Top Things to Do to Experience Montreal’s Culture and History

Montreal's Culture and History

When you arrive in Montreal, you’ll be greeted with a hearty “bonjour” — or “bonsoir.” Though you’ll have no trouble navigating the city in English, French is the official language of business in Quebec province, and it’s fiercely protected — from signage to street names.

Montreal began as the French colony Ville-Marie in 1642. During the Seven Years’ War, French troops surrendered the city to the British in the Conquest of 1760. This history looms large in Montreal and throughout Quebec, a province known as much for defending its French Canadian identity as for its signature dish, poutine — french fries and cheese curds topped with brown gravy.

Use this guide to discover Montreal’s truly unique character and identity.

How to Get There

Drive about 10 miles northeast from Montreal Trudeau Airport

If you’d rather wait to pick up your car once you’re in town, take the AirConnect shuttle to Dorval Station and the train to Central Station, where you can collect your keys at the Alamo location just around the corner at Montreal Stanley Street.

What to See and Do

Explore the City’s Origins at Pointe-à-Callière

Start your visit at Pointe-à-Callière, a museum of history and archeology on the original site of Fort Ville-Marie — the administrative heart of the French settlement when Montreal was founded. Paid parking is available at nearby Old Port and in lots around Old Montreal. Upon arrival, you’ll be directed into an auditorium overlooking the remnants of a 17th-century cemetery, the city’s first Catholic resting place. After a kid-friendly multimedia show, including three-dimensional projection mapping onto the ruins below, head downstairs to check out the main exhibits, which include artifacts from indigenous First Nations tribes and the recently discovered remains of Fort Ville-Marie.

Pointe-à-Callière Go back in time to explore Montreal’s origins at the Pointe-à-Callière Montreal Museum of Archeology and History. Photo courtesy of PoYang_博仰, Flickr.

Admire Historic Landmarks in Old Montreal

Outside Pointe-à-Callière, Old Montreal charms visitors with its cobblestone streets, historic architecture and horse-drawn carriages. Drive along Rue de la Commune, a brick road that follows the bend of the Saint Lawrence River, to Place Jacques-Cartier. This sloping public square sits beneath a monument to British Admiral Horatio Nelson and is surrounded by shops and restaurants like Le Robin Square, where you can try pork belly mac and cheese. Fun fact: Completed in 1809, the square’s Nelson’s Column predates the iconic pillar of the same name in London’s Trafalgar Square by more than 30 years.

Place Jacques-Cartier During the winter holidays, Place Jacques-Cartier is lined with lighted trees.

From here, the bustling Rue Saint Paul will lead you toward Marché Bonsecours, a former public market and government building that now houses a number of souvenir boutiques, including an outlet from the Eastern Township sugar shack Sucrerie Haut Bois Normand. The building’s high silver dome was built to impress visitors approaching from the water.  Inside, shop from a variety of boutiques selling Quebec-made crafts, jewelry, furniture and more.

Appreciate Religious Sites Near Place d’Armes

To enjoy some of the city’s most notable structures, spend some time in Place d’Armes. The public square dates back to 1693 and features a monument dedicated to the founder of Montreal, Paul de Chomedey, in its center. However, the most iconic of these is the Notre-Dame Basilica, which towers over the east side of the plaza. It’s free to attend morning or midday Mass, but a $6 admission fee will get you a 20-minute tour and a closer look at the intricate statuary and vibrant stained-glass windows from Limoges, France.

Notre-Dame Basilica Make sure to look up at the ornate decorations and hundreds of carvings inside the Notre-Dame Basilica.

Next door, pause outside the gates of the 17th-century Saint-Sulpice Seminary. Though not open to the public, this carefully preserved building is the second-oldest in Montreal and can be admired from outside. Or drive about 4 miles southwest to Saint Joseph’s Oratory, the largest church in Canada. Climb the basilica’s 283 stairs for a closer look at its copper dome, the highest point in Montreal.

Experience Culture in the Quartier des Spectacles

Montreal is a festival city. Come sun or snow, there’s bound to be an event in the Quartier des Spectacles, the district of entertainment. Annual offerings that draw repeat crowds include the winter performing arts spectacular Montréal en Lumière, the all-star comedy at Just For Laughs and the International Jazz Festival. Other installations pop up for a limited time, like neighborhood interactive light shows you may stumble upon after dark. Check for activities, festivals and events planned during your visit, and sign up for a free walking tour to get an insider’s look at this creative and cultural hub.

In the heart of the Quartier is Place des Arts, Montreal’s most important performing arts center and cultural complex. Inside you’ll discover the MAC (a contemporary art museum), a modern promenade and the permanent home of three prestigious companies: Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, the Opéra de Montréal and the Duceppe theater company. For those planning to visit in December, the annual production of The Nutcracker by Les Grands Ballets is a must-see.

Place de Arts Inside the Place des Arts, travelers can catch shows put on by some of Montreal’s top performing arts groups. Photo courtesy of art_inthecity, Flickr.

Where to Eat

According to Montreal Gazette dining critic Lesley Chesterman, the city can credit European training, local ingredients and a savvy clientele with its flourishing of celebrated restaurants. “It’s not really a steak-and-potato town at all,” she says. “It’s more of a foie-gras-and-rabbit town.”

Montreal also exhibits a citywide love for oysters: menus across town highlight the east coast catch of the day. For variety and value, head to La Boîte aux Huîtres in Marché Jean-Talon, a covered food market in Little Italy. Perch at the oyster counter while the shucker prepares a dozen at a time; on Tuesdays, you can get 12 for $12.

For a family-friendly place to sample poutine, head to Restaurant Momesso in the residential neighborhood of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (or NDG, as the locals call it). This Italian cafe shares its name with the legendary Montreal hockey player Sergio Momesso (it’s his family’s spot) and is famous for its submarine sandwiches.

Tucked up a narrow side street off Rue de la Commune, the hidden gem Maison Christian Faure serves some of the city’s best pastries and sweets. Stop by in the morning for a golden, buttery croissant. Or queue outside Olive & Gourmando, a weekend brunch hot spot that draws crowds willing to wait for its smooth coffee and perfectly toasted Cuban panini.

Olive & Gourmando Grab a bite, or a sweet treat, from local favorite Olive & Gourmando. Photo courtesy of Shinya Suzuki, Flickr.

Where to Stay

Stay in the historic Place d’Armes at Le Place D’Armes Hotel & Suites, Old Montreal’s first boutique hotel. Housed in three 19th-century neoclassical buildings across from Notre-Dame Basilica, travelers can admire century-old brick walls, relax in luxurious interiors as well as at an urban rainspa, and sip cocktails while watching the sun set from atop the hotel's rooftop terrace.

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About the Author

Lindsay Burgess is a native Torontonian and an adoptive Londoner, but these days she’s based in Montreal, Quebec. She’s the former digital editor of Foodism Toronto magazine, and her writing has been published by The Globe and Mail, Noisey and BarChick. Follow her on Twitter (@lindsburge) or Instagram (@lindsburge).