Montréal is often said to be a little piece of Europe in North America. And it’s true, to an extent; much of the architecture and culture feels like France or Austria. I’ve been doing a home exchange here, and having fun exploring this amazing city with my family.
But the Québec city is more North American than you might think. Its cosmopolitan energy, bold innovation and a vibe full of originality and character give Montréal a duality that is utterly charming and refreshing. You can ride bikes through acres of green parks, shop at farmers markets, visit world-class art museums and take in a hippie tam-tam drumming festival—all on the same day.
Montréal for Nature Lovers
Mont Royal is the lung of the city, with acres of parks that are highly used by Montréalers (designed by Frederick Olmsted of Central Park fame), and the mountain rising up in the middle of it. Bird watching, roller blading, biking and boating are all popular activities at Mont Royal, and some of the best city skyline views can be found here. In the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district you’ll find some of the city’s top attractions such as the Biodome, Olympic Park, Planetarium and world-class Botanical Garden—all great spots to head with the family.
To get around Montréal in an environmentally friendly way, check out Bixi, Montréal’s public bike system. Stations are all over the city and it’s easy to rent them and go. Tip: Once you’ve checked out a bike, charges are accrued in 30-minute increments. If you cycle from spot to spot and check the bike back into another Bixi station within a half-hour, you pay nothing.
Montréal for Foodies
To Montréalers, food is much more than something just to eat. This is another aspect of the city that is very European; dining is an event, a sensual experience and an important part of the social fabric. Montréalers are also quite demanding in the culinary department, and seek out creativity and ingenuity.
There is a high density of dining options here per capita, and the entire global village is represented. You’ll find everything from fine-dining restaurants to casual bistros and sidewalk cafés, and even a smattering of street food. Visitors from the U.S. will likely find prices 20-30% higher here, except possibly those from New York. For an upscale introduction to Québécois cuisine, try the rather boisterous Au Pied de Cochon or Jérôme Ferrer’s delectable nine-course tasting menu at Europea.
At the other end of the spectrum, you don’t have to go upscale to get inventive cuisine with remarkably fresh, local ingredients. A half-day spent at the famed Marché Jean Talon is a fun and tasty adventure. Full of produce stands, patisseries and other vendors, with samples on constant offer and plenty of on-site prepared food as well. Colors and delicious scents abound, and I dare you to walk away without a rich goat cheese or flaky pastry, and perhaps a bottle of wine or bundle of fresh flowers.
Montréal for Art Scenesters
The city is not just home to fine arts in abundance, with many museums and galleries, but also a thriving underground arts scene. The Griffintown district south of the city center, as well the Mile-End district downtown are great neighborhoods to explore and discover lesser-known working artists and new ideas. Check out the Montréal Art Centre in Griffintown, and Articule in Mile-End. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts puts on some unique and compelling shows; I saw a fascinating Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit there. Arts Scene Montréal is the place to go for events and art information around the city.
Montréal is king when it comes to festivals, averaging more than one a week. Montréalers flock to all sorts of festivals, from music and comedy to art and fashion, and many of them are free or offer certain free performances. The monster of them all is the International Jazz Festival, held each year in late June to early July for more than 30 years.
No matter your area of interest, or what time of year you visit Montréal, there is always something happening in this enchanting city.