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It was a rainy, cold evening in Boston, when I looked over at my friend Jess and asked, “Do you want to go to Montreal with me?” Adventurous by nature, she didn’t hesitate to say yes. “I’ve been waiting my whole life for a best friend who asks me to go on last-minute trips with her,” Jess joked.
I’m not sure if I believe in the concept of a soulmate, but I subscribe to the notion that people come into our lives for a reason. With my best friend Jess, that purpose is to be my confidant and travel buddy. After meeting on Remote Year, we scaled more than 20 countries together — driving eight hours through South Africa, playing on beaches in Australia, and getting tipsy on pisco sours in Peru. Once it was time to pick a home base, Jess settled on Boston — and I followed suit.
These days, we both have a bittersweet ache that comes from settling down and missing the digital nomadic life. So, with Montreal only a hop, skip, and five-hour drive away, we set our sights on the French-Canadian hub for a long weekend. Thanks to its quaint streets, charming character, and gluttonous dishes, we easily slipped into the rhythm of the city from the moment we arrived. With only a few days — or rather, 72 hours — to spare, here’s what we loved in The City of Saints. Read on to discover the best things to do in Montreal.
Explore Montreal by bike
Though Montreal has an easy to navigate metro system, we decided to experience the town via a biking adventure with Fitz Tours. They offer both a North and a South option, but we picked North so we could see the neighborhoods where locals call home. This tour winds through Mile-End, Outremont, Little Italy, Mile-Ex, Jean-Talon Farmer’s Market, and other gems. In a little over four hours, we were able to stop and take photos, learn about the history, as well as the current scene, and even nibble on a legendary Montreal Bagel. (More on those later.)
Eat your heart out
If you’re on a low-carb diet, Montreal is not the ideal destination for you. Much like the decadent tastes in Paris, this Canadian city offers an exciting and evolving food scene. Still, there are a few traditional must-haves that everyone should take a bite of when they find themselves in Montreal. First and foremost: poutine! You’ve probably ordered this off of a late-night bar menu, but here is where they make the fries, cheese curds, and gravy to perfection. You don’t need to get fancy with it, though. In fact, it’s better when it’s greasy and grimy, at top local haunts like Patati Patata or La Banquise, which is open 24/7.
Smoked meat sandwiches are also a thing — especially if you get them from Schwartz’s on St. Laurent. Here’s the deal: You’ll probably need to wait in line, but once you grab it, find a cushy spot in the nearby green area of Parc Jeanne Mance and feast. It’s best with fries and a pickle to share. Last but not least, you can’t leave Montreal without having a bagel from Fairmount Bagel or St. Viateur Bagel. They’re a tad sweeter than the ones you’re used to in the states since they are cooked with a honey-crust, but most locals will order ‘em warm and dip -- not smear -- them in cream cheese.
Go for a hike
Jess and I didn’t quite prepare for the “stroll” we thought was walking up to Mount Royal, but we still made it to the peak in our flats and boots. If you really want to enjoy the trek, I suggest packing a pair of sneakers or hiking boots so you aren’t sore by the time you reach the amazing view. Also, consider packing a backpack to have lunch at the top, where you will be able to see every spec of the city and stand in awe of the buzzing from down below. It’s an ideal spot for Instagram shots, too.
Be touristy in Old Port
Though it’s a super-packed hotspot, the historical zone is worth butting elbows to see. Pro tip: It’s better to arrive on the earlier side if you don’t want to wait in a long line at the iconic Notre-Dame Basilica. Once you’ve witnessed the colorful wonder of the stained glass, head toward the St. Lawrence River where you will find food trucks, shops, restaurants, and more. This was the first part of the city that was settled by French colonists, so you’ll see old-fashioned storefronts and you’ll trek along cobblestone streets. If you’re not afraid of heights, take a spin on the La Grande Roue de Montréal, aka the city’s “eye” that offers a 360-view.
Go big or go home to an Airbnb
Considering it’s the second-most populous city in Canada, nearly every hotel brand you can think of has a homestead in Montreal. However, the recently opened Four Seasons Montreal is worth your consideration (and money). Spacious rooms in a central location offer comfort for your tired sightseeing feet. Plus, their restaurant, Marcus, is a buzzworthy new hotspot for locals. Another option if you want to really immerse yourself in the culture of Montreal is to book an Airbnb in some of the smaller neighborhoods, like Griffintown if you're on a budget or The Village if you're looking for a scene. You also can't go wrong staying in the Le Plateau neighborhood. (You may even get lucky and book an apartment with a windy staircase on the outside — a feature that is so Montreal.)
Remember, French first in Montreal
Sure, everyone does speak English, but the first language of Montreal is French. This means Starbucks isn’t Starbucks — it's “Cafe Starbucks.” Though I’ve never taken a lick of the language in my life, Jess found much of her French classes from a decade ago coming back to her, and it made for an exciting learning curve. If you remember nothing else, mind your “Oui” and always ask for more “Vin.”
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