The Best Things to Do in Montreal

Montréal has been described as the cultural capital of Canada, and while Toronto may disagree, a strong argument can be made on behalf of Québec’s largest city. Its mix of anglophone and francophone cultures—as well as the influence of First Nations and other communities—makes its unique, and fascinating. From landmarks that date from the days of New France to the city’s contemporary art scene, here’s a guide to some of Montréal’s highlights.

110 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest, Montréal, QC H2Y 1T1, Canada
A church—or, at least, a small chapel—has stood on the site of the Basilica of Notre-Dame since shortly after Ville-Marie (Montréal’s predecessor) was founded in 1642. The current building, however, dates to 1829 and was constructed in a soaring Gothic Revival style. At the time, that aesthetic choice raised some eyebrows—Gothic designs were associated more with Protestant churches than Roman Catholic ones. (Perhaps the fact that the architect was an Irish-American Protestant didn’t help the situation.) Whatever initial resistance there was evaporated in the face of the beauty of the completed building. In the decades that followed, Gothic became the popular choice for churches in Canada of every denomination in large part because of Montréal’s basilica. In the 1870s, in what was perhaps a case of gilding the lily, the basilica became even more stunning when its interiors were painted in bright colors to resemble Paris‘s Ste-Chapelle.
Place Jacques-Cartier, Montréal, QC H2Y, Canada
Running from the waterfront to Montréal’s City Hall, at the opposite end of a gently sloping hill, Place Jacques-Cartier has been a center of the city’s street life for more than two centuries. It was laid out at the beginning of the 19th century after the Château Vaudreuil, which had stood on the site, burned down in 1803. Originally known as New Market Place, the square stays true to those roots with the many vendors who sell flowers here in the summer. You’ll find them on sunny days alongside the outdoor tables of the cafés that line the square. In December, Place Jacques-Cartier is dressed for the holidays with rows of Christmas trees. Given the name of the square, you might expect the column at its western end to be topped with a statue of the French explorer. Instead, the English admiral Lord Horatio Nelson looks over the city from the perch. Erected in 1809, it is Montréal’s oldest public monument and preceded London‘s column honoring Nelson by three decades. To this day, the choice of hero to honor still causes some resentment in this largely francophone city.
4601 Rue Sherbrooke E, Montréal, QC H1X 2B1, Canada
At 185 acres, the Montréal Botanical Garden is less than a third the size of Mount Royal Park, but it manages to fit a remarkable collection of some 22,000 plant species and cultivars into that space, organized into 20 thematic gardens and including 10 exhibition greenhouses (ideal if you are looking for some tropical warmth in the depth of a Montréal winter). Everyone will have his or her own favorites when it comes to the different spaces—Alpine, Chinese, Japanese—but the First Nations garden stands out. Wandering alongside its pond and following its forested trails, you’ll feel like you are far from the city and instead in the northern reaches of the province of Québec—at least until you catch sight of the swoop of the nearby Olympic Tower, with its distinct incline. You can continue the naturalist itinerary at the Biodome, also nearby, where five different ecosystems of North America are re-created with flora and fauna—auks, lynx, penguins, and more.
1260 Chemin Remembrance, Montréal, QC H3H 1A2, Canada
Mount Royal Park starts at the edge of the city just beyond the McGill campus and runs alongside neighborhoods like Plateau before rising to the top of 764-foot-tall Mount Royal (Mont Réal), the hill that gives the city its name. The twisting roads and paths of this crown jewel of Montréal’s park system were initially laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed New York’s Central Park. While Olmsted’s plan was not followed in all its details, the final result was true to his vision of a woody park that takes advantage of the site’s hilly topography. There are two belvederes with views of the city skyline and the St. Lawrence River, and one of Montréal’s iconic landmarks, a 103-foot-high cross, sits at its northern end. The park is most popular in summer, but residents flock here in every season, to enjoy the colorful foliage in the fall and the cross-country ski trails and toboggan runs in the winter.
4141 Avenue Pierre-De Coubertin, Montréal, QC H1V 3N7, Canada
For decades, Québec was viewed by many Canadians, and even many Québecois, as a conservative, traditional, and rural part of the country that was falling behind other provinces that were looking optimistically toward the future. Those are the years that would come to be known as the Grande Noirceur, or the Great Darkness. In 1959, Maurice Duplessis, known for his staunch Catholicism as well as fierce anti-Communist and anti-union policies, died, and he was followed by Liberal governments that led the so-called Quiet Revolution. Québec would emerge from this period as a decidedly cosmopolitan and socially liberal province. The Expo 1967 and the 1976 Olympic Games in Montréal proved to be key moments in which newly transformed Québec introduced itself to the world, and the buildings from both had huge impacts on the cityscape. The Olympic Park’s stadium, designed by French architect Roger Taillibert, is still used for sporting events as well as concerts. The inclined tower on the site has an observatory with sweeping city views. You can explore on your own, though there are also guided tours that provide an introduction to the architectural and engineering innovations of the Olympic Park’s buildings.
1 Circuit Gilles Villeneuve
One of Montréal’s most iconic landmarks was designed by an American, R. Buckminster Fuller. The Biosphere, an enormous geodesic dome, sits in Parc Jean-Drapeau on St. Helen’s Island in the St. Lawrence River. Now considered one of the most important examples of futuristic architecture of its period, it was originally built as the U.S. Pavilion for Expo 67, the world’s fair that took place in Montréal in 1967. It quickly proved to be one of the most popular attractions of the event. An acrylic skin originally covered the building, but that was destroyed in a fire in 1976 and never restored. The skeleton building remained intact, however, and it is arguably even more dramatic and elegant than before the fire. Today the Biosphere houses a kid-friendly Environment Museum, with interactive displays that introduce environmental concepts and address the issue of climate change.
Montreal, QC, Canada
You might not think that Canadian history is a topic that would sustain your interest for too long, but a visit to the McCord Museum will likely change that preconception. With a tagline of “Our People, Our Stories,” the museum is committed to covering the various communities of Canada, and especially the city of Montréal, in all their diversity. Temporary exhibitions focus on the art and culture of anglophone, francophone, First Nations, immigrant, and other populations in Canada, usually from specific points of view, say, late 19th-century Canadian circus posters or a photographer who captured the 1960s art scene in Montréal. A permanent exhibit, “Wearing Our Identity,” includes both traditional and contemporary First Nations costumes. The museum is decidedly kid-friendly, with special events as well as souvenir backpacks and “game cards” designed to bring the exhibitions to life as young visitors search for animals, geometric shapes, and other clues in the works on display.
859 Rue Sherbrooke Ouest
Opened in 1880 as Canada‘s first natural history museum, the Redpath Museum has a charmingly old-school Victorian quality to it. The collection of artifacts assembled by intrepid explorers ranges from taxidermy and Egyptian mummies to geological samples and—one of its most prized possessions—a handwritten letter from Charles Darwin. The museum is located at the heart of McGill University, long one of Canada‘s most important institutions of higher learning. Most of the buildings on campus, all in a handsome gray stone on a lovely bit of green in downtown Montréal at the base of Mount Royal, date from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
3800 Chemin Queen Mary
Sitting on the south side of the city’s namesake mountain, St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal (L’Oratoire St‐Joseph du Mont‐Royal) is a little off the beaten path of Montréal’s most visited sites, but the views of Montréal alone are almost enough to justify the journey. One of the city’s most impressive religious buildings, the basilica has a history that began with André Bessette, a lay brother who became famous for his miracle cures (which he credited to Saint Joseph). In 1904, he built a small chapel on the site of the oratory, but it soon attracted more worshippers than could fit in the building and in 1924 construction of the basilica began. It would finally be completed in 1967. (Meanwhile, Bessette died in 1937 and was canonized in 2010 as Saint André of Montréal.) Today pilgrims from around the world flock to the enormous church, many in search of the miracle cures that first attracted worshippers to Bessette’s original chapel.
1085 Rue de la Cathédrale, Montréal, QC H3B 2V3, Canada
The choice of whether to build a church following a Gothic Revival or neoclassical design involved more than just aesthetics in 19th-century Québec. The former tended to be associated with Protestantism, and so the construction of the Catholic Basilica of Notre-Dame in that style raised eyebrows. When the St-Jacques Cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1852, the architects who designed a new church for the site, the Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, opted for the neoclassical style that was more typical of Catholic buildings. Constructed from 1874 to 1895, it is a quarter-scale version of St. Peter’s in Rome, complete with coffered vaults and twisting columns in imitation of those of Lorenzo Bernini’s baldachin in the Eternal City. The building’s green copper dome makes a statement, too, looming as it does over the largely Protestant neighborhood. The stucco crucifix by sculptor Philippe Hébert is one of most important works of art in the church.
Rue Saint-Denis, Montréal, QC H2X, Canada
Even though you may have never been here before, Montréal’s Place St-Louis, in the Plateau neighborhood off of rue St-Denis, will probably look familiar thanks to the many tourism posters and guidebook covers that display its image. The graystone Victorian row houses, with details in pink, purple, and other eye-popping hues, embody a certain Montréal attitude—grounded in history yet with a playful, contemporary edge. The square was laid out in 1876 and has been described as one of Montréal’s most beautiful, with a European elegance thanks to its tree-lined paths and fountain. Students of poetry may want to pay homage to Émile Nelligan. A monument to the beloved Québecois writer sits in the southeast corner of the square near the house on avenue Laval where he once lived.
Running for more than eight miles through the southwest part of the island of Montréal, the Lachine Canal is a window onto the city’s industrial history, reborn in recent decades as a place where nature and the city meet. Originally opened in 1825, the canal, with its five locks, allowed ships traveling between the upper St. Lawrence River and the sea to avoid the treacherous Lachine Falls. (Before the canal opened, ships would typically off-load their cargo at the village of Lachine, which would then be loaded onto another ship on the other side of the falls.) The canal’s banks would soon be filled with small factories, but by 1950 the area had started to decline, in part due to the success of the railway. In 1970, it was closed to shipping completely. Recent efforts to clean up the canal have been successful, and now bikers and walkers take advantage of the paths that line it, while many of the former factories and warehouses have been converted into luxury lofts and condos. In 2002, the canal was opened to boats again—pleasure crafts, not barges—that travel its length. If you decide to explore the canal, the Atwater Market was one of the early projects to redevelop the area, and it remains a great place to buy all the items needed for a picnic.
1920 Rue Baile, Montréal, QC H3H 2S6, Canada
Phyllis Lambert may not be a household name, but she is a key figure in modern architecture in North America. An architect and philanthropist, she is also an heir to the Seagram fortune and responsible for getting Mies van der Rohe the commission to design the Seagram Building in New York, which remains one of that city’s most important modernist structures. The Canadian Centre for Architecture is another of Lambert’s legacies. Founded in 1979, it is housed in a 19th-century mansion and a more recent addition, designed by Peter Rose in conjunction with Lambert. The approximately 130,000 square feet of space include gallery spaces, lecture halls, a library, and a gift shop. Even if you are not a practicing architect, the temporary exhibitions are engaging and the shop includes not just tomes on architecture but also unusual gifts by local artists and designers.
Sitting right next door to the Basilica of Notre-Dame in the heart of historic Montréal, St-Sulpice Seminary is the second-oldest building on the island. (The oldest is the 1671 LeBer-LeMoyne House, roughly six miles from the center of the city, which now houses the Musée Lachine.) The seminary dates from 1687, and remarkably it is still used for its original purpose: to house and train Sulpician priests. Sadly, this means the building is rarely open to the public. (Rarely is not an understatement here—apart from some tours in 2017, the last time the general public was allowed through its gates was in 1967 during the Expo.) Though you can’t tour the building, you can admire its gray stone architecture from the street. Especially noteworthy is the clock on the façade, built in Paris and installed in 1701, making it one of the oldest such clocks in North America.
280 Rue Notre-Dame Est, Montréal, QC H2Y 1C5, Canada
Just across the street from Montréal’s City Hall (or Hôtel de Ville), the Château Ramezay has been witness to almost three centuries of history. It was first built in 1705 by Claude de Ramezay, then governor of Montréal, as his official residence. While the building principally served as the home of later governors, it was also briefly the headquarters of the Continental Army when American troops occupied the city. (Benjamin Franklin spent a night in the house during that period.) In 1895, it began its current incarnation, as a portrait gallery and history museum. The collection includes prints, drawings, photographs, and other works of art, as well as humble household objects, that shed light on the daily life of the city’s residents and First Nations peoples in Québec over the centuries. Be sure to leave time to explore the small kitchen and pleasure gardens, as well as the orchard, for an introduction to the horticultural practices of settlers in New France and residents of 19th-century Montréal.
2929 Avenue Jeanne-d'Arc, Montréal, QC H1W 3W2, Canada
The Château Dufresne might not be high on most visitors’ lists of sights to see in Montréal, but as it is just across the street from both the city’s botanical garden and the Olympic Stadium, you may want to drop in if you are in the neighborhood. The mansion was constructed from 1915 to 1918 in the Beaux-Arts style popular in Montréal in those years. The 20,000-square-foot building is modeled on the Petit Trianon at Versailles and is actually two homes in one, as the brothers Oscar and Marius commissioned side-by-side mansions. The château served several different purposes after the Dufresne family lived there, first as a boarding school and later as the home of the Musée d’Art Contemporain. Today many of the rooms have been decorated with early 20th-century pieces, and a permanent exhibition provides an introduction of life in Montréal’s East End a century ago. Temporary exhibitions cover a range of topics, including some that highlight the collections of prominent Montréal patrons and others that focus on leading artists in the city.
350 Place Royale, Montréal, QC H2Y 3Y5, Canada
There is perhaps some irony that one of the most distinctive contemporary buildings in the historic heart of Montréal is a showcase for some of the city’s oldest artifacts. The modern structure that houses this archaeology and history museum opened in 1992, to coincide with the 350th anniversary of the establishment of Montréal. The highlight is its crypt, where you can wander through the digs of the city’s 18th-century market. A new pavilion, “Where Montréal Began,” opened in 2017 on the occasion of the city’s 375th anniversary. Its display of artifacts emphasizes the spiritual traditions of both the French settlers and Québec’s Algonquin, Huron, and Iroquois peoples. Temporary exhibitions on subjects like hockey and the archives of Bell Telephone help bridge the gap between Montréal’s early history and the present day.
458 Rue Notre-Dame Est, Montréal, QC H2Y 1C8, Canada
George-Étienne Cartier may not be a household name for many people outside of Canada, but he is recognized there as one of the founders of the nation. The 19th-century lawyer was crucial to rallying the country’s francophone population to the cause, and his impact on Canada included everything from helping negotiate the creation of the province of Manitoba to introducing legislation that established the Canadian Pacific Railway. His life and achievements are celebrated In this house where he lived from 1848 to 1871. It also provides a glimpse of what daily life was like for Montréal residents in the Victorian era.
55 Île Sainte Marguerite, Boucherville, QC J4B 5J6, Canada
If you aren’t going to add a visit to some of the more rural parts of Québec before or after your time in Montréal, it’s possible to get a small taste of the province’s wild side at the Îles-de-Boucherville, a small group of islands about 25 minutes upstream from the heart of the city. In the middle of the St. Lawrence River, this small undeveloped reserve is home to skunks, deer, and migrating birds. You may also catch a glimpse of one of Canada‘s iconic animals, the beaver, though they tend to be elusive and shy. While the park is an ideal place for a short hike or a kayaking trip along its protected waters, it is still right on the outskirts of Montréal, so on a sunny weekend day you may find yourself sharing it with many city residents in search of a natural escape, just like you.
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