Montreal is the largest city in the province of Quebec, in Canada, and this year it celebrates its 375th birthday! We didn’t really know what to expect when we visited, but we all loved this beautiful, cosmopolitan city, full of things to do for all ages and with a fascinating history too.
The first thing you need to know about Montreal is that, like the rest of Quebec, it sees itself as both part of, and very separate from, the rest of Canada. You can tell that by the fact that French is the first language here (the province was first “discovered” by the French, although of course, the native Canadians had been here for centuries) and the French influence is everywhere, even though it was taken under the control of the British in 1760. Once the capital of Canada, it is a city which is full of history and culture, as well as commerce.
What to do
Jess, aged 15, says: The whole of Montreal is gorgeous to walk around. We loved strolling through the old town, looking around at the period buildings, seeing the universities, and trying out the Underground City (a series of connected buildings and walkways which is used in bad or snowy weather). However, for me the best views of the city had to be at the top of the Mont Royal (which the city is named after). This is a 223m high hill, offering spectacular views of the entire city. At the viewpoint beside the Chalet du Mont-Royal, we could see all the way to the shimmering water of the Old Port, the Olympic stadium, and the large Downtown skyscrapers. Mont Royal is surrounded by a 200 hectare park which was lovely to walk through – and amazing to have right in the heart of such a huge and busy city!
Robert, aged 12, writes: Dad took me to the La Ronde theme park, which I really enjoyed. There was a huge variety of rides for all ages, including some fast and scary ones for me! You also got to see great views of the rest of Montreal while you were there.
Jess writes: The Montreal Biodome contains four different ecosystems to walk through, and is an excellent place to visit. The biodome stands out from others as it contains live animals, which were amazing to see up close in their natural habitats. We particularly enjoyed seeing two beavers fighting each other in the Gulf of St Lawrence ecosystem, a racoon, and watching penguins and puffins swimming in the sub polar region. The biodome was incredibly well done, with a huge range of plants and animals. We had the opportunity to try different foods from the regions (such as seaweed and a type of sap), touch sand dollars, and learn about the animals through various information cards. I really enjoyed the museum. I certainly preferred it to the Eden Project in Cornwall, and recommend it 100 per cent to families visiting Montreal.
Brian writes: The Insectarium is about 10 minutes walk away from the biodome. This is the largest insect museum in North America, and is located just inside the beautiful tranquil surroundings of the Botanical Gardens. We saw lots of glass cases containing dead insects (and butterflies), but the live ones were far more interesting. The ants display was particularly good, as it was not behind glass and you could see the ants carrying small leaves and pieces of flowers across the branches. Robert was then lucky enough to be able to hold a giant stick insect in the palm of his hand (as you can see in the video). This was a lovely museum to visit for an hour or so, and outside there was a stall selling food made with bugs that included cricket burgers, tacos with silkworms, and ice-cream dipped in termite chocolate.
Sarah says: The Botanical Gardens is situated right next to the Insectarium and is a kind of oasis in the heart of the city. It features plants from all over the world and is really relaxing to sit in and walk around. If you’re a bird or plant lover, this is the place for you. Even if not, you’ll enjoy looking at the flowers, but probably not for as long as otherwise. I wouldn’t have ventured out here just for this, but with the insectarium next door, it was well worth a trip.
Jess says: My favourite part of our Montreal holiday was the Olympic Stadium tour. We spent around half an hour walking around the Olympic Park: learning about its construction, the games, and how it is used today. Our guide was extremely interesting and conducted the tour in both French and English. I particularly enjoyed learning why the stadium has no retractable roof (the material was so flimsy that the roof ripped when opened, so it had to be replaced with a stronger, non-retractable kind) and why construction took such a long time. We saw the stadium and swimming pools, and were also allowed to visit the “Since 1976” exhibition, which included lots of artefacts from the games. This was very interesting and well done. It was a fascinating and really exciting tour which I definitely would recommend to adults and children alike. Montreal is the only Canadian city ever to have hosted the summer Olympics, although it nearly bankrupted the city….
Sarah writes: If you’re going to Montreal, you can’t miss the old city. As you’d imagine, it’s the oldest part of the city, and because it’s the most “touristy”, it gets extremely busy, but it’s still a must-see! It’s really unlike anywhere we’d ever been before – such a mixture of Europe and North America, with its own Notre Dame cathedral too, on the Place d’Armes, which is a gorgeous public square. We all really liked one of the newest sculptures here, called “The English pug and the French poodle”, which show a snooty man and woman at either ends of one of the sides. They are supposed to represent England and France, looking away from each other. But both hold dogs, which are looking at each other – showing we can be friends after all!
There are also many small roads, many cobbled, to walk through, selling all kinds of wares. One of the most famous areas is Place Jacques-Cartier, was a marketplace hundreds of years ago, and is now one of the city’s busiest tourist areas. If you’re with kids, they may not want to spend too long just mooching around, (although we always find that an ice-cream or snack helps) and I wouldn’t recommend eating a meal here as the restaurants were all packed and pricey (there are loads of other great places to eat in the city).
If you go to the old city, you have to walk by the Old Port, which is full of stalls and right by the water. While there you could hire a pedalo, enjoy a run around in the park, admire the clocktower and raise your adrenalin levels at the Voiles et Voiles park, which is a bit like Go Ape. Voiles et Voiles also has a marvellous inflatable playground, which is certainly not just for kids. I enjoyed it as much as Robert!
The old port is also the place to find Montreal Zipline, which was fantastic fun (at least according to Robert and Brian – I was too wimpy to try!). It was the first urban zipline in all of Canada and flies over the famous Bonsecours island in the old port. It’s for everyone aged seven and up, and a great way to see the city. As Robert writes: Dad and I went on the MTL zip-line, the longest zip wire in Canada. After suiting up, we travelled up a series of stair cases before reaching the top. When it was my turn, I was harnessed to the wire before being asked to simply walk off! It was so thrilling to travel over the river and get an amazing view of the city, although stopping was a bit scary. I had an awesome time.
Jess writes: Though maybe not as joyous as the other places we visited, I would recommend a visit to the Montreal Holocaust Museum. We learned about the Holocaust through written information, artefacts, audio guides, and video. As Canada is thought of as being such an amazing, friendly country, I was surprised by how few refugees were taken in, in comparison to other countries, and how determined some people were not to help. Something else which stood out was a small heart-shaped pad of paper filled with messages; a birthday gift from friends in a concentration camp to another friend. We were in the museum for about an hour, and it was time well spent, and extremely educational.
Sarah writes: Montreal was established at Pointe-à-Callière, where the St. Lawrence River met what was then the Petite Rivière. Twenty five years ago, when it was its 350th birthday, the Pointe-à-Callière Museum opened right here, and if you are going to visit any museums in the city, this is the one to go to.
It is extremely good on the history of the city, and starts with a short film giving some background. You can then see some authentic archaeological sites as the hotel is built upon the old ruins. There is a lot of interactivity here, but we were sorry to see that some of the items clearly aimed at children were not working (a disappointment for my son).
We all found the archaeological/historical parts interesting, although there was repetition in parts, but it is a fine introduction to the city. However, our favourite part of the museum was the “Pirates or Privateers?” exhibition which is squarely aimed at kids, but actually great fun and gives good detail on the life of being a pirate.
What to see
Brian says: We really enjoyed our visit to the Olympic Stadium and then up the Olympic Tower. The futuristic design, looking a bit like the Starship Enterprise, was not how it looked in 1976. The tower part, which is probably the most recognisable symbol of the city, was only completed in 1987. It stands at a 45 degree angle and is the world’s tallest leaning tower. We took a trip to the top in the amazing glass-encased funicular. The tower is curved like a ski jumping hill, but an ingenious hydraulic system keeps you level all the way. It took about two minutes to get up to the observation deck, and we enjoyed great views of the Olympic Park. Sadly, it was quite a misty day, and we could not see much of the city beyond. Luckily the funicular was such great fun that the trip up and down the outside of the tower was worth a visit in its own right.
Robert writes: We travelled up the observatory (called Au Sommet) in a lift that travelled incredibly quickly and we were amazed by the view at the top. All four walls were glass panels so we could see Montreal from every angle and there was an exhibition about the city on the floor below too. I loved spotting all the places we had been to and it was awesome to see the city from a different perspective.
Where to eat
Sarah says: Having heard that Montreal has a strong Jewish heritage, we were very pleased to go on a Jewish walking tour of the city with Round Table tours. It was extremely hot on the day that we did the tour, so we were grateful for the water we were offered at the start and the fabulous flavoured sodas which we tried out at Wilensky’s Light Lunch, an absolutely classic diner, which has been in the city since 1932 and I imagine hasn’t changed at all! I had cherry cola and Jess had cherry pineapple, and we both enjoyed looking around us and falling back into the past (there is even a sign saying the staff won’t accept tips).
The tour certainly covered all the sites we were expecting, including the two rival bagel bakeries, St-Viateur Bagel and Fairmount (Montreal is famous for its bagels). We were surprised that the food on the tour was not kosher, so we couldn’t sample the famous smoked meats, but to be honest, I think we ate enough during the three hours – including some fabulous babka.
Our tour guide did impart a lot of information, from the fact that Celine Dion now owns Schwartz’s (probably the most famous “Jewish” deli in the city, although not kosher, but always extremely busy) to the story behind Canadian rye “whisky”, but he seemed a bit vague on a number of Jewish issues (including what keeping kosher actually is) which you wouldn’t have expected on a Jewish tour. He also didn’t bring the warmth one might have expected to a tour like this (he clearly finds very religious Jews unintelligible), which was as shame, but it was still worth doing.
Iconic Dishes: Jewish Montreal, The Original Tour! costs $80 per person
Jess writes: Mandy’s was definitely our favourite place to eat during our trip to Montreal. We wanted somewhere to eat which wasn’t too heavy, and the bright lights and decor of the shop drew us in. Mandy’s sells a wide variety of salads and soups, and we loved it so much that we visited three times in three days. I loved the Mexican and the Roma salads, and the mum, dad and Robert loved the grain bowls. We wish we had a Mandy’s in our neighbourhood!
Where to stay: Montreal is a huge city with so many options for where to stay. We were in the Residence Inn, Marriott Downtown which was an excellent location – near lots of shops and restaurants, as well as the metro and main train station. Our room was large, with two double beds and a sofa bed (excellent as it meant the kids didn’t have to share) plus a little kitchen with big fridge, microwave and hob, which meant we could eat in. Breakfast was complimentary and we all loved the waffles!
Overall, we would really recommend Montreal as a place to visit. It is a gorgeous city with so much to do, whatever your interests, and whatever your age. We were sad to say “au revoir”!
Disclosure: We were fortunate to be helped in our trip by Tourism Montreal and Quebec Original, which enabled us to try out some activities free or at a reduced price. However, neither they, nor any of the places we visited, had any input into this blog post. Please visit their websites for more on this wonderful city and region.