12 things to do in Montréal

Montréal is the second largest city in Canada after Toronto and the 15th largest in North America; there is plenty to explore both in the city and under it...

By Kieran Meeke

Published 4 May 2024

Montréal is built around Mont Royal, a small hill with three peaks, from which it also takes its name. The nine-mile Canal de Lachine, which opened in 1825 to bypass the treacherous Lachine Rapids, took shipping away from Quebec City and made Montréal into a major North America port.

Montréal is a walking city, and there are 20 miles of Underground City (RESÓ) to protect you from the weather. This underground set of passageways connects offices, theatres, museums and other major sites, and also offers shopping, restaurants and other services. It’s open all year but obviously more popular, perhaps indeed vital, in winter.

The RESÓ also connects to the underground Métro, which offers a faster way to get around Montréal. Buy a 24-hour pass for sightseeing to make the most of your holiday to Montréal . It runs from 5.30am to 1am (1.30 am on Saturdays). The RESÓ is open for roughly the same hours. The Métro does not connect to the airport but there is an express bus, as well as taxis.

The oldest part of the city, Old Montreal, sits on the Saint Lawrence River and some of its winding, cobbled alleys and historic buildings date back to the 1700s.

The rebuilt areas had a more British feel and you’ll find many Victorian-style buildings, as well as a few that retain a French influence. There are also some earliest skyscrapers, including the 1888 New York Life Building, Canada’s oldest.

Must-do: Visit the Bonsecours Market, built in domed Classical Revival style in the 1840s as the City Hall but now an upmarket shopping mall.

Named for Chevalier Louis Hector de Callière, third governor of the city who had a home built here in 1688, the Pointe-à-Callière museum has extensive displays of the city’s history and archaeology.

Set on the waterfront of Old Montréal, the underground caverns reveal the actual foundations of the city. A major extension is planned to open in mid-2017.

Officially opened on Queen Victoria’s birthday in 1876, the Mount Royal Park was originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, more famous for his work on New York’s Central Park.

Set around the three peaks of Mount Royal, it is popular with skaters, skiers, snowshoers and tobogganists in winter, and in other seasons hosts regular events such as tango dancing and drumming circles.

There is also a sculpture garden and scenic forest.

Must-do: Take one of the regular walking tours which explore different parts of the park’s history every week.

The neo-Gothic Notre-Dame Basilica was the largest church in North America when it was dedicated in 1829.

Architect James O’Donnell was so moved by the experience of building it that he converted to Catholicism. The splendid, polychromed interior took another 50 years to complete, and the 32-foot pipe organ was completed in 1891.

It was the setting for Celine Dion’s wedding in 1994, broadcast on Canadian national TV, and the state funeral of prime minister Pierre Trudeau in 2000.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) is Montréal’s largest museum and its rich collection celebrates the best in European and especially Canadian art, both historic and contemporary, including works by Rembrandt, Picasso and Monet.

Other highlights include art objects from Egyptian, Greco-Roman and other civilisations, as well as some 500 Inuit pieces and 180 Amerindian artefacts.

Anyone who has visited the Eden Project will be familiar with the concept of displaying different climate zones, in this case from the Americas.

Originally the velodrome for the 1976 Olympic Games, the Biodome de Montreal is now split into areas reproducing a South American rainforest, a North American maple forest, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and both sub-Arctic (Labrador) and sub-Antarctic environment.

Animals typical of each region, including lynx and penguins, inhabit their respective zones.

Explore the history of the New France at the Maison Saint-Gabriel Museum, set in an original farmhouse from 1668.

More than 15,000 artefacts show how life was for the nuns who ran the farm, and costumed staff bring the experience of early settlers to life. The gardens are also a loving recreation of this period of Quebec’s history.

This international fireworks competition lights up La Ronde amusement park on Saint Helen’s Island and the Saint Lawrence River every June/July.

Recognised as the world’s largest, the Montreal Fireworks Festival entertains three million spectators with shows twice-weekly that are synchronised to music broadcast on local radio.

The waterfront track on Ile Notre-Dame, named for local F1 driver Gilles Villeneuve after his death in 1982, is a magnificent setting for the Formula 1 Canadian Grand Prix, a race that the whole city gets behind.

Rue Ste Catherine is transformed with street parties and F1 events, and the rest of Montréal shuts down for the June race weekend.

The Montreal Cirque Festival is an international festival of circus arts in July which brings in hundreds of artists and acrobats from all over the world to display their skills.

There are both indoor and free outdoor events throughout the city that is home to Cirque du Soleil.

Held over two weeks in July, the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival draws plenty of big names for the world’s largest international comedy festival.

Montréal’s Quartier Latin is the heart of the event, which hosts 1,500 events in a multitude of venues, and is famed for discovering new talent.

One of the largest winter festivals in the world, the Montreal en Lumiere combines gastronomy and performing arts to cheer up winter nights.

Around 500 chefs show off their skills around the city, while music concerts, dance events and circus shows entertain the crowds against a backdrop of illuminations.

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