My recent trip to Montréal reignited my love for open-air markets, historic cobblestone streets, and french fries with cheese curds and gravy. Oh…and bumbling my way through the French language! If you’re planning a trip there anytime soon, here are some tips to get you started.
First Things First
Remember, Americans…Canada uses a different currency! Having grown up so close to the Canadian border, I think I sometimes forget it is an entirely different country. I completely spaced on having Canadian cash and was immediately on the lookout for an ATM. We lucked out because there was one across the street from our Airbnb and I used my trusty new Charles Schwab debit card for the first time. Remember how they reimburse you for all ATM fees…? My heroes!
Speaking of heroes, the city is in the process of implementing free Wifi everywhere through the network MtlWifi. While it doesn’t seem to work in every neighborhood yet, it’s worth a quick check if you find yourself in need of last-minute directions or dumpling recommendations – more on that soon! It worked best for me in Old Montréal, the Quartier des Spectacles and Chinatown.
Parlez-vous Français? If you speak any French at all, even just basic phrases, don’t be afraid to use it! I was nervous to break out my rusty French, which I haven’t used regularly since briefly working at a French bakery in Australia; but I was pleasantly surprised by how patient the Québecois were. Instead of hearing my accent and switching into English, they stuck with French, even if they had to slow down or repeat things multiple times. My innate, nerdy love of French grammar came flooding back instantly. Le sigh!
Where to Stay
I’m not a neighborhood expert by any means, but our Airbnb was in the Plateau-Mont Royal area and we loved it. It was an easy bus or bike ride into the city center, and there were countless cafés, bars and parks right in our direct vicinity. I considered booking right in Old Town for convenience, but in the end I was glad to be staying outside of the busiest part of the city.
Considering how easy it was to navigate the public transportation (see Getting Around section below), I don’t think it’s a city where you have to be super picky about where you’re based.
What to See
We spent a sunny morning at the Montréal Botanical Garden and it was well worth the trip. I was disappointed at first to see that the Chinese Garden is currently closed for renovations, but there was still plenty to see between the Japanese Garden, the Shade Garden and the various greenhouses.
Our entrance ticket ($20.25 for adults, $15.75 for Québec residents) included admission to the Insectarium. I assumed I wouldn’t enjoy this part but figured I might as well give it a look, and I’m so glad I did! It’s an impressive, well-designed space with beautiful displays of butterflies, scarab beetles, stick bugs and more. I bet my description is still not making it sound that great, but seriously! As someone who has next to no particular interest in insects, I was pretty captivated.
The Marché Jean-Talon is located in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood and is the perfect spot for snacking, people watching and enjoying the open-air market culture that you don’t find as often in the States. We sampled cheeses, fruit and sausage, and then headed across the street to Café Saint-Henri to refuel and observe the comings and goings of the marché.
The market opens every day at 7 am and closes at 5 pm on Sunday, 6 pm on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday, and 8 pm on Thursday and Friday.
Mont-Royal is the city’s most famous park, offering shaded, hilly walking paths leading up to a lookout point with panoramic views over its skyline.
To reach the lookout point, we started at the George-Étienne Cartier Monument just off of Park Avenue. There are several different directions you can take to the top combining wooded paths, paved paths and staircases. There are also signs along the way directing you to different points of interest. We weren’t exactly sure where we were going, but we simply made sure that we kept going in an uphill direction and eventually reached our goal!
You can also bike, drive or take bus #11 to the summit.
I would advise paying attention to the signs on your way back down, too; we didn’t make much of an effort to take the same path to the bottom and ended up coming out of the park somewhere on McGill’s campus on a completely different side from where we had entered. Oops!
You’ll find the majority of the city’s famous landmarks (Notre-Dame Basilica, Place Jacques-Cartier, the Old Port, City Hall and the Rue Saint-Paul, to name a few) while walking around Vieux Montréal – the city’s Old Town. Rue Saint-Paul is the oldest street in the city and home to the Notre-Dame de Bonsecours Chapel and the Bonsecours Market.
We actually – completely by accident – ended up in the city during its 375th birthday celebrations. The upside was that we were able to take advantage of free public transportation for a day, while the downside was that the city was much busier than we were expecting for our midweek visit. We still managed to snag some patio seats at a bar on the Rue Saint-Paul to enjoy the lead-up to the birthday festivities, culminating in a light show on the Jacques Cartier Bridge. While I was slightly underwhelmed by the light show and slightly overwhelmed by the intense crowds, it’s always fun finding yourself in a new place during a big celebration, especially when you aren’t expecting it!
We had our hands down best meal in Montréal (and honestly, best meal in my recent memory from any city) at Le Robin Square. The food was enough to blow us away on its own, but the creative, two-story interior and the thoughtful service were pretty great too. The short menu had just a handful of options to choose from and the waitress explained that many ingredients were sourced locally and each dish was prepared from scratch. We split a bowl of roasted red pepper and paprika soup along with an order of macaroni and cheese. It was seriously SO. GOOD. I’ve reminisced about it roughly 40 times since our trip.
We found ourselves feeling peckish while wandering around Chinatown one day and decided to treat ourselves to some dumplings. Unfortunately we were too spoiled for choice and had no clue which place to go with. Enter free Wifi to save the day! It led us straight to Mai Xiang Yuan. At our waitress’ recommendation we chose the traditional cabbage option as the filling and went for steamed instead of our normal preference of fried. They were aahmazing. Just make sure you have some cash on you, as they don’t take cards.
You can’t go to Montréal without having a bagel (or two) and we were an easy 20-minute walk from the famous duo of shops, St-Viateur and Fairmount. While I was originally expecting more of a New York-style bagel shop with a variety of topping options, we quickly realized both locations largely offer the bagels on their own. Everyone around us in line seemed to be ordering a dozen to take home as opposed to a sandwich to enjoy immediately. I was disappointed at first because I was starving, and the idea of eating a plain, un-toasted bagel with nothing on it seemed really strange to me…but I was totally wrong! Turns out when they’re hot and fresh from the oven, they’re pretty damn perfect all on their own. And they do offer mini packets of cream cheese if you want a little something extra for dipping.
My recommendation would be to tell them you’d like one of whatever is the most fresh (aka coming out of the oven at that moment) and then take a few home for good measure. They freeze pretty well, too – no lie, I enjoyed one just yesterday!
If you’ve read basically any of my blog posts, you probably know I’m in a constant state of searching out delicious hot dogs, so when I heard about the Montréal Pool Room, I knew I had to pay it a visit. Its misleading name might make you think it has pool tables, but they were removed long ago. It’s been open for more than 100 years and is one of the city’s best-known greasy spoons, especially famous for its hot dogs, served either steamed (steamé) or toasted (toasté). We got one of each…for research purposes.
Last but certainly not least: poutine. (I mean, you knew this part was coming, right?) We tried the famous spot, La Banquise, but were just as happy with Poutineville, which we stumbled upon right down the street from our apartment.
A *very* important question for my fellow poutine lovers: What’s your favorite variation? I always go for the classic, because I feel like it’s already perfect as is, but there are so many options out there!
I loved everything about Le Petit Dépanneur on the Rue-Saint Paul: the bright green facade complete with bunting and bistro lights, the indoor window seats, the collection of quirky postcards and gifts, and the full coffee bar. It was a refuge of peace and quiet on the otherwise hectic thoroughfare and my iced mocha was delicious.
Pagaille Café was located just around the corner from our Airbnb, and I wish it could magically be my neighborhood coffee shop at home. The coffee and house-made pastries were great and the service was super friendly.
Café Melbourne was also located near our Airbnb, and I’m never one to turn down a coffee from an Australian-run café. Caffeine and nostalgia – what more could you want for your morning?
I mentioned Café Saint-Henri in my section on the Marché Jean-Talon but wanted to point it out here, too. I loved its beautiful interior, bright blue china and outdoor seating. Plus, it’s in the perfect spot to combine with a trip to the market!
For drinks of the alcoholic variety, a friend recommended we visit Barfly, a dive bar on Avenue St Laurent, and we loved it. We happened to be there for some pretty awesome live swing and jazz music – try to time your visit to a Wednesday night if you can! We also visited Dieu du Ciel, which had a fun vibe, but the service was shite.
I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to navigate the city’s bus system. Whenever we were on our way out, I used Google Maps to see what route was recommended and took screen shots in case I forgot the instructions along the way. The only time we used the metro was to get to and from the Botanical Gardens, but from what I could tell it was also pretty easy to use.
A one-way bus or metro ticket is $3.25, a round-trip ticket is $6, a one-day pass is $10 and a 3-day pass is $18. You can combine multiple trips with one ticket as long as you’re going in the same direction and make the transfers within 120 minutes.
While the bus and metro were easy to use, Bixi Bike quickly became our preferred way of getting around. The city’s bike sharing system was SO convenient – plus, it’s fun to ride bikes! (Other than the occasional stress of cars and buses rushing past you at sometimes frightening speeds.)
There are docking stations located all across the city (a whopping 540 to be exact!), so regardless of where you are when you decide you need a bike, it’s a pretty safe bet you won’t have to go far to find one.
Use the pay station to choose 1-day access, 3-day access or a one-way journey. After that, you just have to insert your credit card (they’ll place a $100 deposit on your card temporarily) and then use the 5-digit unlocking code on the keypad next to any available bike. Once the light on the keypad flashes green, you’ll be able to pull the bike out.
All you have to do to return it to any docking station is firmly push the bike back into its cradle and wait for the green light to flash again.
If you’ve already purchased a one or three-day pass and need to pick up another bike, just insert the same credit card you used to purchase the pass – the station will issue you a new unlocking code and no additional fees will be added to your card.
I would highly recommend using Bixi Bike – and that’s coming from someone who rarely bikes at all and had never biked in a city before. Be careful about using the bike lanes and adhering to the flow of traffic; and if you get nervous or overwhelmed, just hop off and walk down the sidewalk until you feel comfortable again! (#ProBikerTips #TourDeFranceHopeful)
Have you been to Montréal? Are you still daydreaming about the poutine, too? Leave your thoughts below!
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I’m sharing this post to Wanderful Wednesday, hosted by Lauren of Lauren on Location, Marcella of What a Wonderful World, Isabel of The Sunny Side of This, and Van of Snow in Tromso, Monday Escapes with Lisa at Travel Loving Family, Sarah from Extraordinary Chaos, Karen from Mini Travellers, and Claire from Tin Box Traveller, and City Tripping with Cathy at Mummy Travels and Elizabeth at Wander Mum. Be sure to click through to their sites for more travel inspo!