This quest post was written by Frank and Lissette, residents of Montreal and the duo behind the travel blog “The Travels of BBQBOY and Spanky”. Can you believe we’ve never been to Montreal? I know, terrible Canadians! Fear not, because Frank and Lissette have generously offered to share their insight and firsthand knowledge of what to do in Canada’s second largest city.
How to Spend 3 Days in Montreal, Quebec
A few months ago a friend came to visit me in Montreal. He only had 3 days and wanted to see “the highlights” of the city. Although Montreal is a great city (it recently made it on CNN Travel’s “Top 10 Must See cities of 2013”) I had to think hard of how to organize all of its highlights into 3 days.
After prioritizing the city’s attractions and considering logistics, I came up with the following itinerary, one that I would suggest for anyone visiting Montreal.
Day 1 – Start at Mont-Royal
Mont-Royal is the highlight of Montreal and is a great spot to get orientated. From the chalet at the summit you see the whole of downtown, the river, and Ile St. Helene and Ile Notre-Dame (the two islands in the St. Lawrence), as well as right across the river to the south shore.
It’s a quick walk up from downtown or an equally quick bus ride on the # 11 bus from the Plateau where my friend stayed (I’ll get to lodging later). The views are great and it’s a good place to watch people.
A short walk from the summit is Beaver Lake where locals and tourists rent paddle boats or spread their blankets out for a picnic. The mountain also has the most scenic “hike” in Montreal – an easy 15 minute walk that skirts the top of the mountain and looks out over the downtown area as well as the east end of the city.
You can easily spend 3 hours doing the various activities on the mountain. When you’ve had enough, walk down the stairs and make your way downtown.
Day 1 – Lunch: Downtown and Crescent Street.
We were ready for a few beers and something to eat so I took my friend to Crescent Street. Crescent Street is full of bars and restaurants and is a great place to sit down, have a beer, and watch all the beautiful people go by. Peel St, the same street that leads you down from the mountain, also has some good eating/drinking options including my favorite Chez Alexandre (another great spot to look at the beautiful people).
Wherever you go, there’s no shortage of eating establishments downtown.
Next, we walked down Ste. Catherine street, walking east. Ste. Catherine is full of stores and shopping centers and is the busiest street in the city, the action and people never stop.
On Peel street (a couple of blocks from Crescent) go south one block to Dorchester Square and look at the impressive Sunlife Building. From this square you’ll also have beautiful views of Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral as well as the tallest skyscraper in Montreal, 1000 de la Gauchetière. Also right there is the famous Queen Elizabeth Hotel.
Above: Cathedral and 1000 de la Gauchetière taken from Dorchester Square.
Walk the block back to Ste. Catherine and continue east. You’ll get to McGill College, a beautiful tree-lined avenue sided by gleaming highrises. You’ll see the mountain looming in the background and some old buildings ahead of you. That’s McGill University. Go check out the campus, it’s quite beautiful.
Right next to McGill is the McCord museum. This museum covers the history of Montreal and does it in a visually engaging manner through the use of old photographs and video. It is a must-see for any visitor interested in Montreal’s history. The 2nd floor is the highlight, give it at least an hour. Note: the museum is free on Wednesdays from 5pm to 9pm so alter your schedule if here on a Wednesday.
After the McCord Museum, go back to Ste.Catherine. Continuing east you’ll pass the St. James church on the corner of University street - the glass building behind it always makes for a good photo.
A minute or so later you’ll pass Philips Square (another pretty square) across from The Bay. Continue on, it’ll take you 5 minutes or so to get to Place des Arts, pictured above. They’ve cleaned up the area in the last few years, making Ste. Catherine at this point pedestrian-only.
Place des Arts is a pretty spot used as a venue for all of Montreal’s festivals. After all the walking you’ve done it’s time to have a beer and watch people go by.
*Note – If you’re visiting in the winter the downtown is also famous for its underground city – you can navigate most of downtown through a network of passages that connect the various shopping centers and office buildings.
Day 1 – Dinner: Stop at an SAQ outlet (that’s where they sell all booze in Quebec) and get yourself some wine. I recommend dinner at one of the BYOB restaurants on Duluth avenue on the Plateau Mont-Royal.
Jardin de Panos is a favorite of mine, partly because of the large terrasse in the back. If you want to walk, it’ll take you about 20 minutes from Place des Arts where I left off the walking tour.
Day 1 – Night: There are many different bars along St. Denis, a 2 minute walk from Duluth. Le Barouf on the corner of Rachel is a suggestion. If you’re like my friend you might want to go to a strip bar, something else Montreal is famous for. Most are downtown on Ste. Catherine St.
Day 2 – Get yourself a Bicycle
I suggest getting a bicycle for day 2 of my Montreal itinerary. If don’t ride a bike don’t worry, I’ve got a few alternatives.
Montreal was voted as the best city in North America for cycling and the city’s Bixi program is an easy and inexpensive way to pick up a bike. There are stations everywhere and all you need is a credit card.
Explore Park Lafontaine
This beautiful park on the Plateau was our starting point. It has a pretty lake and large trees. There’s a bixi station right at the entrance to the park (on the corner of Rachel and Brebéuf). Pick up a bike and get on the bike path going in the direction of Old Montreal. The path will cut right through the park and you’ll be rewarded with great views of the lake.
*Note – If you don’t want to take a bike, walk through the park. When done, go to Mont Royal metro and take the metro to Place D’Armes metro. Altogether it will take you about 20 minutes, the same amount of time taken on the bike.
Wander the streets of Old Montreal
Old Montreal is hugely popular with tourists because of its historic buildings and relaxed ambiance. There are some good activities for the kids along the port and it’s always nice being by the water, especially in the summer.
Start at Notre Dame Cathedral. This gorgeous church was built in 1824 and is the single most popular tourist site in Montreal. The square facing the church, Place D’Armes square pictured above, has a fountain and a statue and is surrounded by other historical buildings such as the Aldred building (built in 1931 in art deco style, resembles New York’s Empire State building), the New York Life building (built in 1888, the oldest skyscraper in Canada), and the Bank of Montreal head office (constructed in 1847).
A couple of blocks down towards the port is rue St. Paul, the oldest street in Old Montreal. Beautiful buildings now house art galleries, restaurants, and offices. Walk down the street and head east.
You’ll end up at Place Jacques Cartier, a large, pedestrian-only square that is the epicenter for all tourists coming to Montreal: you’ll see street artists, restaurants, and lots of ice cream shops. It’s kitschy and touristy but worth seeing. At the top of Place Jacques Cartier you’ll see Montreal’s City Hall, built in 1872.
Continue east on rue St.Paul. The cobblestone street leads you to Bonsecours Market, which was the main public market in Montreal for 100 years. It now has some upscale tourist shops and restaurants.
Finally, walk down to the port. There are many things to do and see here: you can climb the old Clock Tower, see small boats and large ships docked at the harbor, go to the Science Center and Imax cinema, or just walk around enjoying all the views of the river and islands.
Day 2 – Lunch: Try L’Auberge du Vieux Port (pictured above) and take the elevator up to the rooftop terrasse for the best views of Old Montreal.
BBQboy’s bike tour of Montreal
This bike tour will never require you to leave the bike path and you’ll see the prettiest vistas of the city along the way. Don’t take a Bixi, they’re meant for point-to-point travel, not good for a real bike ride.
Instead, rent a bike on Avenue de la Commune at the Old Port.
Alternative to the bike tour: Go to Scandinavian Spa, steps from the center of Old Montreal. One of the things Lissette and I like to do is the 3 hour “Baths” experience where you can go in hot and cold pools of water, saunas, and steam rooms. They have specials during the summer, Tuesdays to Thursdays, where it only costs $36/person.
Starting on the bike path right off Avenue de la Commune, you will pass Place-Royale (Montreal’s oldest square – pictured above) and Pointe-à-Callière museum. Within a few minutes you are on the Lachine Canal (pictured below), leaving Old Montreal behind you.
It won’t take you more than 15 minutes to get to the Atwater market. The market sells plants, flowers, vegetables, and has tons of specialty shops, cafés, and restaurants. A good place to stop for a coffee.
Cross the little bridge over to the other side of the canal and head back. As you approach Old Montreal this side of the bike path will deviate to the right, taking you around the Peel Basin, around some refineries and port facilities, and along Avenue Pierre Dupuy. You will pass Habitat 67, built as a pavilion for Expo 67, now the site of some of Montreal’s most exclusive condos. On the other side you’ll have views over Old Montreal, the highrises of downtown in the background.
Cross the bridge and get out at Ile Notre-Dame. This island holds the Montreal Grand Prix (you can actually ride your bike along the circuit of the Grand Prix if you like), a very popular beach, and the Montreal Casino. The island also has 25 hectares of beautiful gardens and trees including some gorgeous Weeping Willows. There’s a little lake where you can stop for a beer or ice cream. On your bike you can discover the island in 30 minutes.
Cross the small bridge to Ile Ste. Helene. Ile Ste. Helene has La Ronde amusement park, the Stewart museum (an impressive old fort), and the Biosphère (a museum dedicated to the environment). It also has great views of the city.
Make your way back to Montreal on the Jacques Cartier bridge. More great views of the city and the St. Lawrence from this vantage point.
Once off the bridge, head back to Old Montreal on the bike path that runs along René Lévesque Boulevard. You should be exhausted from all the walking and biking by the time you drop off your bike.
Either take a Bixi bike back to the Plateau or take the metro back to Metro Mont-Royal. Take a shower and a little rest because your day isn’t finished!
Day 2 – Dinner: I recommend Café Cherrier. A classic French bistro, it’s been here since 1931 and there are lots of photos of Montreal personalities on its walls. It has a fantastic terrasse where you can watch the world go by, a reasonably priced menu and an extensive wine list. A Montreal experience.
Day 2 – Night: Try the Whisky Café on the corner of St. Laurent and Bernard, a beautiful lounge where you can sit, drink whisky, and smoke cigars. My friend wanted to go to a strip bar afterwards so I took him to Solid Gold, the best strip bar in Montreal (take a taxi, it’s on St.Laurent close to Cremazie).
Day 3 – Le Plateau Mont-Royal
“The Plateau” is the cultural heart of Montreal. It is a very European looking neighborhood with some great restaurants including BYOBs (bring-your-own-wine restaurants), boutiques, B&Bs, cafés, and pastry shops.
Avenue Mont-Royal is fun and trendy, yet not touristy and has some nice restaurants. This is where to stay when in Montreal. We stopped at one of the many cafés and had some coffee and croissants.
We then took the 97 bus (which runs down Avenue Mont Royal) heading east towards the Olympic Stadium. The bus stops right in front of the Botanical Gardens.
At the entrance, buy the 3 museum pass that will cover entry to the Botanical Gardens, Biodome, and the Tower Observatory. All are in very close proximity. It costs $37.50 for Quebec residents, $46.75 for non-residents – Yeah, I know, I hate dual pricing. But it’s good value.
The Botanical Gardens are huge and you could spend the whole day here. I recommend you focus on these highlights: Chinese Garden, Japanese Garden, Insectarium, and the permanent indoor exhibit (which most people miss). You will also see some beautiful mosaics along the way. You can easily spend 3-4 hours here.
Day 3 – Lunch: The Botanical Gardens has a nice outdoor restaurant that serves beer and light lunches.
The Biodome is a must-see when in Montreal, if you have kids it will be the highlight of their visit. In it, you step into four different ecosystems of the Americas: tropical forests of Venezuela and Brazil, Laurentian forest (a replica of the forests of Quebec and Ontario), Gulf of the Saint Lawrence (covers the region from Tadoussac to the Atlantic), and the Polar regions of the Labrador coast and Sub-Antarctic islands.
In these ecosystems you find animals native to the regions they represent, many roaming around freely – so the Biodome is also a zoo and aquarium. Touring the Biodome takes about 2 hours.
Here’s a video to see what the Biodome looks like: Biodome de Montreal
Next to the exit of the Biodome is the entrance to the Tower Observatory. The tower is recognized by the Guiness book of records as the “tallest man made leaning tower in the world”. It takes 2 minutes to go up with the funicular.
At the top, you are greeted with views of all the attractions you’ve explored over the last 3 days. When you go back down, look around the building and you’ll come across an exposition highlighting the highest towers in the world. Make sure you check out the Olympic pool used in the 1976 Olympics.
Voila – you’ve finished your tour!
There’s a lot to see and do in Montreal, enough to keep you busy for weeks. But if you only have a few days and you want to squeeze the very best of the city with the most efficient use of time, the above itinerary is what I recommend. Follow it and I guarantee you’ll fall in love with Montreal!
Lodging: I recommend staying on the Plateau Mont-Royal. Look up a Bed & Breakfast on this website. I’ve often used it to book friends and family and haven’t heard negative experiences. You can often get a nice room with private bath from $90-$120/night.
Author bio: This post was written by Frank and Lissette, the duo behind “The Travels of BBQBOY and Spanky”. Frank is a fellow Canuck who’s childhood was spent bouncing around Africa and Europe. Lissette, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, immigrated to Canada after a job offer she couldn’t refuse. Based in Montreal, they are “Canada’s Favorite Interracial Couple”, exploring the World with a unique and humoristic twist on race, language, and cultural identity. Check out their travel blog at www.bbqboy.net