Ah, Montreal - a city so hip and European & just a mere 2-hour flight from Washington, D.C. - if you have not yet been there, the question you should be asking yourself is What am I waiting for?
I just went to Montreal for the very first time for a girls' weekend with my sister and friend and it was lovely and magical. We ate our hearts out, consumed late night poutine and bagels (two different nights), danced until the morning hours, and just walked around & soaked up the electric vibes of the city. While this guide is by no means exhaustive (I already am plotting my return to do more), consider it a fairly solid and food-centric introduction to this wonderful place.
First, your Montreal 101...
- If you're American, you'll find things are relatively cheap. Montreal as a city is relatively inexpensive (compared to say, Toronto), and USD $1 = CAD $1.3, so your dollar also goes further here.
- Everyone speaks French and English. Obviously, you're in Quebec, which is French-speaking (Quebecois), but everyone we met moves seamlessly between French & English, which I find so impressive (a fact I kept mentioning to my Canadian friend - sorry, Asma). I feel it's always nice to try and say some things in French just to show that you're trying, so even if it's a Salut!/Bonjour! or Merci!, it's still appreciated.
- Montreal in the summer is just magical. The weather is incredible in the summer, and there's always something going on every weekend - from the Montreal Jazz Festival to holiday celebrations (our visit coincided with La Fete Nationale). I'd highly recommend avoiding the infamous Canadian winters and paying a visit to the city in the summer, even if tickets are pricier & there are more tourists about. I also loved how many public spaces - parks, places to sit, etc. - there are in Montreal - lovely to just take a breather & hang out.
- They know their food. A lot of our recommendations were food-centric in Montreal, which was fine by me (!). Take a break from whatever diet you're on when you visit, because late night poutine, chocolate, French pastries & bagels are soooo worth it.
- Street art everywhere! I was in love with the street murals everywhere in Montreal, especially in Le Plateau - I'd suggest just walking around and soaking it all in. Here's also a great walking tour of Montreal's street art if you're up for it.
- Take Uber. As someone who only uses Lyft in DC, I reluctantly use Uber whenever I travel because of how ubiquitous the app is everywhere in the world. In Montreal, Uber works fairly well (as does public transit!) and is fairly cheap. I noted slightly longer wait times in Montreal than I notice elsewhere, but it's not a big deal at all.
Where we stayed:
We found an amazing and cheap (!) Airbnb just a few minutes walk from Le Plateau Mont Royal (you can see the listing here), which is one of the cutest and hippest neighborhoods in the city. Our friends also recommended the Mile End and Quartier Latin neighborhoods, and while many also recommended Old Montreal (there are some great listings on Airbnb), it did come with the caveat that the hood is very touristy. Ultimately, it depends on your own preference - I'm not a fan of touristy areas, so we made the right decision for us when we went with Le Plateau.
Where we got our Montreal tips:
Seriously, thank God for Facebook. I posted that we were going to Montreal for a weekend and was overwhelmed with the responses - I then cross-referenced those responses with each other (i.e., ones that were oft-repeated got a star on my Google Maps), as well as with reviews that I checked out online (I told you guys, I'm a travel research nerd!). Big shout-out to my friend Shayma (aka, food blogger Spice Spoon) who sent over a very thorough guide with additional tips by her friend/Instagrammer Inayali (whose Insta is awesome). Airbnb also does a really great Montreal guide that's a collection of tips from all their city hosts that is worth checking out.
What to Eat/See/Drink/Do in Montreal:
- Montreal has a very awesome independent coffee scene, and there's tons of great cafes to check out throughout the city. The two that I loved though (both in Le Plateau) were Noble Cafe (it was also right next to our Airbnb so perfect for my morning coffee stop), and Cafe Myriade on St. Denis (there's a few of these, including one located in a Club Monaco on St. Catherine Street). A coffee spot I was dying to check out but didn't get the time is called Cafe Olimpico, also in Le Plateau, which boasts some of the best coffee in the city (September Surf Cafe in St. Henri and Cafe Replika in Le Plateau also came highly recommended).
- You apparently cannot come to Montreal and not eat poutine (which is essentially french fries drowned in curdled cheese & gravy...it sounds gross, but is delicious). If you want to do it right, you eat poutine at the end of a late night, and while there are many spots to go to, the one most recommended that we tried was La Banquise on Rue Rachel E, open 24 hours. The service is slow, but man were those fries good (get the classic, which was the best in our opinion).
- Montreal also takes their bagels very, very seriously, and are seemingly competitive with New York City for the best bagels in the world (Montreal bagels are apparently made with honey-infused water so are slightly sweeter than their NYC counterparts). Many, many friends recommended we try either Fairmount Bagels or St. Viateur Bagels - but locals will all say that Fairmount is far superior. I tried both, and I have to agree (Fairmount was SO good, and I'm not even a bagel person). Get the sesame seed bagel and ask for it fresh out of the oven. You're welcome.
- I ate some of the best meals of my life in Montreal. No joke. In Mile-Ex, we had a kick-ass dinner at Marconi, which just opened six months ago by a husband-wife couple who moved back to Montreal from NYC (Co-owner Mehdi was the chef at Fedora & Bar Sardine in the West Village). While I need to put the disclaimer that Mehdi & Molly are my brother's good friends, I genuinely loved my meal & experience at this amazing & hip place - the food was super innovative (I will dream of the mushrooms for a long time), and the cocktails were amazing. If you come, eat at the bar - it's a fun time.
- When you go to Montreal, almost everyone will tell you to eat at Joe Beef (you can thank Anthony Bourdain & Aziz Ansari for that) - but good luck getting a reservation (pro tip: download the app, DINR, which can tell you about last-minute cancellations). On the same street, Joe Beef's sister restaurant Liverpool House is also supposed to be amazing (but again, Trudeau & Obama ate there, so also hard to get a spot). If you are unlucky on both fronts (like we were), head over to the much more chill other sister restaurant next door, Le Vin Papillon, a wine bar with incredible food. We sat outside on the terrace, which had fun music and was really lively. The service was also amazing!
- For brunch, head over to Lawrence in Mile End, where the food is very British & yummy. Next door to Lawrence and another great spot for a meal is Lawrence's sister restaurant (the bartender at Lawrence called it their "little cousin" which made me laugh) Larry's, which is much smaller, but has a great bistro feel & hip vibe (I loved the beef tartare there).
- Le Plateau and Mile End are fun areas to walk around in (head down Duluth or Laurier Streets for a fun walk about), and I loved all the cute boutiques in Mile End in particular - great spot for shopping! Check out Boucle & Papier (stationery), Vestibule (home decor), and Unicorn (women's clothing) for some fun options.
- Down in Atwater, check out Foiegwa on Rue Notre Dame Ouest, a really fun restaurant with awesome food (again, we sat at the bar, which always makes things more fun & friendly). After your meal, walk around the corner to a speakeasy called Atwater Cocktail Club, which can be hard to find (it's a random door in an alley), so keep your Google Maps handy. I thought the bar was awesome & cozy, and they played really fun music (90s, so totally my vibe).
- The bar scene in Montreal is also really fun, and places stay open pretty late. The ones we checked out (aside from Atwater Cocktail Club) that we absolutely loved were Big in Japan, (so fun and cool!) and Darling (a cafe/bar hybrid that has great beer on tap, comfy couches, and whimsical decor). We also made a quick stop at Bar Henrietta in Mile End, which takes inspiration from Portuguese taverns and was really cute.
- There was definitely more food to consume, but we could only do so much without exploding (sorry, guys!). However, everyone tells you to try Montreal's smoked meat (try Schwartz's Deli because it's an institution), grab almond croissants from Patrice Pattissier, and to buy chocolate from Juliette et Chocolat, so make room & wear stretchy pants, folks.
- As I've noted in other posts, I'm not a touristy traveler, but it's a bit rude to come to Montreal and not visit Old Montreal (where the Notre Dame Basilica is) and walk around the area. It's beautiful and very European (though again, flooded with tourists). We also went to Mount Royal and checked out the Tam Tams on Sunday afternoon in Mount Royal park - which is essentially an enormous drummer jam session (with drums from all over the world). It makes for a fun & lively afternoon, so I'd recommend stopping by and climbing Mount Royal if you have time.
- We didn't have time for museums in Montreal, but if you're into art - Musee des Beaux Arts & Montreal's Contemporary Art Museums are on a lot of lists. I loved Shayma's gallery recommendations of 1700 La Poste (a Post Office converted into an art gallery - this was closed when we went), and Belgo Building (which houses 27 art galleries).
Again, Montreal has so much to do, and I'm already dying to go back (again, just two hours away from DC)! I hope this guide helps you on your own trip & enjoy!