Montréal is a city with many faces. It has a European charm thanks to its cobblestone streets, towering cathedrals, and vibrant boulevards, but it still offers a distinctly Canadian embrace, with an incredibly diverse and welcoming population, a gleaming cityscape, and a flourishing and progressive cultural scene.

This marriage of two cultures creates a gorgeous fusion that defines Montréal. As well as being the largest metropolis in Quebec, Montréal is home to one of the largest French-speaking urban populations in the world. 

You'll find something here no matter how unique your travel tastes. Perhaps you're an outdoorsy adventurer craving hikes and nature? A committed urbanite who loves innovative architecture and trendy bars? A photographer on the hunt for photogenic settings and third-wave cafes? Whatever you're after, you'll find it in Montréal. Here are some of the top things to do in the city where France and Canada collide.

People exploring the Old Port district, Montreal
The Old Port district in Montréal could have been plucked from a historic European capital © BakerJarvis / Shutterstock

Step back into time in Vieux Montréal

The district of Vieux Montréal (Old Montréal) will transport you from modern Canada into a pretty old European town, with 17th-century cobblestone streets and bustling shops and cafes. Just wandering around is a wonderful free thing to do but you can explore the area's vivid history at Pointe-à-Callière, a national archaeological and historic site with displays exploring over 1000 years of human history in Montréal.

Be sure to grab brunch at beautiful Olive + Gourmando, a legendary, Italian-influenced bakery-cafe on Rue Saint-Paul, Montréal’s oldest street. A modern tourist tradition is to Instagram a shot of your coffee under the ornate, plant-draped plaster ceiling at Tommy on your way to the iconic Notre-Dame Basilica.

Finish your stroll at the Place Jacques Cartier, the buoyant entryway into the Old Port district. Spend a few hours at the immersive Montréal Science Centre and end your day with a sunset Bateau Mouche cruise (if you’re feeling fancy, dress for dinner and take a glam gourmet cruise).

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Enjoy riotous fun at Cabaret Mado

For vibrant counter-culture, be sure to drop by Cabaret Mado, a 1920s-inspired drag cabaret that is one of the highlights of Montréal's high-spirited Gay Village. Open 7-days a week for outrageous fun, it was founded by local celebrity drag artiste Mado Lamotte. A gentle word of warning: if you sit close to the stage, there's every chance you’ll get a roasting (in French!) from the performers.  

Self-indulge at Bota Bota

There is no better way to indulge than at Bota Bota. What was once a historic ferry on the St Lawrence River has been transformed into a lavish floating spa. After a thorough detox in the water circuit (a series of hot, then cold, then relaxing therapies), head into the massage room for a calming "discovery" massage. If you’re feeling peckish, Bota Bota also offers foodie packages for an all-around sensory experience.

Explore the ecosystems of the Americas at Biodôme

At Canada’s largest natural science complex, you'll find all sorts of multisensory learning experiences. The Biodôme was built as a stadium for the 1976 Montréal Summer Olympic Games but it has since been repurposed to house more than 200 species of animals and 800 types of plants.

The Biodôme allows you to explore five different ecosystems, plucked from across the Americas: the Gulf of St Lawrence, a tropical rainforest, a Laurentian maple forest, the terrain of the Labrador Coast and the uniquely-adapted flora and fauna of sub-polar islands. If you have time to explore the rest of the complex, drop into the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium, the Jardin Botanique and the Montréal Insectarium.

Introducing Montréal & Québec

Shop up a feast at Jean-Talon Market

The open-air market in Little Italy is the perfect place to sample the fine foodstuffs that the rich farmlands of Quebec produce. Marché Jean-Talon has culinary delights for every foodie palate: freshly baked goods, meats from local butchers, fresh fish, gourmet cheeses, and every vegetable and fruit under the sun. Merchants here have a seasonal and sustainable approach to farming and selling, and you'll find foods and ingredients from a wide variety of cuisines and cultures. If you are staying somewhere with a kitchen, swing by to stock up on top-notch ingredients for a gourmet meal.

Escape the snow in the Underground City

Created to keep the city running during the icy cold of winter, this vast, underground complex is also known as RÉSO – shorthand for le réseau piétonnier souterrain de Montréal, meaning "the underground pedestrian network of Montréal."  More than 33km of sprawling, subterranean tunnels connect arts venues, hotels, subway stations, hotels, office buildings, and lots and lots of shopping options in the heart of downtown.

The whole network is temperature-controlled, and you can catch a movie at one of the many cinemas, grab a French-inspired bite to eat at the lively Time Out Market Montréal and on your way home pick up a pair of snappy shoes at ALDO, a world-renowned shoe brand that first found its feet in this city. If you visit Montréal in winter, you'll definitely be spending time here.

Go green at Montréal's Jardin Botanique

The Montréal Jardin Botanique offers a green escape from the hustle and rush of city life. With almost 200 acres of natural delights, the gardens are recognized as a National Historic Site of Canada, and once you experience the biological diversity of this green bower, you'll understand why. There's a year-round greenhouse complex with plants and flowers from around the world, and in the warmer months, the themed outdoor gardens throng with picnickers and amateur botanists. Don't miss the Japanese Pavilion, arguably the crowning glory of the gardens.

Unleash your inner critic at Montréal Museum of Fine Arts

The Montréal Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal) is magnificent, and it’s also Canada’s oldest art gallery so the curators have had quite a few decades to build the permanent collection. The museum was founded in 1860, and today it sprawls over five handsome pavilions. You can spend hours looking at the paintings and sculptures, but notably missing are the Rembrandt, Rubens, and 16 other masterpieces stolen during the 1972 “Skylight Caper,” Canada’s largest-ever art theft.

People relaxing at Parc du Mont-Royal, Montreal
Making the most of the fall colors at Parc du Mont-Royal © Marc Bruxelle / Shutterstock

Climb Mont-Royal

You can’t miss Montréal’s namesake peak as it rises like a green island in the heart of the city and is the best green spot in the city. Head to the Parc du Mont-Royal to explore the beautiful grounds and hike up to the Mont-Royal Chalet for unrivaled views of the Montréal skyline. In the winter you can bring your skates, skis or snowshoes and tackle the snow trails that crisscross the mountain, while in summer you can hike up and reward yourself with a crème glacée from one of the ice cream vendors at the top.

Relive the Gothic Revival at Notre-Dame Basilica

In the heart of Old Montréal sits the famous Notre-Dame Basilica, the city's best-loved landmark. The church overlooks a square teeming with tourists and vendors, and if you half squint, you could almost be standing outside a cathedral in Paris. Notre-Dame tops most must-see lists for a reason: this was the first Gothic Revival-style church built in Canada, and the architects didn't scrimp on the commission. If you like maximalist interiors, then the spectacular stained-glass, ornate woodwork, gilded statues, and behemoth organ will certainly impress.

Learn about sustainability at Biosphère

Today a museum for the environment, the Biosphère was originally built as the United States pavilion for Expo 67 (souvenirs from the international exposition can still be found scattered around Mile End vintage shops). The striking geodesic dome sits in the middle of the St Lawrence Seaway, and displays inside are dedicated to the teaching of environmentalism, innovative ways to solve the problems of climate change, and celebrating the world we live in.

Experience tranquility at St Joseph’s Oratory

St Joseph’s Oratory is a special place. This is Canada’s largest church, a national historic site, and the chapel boasts one of the biggest church domes in the world. It's an architectural masterpiece with a Renaissance-inspired exterior and a contemporary interior that took many architects more than 60 years to construct. The best part, however, might be the robot angel collecting alms behind the pews.

The eye-catching concrete forms of Habitat 67, Montreal
The eye-catching concrete forms of Habitat 67 © Inspired By Maps / Shutterstock

Discover retro real estate at Habitat 67

It might seem strange to visit a housing complex on a city break, but Habitat 67 has tourists flocking from all over the world to view its remarkable architecture. The design for this architectural masterpiece started out as a Master’s thesis by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie when he was studying at McGill University; it was later commissioned as a pavilion for Expo 67, and it still stands today as a bold vision for community living.

The complex is made up of 146 concrete apartments, stacked like toy blocks beside the river, blending the best of life in the suburbs (gardens, privacy, and fresh air) with densely packed urban living. The apartments are still in use, and as recently as 2020, a Habitat 67 apartment was sold for around $1.3 million.

Encounter the magic of Cirque du Soleil

Internationally acclaimed Cirque du Soleil has spread its unique brand of modern circus as far afield as Disney World, Las Vegas, and Mexico's Riviera Maya, but it was originally founded in Montréal by two former street performers, Guy Laliberté and Gilles Ste-Croix. The troupe regularly performs under a classic big top tent in Old Port (see the website for the latest information on upcoming shows) and watching the fantastical Cirque du Soleil in its founding city is a highly memorable experience.

Discover Montréal's best bagels at St-Viateur

When you hear the word Montréal, the first food that should come to mind is the humble bagel. Thanks to waves of Jewish immigration, Montréal and bagels are almost synonymous. And they're good – bagel lovers from as far as Toronto pay a premium for bagels shipped in from Montréal bakeries.

You can get amazing bagels almost everywhere in the city, but there is something deeply comforting (and delicious) about the mouth-watering bagels at the St-Viateur Bagel Shop in Mile End. The shop was founded in the 1950s by Myer Lewkowicz who survived the Gestapo and Buchenwald concentration camp, and it's still family-run today. If you swing by to grab some of Montréal's most spectacular bagels to go, be sure to grab a tub of flavored cream cheese on your way out. While you're there, be sure to explore some of Mile End, one of the best neighborhoods in Montréal for thrifting and local life.

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This article was first published October 2021 and updated December 2021

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