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Mount Royal Park rewards those who make their way to the summit with a wonderful view of the city.

The Best of Must-See Montreal

National Geographic photographer Kris Davidson captures the places that show the heart of Montreal.

The largest city in Quebec and the second biggest in Canada, Montreal possesses a joie de vivre that travelers can sense—and taste—immediately. Building off its French heritage, Montreal has embraced global cuisine trends with gusto, dishing up award-winning food from classic bistro fare to new-wave vegan. Its large green parks and bustling urban plazas entice residents and visitors outdoors, and visual, literary, and performing arts events unfold regularly—even in the streets. Here’s just a sampling of Montreal’s not-to-miss experiences.

PLACES TO SEE

OLD MONTREAL

Montreal has always been a crossroads. Long before the French founded the permanent settlement of Ville-Marie in 1642—the precursor of modern-day Montreal—indigenous people gathered at the confluence of the St. Lawrence River and a now underground creek to barter and share ideas. You can still walk across their former trading post—except now, that spot is part of Old Montreal.

Commerce has continued through the years, and a walk along Notre-Dame, de la Commune, McGill, and Saint-Jacques Streets reveals the growing fortunes, from 300-year-old stone houses to grand art nouveau and art deco buildings and even the odd glass-fronted facade of our times. Luckily, those growing fortunes now include restaurants, galleries, coffee shops, and bars, proving that what’s old is always new again.

MOUNT ROYAL PARK

Designed in 1874 by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, Mount Royal Park (Parc du Mont-Royal) is an oasis for runners, hikers, and dogs and their walkers. A wide gravel path climbs beneath maples to the top of the hill where the city’s landmark cross rises. Just off the summit is the lookout point at Chalet du Mont-Royal, which offers unobstructed views of the city’s skyline, the St. Lawrence River, and the Adirondack Mountains in the south.

On Sundays, at the park’s Georges-Étienne Cartier Monument, pound it out with the Tam-Tams, an informal drummer gathering that gets audiences swaying with their rhythmic beat. Come winter, make the most of the white stuff by renting cross-country skis for a glide along the park’s trails.

SQUARE SAINT-LOUIS

For a concentration of architecture that’s so uniquely Montreal it couldn't be anywhere else, visit Square Saint-Louis at the south end of the Plateau neighbourhood. The turn-of-the-last-century homes flanking the park’s perimeter are gray-stone gingerbread, castle-like turrets, and wrought-iron balconies. Stroll north along Laval Street for more architectural eye candy.

GAY VILLAGE

A 20-minute walk from Old Montreal, the heart of the Gay Village—Montreal’s LGBT neighborhood—is closed to car traffic from late May to late September. As you stroll along this part of Sainte-Catherine Street, look up: the summertime canopy of rainbow-colored balls designed by landscape architect Claude Cormier has become a symbol of the city.

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Gay Village has a pedestrian-only walkway during the summer allowing bars and eateries to spill onto terraces along the street.

For an even more iconic vista, keep walking southeast, to the Village au Pied-du-Courant. Open on weekends in summer, the outdoor café/bar offers unobstructed views of the Jacques Cartier Bridge, catapulted into the 21st century with an interactive light installation that brings the structure to life after dark

OUTDOOR FUN

LACHINE CANAL

Built in the 1800s to transport industrial goods, the Lachine Canal is now a scenic urban park and national historic site featuring a walkable canal path winding through the southwest part of the city from Old Montreal to LaSalle. The nine-mile trail attracts runners, tourists, and cyclists. Where the canal joins the St. Lawrence River, there’s even a small beach for swimmers to cool off in summer. Cyclists can find wheels at Ma Bicyclette, by Atwater Market, or pick up a BIXI from a bike-share station along the canal.

For those who prefer to explore the old waterway from the water, kayaks can be rented at H2O Adventures. Want even more of a challenge? The surf’s always up in LaSalle, where a permanent, or standing, wave created by an underwater rock in the St. Lawrence offers a reliable break. Rent a surfboard (or a stand-up paddleboard for a more mellow experience) from KSF. Or scale a disused industrial silo that pokes into the sky right by the canal at the Allez-Up climbing gym.

EAT, DRINK, AND BE MERRY

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Bar Darling is a brasserie, café, beer and cider house located in the Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood.

BAR DARLING

The new paramour on this Saint-Laurent block across from Portugal Plaza is Bar Darling. The place feels like a homey living room. Its cushy leather sofas and cozy chairs are for lingering. Grab a latte in the morning then return at night for a pint of IPA from a local craft brewery and do just that.

BUVETTE CHEZ SIMONE

No matter the diner’s mood—from supper or just a glass of wine—Buvette Chez Simone in Mile End makes everyone feel welcome. Early in the evening, the wine bar acts and feels more like a restaurant, serving everything from a full chicken dinner to charcuterie plates for sharing. As the night unfolds, the vibe grows livelier, eventually taking on the persona of a club in the wee hours—with DJs sharing their playlists.

BIG IN JAPAN AND ATWATER COCKTAIL CLUB

Opening the unmarked door embedded in a non-descript brick wall on Saint-Laurent Street in the Plateau makes the thirsty feel they’ve discovered a secret hideaway. Inside the candle-lit bar called Big in Japan tuxedoed mixologists tend to craft cocktails and pour Japanese whiskies for guests seated at tables around the perimeter. Also speakeasy-ish—and just as cozy and dark—is the Atwater Cocktail Club (ACC to the cognoscenti), in the Saint-Henri neighbourhood. Order the Smoke Show, a cocktail made from white rum, blackberry liqueur, berries and lemon juice—and served under a bell jar filled with hickory smoke.

JOE BEEF

In 2005 chefs David McMillan and Frédéric Morin founded a food empire on a stretch of Notre Dame Street in Little Burgundy when they opened Joe Beef. Now considered one of the world’s best restaurants, it has plated its signature steak and seafood for celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence, Hugh Jackman and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Don’t miss the duo and their partners’ other establishments: Liverpool House (oysters, fresh market food, Old World wines) and Le Vin Papillion (a wine bar with small plates that transforms vegetables such as cauliflower and celeriac into culinary art) are a couple of doors down.

AGRIKOL

Crispy pork, fried plantains and whole grilled fish washed down with rum-soaked drinks are the signatures at Agrikol, the award-winning little Haitian restaurant that feels more like a Caribbean party.

MONTREAL PLAZA

Setting orange banquette tables and wooden chairs against white beadboard walls, Montreal Plaza makes a bright statement in a shopping strip in the Petite-Patrie neighborhood. Ignore the surroundings. The food is star here, with seasonal fare ranging from deep-fried Brussels sprouts to pan-fried walleye and parsnip chips. Make a reservation—the food’s so good it can be difficult to just pop in without one.

VENICE AND BOHO

With poke bowls and salads that match the vibrant hues used for the restaurant’s tangerine-colored pipes, yellow bar stools and turquoise window frames, Venice is a slice of sunny Southern California in cool Quebec. Two locations (one in Old Montreal, the other downtown) draw stylish crowds for lunch, dinner and brunch on weekends. If there’s a line-up for supper at Venice’s Old Montreal store, wait it out with a cocktail under the green-and-white-stripe painted ceiling at Boho, the hip bar next door.

CREW COLLECTIF & CAFÉ AND LA VOÛTE

Let Crew Collectif & Café deliver your next caffeine power up. It’s a third-wave coffee spot in a gloriously preserved 1920s bank replete with gilded ceiling and cathedral-style window arches. Equal parts meeting place and ad-hoc work space, Crew is a photogenic peek into Montreal’s Old School economy. The bank vault in the basement of the same building on Friday, Saturday and Sunday after dark becomes home to La Voûte, a nightclub with local and guest star DJs putting on the ritz.

MONTREAL POOLROOM AND LA BANQUISE

After kicking your heels up all night, it’s time to refuel with a steamé (a steamed hot dog in a steamed bun) or the toasté (a grilled dog in a toasted bun). Open until 4 a.m., the Montreal Pool Room, on the corner of Saint-Laurent and Sainte-Catherine streets is a good place for either. Or go iconic. La Banquise, near Parc Lafontaine on the south end of the Plateau, specializes in poutine, the province’s own concoction of French fries topped with squeaky cheese curds and gravy. If the classic version isn’t rich enough, opt for toppings such as guacamole, pulled pork, or smoked meat. It’s open 24 hours.

THE ARTS

MUSÉE D’ART CONTEMPORAIN

Who said a night on the town can’t include intellectual banter, artistic appreciation, and a Pinot? The Musée d’Art Contemporain, or MAC, is always worth a visit, but four times a year it swings open its doors until 2 a.m. for its Nocturne events, where night owls can sip a glass of wine while taking in the special exhibits and permanent collection with a lecturing art curator in tow to challenge your perception of modernity.

PHI CENTRE

Get a (virtual) reality check at the Phi Centre. The museum in Old Montreal focuses on new ways of creating, sharing, and experiencing art with VR and interactive installations incorporating artificial intelligence and a variety of multimedia works. More traditional forms of artistic expression, such as painting and sculpture, are here too, but often enhanced by technology.

BIOSPHÈRE

The Biosphère, also known as the Environment Museum, is housed in the geodesic dome designed by architect Buckminster Fuller to be the U.S. pavilion for the Expo 67 World’s Fair. Located in Parc Jean-Drapeau on Sainte-Hélène Island, the building was a symbol of 1960s avant-garde architecture. Today, the museum documents contemporary environmental challenges.

FESTIVALS

Rising temperatures usher in Montreal’s festival season. The world-renowned Montreal Jazz Festival, which puts on acts as wide-ranging as Bob Dylan, Feist, and Buddy Guy, kicks off in late June. The Montréal Complètement Cirque circus festival, with free shows in streets and squares, follows in July, as does the Just for Laughs comedy fest, with stand-up acts, comedy galas and themed shows.

On Sundays through summer, Parc Jean-Drapeau rolls out the Piknic Électronik, an all-day electronic-music dance party hosted by local and international DJs. When you walk around the city, keep your eyes peeled for giant artworks painted during Montreal’s MURAL festival. Held each year in June since 2012, the festival had by its fifth incarnation brought more than 80 new murals to city walls.

And since you can’t hide from winter—a popular French song from the 1960 by the province’s beloved singer-songwriter Gilles Vigneault spells it out: “My country is not a country, it’s winter”—the city also sparkles in the snowy season, especially during the Igloofest and Montréal en Lumière festivals (in January and February, respectively), with live outdoor concerts, ice slides, dance parties, art shows, interactive light shows, fireworks, and more. Just don't forget your mitts.

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Panoramic view of Montreal at dusk from Mount Royal Park

Susan Nerberg is a Montreal-based writer with an interest in travel and the great the outdoors. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.