With Canada only a day’s drive or less from some of northeastern America’s major cities and suburbs, a long weekend in Montreal is the perfect excuse for an escape. Pack up the car, grab the passports, and you’ll be having a late lunch or an early dinner north of the border in no time.
That’s what my husband and I did one weekend in November, albeit, characteristically, with a little less spontaneity. You surely won’t see everything in only three days, but that’s with the city so easy to get to, you’ll have no excuses for a return trip. And you’ll want to, too! Fun (and a little frigid!), here’s an itinerary for a winter long weekend in Montreal, Canada.
Day 1 – Downtown & Plateau Mont-Royal
Any day should start with a good breakfast and that goes double if you’ll be spending a day sightseeing. I recommend kicking the day off at Reuben’s Deli & Steakhouse. The food is delicious and consistent while the staff is friendly. The walls of the restaurant are fun, lined with dishes signed by celebrities who made a stop on their way through Montreal. Although the spot is well known as a deli and steakhouse, I thought the breakfast was fantastic. I loved their French toast and if you’re looking for some of the city’s famous smoked meats, you can get those, too.
[September 24, 2021 Update: Currently, Reuben’s remains closed with no clear reopening date. For diner-style dining and a huge menu, try Allo Mon Coco for breakfast in the city.]
Morning in Downtown Montreal
After a filling breakfast at Reuben’s, you’re already conveniently in the city’s Downtown neighborhood. Spend the morning exploring this lovely and urban spot. Within only a few blocks, you can transition from glass-walled skyscrapers soaring up to the clouds to beautiful stone townhomes. There are also shops and boutiques to meet seemingly all your needs (and a few things you may not, technically, need either). Most of the major shopping you’ll find along Rue Sainte-Catherine.
Before you get too many shopping bags to weigh you down, be sure to explore some of the Downtown’s most scenic sights. There is no shortage of beautiful churches or green squares with fantastic sculptures and monuments to enjoy. My favorite is the Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral, with its fantastic and imposing rooftop lined with sculptures. The Renaissance and Baroque style cathedral is the third-largest church in Montreal and was completed in 1895.
Elsewhere, you can get a real taste of Paris at Victoria Square’s metro, or subway, station. Set amidst the green space, just a few steps from an 1872 sculpture of Queen Victoria, is an authentic 1900 Art Nouveau entrance portico casting designed by Hector Guimard that was gifted to the City of Montreal by the City of Paris in 1967.
Ice hockey fans may also want to stop by the Bell Centre to pay homage to the home team Montreal Canadiens. In addition to hosting sports events, the arena also hosts concerts throughout the year.
There are lots of great restaurants to grab lunch at and take a little break. Try the soups at Kinton Ramen. It’s a hip place for delicious ramen that you can customize to your tastes. The staff at Kinton Ramen are also very friendly.
Afternoon in Le Plateau-Mont-Royal
In the afternoon, head to the city’s Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood. Walking the streets of the neighborhood you’ll almost feel as though you’re in a different city. Unique, independent boutiques, restaurants, diners, and more line the streets. Each storefront has its own personality and attitude, with fun signs and colorful paint making each one of a kind. You’ll also find some fun street art as you walk the streets of Mont-Royal. The buildings aren’t quite as tall here; it feels cozier here and reminds of Brooklyn.
When you’re ready for a break, be sure to stop in Pâtisserie Au Kouign Amann. There are lots of great bakeries and patisseries in the neighborhood (and all across Montreal) so you really can’t go wrong. But Pâtisserie Au Kouign Amann is said to have the city’s best croissants. They certainly won me over. The small shop can be very crowded and there’s limited seating. The staff works hard not only to bake a range of delectable pastries but to also keep the line of customers moving. But trust me, it’s worth it for a chocolatine (known elsewhere as a pain au chocolat or a chocolate croissant)!
Day 2 – A Day at the Museums
Montreal has a great selection of museums that will appeal to art lovers, history lovers, science enthusiasts, and those whose interests lie elsewhere. For your second day in Montreal, pick a couple of museums that speak to you and spend the day exploring them.
Some of the options to consider include The Stewart Museum which “celebrates” 500 years worth of the European civilization’s influence on New France and North America. Nearby to The Stewart Museum is the Environment Museum with a focus on science and major environmental issues. Or, if you want to dig deeper into Montreal and its history, take a visit to the McCord Museum. You’ll get a better understanding of the city’s foundation that will help you understand the city you see before you today.
I recommend visiting the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Le Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal) and the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC).
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Le Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal)
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is impressive both in size and by what it maintains in its permanent collection. The museum is so large that it spans both sides of the street with, in true Montreal style, an underground passageway that itself is full of art of all kinds. The Montreal Museum of Fine Art also puts on fantastic special exhibitions, such as Radical Inventor, the premiere Canadian retrospective of Alexander Calder (which runs through February 2019). The Calder exhibition was carefully curated with no detail overlooked. You really get a feel for Calder’s style across mediums and decades. The museum’s permanent collection will appeal to art lovers regardless of their specific tastes. The styles and mediums on display are wide-ranging.
Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC)
Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) is equally notable with its massive building sitting on the Place des Festivals, an outdoor plaza, and Place des Arts, a center for the performing arts.
The MAC itself was Canada’s first museum for contemporary art and dates to 1964. Today it puts great focus on temporary exhibitions in several galleries. On any given day, you can visit and see one or more of these unique exhibitions. During my visit, the MAC was hosting Julian Rosefeldt’s “Manifesto,” a video installation from 2015 featuring actress Cate Blanchett performing monologues in thirteen independent yet connected videos. Part of the fun of visiting the MAC is that you may not be able to predict what you will see or even experience.
It’s also worth noting, as you try to fit as much into a long weekend in Montreal as possible, that the MAC is open until 9 pm Wednesday through Friday and 6 pm on Tuesday, Saturday, and Sunday. The museum is closed on Mondays.
Unwind with Wood-Fire Pizza
Cap off the night with the popular neighborhood pizza joint Pizza Il Focolaio. With a dizzying array of different pizzas to choose from (more than 70 at last count!), there is truly something for everyone. And that includes pizzas that are gluten-free, vegan, and organic! Be sure to save room for dessert, too. My pick is the pair of cannolis.
Day 3 – Old Montreal & Port of Montreal
The weekend is drawing to a close but there is still so much to see in Montreal! For your last day in Montreal, head north to the city’s Old Montreal and Old Port neighborhoods. The narrow cobblestone streets of this historic part of the city are the perfect place to wander. They say that Montreal is as close to a European feel as you’ll find on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. But they’re wrong; Montreal has a feel that is all its own.
Explore the historic Old Montreal district
Get lost exploring the historic neighborhood and admiring the buildings that are, quite simply, beautiful. Soak in the architectural details, the old windows, and the elaborate stonework and metalwork that you just don’t see anymore these days. A building that today may be a restaurant or a shop might hold secrets and hints of its past: a faded sign or customized windows. Regardless, it’s wonderful to see the buildings alive and full of energy.
Notre-Dame Basilica sits in the Old Montreal district and is absolutely worth a visit. For a modest fee, visitors can enter the Gothic Revival style church that was dedicated in 1829 and enjoy the intricate interior. Part of what makes Notre-Dame Basilica so exciting to enjoy is the light. Or rather, the lights, plural. Light of seeming every color in the rainbow cascades over the altar. It lights up wooden sculptures, alcoves, and stained glass windows. It shows everything in a way that’s different than what you may expect from a typical Roman Catholic cathedral. At least it was a lovely surprise for me. Don’t forget to turn around, too. The upper level in the back of the church is home to a massive pipe organ from 1891.
Be sure to admire Notre-Dame Basilica from the outside, too. The Place d’Armes, just across the street from the entrance, is lovely on its own and a great vantage point to take it all in.
Not far from the border between Old Montreal and the Old Port you’ll find Bonsecours Market. Rumor says Dublin‘s The Custom House served as inspiration for the building. Montreal’s stately building looks like it houses a government body, parliament perhaps? And, briefly, at one time, it was. But no: today it’s home to something better! For more than a century, Bonsecours Market has been the main public market of Montreal. Today, you can visit the market and, quite literally, enjoy the local flavor.
Stroll the waterfront at the Old Port
Wide sidewalks line the edge of the St. Lawrence River. It’s a perfect spot to go for a walk or a jog. From strategic spots along the trail, you can spot noteworthy sites like Habitat 67, a model housing complex with adventurous block-like architecture from Expo 67, and the Biosphere (more on that in a moment), across the river. At times, it can be difficult to know which side of the river to direct your attention. The beautiful buildings of Old Montreal are calling for your eyes on one side while the river, too, tempts from the other.
But the riverfront area isn’t just a solemn park. There are plenty of spots to have fun. Along the banks, you’ll find the Montreal Science Center, the Montreal Clock Tower (which you can climb during the warmer months), shops and restaurants.
There’s also La Grande Roue de Montréal, or the Montreal Observation Wheel. You’ll have to dig deep into your pockets for this one, but the roughly twenty-minute ride in a climate-controlled (heated in the winter and cooled in the summer) gondola offers spectacular views across the St. Lawrence River, on one side, and the city of Montreal on the other. They even do nighttime rides so that you can enjoy the bright lights of the big city.
Head across the river to Saint Helen’s Island to visit the Biosphere, set amidst Parc Jean-Drapeau. The park itself is home to many things to explore, but the Biosphere, in particular, is something extremely unique to Montreal. The Biosphere is a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller. The dome served as the United States’ pavilion during the 1967 World Fair. Today, the dome, which might remind you of Epcot, is merely a frame as the plastic sheathing that once covered it was destroyed in a fire. Within the shell of the dome, you’ll find the Biosphere Environment Museum. It’s definitely worth taking a trip over to the island in order to see the Biosphere up close, especially once you’ve been able to appreciate it from afar.
Tips for Montreal
- No cash? No problem…usually! Credit cards are widely accepted (and almost expected) in Montreal. However, you may still need cash here and there. Notre-Dame Basilica, for example, only accepts cash when buying an entrance ticket.
- Montreal is a French-speaking city. That goes for the road signs, the businesses, and the people. In general, English speakers will have no problem as the city is extremely bilingual. But there are some areas and neighborhoods where it’s more Français than Anglais. Be prepared with some simple stock French phrases like bonjour (“hello”), merci (“thank you”), and Parlez vous anglais? (“Do you speak English?”)
- Looking to explore more of Quebec? Head several hours north to Quebec City to experience the charming and historic capital of the province.
As a major city, you can reach Montreal any number of ways, such as by air or by train. If you’re visiting from the northeastern United States, as I was, and you have the time to take a road trip, I highly recommend it. Driving in from Philadelphia, my husband and I took a route through New York state via Interstate 87 that turns into A-15 once over the border in Canada. The drive, at least during the winter, can be very calm and the scenery is quite nice. I can only imagine how beautiful it is when the leaves are changing during Autumn.
Crossing the United States-Canada Border
Via the I-87/A-15 route, road trippers will encounter the Champlain-St. Bernard de Lacolle Border Crossing. Similar to clearing customs when traveling by air, you present the passports for you and your traveling companions to a customs agent who may ask a few questions about your travels. Unlike at an airport, however, you drive up like at the window of a fast-food restaurant. There can be a bit of a wait at the border crossing, especially on weekends and holidays. But there are online listings you can check ahead of time to get an idea of how heavy traffic is and try to plan accordingly. Regardless, the border crossing tends to be relatively painless and easy as long as you’re patient.
Getting around Montreal is fairly simple and straightforward. While the city is very friendly for walkers, the island is large enough that your feet won’t be able to carry you everywhere you may want to go. There are also some gentle hills, too. Public transit, specifically the subway (or metro, as it the locals call it), is inexpensive and relatively easy to use.
Visiting in winter adds another dimension to your travel plans. It’s always better to be safe than sorry. Be sure to pack warm, waterproof boots as well as warm clothing for layering. There is no shortage of great shops and cafes where you can warm up and take a break.
Don’t forget the Montreal Underground City, too. Beneath the streets of the city there are 20 miles of passageways connecting transit stops, shopping centers, and more. The Underground City is a great way of “cheating” the weather by way of its extensive underground passageways and transit connections.
Where to Stay
Downtown Montreal makes a great jumping-off point. It’s easy to get into the city’s downtown, be it by car or by public transit, and it’s easy to get around once you’re there. There are plenty of restaurants, shopping, and squares within walking distance. Everything you’ll need is within reach. It’s a really lovely, pleasant area.
As I’ve noted before, I’ve become a relatively dedicated IHG traveler whenever possible. In Montreal, this meant I had a few options. We opted for the Holiday Inn & Suites Montreal Centre-ville Ouest due to its proximity to the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, whose Alexander Calder exhibit was a draw for us.
It’s also a relatively new and modern hotel. The room, even a standard one, was huge by the standards of any major city. In-room amenities include a small refrigerator as well as a Keurig machine with coffee and tea pods provided. They also have an indoor pool and gym on the top floor of the hotel with great views of the city.
The InterContinental Montreal is also an impressive option that is more convenient to the downtown areas. The luxury hotel is expansive and hosts a direct connection to the Underground City.
Thank you to Tourisme Montréal! All opinions, as well as all photos, are my own. This post contains affiliate links.