Jew community live happily side-by-side.
Most Interesting Ride
Saint-Laurent Boulevard, also called the Main, is the artery that feeds Montreal’s heart. Bus 55, which starts in Old Montreal, allows you to explore this one-of-a-kind street. Many waves of migrants (Chinese, Eastern-European Jewish, Portuguese, Italian, South Asian, and more) have left their footprint along this street, which used to separate French- and English-speaking Montreal. If you are a fan of the late Leonard Cohen, make a stop at Parc du Portugal. The singer owned a house on the south side of the square and liked to chat with neighbors on the park benches.
Off the Beaten Path
In Old Montreal, hop on a Bixi (a bicycle from the iconic Montreal ride-sharing system) and head west along the bike path that follows the St. Lawrence River in Old Port, passes the Peel Basin in trendy Griffintown, and then embraces the Lachine Canal, the cradle of Canadian industrialization that has been turned into a linear national park. Drop your bike at Atwater Market to buy local delicacies, grab lunch in the outdoor food court, and have a drink at the Canal Lounge on a floating boat.
Spa It Out
Day spas have been popping up around the city over the last 10 years and are an affordable treat all year long. Just remember to pack your swimsuit and a pair of flip-flops. In Old Montreal, spa BotaBota is set on a converted boat. The views from the Jacuzzis on the decks and the sauna are some of the best in the city. Ström Spa, on Îles-des-Soeurs, an upscale neighborhood, is in the middle of a marsh, far away from the city’s busyness.
Set right in front of one of Montreal’s architectural jewels and in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, the Habitat 67 standing wave has made surfers and kayakers happy since it was first surfed by Olympic kayaker Corran Addison in 2002. This natural wave is there 365 days a year. But don’t forget your wet suit—these are Canadian waters, after all.
Made up of the Montreal Botanical Gardens, the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium, the Insectarium (one of the largest of its kind in the world), and the Biodome (an indoor installation that showcases the four main ecosystems of the Americas), the Space for Life is a prime destination for nature lovers and families. The Biodome is currently closed but will reopen in June 2019 after a major renovation.
A reporter covering international news for Montreal newspaper La Presse, Laura-Julie Perreault has lived in this unusual city for 21 years. She is the co-author of Guide du Montréal Multiple, a guide to the city’s diversity. Follow her at @laurajulie.