Montreal is a lively city where there’s always something going on. Perhaps you’ll arrive in the middle of an enormous Pride celebration, with pink balloon-festooned streets blocked off for a huge party. Or maybe you’ll play on 21 Balancoires, a set of musical swings — notes play as people swing — that appears downtown every springtime.
Montreal has long been a major port city. It’s located at one end of the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which stretches from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. With a population of two million, Montreal is Canada’s second-largest city. It’s a bilingual city with a European feel. While more than half of Montreal’s residents are bilingual in French and English, quite a few only speak one language or the other, depending on their family’s native tongue and their education. Americans, especially those from the west coast, may love being in a place with Euro-style buildings dating back as far as the 1600s. It’s the mix of picturesque old and totally modern that makes Montreal so beautiful and fun.
For a more urban outdoors experience, check out one of Montreal’s many street fairs. May through June are the top months for closing off streets to traffic and turning them into party zones.
Unless you’re extremely hardy, summer is the best time to partake in Montreal’s outdoors activities. Winter is long and cold here. You’ll need serious gear to have a good time outside.
Mount Royal is a small mountain that overlooks the city and serves as a 692-acre city park that has it all. You can hike, rent a paddleboat, get your cardio workout by climbing the 550-step staircase on the south side, picnic or participate in a drum circle. During winter, people tube, toboggan, ski, snowshoe, or skate on a manmade lake. The Mount Royal Chalet rents winter equipment. Whatever you’re doing on Mount Royal, you’ll enjoy sweeping views of the city.
The Montreal Botanical Garden is lovely in every season. Check out cultural gardens within the larger garden — Chinese, Japanese and First Nations are all represented here. In autumn you can stroll beneath golden leaves, and in winter you can cross country ski inside the garden. Don’t miss the Insectarium to get a close-up look at bug life.
Did you know that 91% of the world’s maple syrup comes from Quebec? If you visit Montreal between late February and late April, get out to the countryside to experience a sugar shack. Many offer games, tastings and maple-themed meals as part of the fun. At La Cabane À Tuque, maple producers harvest maple sap the old-fashioned way, with buckets. Visitors can join in. They run an eco operation with a hempcrete-insulated house, a wall made with recycled bottles, and they even serve vegan meals.
Montreal wellness scene
Montreal is a secular city, but you’ll quickly notice the gorgeous churches and French Catholic influence. Nuns opened and ran the first hospital, the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal, in 1645. For a historical look at the local wellness scene, at least from a European perspective, the Musee de Hospitallers chronicles Montreal’s early medical efforts.
For one of the best modern spa experiences anywhere, pack your swimsuit and flip flops and head for Bota Bota, an old river ferry turned floating spa. It’s docked in the old port on Saint Lawrence River, where you can soak in a water circuit, fill your lungs with clouds of eucalyptus in the steam room, eat spa cuisine and relax in hanging chairs, all while gazing at river traffic. Bota Bota lets you choose between a quiet zone and a large area where you can visit with friends.
Eating out in Montreal
When I asked local vegan activist Élise Desaulniers why Montreal has so many vegan restaurants, she said, “We hate debates in Canada. We like to find the middle ground. So, the conclusion is you should eat less meat. But being vegan 100% of the time is considered too extreme.” So that means Montreal’s omnivores support the vegan restaurants, making the city full of choices for veg visitors. Montreal has a vegan festival every fall, which Desaulniers co-founded.
For some of the most interesting vegan sushi anywhere, Sushi Momo’s creations range from simple eggplant and avocado rolls to complicated concoctions full of exotic ingredients beyond my comprehension in French or English. I let the server choose for me. If you’re with a group, order the 2-foot-long wooden boat filled with assorted sushi.
Lola Rosa draws people from all walks of life to its four locations for hemp burgers and international-inspired comfort food. Panthere Verte stays open late and is known for its falafel and organic vegan cocktails.
Montreal’s subway system is relatively easy to figure out. Best of all, trains run every eight minutes on average, and every three minutes during rush hour. A robust bus system rounds out the public transportation network and will get you to all major landmarks. An express bus called the 747 Shuttle runs 24 hours a day between the airport and downtown, and only costs ten dollars. Ride-share services also operate in Montreal.
The BIXI bike share system runs during fairer weather months, from April 15 through November 15. Since bike shares are aimed at shorter rides, consider renting a bike from Montreal on Wheels if you want one for a whole day or the duration of your stay. The bike rental shop also offers guided group bike tours.
For an upscale eco-hotel, stay at Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth. Its impressively long list of sustainability initiatives includes employing three beekeepers, no using palm oil in its menus and turning old sheets and curtains into cleaning rags.
On the more affordable, communal end of the spectrum, the Alternative Hostel of Old Montreal offers dorm or private rooms with shared bathrooms and an airy, plant-filled space with a full kitchen. The Hôtel de l’ITHQ, run by the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec, is a clean, modern hotel run largely by tourism students. As a member of Canada’s Green Key eco-hotel program, it also follows many sustainability practices.
Images via Teresa Bergen / Inhabitat and Bota Bota