The 20 Best Things to do in Montreal For First Timers

If you’re visiting Montreal for the first time, you’re probably wondering how to make the most of your trip. With its scores of theatres, nightspots, museums, parks, and historical attractions, the one thing you’ll not be short of is ideas. Packing it all into a fleeting visit may be a challenge but take in at least a few of our top 20 best things to do in Montreal and you’re guaranteed to leave happy.

20. Cabaret Mado

For entertainment, hit Cabaret Mado. Open 7 days a week throughout the year, Montreal’s hottest drag cabaret venue is a riot of costumes, music, dancing, and comedy. The fresh line up of talent changes daily, and while performances are typically in French, Madame Mado is usually willing to translate in exchange for a kind word and a smile. Once you’ve soaked up the entertainment, head next to soak up some equally delicious Canadian fare at the superb little diner La Dînette à Mado,

19. Street fairs

Regardless of when you visit, you’re likely to encounter at least one or two street fairs during your time in Montreal. The celebratory atmosphere, not to mention bountiful supplies of food, music, shopping, and drink, make for an unmissable experience. May, June, and July are jam-packed with them, although visit off-season and you’ll still find plenty on offer, including Italian Week in Little Italy in August, and Verdun’s maple themed Cabane Panache et Bois rond in late March.

18. Underground City

You don’t have to love shopping to enjoy a visit to the intriguing Underground City, but it certainly helps. The sprawling network of interweaving underground tunnels runs underneath the entire downtown center, spanning over 30 kilometers in total. Given the size, you might need to factor in several repeat visits if you want to take it all in (although considering it’s superbly cool in summer, and deliciously warm in winter, you’ll probably not mind devoting a few extra hours to the experience). If you visit in the colder months, bring your skates to enjoy the indoor icing ring at 1000 de la Gauchetière.

17. Old Montreal

If you’re wondering what draws so many visitors to Montreal each year, an hour or so strolling the streets of old Montreal should soon answer your question. The delightful district dates back to the city’s first settlers of New France of the 17th century, and today, its narrow streets, cobblestoned alleys, and gorgeous architecture stand in testament to the city’s European heritage. If wandering the streets isn’t enough for you, you’ll find enough museums, shopping promenades, first-class restaurants, and attractions to keep you amused for days.

16. Jean-Talon Market

Montreal is paradise on earth for foodie’s, and nowhere is this more apparent than at the incredible Jean-Talon Market. The market is packed with producers selling just about every type of fresh produce, fish, meat, baked good and vegetable you can imagine- and of course, there’s plenty of free samples for you to try before you buy. If you visit in summer, plan on having at least one meal at one of the quirky, seasonal pop-up restaurants. If it’s any other time of year, just bring your basket and stuff both it, and yourself, with the best of Quebec’s legendary charcuterie and cheese.

15. Montreal Biodome

Would-be David Attenborough’s shouldn’t miss a visit to the Montreal Biodome while they’re in town. Originally built to host the judo and cycling events of the 1976 Summer Olympics, the center now houses recreations of four different ecosystems, as well as over 200 different species of fauna, and 500 different species of flora. If you’re traveling with kids, the center is almost compulsory, being educational and entertaining in equal measure. Regardless of age, we defy anyone to leave without being utterly beguiled by the adorable collection of native Canadian penguins.

14. Bell Centre

For sports fans, no visit to the home of the Habs is going to be complete without a trip to the Bell Centre. Join the crowds to cheer on the home team, revel in the buzzing atmosphere, and chomp down on some gut-busting poutine from one of the numerous concessionaries. Even if you don’t manage to make it to game day, the center is still worth a visit; the daily Bell Centre tour is well worth the $20 admission fee for its behind the scenes peek at the press gallery, dressing room, and arena.

13. Botanical Gardens

If you’re looking for somewhere to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, you’ll find few places better than the gorgeous Botanical Gardens. Spread over 190 acres, the garden is home to one of the biggest (and most prestigious) collections of plant life in the world. Botanists can spend hours studying the tens of thousands of plant varieties on display, while those looking for a little fauna to go with their flora should check out the Insectarium, a suburb little natural history museum with 95 different species. If you time your visit well, you may even be able to take in the enchanting Gardens of Lights that light up the Chinese Garden each fall.

12. Phi Centre

Whether your interest in art is causal or passionate, a visit to the Phi Center should be on your itinerary. Featuring a wide collection of pieces in just about every medium you can imagine, and designed to appeal to just about every sense possible, its innovative, multidisciplinary approach and eclectic programming is something to shout about… or at the very least, spend three to four hours admiring. There’s always something new on, so be sure to check out the website so you can plan your visit in advance.

11. Parc Jean – Drapeau

Parc Jean – Drapeau is as much as a refuge for locals tired of the city as it is a hot destination for tourists. Spread over two islands, the park offers plenty of green spaces to relax and enjoy the sunshine, as well as a wide variety of amusements and attractions to keep the whole family entertained. In addition to the regular smorgasbord of activities (not to mention the Biosphere environmental museum, and the La Ronde amusement park), the space is one of Montreal’s top spots for music festivals and events. Depending on when you visit, you might be lucky enough to experience the Piknic Electronik, a weekly electronic festival held every Sunday between May and September, or the Île Soniq in August.

10. Jacques-Cartier Bridge

If you’re looking for one of the best spots in Montreal for some seriously Instagram worthy photo opportunities, you’ll struggle to do better than the Jacques-Cartier Bridge. Come twilight, the bridge lights up with over 365 glittery LED bulbs, making for one of the most spectacular sights you’ll see anywhere in the city. The bridge’s illumination changes according to the season: visit in spring, and you’ll be dazzled by the energizing green. In summer, expect a sunshine yellow. In autumn, you’ll experience a rich, autumnal red, while in winter, prepare from some seriously icy blues.

9. Saint-Laurent Street Art

Why make a crime out of graffiti when you can celebrate it instead? Regardless of the season, the stretch of the Main is a great place to check out some funky artwork from both emerging and established talents. In summer, the stretch of Saint-Laurent Boulevard between Maisonneuve Boulevard and Saint-Viateur is taken over by street artists from around the country, putting their skills on display as they splash their creativity all over the walls. During the spectacular, visitors are treated to street fairs, extended bar terraces, and the kind of atmosphere that’s little short of unforgettable.

8. Tam Tams

If you’re visiting the city between May and September, then take the opportunity to let your freak flag fly high at the charmingly eclectic Tam Tams. Good vibes, free spirits, live-action role-playing, a huge drum circle… if any or all of this sounds your kind of thing, then don your best rags and feathers and head to the Mount Royal Park any Sunday during the warmer months. Just be aware the event is known to have a ‘laissez-faire’ attitude to pot and alcohol, with the general role being that as long as discretion and moderation are used, the police are unlikely to kick up a fuss.

7. La Grande Roue de Montréal

A spin around on La Grande Roue de Montréal is almost a requirement of any visit to Montreal. The 60-meter-tall observation wheel offers unparalleled views over the cityscape, and thanks to the climate-controlled booths, there’s never a bad time of year to book a ride. Even if you’d rather keep your feet firmly planted on the ground, the attraction is still worth a look: at dusk, the structure lights up like a kaleidoscope, making it the perfect place for a selfie or two.

6. Musée d’Art Contemporain

Like modern art? Then you’re going to love the Musée d’Art Contemporain. Home to over 7000 thought-provoking, provocative pieces from more than 1500 international and national artists, the museum is a celebration of all things contemporary. Aim to dedicate at least 3 hours to perusing its vast collection – although those with a serious devotion to modern art may feel tempted to give it an entire day.

5. Habitat 67

If you’re wondering why a housing complex should make your list of things to do, then you’ve clearly never heard of Habitat 67. Designed by architect Moshe Safdie, the stacked cubes that make up the landmark site make it one of the most famous and visited architectural attractions in Montreal. Sign up to a tour to learn about the origins and evolution of this remarkable site – although be warned; tours are seasonal, so be sure to check the website before planning your visit.

4. L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph

If your soul is weighing heavy, a visit to the magnificent L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph should soon put the spring back in your step. As well as being able to claim the title of the largest church in Canada, the site also boasts one of the largest domes in the world – something that’s hard to appreciate from a distance, but which quickly takes on a whole new significance when you see it up close. Key exhibits to check out on your visit include the reliquary in which the heart of Saint André of Montreal is interned, and the thousands of cane and crutches of those he’s believed to have healed.

3. Village au Pied-du-Courant

Situated on the edge of the Saint Lawrence River in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighborhood is the Village au Pied-du-Courant, a public space that’s the ideal hangout for anyone looking to dip their toes in the sand, relax in a hammock, or experience some of the great food and drink on offer. Its huge beer garden is a great place to catch a music performance, while its year-round schedule of family-friendly events are guaranteed crowd-pleasers.

2. Plateau-Mont-Royal

For authentic Montreal cuisine, there’s only one place to go- Plateau-Mont-Royal. Stretching over three uniquely different but equally intriguing neighborhoods (Mile End, the Plateau, and the McGill Ghetto), the borough is a foodie’s paradise, serving up all the Canadian classic’s you could dream of. For the freshest bagels, try the wood-fired treats at St Viateur or Fairmount. For Montreal-style smoked meat, the charming Schwartz’s is the place to go. La Banquise, meanwhile, is guaranteed to satisfy your poutine craving. Bring your appetite, your wallet, and get stuck in.

1. Mount Royal

If sightseeing is what you want, sightseeing is what you’ll get at Mount Royale. It may be a climb to get to the top, but once you do, you’ll be more than glad you made the effort. Spanning 692 acres in total, the city park offers panoramic views every which way you turn, as well as a peaceful spot to while away a few hours in nature. The miles of trails and forested pathways offer some great hiking opportunities, as well as cross country skiing, skating and sliding during winter. Bring some comfortable shoes, a picnic, and your camera – you’re going to need all three.

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