JM – Montreal is a city I’ve always been fascinated by. It’s in the heart of French Canada and has that whole “feel like France but it’s in North America” feel about it. When Marie-Eve from A Montrealer Abroad approached me to write a guest post about her home town, I couldn’t wait to hear about the poutine, history and how much there was to see.
Being a native Montrealer, it’s always weird for me to describe my city. How do you describe a place you know so well? Especially somewhere like Montreal – so many things helped influence the city into what it is today that it’s impossible to pinpoint just one word to describe it. It’s the English manners, the French taste, the North American pace, mixed into a truly unique vibe. Welcome to Montreal!
Things to See and Do
When you only have 48 hours to visit Montreal, you should stick to three areas: Old-Montreal, downtown and Plateau Mont-Royal. These places will give you a very complete tour of the main attractions, and give you a good grasp on what the city’s like. And since Montreal is a very walkable city, it means that you can pack in a lot of sights in very little time without feeling rushed. Let’s start from the beginning.
Old-Montreal is probably the most touristic area but for a reason! It dates back 400 years – and in North American standards, that’s very, very old – and holds some of the prettiest architecture in the city.
A great place to start your exploration, as it’s home to one of Montreal’s most important churches – Notre-Dame Basilica. For trivia enthusiasts, it’s where Celine Dion got married in 1994. Do go in and marvel at the majestic organ and ceiling of the chapel, which are both quite a sight.
Back outside, the statue in the middle of the square commemorates the foundation of Montreal by the Sieur de Maisonneuve back in 1642. The square recently underwent a multimillion dollar refurbishment and is now is in a glorious state, for the pleasure of tourists and locals alike.
Look out for the many typical New-France low-rise houses with dormer windows on the roof – if you ask me, it doesn’t get more picturesque than that! Rarely will you find so many of them in such great condition than here.
On the top of the square you’ll notice a large Nelson Column – did you know that it was the first of its kind, and was erected a good 33 years before the more famous London one?
There isn’t that much to actually do there, but so much to see! From this vantage point, you’ll catch a great view of the entire Old-Montreal and downtown area, engaging you to think about Montreal’s agitated history and how it reflects in its many contrasts today.
Or, for the more laid-back ones, you could simply grab a drink at the fancy lounge bar.
If I only had to use one word to describe it… shopping. Indeed, Sainte-Catherine Street is a very long street, and filled with shops of all kinds that will make any wallet happy – thick or thin. You’ll find all the popular high-street brands, as well as some more local ones here and there.
The shopping area stretches from de Bleury Street all the way to Guy Street, although I noticed a slight increase in price as you head further west. Also worth noting is the many skyscrapers that populate the area – not quite New York City, but still a very pretty sight for the eyes.
My favourite! In this creative neighbourhood you’ll find the famous twirling staircases and colourful houses you see in so many Montreal photos. It’s the area that feels the homiest, cosiest, and where you’ll definitely picture yourself living.
The Plateau is home to many tiny, local shops, whether you’re looking for a unique piece of clothing, a delicious dessert or a rare French book. There are also several parks, like Parc Lafontaine and Parc Laurier, that are great for meeting locals or just lie down in the sun and take in the atmosphere.
Food and Drink
If there’s one thing Montreal is notorious for abroad, it’s the abundance of quality restaurants and cosy cafes. I could write an entire article about that specific topic! But instead, here are a few of my personal favourites that I strongly recommend you check out.
Usine à spaghetti
One of the most delicious pasta places in the entire city. And one with history, too! Legend has it that Dickens wrote part of his most famous story, A Tale of Two Cities, in the back room of this very restaurant.
I strongly recommend the simple but extremely tasty bolognaise spaghetti – you can’t go wrong with a classic.
A very popular place for hen nights, it’s a girly place to say the least. Cocktails are all inspired – and often made of – candy, and the bar is actually built out of Lego. Whimsical and extremely sweet!
Pho Bang New York
In the mood for a Vietnamese dish? Head to this amazing little place in Chinatown. Super quick service and delicious soups or vermicelli – over 50 choices available! My favourite, however, will always be #33. Do avoid during lunch hour (12-1:30) because it’s over packed with office workers on their break.
If you’ve read anything about Montreal, you must have heard about this place. It’s the ultimate poutine joint in the city, mostly because it’s excellent, but also because it’s open 24/7.
Poutine is the most iconic dish of the whole province of Quebec so it’s definitely a must do. Don’t be discouraged by its less than appetizing presentation – it’s even better than you can imagine. Insider’s tip: I like mine with hotdog sausages on it.
In search for a bit of British tradition in Montreal? Look no further.
This gastro-pub is located in an up-and-coming neighbourhood, is very easily accessible from downtown, and is owned by a thirthy-something Anglophile. Their breakfasts are particularly delicious.
How to get there
To get to and from the airport, you basically have two options: taxi or bus. The former will set you back from $38, a standardised flat rate from downtown. But I suggest this option only if you are traveling outside of rush hour – Montreal is an island and is prone to major traffic jams, especially around the airport, where there seems to be constant repairs.
Your best bet would be to hop on the 747 bus that leaves from downtown, runs 24/7, and only costs $8 (unlimited travel on the entire network for 24 hours). Note that you can pay cash when boarding the bus, but bank notes are not accepted.
A bit of orientation
Here’s a handy map laying out all the sights mentioned above to give you an idea of where things are in Montreal. Click on the markers to see the sight listed and zoom and pan around to see more of the map.
View Montreal in 48 hours in a larger map
Get around in Montreal
The best way to travel around the city is definitely by foot. The distance from the western edge of downtown to north Plateau Mont-Royal, including a stroll in Old-Montreal, isn’t more than a few kilometres long. Walking is definitely the best way to explore the city.
If, however, the weather isn’t on your side, the metro system is very efficient, simple to use and quite cheap. There are only 4 lines, each color-coded and each with only 2 directions (no branches). You simply can’t get lost in the Montreal metro!
For the more adventurous ones, you might want to try out the famous Bixi bikes. They were the inspiration behind London’s Boris bikes, and so many other places on the planet now. They are just about everywhere and very easy to use – and free if you use them for less than 30 minutes!
Where to stay
As much as I hate to say it, Montreal doesn’t have lots of budget accommodation. There aren’t many hostels, but instead loads of mid-scale hotels, and a handful of luxury ones. One thing to know is that accommodation however remains pretty cheap when compared to other cities like New York or London – you can expect to fork out about $100 per night for a decent private room downtown, which is half of what you would pay elsewhere. I suggest having a look at the Travelodge downtown, which offers unbeatable location and great value.
One of the great upside of Montreal is that it’s pretty cheap in overall. A dinner for two with drinks will cost around $50. A beer at the local pub is around $4, a bit more if it’s one of the delicious local brews. A weekend pass for the public transport is $16. An entry at the Museum of Fine Arts is $15 (an abomination to Londoners, I know!). You can count on spending about $400 for your weekend if you don’t over-indulge on moose t-shirts at the souvenir shop.
Rarely will you find a place with such a varied, intricate culture than Montreal. The unique blend of English and French influences make for a surprising city that visitors around the world enjoy, rave about and always come back to. You’ll find yourself wanting to move there faster than you can say j’aime Montréal!
Header photo by slack12.