Montreal. How I’ve lived in Washington, DC, a mere 10 drive hours away, for 31 years without taking the time to visit this gem of a city is beyond me. It is, for lack of a more exciting or descriptive word… lovely. A true remedy for any American’s wanderlust.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was hoping to find a little piece of Europe, but I thought it was too good to be true. I had such high hopes, I felt that I must be setting myself up for disappointment. I’m so glad that I was wrong!
French is by far the most widely spoken language, and the French culture radiates throughout the whole city. If you don’t speak French, you’ll be okay. Just be prepared for a little bit of attitude that quickly dissipates after you provide a few smiles.
It’s also a very accessible city- once we parked at our hotel, we could walk everywhere we wanted to go.
Two days in Montreal is the perfect amount of time to explore the city- if you’ve got more time to spare, great!, but here are my top picks for what to do with 2 days in Montreal!
Vieux Montreal: This is Montreal’s piece de resistance. To set the scene, let’s imagine the sounds you’ll hear: wafting notes of live classical music, children chattering in French, horses clopping on stone. Sounds pretty charming already, right?
Projecting a distinctly Old-World European vibe, you can expect to see little cafes, shops, cobblestone streets, horse and carriage rides, galleries, street performers… and at night the pace picks up and it’s the perfect place for to grab dinner or after dinner drinks at a lively wine bar.
It was all very photogenic and we found ourselves returning to this area time and time again during our stay.
Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal: A National Historic Site of Canada, this is one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen. And after a semester abroad in Italy, I’ve seen a lot of churches!
The color palette of blues, purples, reds, silver and gold is striking and oh-so-pretty. I was happy to just sit in one of the pews for awhile and stare at the ornate alter and the starry “sky” ceiling.
Also notable are the stained glass windows that line the perimeter of the main sanctuary. Instead of the traditional biblical scenes, the windows in this church tell the story of Montreal’s religious history.
Admission to the church is just $5 per adult and to get the most out of your visit, I’d recommend that you jump on one of the free guided tours that are offered on the hour and half hour during regular hours. You’ll learn lots of information about the church and Montreal.
Olive et Gourmando: There’s a reason why this cafe, located in the Vieux Montreal, often has a line out the door. Simply put, this bustling cafe has ridiculously tasty food and a fantastic atmosphere to boot.
After much research, I selected this as the best place for me to achieve my 55 Places Bucket List item “Have a cappuccino at a café in Vieux-Montréal” and I wasn’t disappointed. The cappuccino was deliciously frothy, and the breakfast panini and the ricotta with honey and orange zest with toast were outstanding. It’s worth the wait!
Rue Prince Arthur Ouest: Le Plateau is an arrondissement that’s known for being a bit more lively and modern. Rue Prince Arthur Ouest is one of Le Plateu’s destinations and is the perfect street to find a spot for dinner.
Pedestrian friendly with many restaurants to choose from, many have outdoor seating and competitive prices. Also, the street proudly endorses BYOB (aka ‘Bring Your Own Booze’), so you can grab a bottle of wine from one of the nearby liquor stores, and bring it with you to dinner.
Try: La Caverne Grecque. The menu is Mediterranean (think: kabobs, rice and other specialties) and the very reasonable fixed menu includes dessert. The meal, our BYOB wine and the outdoor seating made for a really nice dinner.
Poutine: You can’t visit Montreal without trying this local delicacy – hand-cut, deep-fried potatoes dripping with brown gravy and squeaky cheese curds. You’ll see signs for Poutine everywhere, and while I’m sure that they’re all equally delicious, for the best head to the greasy spoon joint “La Banquise”. To fully enjoy your poutine, don’t worry about the calories… you’ll walk them off!
Bike Ride to the St. Ambroise Terrace & Brewery: Montreal loves their bikers, and they’ve made it really easy for tourists to quickly access and rent bikes with their BIXI system.
Just find a station (there’s 411 stations scattered throughout Montreal), rent a bike with your credit card (it’s $7+ fees for a day of access- check their website for the full pricing details), ride around for as long as you’d like, and drop your bike off to any other station when you’re done.
For a fun summer afternoon, rent one of the bikes and ride the path along the river (towards the Atwater Market) and end up at the St. Ambroise Terrace. It’s kind of rustic, but with outdoor seating (picnic tables), a grill with hamburgers and hot dogs for sale, and some of the honest-to-god best beer I’ve ever had available by the glass or pitcher, it’s the perfect spot for a mid-ride rest.
Hike to the top of Mont Royal: If you didn’t already know, the people of Montreal are very proud of their “mountain” – Mont Royal. While it’s no Everest, with winding paths, lakes and parks, this little mountain (or, maybe big hill would be more accurate…) is a popular afternoon picnic spot and meeting place for residents.
For tourists, it’s also the best spot for a view from above. With a little effort, you can easily walk to the top of Mont Royal. The path leads you to a big plaza and you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the whole city.
When time is tight, your best bet is to stay someplace central so you can easily get around. My choice was the Omni Mont-Royal, right smack in the middle of downtown. It’s stylish, affordable and the service can’t be beat. I loved it, and couldn’t recommend it any higher.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
Montreal is one cool city. In a continent that is so young, it’s really refreshing to find a city that embraces its older European heritage, while co-existing with the modern world that surrounds it. The culture, the food, the people and the atmosphere all blend together to make it one fantastic destination.
And, there’s poutine. Let’s be honest… Isn’t that reason enough to pack your bags and go today?