A Perfect Weekend in Montreal Is All About Historic Architecture and Modern Cuisine

A weekend is all you need to fall in love with this city’s historic neighborhoods, thriving art venues, and seriously good food.

Aerial view of Montreal with island in river

Montreal mixes North American modernity and old-school European charm with a one-of-a-kind French vibe.

Photo by Firefighter Montreal/Shutterstock

A trip to Montreal can be a little disorienting at first: Am I in Europe? Canada? Should I speak in French or English—or both? The short answer: Yes. Montreal feels like a little bit of everything, especially as you explore its distinctive neighborhoods.

A visit to Canada’s second-largest city is about living in the urban space, meeting the locals, and sharing a moment. Visit Old Montreal, where you can admire the city’s historic side with architecture dating back to its 1642 founding. Or spend some time in the bohemian Plateau Mont-Royal, which attracts young artists and students in part thanks to nearby McGill University.

And Montreal is also about eating. With one of the highest number of restaurants per capita in North America, the city has in recent decades moved away from classic French and Italian fare to let its creative spirits soar. Most chefs are happy to champion local farmers and products on their menus, allowing for a taste of the entire province, land to sea. (Though you’d be remiss if you didn’t try the smoked meats.) Independent bakeries, cafés, specialized food boutiques, and restaurants thrive in every neighborhood—you’ll want to pack your stretchy pants.

Where to stay in Montreal

Hotel Le Germain's colorful facade stands out among the skyscrapers that surround it.

Hotel Le Germain’s colorful facade stands out among the skyscrapers that surround it.

Courtesy of Hotel Le Germain

Hôtel Le Germain

Book now: Hôtel Le Germain

Inspired by the 1960s midcentury-modern aesthetic, Hôtel Le Germain’s 2019 renovations transformed this downtown property into an elegant space with outstanding service. Visitors are welcomed to the 100-room hotel by the rainbow-hued facade created by artist Michelle Hoogveld as part of the Mural festival, a yearly summer event that champions urban art. The rooms give prime views of Mount Royal or the skyscrapers along the street and, depending on the room, accents range from round beds to hanging bubble chairs.

Fairmont Le Queen Elizabeth

Old World charm and modern amenities reign at this grand downtown hotel that’s been welcoming royalty and celebrities since 1958. Suite 1742 is where John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged a famous weeklong bed-in. The hotel underwent a renovation in 2017; the result is a new Fairmont Or (Gold) hotel-within-a-hotel, with a dedicated 21st-floor lounge for guests and separate concierge services, and rooms (there are 950) with modernist details like geometric-patterned floors and bold, retro colors. The hotel also has a Cirque Eloize cabaret show that’s a wild affair.

Hôtel Gault

On a quiet, cobblestone street in Old Montreal, this historic 19th-century building is adorned with intricate molding and cast-iron columns in stark contrast to the 30 minimalist-style lofts and suites it houses, with memorable views of the city.

Épik Hotel

With only 10 rooms and suites, Épik preserves architectural details that date back to the 1700s, such as wooden beams and stone walls, offset by slick modern design elements like LED lights and rain showers. The Old Montreal hotel is close to sites like the Notre-Dame Basilica, eclectic shops, and plenty of restaurants, so you won’t have to travel far to experience the city’s vibrant offerings.

Where to eat and drink in Montreal

Overhead view of wooden table topped with several small plates of food, with cup of fries in middle

Larrys is one of many restaurants vying for your brunch reservation.

Photo by Rachel Cheng

Unsurprisingly, Montreal offers enough food and drink options from dawn to dusk to keep you busy for weeks.

Where to go for brunch

Montrealers love brunch, and the city has many outstanding options. Old Montreal’s Olive et Gourmando is an absolute must for its flaky pastries and “Egg on your face” breakfast sandwich. For a more British take, Larrys is the place to go. Don’t skip the scones! Other excellent brunch choices include modern Lebanese cuisine at Shay, deli classics (and the best pancakes) at Arthurs, and French brasserie dishes at Leméac. For a classic Montreal-style brunch, make your way to Beautys. The deli has been serving Montreal bagels and lox platters since 1942.

Where to go for lunch

For lunch, you’ll have to indulge in some of Montreal’s most iconic foods: piping hot bagels (sweeter, crunchier, and dare I say, better than NYC bagels), poutine, or a mile-high smoked meat sandwich. These Montreal specialties are the best of their kind.

For a sweet snack, try Hof Kelsten’s chocolate babka or Pâtisserie Rhubarbe’s lemon tart.

Where to go for dinner

If you’re in town for a few days, head to Candide, a restaurant inside the presbytery of a converted church, for regional cuisine. You’re almost guaranteed to try some unique ingredients from Quebec’s wild terroir. Its wine list is one of the best in town. If the weather is nice, try to snag a table on the lovely terrace located on a quiet alley. Otherwise, the bar with a view of the kitchen action is the best seat.

For for fine French cuisine, La Chronique and its light-filled dining room is a top place to spend an evening. Its foie gras specialties and service are always irreproachable.

Vin Mon Lapin is a neighborhood restaurant in Little Italy with an attractive dining room, a fun and knowledgeable staff, an outstanding collection of bottles (some of which you won’t find anywhere else), and the best inventive and seasonal food served in small dishes to share. It’s a must.

Things to do in Montreal

A cobbled street in Old Montreal, with benches

Old Montreal is a small piece of Europe on this side of the Atlantic.

Photo by ProDesign studio

Explore Old Montreal

With its cobblestone pathways and centuries-old buildings, Old Montreal arguably has some of the most European streets this side of the Eiffel Tower. Locals and tourists alike wander its charming narrow streets to enjoy some of the city’s major attractions. Charismatic Saint-Paul Street, Montreal’s former main artery, is flanked by historic 19th-century buildings now housing art galleries, kitschy tourist stores, and glam restaurants.

One of Old Montreal’s main landmarks is the Notre-Dame Basilica, built in the Gothic revival style between 1824 and 1829 (the bell towers were finished in 1843). Get tickets for Aura, an immersive sound-and-light show that emphasizes the intricately carved wood details and stained-glass windows of the basilica. For other memorable experiences, head to PHI Centre, a multidisciplinary art gallery featuring immersive exhibits using virtual reality.

You can enjoy scenic views of Old Montreal and the river from several spots, including the Grande Roue de Montréal Ferris wheel, the iconic Clock Tower that hovers over Old Montreal’s beach, or the spectacular 300-year-old Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel.

For a relaxing afternoon, book a massage at Bota Bota, an award-winning floating thermal spa housed inside a repurposed ferryboat with views of the famous Habitat 67.

Read more about Bota Bota.

Go downtown

From Old Montreal, it’s a short walk through Chinatown to Quartier des Spectacles, an area of downtown Montreal that is the city’s “cultural heart.” Some of Montreal’s most prominent festivals take place here, especially during the summer, when you might catch a Montreal Jazz Festival concert, a Just for Laughs show, or one of many free outdoor activities.

Head west on Saint-Catherine Street toward McGill Avenue and beyond for some world-class shopping above and below ground in Montreal’s underground city. The pedestrian network that connects shopping malls, metro stations, and dozens of downtown buildings runs for 20 miles under the city center and is a good way to enjoy a day out away from Mother Nature’s tantrums.

Check out Mile-End

The Mile-End has the well-earned reputation of being Montreal’s hippest neighborhood; its vibrant art and music scene is the home of many independent music shops, boutiques, and bookstores. Mimic the locals by perusing the piles of books at Drawn & Quarterly then heading to Café Olimpico for a latte and people-watching on its terrace.

Hike or drive up the Mount Royal Park to Beaver Lake for a panoramic view of the city. If you happen to be in the area on a Sunday, head to the George-Étienne Cartier Monument and les tam-tams du Mont Royal, where you can find a spontaneous gathering of drummers and percussionists—the epitome of Montreal’s quirkiness.

The exterior of the Jean Talon Market in Montreal, which has a big sign that says "Marché Jean-Talon), a series of prints of vegetables below it, and many people milling about.

The Jean-Talon Market is a must-visit while in Montreal.

Tourisme Montréal

Stop by Little Italy

From Mile-End it’s a short walk to Little Italy. Stop by an Italian café before heading to Jean-Talon Market, one of North America’s largest open-air farmers’ markets and a good place to eat lunch and stock up on edible souvenirs (like Quebec maple syrup).

Read more about Jean-Talon Market.

Visit Space for Life

Space for Life is Canada’s largest science museum complex and combines several experiences under one roof—or rather, in the same vicinity. You can stare up at the stars at the cutting-edge planetarium, meet the smallest creatures at the insectarium, observe animals in the immersive ecosystems of the biodome, or stroll around the botanical gardens. Montreal’s famous Olympic Stadium, home of the 1976 Olympics, is nearby.

Bike the city

Montreal has over 430 miles of bike paths and has been named one of the most bike-friendly cities in North America. Rent a bike or grab a BIXI (short-term rental) and ride along the Lachine Canal or around the Parc Jean Drapeau for two scenic routes.

Visit Strøm Spa

East of Montreal, on the Ile de Soeurs (Nuns’ island), is a sprawling, Nordic-style day spa called Strøm Spa. On site, guests can enjoy a steam bath or a dry sauna overlooking the nearby woods or lounge on an outdoor patio by the river. However, the main attraction is the property’s multiple outdoor thermal baths and full menu of spa services like massages, facials, and manicures.

It also has a restaurant featuring healthy, Nordic-inspired dishes like a mushroom smørrebrød (open-faced sandwich) and fish and seafood soup. Thanks to all of the options, you easily can (and should!) spend half a day here.

Although the peaceful property is worth a visit at any time of the year, it’s especially appealing during the winter, when cold winds and snow make other outdoor activities less accessible or pleasant.

This article originally appeared online in 2020; it was most recently updated on October 9, 2023, to include current information.

Mayssam Samaha is a Montreal-based food and travel writer.
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