There’s a certain confidence that comes with age; a sense of security when your roots are buried deep, a freedom that blossoms when you know who you are. The province of Quebec, where French explorers made contact with local Indigenous Peoples in 1534 and French is still spoken daily, wears its heritage proudly. Its biggest city, Montreal, is as solid as its 19th century Notre-Dame Basilica and as vibrant as its modern bistros. Its chateaux are sophisticated, while the festivals are fun. This is where cobblestoned old world charm meets can-do Canada – dazzling light shows by night, snowshoe hikes (raquette to the locals) at any time of day. Pick up a Montreal-style bagel and start walking...
Enjoy Montreal’s next-level food scene
A third of Montreal’s residents were born abroad. With such diversity comes some exciting food. The combination of imaginative local ingredients, flavours from around the globe and off-the-charts presentation has resulted in Montreal hosting some of the best restaurants in the world. But, as any cook will tell you, you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs. Montreal’s chefs don’t conform. That’s what makes them great.
Ever tried a Montreal-style bagel? The not-to-be missed establishment St. Viateur Bagel should be your first stop to sample this city icon. Montreal-style bagels are small and just the right amount of chewy and sweet. St. Viateur bagels are made in small batches. They're hand-rolled on a hardwood surface before being sent to simmer in a bath of honey water and baked in a woodfired oven where they’re artfully rotated to achieve a perfect golden hue. The next step is up to you. Did someone say cream cheese?
“You can’t not do this when you come to Montreal,” said the late Anthony Bourdain referring to Schwartz’s Deli. By “this” he meant savour the eatery’s signature smoked meat sandwich. Fresh rye bread is piled with a rich and tender brisket that’s been cured for 10 days then smoked for another eight, topped with lashings of mustard and served on a small white plate. Ask for extra napkins and enjoy.
An ever-evolving showcase of Canadian produce, Pastel is considered one of Montreal’s finest restaurants. Try the tasting menu with paired wines. The halibut is light, fresh and perfectly complemented by clam, carrot, cucumber and caviar.
One of Canada’s top restaurants, Le Mousso takes its status seriously. One service per evening and a maximum of 30 guests, with the chef and sommelier guiding you through an innovative menu that may include sauces made with pineapple weed oil or crispy pork belly with black walnuts. Bon appetit!
The menu is timeless, the vibe friendly and the offerings – including foie gras and tartiflette – a paean to traditional French cuisine. Locals have been eating at Au Pied de Cochon for more than 20 years.
Hit Montreal’s neighbourhoods
Mountains and trails, pubs and restaurants, unique shops and cool cafes. Montreal’s neighbourhoods have it all covered.
With a booming array of restaurants, bars and breweries, it’s little wonder Verdun has been voted the "coolest neighbourhood in Montreal". Stop by Church St Pub for an ice-cold IPA and OMG Grilled Cheese (two cheeses, bacon, jalapeno – OMG!). Enjoy it on the thatch-roofed patio and maybe play a game of jumbo Jenga. Too much? Pack a picnic and visit Verdun beach, where you can stroll the white-paved path or find a spot to relax by the water.
There are many reasons to head to Mount Royal ("the mountain" to locals), not least of which is a spectacular view of the city. Walk the tree-lined trails of Mount Royal Park by day. In winter, pack a vacuum flask of hot chocolate and your toque (Canadian for "beanie") and glide onto the outdoor skating rink, which twinkles at night with fairy lights. On summer Sundays, the community gathers at the weekly "tam-tams", a large drum circle in front of the Cartier monument. Bring a blanket, a picnic lunch to share and snag a spot of grass to dance on. The pop-up market has one-of-a-kind clothing, handmade jewellery and musical instruments.
The neighbourhood of Mile End is a cocktail of palpable energy and hipster insouciance. Expect good coffee, indie record shops and bookstores, vintage clothing and the organised chaos of cyclists weaving their way between cars. People-watch with an espresso at Caffè in Gamba or drink gin cocktails and dance the night away at Bar Waverly.
Attend a record-breaking festival
Montreal loves to celebrate, honour and commemorate on a grand scale. Just for Laughs, held in the city every July, is the largest comedy festival in the world. Watch established comedians perform or sit among the talent scouts and producers and see if you can spot the next up-and-coming star.
The annual Montreal International Jazz Festival is one of the world's largest such events. Sit under the stars, cocooned by the buildings of Montreal, and be transported by the groove of some of the best jazz artists.
Every August for nine days the city is transformed by the Montreal First People’s Festival. Meet Indigenous artists, catch fascinating films and documentaries about the cultures of North America’s first inhabitants, browse displays of striking visual art or take in a Buffalo Hat Singers concert.
Wonder at Montreal’s architecture
There’s an art to seamlessly blending old and new and when it comes to architecture, Montreal has it nailed.
Though it’s nearly 200 years old, the interior of Notre-Dame Basilica is still considered one of the most dramatic church designs in the world. Experience Aura, an immersive light and sound show that uses the gothic interior of the basilica as a canvas. There isn’t a bad seat for the show as the action surrounds you, lighting up the ceiling, altarpiece and stained glass.
The largest free-standing structure of its kind in the world (you may recognise it from the original Battlestar Galactica TV series), the Montreal Biosphere, or Expo 67 dome, is an intricate geometric design of triangles and tubes located on an island in the St. Lawrence River. Looking like a bubble big enough to hold clouds, the pavilion hosts exhibitions on environmental issues such as sustainability and climate change.
Another monument to Montreal design is Habitat 67, a mythical apartment building that resembles haphazardly stacked building blocks. When looking at the iconic complex, it’s hard to discern where each apartment begins and ends. Sometimes it pays to think outside the box.
Stay in a historic hotel
Accommodation options in Montreal are as diverse as the city itself, from large chains with mod cons and sweeping views to boutique inner-city boltholes imbued with Montreal’s history and famous charm.
The boutique LHotel in Old Montreal is hard to miss (and hard to forget), with its iconic orange awnings. One of the city’s historic landmarks, it was built in 1870 but has been lovingly refurbished many times since. Its colourful rooms mix a French Revival feel with contemporary comforts and walls hung with modern art.
Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth is as elegant and grand as its name suggests. The hotel features a unique in-house art collection and there’s an open invitation to the twice-weekly seafood and jazz happy hour. The hotel famously hosted John Lennon and Yoko Ono for a week in the 1960s where they wrote and recorded “Give Peace a Chance”.
Auberge du Vieux-Port in Old Montreal was converted from two 19th-century warehouses into a boutique hotel with views of the St. Lawrence River from its popular roof terrace.
Visit Quebec’s Eastern Townships
When locals want to unplug and unwind, they pack the car and head to their cottages in the Eastern Townships, a collection of cute towns and villages amid gentle hills located a little over an hour’s drive from Montreal. Base yourself at a B&B then branch out to the local cheese shops and boutique chocolatiers. Tour the meticulous gardens at Bleu Lavande lavender farm and breathe in the fragrant blooms. Make sure you pack the clubs: the Eastern Townships has the highest concentration of golf courses in Quebec, including Owl’s Head, which is located at the bottom of a mountain surrounded by giant evergreens. The course features perfect white silica bunkers, six water hazards and bentgrass tees.
Immerse yourself in Indigenous cultures
La Maison amérindienne is an Indigenous-run museum less than an hour outside Montreal. The space, which extends far beyond its man-made walls, is dedicated to educating visitors about First Nations. Learn about Indigenous culture through storytelling, art exhibitions and food. Participate in a traditional purification ceremony and taste a slice of crustless sugar pie (cooked according to an Atikamekw recipe) and a cup of lavender tea.
Fifteen minutes’ drive from Québec City is Huron-Wendat Museum, where you can learn about the Huron-Wendat way of life, join a medicine wheel workshop and finish your visit with a customary meal at Nek8arre. Order the wapiti pie with rice or the bison burger then take a sunset ride in a canoe. Visiting in winter? Bundle up for a walk across the property in snowshoes.
Visit Old Québec City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Known for its quaint cobblestone streets and historic statues, Québec City serves up magnificent architecture, absorbing history and culinary classics in spades. It’s the only fortified American city north of Mexico – its 17th century walls that kept invaders out now have an enchanting way of keeping the magic in. Visit the star-shaped citadel, take pictures in front of the fontaine de Tourny or stroll around the intimate boutiques of the Quartier Petit-Champlain.
If you’ve booked a room at the grand Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac – maybe one of the eight suites dedicated to heads of state and other notables including Alfred Hitchcock and Céline Dion – pop into the hotel’s wine and cheese bar, 1608, order a Gimlet and admire the spectacular St. Lawrence River from above.