First things first – Montreal is not what you think it is.
This city has an interesting vibe that can't really be compared to any other city. The culture is so very present, the people are beyond friendly and there are hidden gems around every corner.
I decided not to do any research before visiting Montreal and only asked the locals what to do, where to go and what to eat when I got there. Here are the 40 things I learned (and now love) about Montreal.
1. There’s an underground city.
There are 32 kilometers (19 miles) of corridors that link the buildings of Old Montreal together. Within the corridors you’ll find lively shopping areas, museum installations, public squares, and even a piece of the Berlin Wall. The underground city is a brilliant way to escape the freezing winter months and the extra humid days in the summer. It’s also a great place to people watch.
2. The subway is easy to navigate.
Montreal is a well-designed city with only four subway lines, making the system really easy to navigate compared to other major cities. And Montreal’s subway trains have rubber wheels, which means they produce less dust than steel wheels and less noise, making it the quietest subway in the world.
3. It’s a bike-friendly city.
Montreal was one of the first cities to start the bike-sharing program that Americans and Europeans have grown to love. The city has bike lanes (protected from traffic with concrete barriers) and bike rental stations every few blocks.
4. Montreal feels like Europe.
Once you step off the ship you will find yourself feeling like you’re in a small European neighborhood like those found in Paris or Brussels. Old Montreal in particular has been preserved in its original state with old stone buildings dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, giving it that old-world feel.
5. Montrealers don’t live downtown.
If you want a local Montreal immersion, hop on the orange subway line and head to the neighborhoods of Mile End, Little Italy and Plateau Mont-Royal. In these neighborhoods you’ll find markets, multicolored eclectic houses, artists and friendly Montrealers.
6. It’s a festival mecca.
Once the warmer temperatures roll around in the spring, Montreal becomes a festival mecca. People are outside all day and night, and the toughest decision is deciding which festival you want to attend. From music festivals and food festivals to art festivals and beer festivals, and even an igloo festival.
7. Local. Local. Local.
The menus typically have fewer options than those in the U.S., and this is because most of the restaurants use all local ingredients—from the spices and mushrooms to the meats and seafood. They pride themselves on local produce not because it’s the cool thing to do, but because they believe it’s the right thing to do.
8. Unobstructed city views. It’s the law.
There’s a law in Montreal that no building can be taller than the 764-foot-tall mountain in Mount Royal Park. Needless to say, the mountain holds the key to panoramic views of the city. There are two ways to get to the top of the mountain. Follow Peel Street and either take the stairs to the top (takes about 10 minutes) or the path that loops around the park (longer route, but a shorter incline). Once you get to the top you’ll have access to restrooms, water fountains and the best views in town.
9. The sun rises in the “south.”
That’s not a typo on my end, rather the city of Montreal’s end. The city planners made an error with the streets and labeled east as south and labeled west as north. They figured this out well after the grids were laid and the city was developed. Using a compass (or the sun) for directions will prove to be a challenge in Montreal.
10. Montreal is a safe city.
Most of the cities along a Canada and New England cruise are safe, but Montreal is one of the larger cities and is still safe to walk at night. The streets are well lit and the buildings in Old Montreal have colorful up lighting, so it’s like the city is always sparkling with lights.
11. A walking tour app will change your life.
The Montreal En Histoires app is free to download, and not only does it reveal the history of the historic sites, it also shows you images of what these places once looked like. All of the sites are within a few blocks of Old Montreal so you can really appreciate the transformation of the area. The random facts are also quite clever; I learned Céline Dion got married in the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal.
12. Get free Wi-Fi in Old Montreal.
To help with the app above and to keep you connected to the world, you can access Wi-Fi for free while you are in Old Montreal. Yes, this means you don’t have to go to a café and buy a cup of coffee you didn’t want just to get Wi-Fi.
13. The city hosted the 1976 Olympics.
Montreal hosted the Summer Olympics in 1976 and, unfortunately, Canada did not win one medal. The good news is you can still visit the grounds where the games were held.
14. IPA doesn’t taste like IPA.
Montrealers drink more beer per capita than anywhere else in the world (except Finland). But Montreal’s version of an IPA (India Pale Ale) is not the same as it is in the U.S. Before jumping into any rash beer decisions, ask for a sample of the IPA and the APA (American Pale Ale). Chances are, you’ll pick the APA as the IPA has more of a blonde taste to it.
15. The weather is unpredictable.
I explored Montreal for three days in October and learned about the weather the hard way. It went from 70 and sunny on Friday, to 60 and rainy on Saturday, and then to 30 and snow showers on Sunday. So pack layers, especially if you’re visiting in the fall.
16. Cheese is serious business.
I’ve never been to a city that loves its cheese as much as Montreal. People literally flock to the cheese vendors at the markets. Cheese sold at the market is always fresh, and unlike the U.S., it does not need to be pasteurized. If you go to the local markets like Jean-Talon, you can sample various types of chesses.
17. Food trucks are new to Montreal.
For over 60 years there has been a ban on street-food vendors in Montreal, but in 2013 the city started a food truck pilot project, allowing only niche food items to be made and sold from food trucks. So this basically means you can’t find a truck serving general Chinese food, but you will find a truck serving dumplings. There has to be a twist to the food items and there are very few trucks and no street vendors like you would find in New York selling pizza or in Chicago selling hot dogs.
18. The best (free) views of Old Montreal are from a museum.
Climb the three floors of the tower in the Montreal Museum of History and Archaeology for sweeping views of Old Port Montreal and Old Montreal. If you are looking for panoramic views of the entire city of Montreal, climb the “mountain” at Mount Royal Park.
19. Their bagels rival New York’s.
I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but their bagels give NY bagels a run for their money. Montreal bagels are handmade, poached in honey-sweetened water, and then cooked in a wood-burning oven. They are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, giving them a similar consistency to a pretzel.
20. Shop at Simons for clothes.
Skip H&M and other stores you recognize and head to Simons for a bit of Montreal style without paying boutique prices.
21. The art scene is thriving.
Montreal has a serious love for the arts. It’s everywhere (even on the signs). The summer festival MURAL brings street artists from all over the world who use the bricks of the buildings as their canvases. If you’re not visiting during the festival you can still head to Boulevard Saint-Laurent to see their masterpieces.
22. Montreal turns 375 in 2017.
The birthday is two years away, but the organizing committees have already started gearing up for the year-long celebration. The emphasis of the events will be on Montreal’s history and culture, and the port of Montreal will also see a little love with renovations.
23. Poutine is everything to the Province of Quebec.
I heard that poutine (french fries topped with cheese curds and hot gravy) was a must-try food when visiting Montreal, so I tried it. It was filling, heavy and interesting. I learned from my tour guide David, from Spade and Palacio Tours, that the best poutine is found in the countryside where the cheese curds are fresh and the fries are matchstick thin. I also learned that poutine is not a Canadian dish, rather a Province of Quebec dish. If you happen to fall in love with poutine, you’ll be thrilled to know that Ruffles makes poutine-flavored chips.
24. “West” of Old Montreal is less touristy than “east.”
If you’re crunched for time, head to the west side (left when you get off the ship) of Old Montreal rather than the east. It’s touristy, but filled with a few historic sites, local eateries, and just a few souvenir and antique shops, where the east side is loaded with souvenir shops filled with I Love Montreal shirts.
25. Cabs are not yellow.
This really confused me. The cabs are various colors, makes and models, so it’s a little tough to find one. You’ll need to have keen eyes and look for a lighted cross on the top of a car. Also, ask if they accept credit cards before getting in. If you’re going just a few blocks, they will only accept cash.
26. Montreal has Uber drivers.
Cabs are difficult to find outside of Old Montreal and downtown, but the good news is Montreal has Uber drivers too.
27. Head to the botanical garden at night.
Explore the gardens just as the sun is setting to experience illuminated paths. It’s difficult to describe, but the gardens turn into something very unique once the sun sets.
28. The alleys are green.
Montreal is one of many cities that struggles with the lack of green space and parks. In 1997, Montreal started the ruelle verte project (green alley project), converting more than 100 alleys into somewhat green space. They will typically remove the asphalt and plant lots of flora. Doing this reduces the amount of heat in the area and also gives the neighbors a place to create a sense of community. Some alleys even have fish tanks. The alley we walked through had vines filling the entire wall, with a mural behind it for the cold months when the vines die.
29. Americans don’t need an electric converter.
This is not Europe and you won’t need a plug converter.
30. Sample food at the market.
If you see something you want to try at the Jean-Talon Market, you can ask for a sample. Just don’t overdo it.
31. Duck and rabbit are popular menu items.
Some of the items on the menu are fatty meats, which was a struggle for me. I recommend trying it once if it’s on your bucket list. Otherwise, you can find a local seafood dish on the menu.
32. Jean-Talon Market is the largest open air market in North America.
Jean-Talon Market is little gem nestled in the heart of Little Italy. You'll find local fruits and vegetables here, but you'll also find spices, oils, cheese, meat, fish, artisanal bakery goods, soap and a few others. If you have a sweet tooth, you must try out the sorbet. They use fresh fruit, from blueberries and strawberries to grapefruit. And the coconut sorbet tastes like you just scooped out the insides of a coconut. The market is open seven days a week and it's quite easy to spend a few hours there.
33. It’s the largest French-speaking city in North America.
French is by far the most popular spoken language in Montreal, followed by English, Arabic and Spanish (in that order). You don’t need to be fluent in French because many of the locals speak English, but do make an attempt to learn a few basics: Hello – bonjour, thank you – merci, please – s'il vous plaît.
34. Flying out of Montreal? You’ll clear U.S. Customs while you’re in Canada.
Get to the airport at least an hour earlier than normal because you will go through customs in Canada instead of the United States. Canada and the U.S. have an agreement that enables U.S. customs agents to pre-clear U.S.-bound passengers from within Canada. So once you go through customs you won’t have to go through it again in the U.S. Just hop off the plane and home you go just like you would with a domestic flight.
35. Zipline over Old Port of Montreal.
Hop off the ship and take a right. You’ll see the zip line set up at the Clock Tower dock just a few blocks away. It’s a quick 45-second ride 80 feet in the air and costs approximately $20.
36. Tour guides are trained locals.
Montreal tour guides are certified city tour guides. Before any of the tour guides can work for a company or establish their own walking tours, they have to go through a certification process where they learn about the history of Montreal from its birth to present day, just as a docent at a museum would be trained before giving a museum tour. If you’re going to take the time to go on a tour, it's great to know that the information is not being made up as you go.
37. Cruisers practically disembark into the heart of Old Montreal.
With some ports of call, you disembark miles away from the main attractions, forcing you to take a cab or bus (wasting time and money). The city of Montreal was built from the St. Lawrence River out, putting the historic sites and local attractions just a few blocks walking distance from the port. Hop off the ship and you’re in the Old Port of Montreal. Cross the street and walk two blocks and you’re in Old Montreal. From there, you can find your way to the jaw-dropping Notre-Dame Basilica, downtown and Chinatown
38. Tipping is a must.
This might be obvious to some and not so obvious to others. In some South American and European cities, it is not customary to leave a tip, but it is in Montreal. Tip the same percentages you would tip in the U.S.
39. Queen Elizabeth II is the head of Canada.
If you take a peek at the money you’re using, you will see Queen Elizabeth on it. That’s because Canada is still part of the Commonwealth, and the queen is the head of the Commonwealth. But besides a few ceremonial things, she is really only a figurehead of Canada.
40. You can use U.S. dollars.
While it’s best to get your money exchanged, it is not necessary. But if you’re paying with U.S. dollars at a small shop, you’re not going to get the official exchange rate so you could end up overpaying. If you go to a major store like H&M or Walmart and pay with U.S. dollars, they’ll give you change in Canadian dollars in the amount of the current exchange rate.