A Day in Montreal: 7 Not-to-Miss Experiences

You're going to wish you had more than a day to spend in Montreal.  On our last visit, we certainly did.  

You won't get enough of that French Canadian North-America-meets-Europe vibe, and there are definitely not enough opportunities to eat in 24 hours that you'll be able to sample the city's many delectable options.  But say you're in a similar position to us this summer, and a day is all you've got.  We can help you focus on the highlights and help you make the most of your visit.  

a day in montreal sunset

But first, a stroll back in time.

It was my first trip to Montreal, or French Canada in general.  I was 13.  I purchased and proudly wore a new Tommy Hilfiger shirt, paid to have my hair wrapped up in colorful strings, and took a cab ride (!!) to the Hard Rock Cafe where I purchased a new t-shirt.  I was collecting them, obviously, because it was 1996.  Does it get any more exciting?  I think not!  I was in love with the French-speaking city an easy road trip away from my house in Michigan.  My first taste of something so foreign, yet so accessible, and I've craved it ever since.

The only other memory I have from the epic 90’s family trip is a visit to a kids activity maze on a pier.  You know, the kind where, as parents, you can drop your kids off for an hour or two of activity while you enjoy a cocktail somewhere nearby.

Flash forward 21 years, and there’s still a maze for kids in Montreal.  On a pier, no less.  And Montreal?  I fell in love as a kid, and my feelings haven’t changed in the intervening years.  This visit lacked a flashy name-brand tee and a Hard Rock Cafe visit, but was no less memorable.

This summer we spent a long weekend in Quebec City, but opted for a quick night in Montreal on our way back home.  We jumped on a hotel near the old city that we found on booking.com because it got us into a walkable area at a reasonable price, and we quickly got down to business.  

Rue Saint-Vincent Day in Montreal
notre-dame day in Montreal

Montreal has SO much to offer: a beautiful old city, amazing city parks, a thriving foodie scene, music festivals, old French architecture I can’t get enough of, even an amusement park.  This time, we only had 24 hours, but I can tell that Montreal is calling for our return.

A Day in Montreal: 7 Essential Experiences

If you’re limited on time, like us, I recommend you spend a generous chunk of it in Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal), which includes the fun Vieux Port area.

1. Take a Stroll Around Vieux Montreal

If you’re visiting in the summer, enjoy the street performers, the cobblestone streets, and the open air restaurants.  It's one of the oldest urban centers in North America, with some of the buildings dating back to the 17th Century.  If you're staying close enough, just walk down, but it is easy to get to via Metro if you're staying a bit further away - it's not a place for driving.   At less than a third of a square mile, it is fairly compact, and it provides a lovely spot to wander around.  You may want to begin at the Place d'Armes, a beautiful and historic city square anchored on one side with the striking Basilique Notre-Dame.  Step inside and note stained glass windows depicting the history of the city, as well as an impressive organ from 1891.  

stroll old montreal

Take a stroll down Rue Saint-Paul, and find your way to the bustling Place Jacques Cartier.  You're likely to come across an array of musicians, magicians, and other street performers - which may interest your kids more than yourself.  Keep walking Northeast to visit high end boutiques at the historic Marche Bonsecours,  or just admire the beautiful buildings as you walk by.

a day in montreal market

If I could wave a magic wand and do away with shops that sell trinkets to tourists, I would do so in a second.  The streets of Vieux Montreal would be better for it.  Regardless, it's easy to look past the tacky and focus on the fetching rooflines, the stone streets, and the numerous options to get a delicious meal.  On that note... 

2. Grab a Meal in Vieux Montreal - But Do Your Research First

Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal) is chock full of restaurants, and you’ll walk by all kinds of appealing choices.  But if you’re like me, you might get overwhelmed with choice.  If I’m only in town for one night, I want my dinner to be fantastic!  

Stash Cafe Day in Montreal

When it comes to tourist-heavy areas, I know from unfortunate experience that some of the restaurants in best locations will serve me mediocre, overpriced food.  This is as true in Copenhagen as it is in Buenos Aires.  Old Montreal is no different, and in particular the options along the Place Jacques Cartier aren't generally known for their cooking.  As for us, we checked out some of the best spots in the area on our iPhones while we were on our stroll.  To do it again, however, I’d have a game plan in mind before I set out.  It’s hard to take in the city streets when you’re attempting to read restaurant reviews at the same time. 

We ended up at Stash Cafe, a delicious Polish place near the Basilique Notre-Dame.  Our children LOVED the Zurek soup, made with rye malt and small sausages (I was shocked they downed it so quickly and we had to order more), and we all appreciated the pirogies and kielbasa!  The only problem I had with our choice was the lack of outdoor or open air seating that's so prevalent in Montreal.

a day in montreal stash polish

Other spots to consider in Old Montreal:

Gibby’s - A venerable Old Montreal establishment, set in a charming 200-year-old building.  My grandpa started patronizing this establishment in the 1960’s, and it's been a family favorite every since.  Go for the perfect steak and the seafood, and enjoy the old school ambiance of cozy fireplaces and stone walls.  Your wallet will definitely be a bit lighter as you depart.  We find that fine dining and small children don't make for a good combination, so we regretfully skipped Gibbys this time around.

Brit & Chips - Grab something quick, cheap, and delicious at this chippy (to use the British phrase.)  Choose from six different types of fish, or else go for other English food staples: a pork pie, a cheese and onion pasty, or a sausage roll.  We lived in the UK for a couple of years, so we're always hankering for this type of treat on this side of the pond.

Olive et Gourmando - Ideal for a quick lunch or brunch, with fresh soups, salads, and sandwiches that have all been ratcheted up a notch or two.  Next time I'm in town I'll go for the grilled cheese, complete with carmelized onions and gouda, beemster, and raclette cheeses.

Can't decide?  Have a little extra time?  Don't have your kids with you?  Try a food tour.

3. Visit the Montreal's Vieux Port

The Vieux Port (Old Port) is CHOCK FULL of family activities.  You’ll never get bored.  I don’t remember the time that I’ve come across so much non-cheesy, genuinely interesting family activities in one spot.  In addition to the maze I mentioned, you can zipline, take the Segway tour, visit an interactive discovery zone, ride a ferris wheel, or scope out a science center.  Our 2-year-old son was enamored with the kiddie train than ran up and down the streets.  

Or you can take a rodeo-style speedboat ride.  Something for everyone.

Vieux Port Montreal

Check the website for full details before your trip.

As for us, we chose Voiles en Voiles, a pirate-themed family adventure park offering high ropes obstacles for big kids and inflatable jungle gyms and slides for the younger crowd.  At two, four, and six, our family was of a perfect age for the latter, and our crew throroughtly enjoyed the numerous bounce house options.  We found the staff to be extra friendly, and one kind soul even took our two-year-old son through the same little obstacle course about half a dozen times.  

Right around the corner we were pleased to find an appealing lineup of food trucks.  Never a family to pass up a warm cookie, ice cream cone, or other similar treat, we happily munched our way through a variety of sweets. 

food trucks old port day in montreal
a day in montreal food truck banana
Old Port Montreal Pirate Ship

Say what you will about the entertainment choices available at the Vieux Port.  High brow?  No.  Exciting for our younger childless friends?  Probably not. But it’s lively, colorful, and fun.  A great family night out.

Maze Labyrinthe Old Port Montreal

4. Grab an ice cream cone at Chocolats Favoris. 

We’ve written all about this - and we can honestly say it’s one of our top five favorite ice creams anywhere in the world.

While there are several Chocolats Favoris locations in the larger metro area, there's only one shop in central Montreal.  Located at 150 rue Ste Catherine Ouest local 276a, the Montreal location is just over a half-mile from the heart of the old city, and it's definitely worth a minor detour.

5. Treat yourself to a bagel in the Historic Jewish Quarter.

St-Viateur has been churning out bagels for 60 years in the Historic Jewish Quarter of Montreal, serving 12,000 bagels per day.  Sesame is the classic option, so you'll want to snag one of those, especially if it's warm.  Pair that iconic bagel with some cream cheese, butter, milk, or other basics from the cooler inside the bakery.  Our kids enjoyed watching the workers use the long wooden sticks to bring the bagels in and out of the wood-fired bagel oven.  St-Viateur doesn't serve coffee but a few spots along the same street do if you’re in the market.  One word of warning - the setup is basic, and there's also no seating available indoors.  

a day in montreal bagel
a day in montreal st viateur

We chose to buy a half dozen, wander down a couple of blocks, and patronize a place that offered coffee - and a spot to sit.

It's located on Avenue du Mont-Royal E.  From Place D'Armes, take the Orange Line/Line 2 toward the Montmorency Station, and get off at Mont-Royal, just 4 stops away.  From there it's an eight minute walk down the same road to get your bagel.

6. Visit the Marche Jean Talon

Fresh produce heaven!  Marche Jean Talon is massive, with stall after stall offering an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Samples are a given.  Taste tomatoes, sour cherries, and mangoes as you survey all of your choices.  Looking for something more than fruit and vegetables?  We found popsicles, macaroons, and warm pies in the market, and much, much more surrounding the market on all sides.  Full service restaurants, bakeries, seafood vendors, and cheese shops are just a couple of steps away from the open air center.  You'll find all that you’d need for a week’s shopping, a picnic, or a meal on the spot. 

day in montreal marche jean-talon

Maybe, like us, you'll catch an artist painting the street leading up the market.  

We made the mistake of using up our Canadian currency on a boatload of appealing produce, and then having to dump half of it at the border coming back into the US.  If you're not planning on enjoying your purchases in Canada, you may want to check the USDA website before you try to take it back with you.  Learn from us, and hopefully you won't have to part with $8 of sour cherries.

marche jean talon montreal
fruit marche jean talon montreal

It's located in the heart of Little Italy, with parking available.  Alternately, the Jean Talon station is just 8 stops away on the Metro from Place D'Armes on the Orange Line/Line 2, and 4 past Mont-Royal, where you may have stopped for your bagel.

If you're a chocolate lover, you may want to check out Juliette & Chocolat for a decadent dessert.

7. Eat Poutine

Do you have any room left?  Poutine, the combination of french fries, gravy, and cheese curds, is a much-loved staple in Montreal.  Here's a list from Thrillist that may come in handy as you choose where to go.

Wow, you've just spent your whole day eating.  There really is more to this city than food...we just wouldn't recommend seeing it until you've eaten something.

More Than a Day in Montreal?

Have more time to spare in this delightful city?  Here are some more suggestions:

  • Visit Mount Royal Park and enjoy views around the city from the top of Mount Royal, 764 ft above sea level.  After all, it's where the city derives its name.  Some of the best views of the city are from the courtyard of the Mount Royal Chalet, located near the summit.
  • Rent a bike and ride along the Canal de Lachine.
  • Camp out (not literally!) in the hipster Mile End neighborhood.  Sample local a brew, browse beautiful and unusual shops, grab takeout gnocchi from a window at Drogheria Fine, find a fancy brunch, or try the rival for best bagel in town: Fairmount Bagel.  I found this to be a good list for Mile End activities.  
  • Check out the Botanical Gardens (including Biodome and Planetarium.)
  • Visit the old Olympic Stadium, an extreme testament to the use of cement in architecture.
  • Stroll through the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Montreal
  • Walk Rue St-Denis in the Quartier Latin to see some of the city's best cafes, theaters, and street scenes.  While you're there, take a slight detour over to Boulevard St-Laurent to...
  • Grab a Schwartz's smoked meat sandwich on rye - it's a local institution.  If the lines are too long, try Snowdon Deli, which is more frequented by locals. 

Like I said, a day in Montreal isn't nearly long enough.  Just like when I was a wide-eyed 13-year-old, I can't wait to go back.  I've got some eating - ahem, I mean exploring - to do.

Have you been to Montreal?  What tips, foodie finds, or activities would you recommend?

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