Visiting Montreal is a dynamic, urban experience that is one of the most progressive and welcoming cities to enjoy today. At times it feels European, yet there’s a strong, vibrant energy of newness, a youngness, that courses through its veins. Some say it feels Canadian… but no, it’s more than that.
This city radiates the distinct personality of Quebec with a little flair of its own. Actually, make that a lot of flair. With cutting edge creativity, festivals galore, and an inspiring embrace of diverse cultures, it feels like a new, progressive frontier. The amount of things to experience here is amazing. So as an ardent traveler, here’s where to start when visiting Montreal.
Get to Know the People
At the heart of Montreal, is the adventurous spirit of the Montrealers. And yes, they carry on the reputation of Canadians as being very friendly people. They live to party, love great food, and are ultra-creative. So it’s no surprise that the city has over 100 festivals a year.
As I got to know Montreal, I couldn’t help but think about its ‘Quiet Revolution’ that I had just learned about. Culminating in the 1960s and ’70s, it was a period of dramatic political and cultural change throughout the city’s province of Quebec. It laid the groundwork for Montreal being today one of the most liberal and forward-thinking cities in the world.
Some Local Lingo: Québécois is the term for inhabitants and natives of Quebec. Montrealers refers to people living in Montreal (especially those who are crazy about Montreal). In French, it’s montréalais (montréalaise in feminine form).
Montreal Knows How to Illuminate
This city is really into fireworks. And since I live in Spain (and trust me, Spaniards are crazy about fireworks), that’s saying a lot. Watch the fireworks show that takes place every Wednesday and Saturday in July and you’ll see what I mean. It’s actually an international contest of companies from around the world representing their country. The best place to watch it from is the Old Port and it starts at 10pm, rain or shine. It takes place right over the grand Jaques Cartier bridge and the St. Lawrence River.
Continue enjoying Montreal’s Old Port with a ride in the colorful Montreal Observation Wheel. It’s a glorious view of the city and the St. Lawrence River. The enclosed seating areas are air-conditioned in the summer and heated in the winter.
Go for a bike ride, or car ride, across the Jaques Cartier bridge, one of Montreal’s most famous landmarks. The impressive steel cantilever bridge crosses over to the verdant-green Parc Jean-Drapeau and the La Ronde amusement park, both of which have incredible views of the city.
Interesting Fact: Did you know that Montreal is actually an island? It’s true.
But wait! There’s more to the Jaques Cartier bridge than meets the eye. Use the hashtag #illuminationMTL and influence the speed and intensity of the lights covering the bridge. The concept is called Living Connections. Enjoy watching the lights when they come on at sunset each day, with a 1-minute light show every half hour. The colors even change with the season.
Beyond Cirque du Soleil
Year-round, the city loves to celebrate and there’s usually always some kind of festival taking place. There’s the Annual Montreal International Jazz Festival, Montreal Pride, Montreal Beer Festival, Food Truck Festival… The list seriously goes on and on. And that’s just in the summer.
Montreal is also home to the famed Cirque du Soleil. Yet it hasn’t stopped there. Enjoy the annual Montreal Cirque Festival, which takes place during the first two weeks of July. It’s an amazing time of streets overtaken by breathtaking acrobatic performances and various other shows.
Visiting Montreal for Creative Frontiers
Visiting Montreal, one learns pretty quickly that experiences here are immersive. You’ll understand when you experience the interactive media show PY1, created by Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberté. Trippy and extraordinary, it immerses you into an all-encompassing 60-minute visual story of the universe and humanity.
If you like a great club scene, stick around for PY1 Nights later in the night. The modern pyramids become a huge dance club of stunning effects and electric music by local artists.
To get the art pulse of the city, visit the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for their ongoing and temporary exhibitions. This summer they have the world premiere of the stunning exhibition Thierry Mugler: Courturissime, accompanied by the local exhibition Montreal Couture.
Montreal Loves Urban Art
Montreal’s vibrant street art scene is impossible to miss. Tapestried all over the city are captivating street murals telling rich stories and provoking our thoughts. Each year in the middle of June the city has its Montreal Mural Festival, encouraging urban art and celebrating local and international street artists.
The most iconic and endearing street mural is the Leonard Cohen mural that is at 1420 Crescent Street in the heart of downtown. Created for the 1-year anniversary of the death of the beloved Montrealer, it looks out over Crescent Street’s famous strip of bars and restaurants. Take time to look and you can see the gentle hue of red on his hand which is laid near his heart – a symbol of his love for Montreal.
See Montreal by Boat
A boat ride with Le Petit Navire canal tours is an ideal way to appreciate Montreal’s beautiful blend of nature and urban space. You get to travel through the different locks along the Lachine Canal while sipping on a glass of rose or a beer.
From here admire the wonderful bike paths along the lush, grassy banks, the iconic flour mill of Farine Five Roses with its landmark neon sign, and the attractive skyline of the city’s downtown.
Go the Top of Montreal’s Mountain
Go to the top of Mount Royal, Montreal’s adored mountain. On the spacious summit enjoy great views and walking trails in one of Montreal’s largest green spaces. It is more of a small mountain so it doesn’t take long to get to by car or walking. But whatever you do, do not call it a hill in front of Montrealer’s. They insist that it’s a mountain!
Montreal Fact: No building in Montreal is allowed to be built taller than the city’s mountain, Mount Royal.
Exploring Old Montreal
The best way to see Old Montreal is on foot. Stroll around and take in the array of architecture that reveals the influence of French and British colonization alongside today’s modern era.
I was most taken with Old Montreal’s inspiring Place d’Armes Square. In the center is the Maisonnueve Monument, which is in honor of Paul de Chomedey, the founder of Montreal.
The most popular attraction here is the gorgeous Notre-Dame Basilica and the Saint-Sulpice Seminary. Visiting is not your typical tour of a religious structure. Inside they have Aura, a multimedia experience of illumination and orchestral music. Now that’s my idea of a great church tour.
Continuing around the square is Montreal’s first high-rise, the New York Life Building, the Bank of Montreal head office, the Aldred Building, an Art Deco structure that was Canada’s first bank, and the International style 500 Place d’Armes. As you can see, being in the Place d’Armes Square is one of those places where your neck will get sore from gazing up in awe.
An Appetite for Montreal and the World
It won’t be just creative shows and exquisite places that have you craving Montreal. Exploring Montreal will work up your appetite for its deliciously diverse food scene.
Make sure to delve into the Montreal food scene like a true Montrealer. They especially love brunch and good coffee, so I recommend doing some cafe-hopping.
For Montreal classics like bagels, poutine, and smoked meats head to local favorites throughout the city’s various neighborhoods and discover Montreal’s long-standing Jewish Community.
And if you have an international craving, spend time in the city’s China Town, Latin Quarter, and Little Italy. They even have a Portuguese neighborhood and Greek neighborhood, among others.
For visiting Montreal, this is just the tip of the iceberg, but a great place to start. There are still so many engaging things to experience in this welcoming city. And with so many festivals and diverse cultures, there’s always something creative and exciting to do. You’ll find yourself planning your next trip before you even leave.
For more information on Montreal and its province of Quebec, visit www.mtl.org/en and www.quebecoriginal.com.
Featured Image Credit © Frédérique Ménard Aubin, Festival International de Jazz de Montréal.