10 `Must-dos` in Montreal, Canada – My Hometown!

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Updated for 2022: Montreal, it never gets old: eating smoke meat sandwiches on The Main, shopping on St. Catherine’s Street or people-watching as you sip a Molson’s beer on a warm summer night in downtown Montreal. Or maybe you’ve come to town for one of the many festivals: Just for Laughs, Osheaga, or the visually stimulating international projection mapping festival (MAPP_MTL). There are so many activities to choose from but I still think my all-time favourite would have to be the Montreal Jazz Festival.

Truly a multicultural city, I never get tired of hearing French or dozens of other languages in the financial and fashion capital of the province of Quebec. If you have never been, don’t mistake Montreal for Quebec City, the provincial capital, just three hours north up the St. Lawrence River. It has its own festival and world-class winter carnival and unique appeal.

But we’re not talking about Quebec City… today, I profess my love for my hometown – Montreal.  I here for over 22 years and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about the beautiful life I had in Canada’s city that never sleeps. Suffice it to say, if I could convince my uni-lingual husband from BC to move to Montreal I would pack my bags and move back in a heartbeat.

13741 Credit FR © Tourisme Montreal Mathieu Dupuis EN Credit © Tourisme Montreal Mathieu Dupuis
Montreal Skyline – Photo Credit: © Tourisme Montréal, Mathieu Dupuis

In the summer of 1969, my family immigrated from Colombia to the suburbs of Montreal.  We lived on the West Island (a series of municipalities in the western region of the island). At that time, these suburbs were primarily Anglophone and I spent my formative years in both Dorval and Kirkland but attended Beaconsfield High School. Still a part of my life, I’ve returned for quite a few reunions.

The West Island was a bit blander back then with the more interesting and eclectic neighbourhoods closer to the downtown area. Some areas have long-established cultural ‘communities’ (Portuguese, Italian, Haitian, Jewish, or Latin American) with events and restaurants to suit every nationality.

The island of Montreal is surrounded by bedroom communities that were primarily francophone with odd pockets of anglophone communities. The suburbs also extend off the island to the South Shore, the North Shore, Longueuil, Laval, L’Île-Perrot, and L’Île Bizard.  Many are now fully bilingual communities. Each with there own vibe and culture.

This mix of cultures makes Montreal one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan cities in Canada.  If you want a truly amazing experience, so there is plenty to do to experience the diversity of the city. If you are visiting, you may want to consider these ‘must do’ things in Montreal:

10 ‘must-do’ in Montreal

Visit Old Montreal

Montreal was founded in 1642 and is one of the oldest cities in North America (Quebec City to the north, was founded in 1608).  In 2017 Montreal celebrated its 375th birthday in true style with festivals, concerts, and GIANT Puppets. So a must-do is going to Old Montreal and walking the cobblestone streets.

Have a glass of wine in an outdoor bistro and peruse the beautiful art you can buy from local artists.  Make sure to visit the Old Port for a visit to the Pointe-à-Callière Museum.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Montreal Quebec @DownshiftingPRO
Notre-Dame Cathedral in Old Montreal – @DownshiftingPRO

If you want to see where Celine Dion got married. Make sure you stop by Notre Dame Cathedral.  It is one of the most beautiful baroque churches that you will ever see in your lifetime.  Boldly painted in royal blue and gold, this Baroque cathedral is the jewel in the crown of French Canada.

Take a Virtual Tour of Old Montreal at Night

Introduced for the 375th Anniversary of the founding of Montreal, Cite Memoire is an app-based guide to Old Montreal. It is a visual audio guide on a very large scale.

You can either follow the designated tour (30 or 60 minutes) or freestyle it. You’ll be directed to alleyways, parks, and plazas to view giant images and videos projected on the side of buildings. Truly one of the most fun things to do at night in Montreal, the scenarios will take you through historic moments in this city’s past.

When you are close to the projectors, the app will activate the video and you can listen in. It’s multimedia storytelling for the 21st century!

Ride La Grande Ronde Ferris Wheel

12 Riding La Grande Ronde Ferris Wheel in Old Montreal

Go to a Festival: Music, Art, Cultural and LOL funny

I’m not kidding, in Montreal, there is a festival for just about anything. As a young student at McGill University, I grew accustomed to going to all the amazing festivals during the summer. I always appreciated the festivals in Montreal because many of them were FREE. From St. Jean Baptiste Day to Labour Day, there are amazing world-class festivals to see, hear and experience.

Watch Formula 1 racing

Formula 1 Grand Prix in Montreal CanvaPro image

Start the summer with The Canadian Grand Prix. Though not a festival per se, it is a celebration of all things fast and furious and Formula 1. The only Canadian stop on the Formula One circuit, you don’t want to miss the excitement of watching racing on Gille Villeneuve Circuit on Ile

Once summer begins, so does the festival season. Here are a few biggies to consider: the music and light show provided by the International Fireworks Festival at Six Flags La Ronde from June to August. Massive fireworks displays are choreographed to music and you will never see a fireworks display in the same light. Millions have seen these from various vantage points but most noticeable is the Jacque Cartier Bridge which is closed for all nine nights throughout the summer.

Jazz and Just for Laughs Festival

The Montreal Jazz Festival is a staple beginning right after Canada Day celebrations at the beginning of July. It was only when we saw Diana Krall live at Place des Arts that my husband truly understood my love of Jazz. A free outdoor concert attended by 100,000 people on a hot summer night in downtown Montreal. On any given night you will find performances on the street, in bars or on the main stage.

Jazz player CanvaPRO image

You will quickly find yourself laughing out loud at the OG of all Just for Laughs festivals. It began 40 years ago with various acts, comedians and eclectic entertainers. It’s none stop laughs which have hosted and launched some of the biggest stars in comedy today!

Go Shopping on St. Catherines Street (above and below ground)

If you know anything about Montrealers it is that they take two things very seriously: food and fashion.  When you walk on St. Catherine’s Street you will find some of the best shopping in the country.  This was also the home of many of the iconic (and now defunct) department store chains. It remains the home of The Hudson’s Bay Company (or The Bay), Simpson’s and Eaton’s.

Shopping in Montreal Canva Pro image

The Eaton Centre has retained the name and is a part of the Underground City. With direct access to McGill Metro station, it has 125 retailers. It is part of an entire retail network in the downtown core with over 30 kilometres of pathways. In the dead of winter, you will be warm and cozy, there are restaurants, food courts, personal services, and easy access to the metro and central train station.

When you are on St. Catherines Street stop by my personal favourite department store – Simon’s.  A Quebec-based retailer since 1840, it has quickly expanded beyond La Belle Province.  There is nothing like Simon’s.  It has some wonderful fashion, young, hip, and cutting-edge yet other offerings are classic yet stylish.  I never miss an opportunity to visit this department store when I am in town. 

Do not let the frigid weather dissuade you from going shopping. Montreal has one of the most extensive underground shopping experiences.  All are connected through underground passageways and stores.  You can go from one shopping section to another – all underground.

Simons Twik
Twik is Simon’s hip, youth line

If you are looking for a more traditional store, you can visit the quintessential Ogilvy’s (also on St. Catherine’s Street).  When I was growing up, this store catered to the wealthy Anglophone market. This iconic department store has everything from high-end designers to one-of-a-kind baubles.

One of the fun things that happened at Ogilvy’s is a bagpipe player performing between 12-1 pm in the store.  I remember Ogilvy’s used to close the store with the bagpiper playing and parading in front of the store.  It only happened on Saturdays but I am not sure that still happens today.

Ride the Metro

Montreal Metro Photo credit STM bsm azur 2
The Montreal Metro – Photo Credit: Société de transport de Montréal (STM)

Why mention the Metro? Because it is the most efficient and cost-effective way to get around the city. Even if you are coming in for big events off the island of Montreal (The Formula 1 Grand Prix, Fireworks Festival or Osheaga), you will want to take the metro there. Driving and parking can be a bit of a nightmare for special events – and pricey.

The metros are efficient, noticeably clean, and very safe. It is also fairly quiet as it runs on rubber wheels not metal on metal. Built for the opening of the 1967 World’s Fair – EXPO. If you take the Via Rail from Toronto or Quebec City arriving at Place Bonaventure gets you direct access to the Metro. You can get one-day, 3-day, weekly, or monthly passes.  The one-day pass is a bargain at $11 CDN.

It’s good to know that Montreal is busy working on a rapid transit train from areas not covered by the current Metro system. The Réseau express métropolitain (REM) is an electric train project with four lines in the metropolitan region. It will be integrated into the existing public transit systems to provide services adapted to users’ daily needs. Plans to tie train service to Pierre Elliott Trudeau (YUL) Airport are still in the future but once done, it will rival any large city transit service.

Have lunch at Schwartz’s and Get some Bagels

All that touring around it bound to make you hungry and no more authentic eating experience is having Fairmont or St. Viateur Bagels for breakfast and Montreal Smoked Meat for lunch.

Montreal Bagels from Fairmount or St. Viateur Bagels @DownshiftingPRO
Montreal bagels are thin and less doughy than most bagels they are baked in a wood oven.

You will find out about the decades-long rivalry between Fairmont and St. Viateur Bagels. Situated in just over half a kilometre away or a nine-minute walk near the Mile End neighbourhood, take a stroll around one of Montreal’s most colourful areas. Open 24 hours a day/7 days a week, I remember many a time hitting the baker after the bars closed at 3 am. University life – gotta love it.

However, if you crave more than bagels and cream cheese, may I suggest another Montreal favourite – Smoked Meat? Closer to the Plateau district, head over to Schwartz’s on ‘The Main’ – St. Laurent Avenue. You will want to order a traditional smoke meat sandwich (medium… not fat, not lean, the medium is what you need to order), a side of fries, a pickle, and a cherry coke.  That’s what you order at Schwartz’s. You may have to stand in line but it is worth it.

Insider’s Tip: If you were wondering what the difference is between pastrami, corn beef, and smoked meat watch Netflix’s Somebody Feed Phil and the episode about Montreal. Here was the answer: They do not boil the meat. They marinate the brisket for 10 days in a dry cure, smoke it for 8 hours then it’s steamed. It is always juicy and delicious!

If you want take-out, try their smoked meat poutine – two specialties in one dish (fries smothered with gravy, cheese curds, and shaved smoked meat). It’s the bomb! Now that you know what to order, don’t be shy, you might have to share a table. Pretty straight forward but you will never taste a better smoke meat sandwich in Montreal.

Rumour has it that every Prime Minister that has run for office has eaten at Schwartz’s. If you did not make this a campaign stop, don’t count on being elected!

schwartz meal

Eat at a Bring Your Own Wine Restaurant

Montreal has a very unique city bylaw.  It permits you to bring your own bottle of wine (BYOW OR BYOB) to specially licensed establishments.  One of the most popular choices in downtown Montreal is Prince Arthur Street (off of St. Laurent). What began as a downtown fad is now easy to find in most districts. This updated list from MTL Blog will help you find a restaurant.

When I attended  McGill University, we’d often go out for dinner as a group and bring our own wine.  The evenings were always fun and filled with great food, cheap wine and abundant laughs.  You may also not know you can also buy beer and wine at the corner “dep” short for dépaneur (French for variety store), so don’t fear not finding a liquor store (SAQ).

Do it.  Go to Montreal. Take it all in.

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Margarita Ibbott is a travel and lifestyle blogger. She blogs about travel in Canada, the United States and Europe giving practical advice through restaurant, hotel and attraction reviews. She writes for DownshiftingPRO.com and other online media outlets.

16 thoughts on “10 `Must-dos` in Montreal, Canada – My Hometown!”

  1. We moved from the US to Montreal a few years before your family did. I grew up on the South Shore in what used to be Preville. We left there in 72 and came here to London and would you believe, I’ve never been back to Montreal since. Your post has reminded me of how wonderful it is – I really need to get back and see it again sometime soon.

  2. I have wanted to visit Montreal (and Quebec) for a long time. We took French class all throughout school and learned about the province as well. I have heard about the old city but never knew that Montreal was on an island. I loved how you profiled favourite places of yours from the city. Thank you so much for sharing your hometown!

  3. I love your vision of Montreal! It has been many years since my last visit, but I have always loved this ole city. The culture, the food, the history are all just so amazing and I hope to bring my own kiddos soon. Thanks for sharing!

  4. btw, forgot to say, gonna be following you & all your Canadian buddies in hopes for making friends & living or visiting, if not in person, in spirit.

  5. Ever since I saw Michael Moore’s documentary “Bowling For Columbine” I have been so intrigued with Canada & Canadians. Thanks for the informative, but personal, info. To visit you guys is on my bucket list and keep the info coming.

  6. I have never been outside the USA. I think I would enjoy a trip to Canada, I would love to take in a Hockey game… especially if they played against the Red Wings 🙂
    I think I would enjoy visiting old Montreal.

  7. I have lived within a 2 hours drive of Montreal most of my life and sadly I have never played the tourist there. I mostly only go to the airport on my way somewhere else. I’ve never even been on the Metro! I have done some shopping and been the the Biodome. Love the BioDome in Montreal, great for kids and adults.

  8. I love Montreal, though I haven’t been often or seen much of the city. I was thrilled to have a chance to explore le Vieux Montreal on my own when I was in town for the 2010 POC Conference!

  9. I would love to visit Montreal someday. I know I just came from the another country but I have a classmate back in high school who lives there so that would really be great to visit and see her. And taking along your hometown notes, I would love to try all those you’ve mentioned above! There’s really so much to see in Canada!! Thanks for sharing your hometown!

  10. Now I want to visit Montreal!!! I’ve never been further east than Ontario but my brother was actually in Montreal last year because he was doing his Basic Training with the military. Now sure how much he got to tour around but it is a place I’d like to visit so thanks for the tips! 🙂

  11. It’s one place I have always always wanted to visit, Montreal. The buildings, history and people I hear are amazing. It’s such a great city. The houses, brick work, cobble stone and more is just gorgeous. Great post Margarita, super glad you shared it. Vancouver has an underground shopping mall as well, which is kinda neat.

  12. I haven’t been to Montreal (which is a shame since I live in Ottawa and it’s not that far) but I love the history it has, and would really love to take my kids!

  13. It has been a long time since I had the pleasure of visiting Montreal! Such a great city. Ogilvy’s! Wow…I didn’t know there was one in Montreal. There used to be one in Ottawa years ago. I love Old Montreal and the cobblestone streets. I was able to see the Notre Dame..and it’s gorgeous! I had NO idea there was an underground shopping area. I love the BYO bottle bylaw 🙂 Great post, Margarita! Thoroughly enjoyed it!

  14. Thanks so much for sharing your hometown. Montreal is my mom’s hometown too. She grew up there and I hear about all her life there. I’ve been a few times – it’s an amazing old and historic city.

    You’ve done a great job to show us the amazing things of Montreal. I know smoked meat is a traditional favourite!

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