Montreal is known the world over for its lively atmosphere, its street cafés and its amazing summer festivals which include the famous Just for Laughs comedy festival, the Montreal International Jazz Festival – the world’s largest jazz festival, the Francofolies – a festival that celebrates French music every June, the Montreal International Fireworks Competition – held in July, and many more. The city has a certain je ne sais quoi, something special that expresses its unique brand of joie de vivre.



Montreal Jazz Festival - the biggest in the world

But Montreal is a wonderful year-round destination that offers activities and special events throughout the entire calendar year. Let me share some of my own Montreal travel experiences with you to give you some ideas of what to see and do in this vivacious city at different times of the year.

Montreal attracts great street performers

Montreal attracts great street performers

In the summer of 2006 I went to Montreal to spend the entire Canada Day weekend in the city. I caught parts of the Montreal Jazz Festival, some of the spectacular fireworks at La Ronde and a variety of Canada Day concerts in the Old Port. The city was just hopping with energy and visitors from near and far were getting caught up in this contagiously vibrant atmosphere.

Montreal City Hall

Montreal's beautiful city hall on Place Jacques Cartier

To get to know the city better I went on a variety of tours: right after my arrival – a convenient trip with Via Rail from Toronto – I went on a driving tour with a personal guide to get a lay of the land. I also took a marvellous architectural walking tour of Old Montreal that helped me to learn about the centuries of history and the outstanding buildings in this unique atmospheric part of the city. A Montreal Ghost Tour in the evening was another unusual and entertaining way of learning about the city’s history.

Montreal ghost tour

Montreal ghost tour

One of the best ways of getting to know the city was to take a bicycle tour. My first guided  bicycle tour took me through the various neighbourhoods of Montreal, including the Parc Lafontaine and various beautiful residential neighbourhoods in the Plateau Mont-Royal area. I also cycled beside the Lachine Canal, an industrial legacy from the 1800s, in an area where old factory buildings have been revitalized and turned into state-of-the-art condominiums. The Art Deco-era Marché Atwater was a great place to stop and grab lunch. I also explored Montreal’s other big market: the colourful Jean Talon Market in the city’s Italian neighbourhood which was bursting with colourful produce from local and regional farmers.

Montreal's Marché Atwater

Montreal's Marché Atwater

Montreal is well known for its outstanding culinary offerings and I had a chance to sample a variety of cuisines, from Italian fare at Galiano’s, to dinner with jazz at Modavie, to an upscale gourmet dinner at Nuances, located inside the Casino de Montréal. To work off the extra calories I did lots of walking and admired all the downtown architectural jewels and the unique townhouses near historic Square St. Louis.

Culinary art in Montreal

Montreal always offers excellent food

Educational opportunities abound in Montreal as well: after visiting the famous 1976 Olympic Stadium, I learned about various arthropods in the Insectarium and enjoyed the gorgeous flowers and plants at the Montreal Botanical Gardens. I also visited the Chateau Ramezay where I learned about Montreal’s more than 350 years of history. My four days in Montreal had given me a chance to experience a wide range of cultural and physical activities that were perfect for a long weekend summer getaway.

Montreal Botanical Garden

Montreal Botanical Garden

In August of 2009 my husband and I headed to Montreal for a brief two-day getaway to watch the Rogers Cup, the Canada Masters tennis tournament that is held every year in Toronto and Montreal. The world’s best female and male tennis players alternate every year to play in Canada’s two largest cities. And in 2009 we had a chance to watch the world’s elite male players, including Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and many more. The atmosphere at the tournament was fantastic and we even had a chance to spend a bit of time relaxing (and playing tennis ourselves) in scenic Parc Lafontaine.

One of Montreal's most famous sights: St. Joseph's Oratory

One of Montreal's most famous sights: St. Joseph's Oratory

After these summer experiences, I wanted to explore Montreal in the winter. I knew that Montreal can get quite cold in the winter; temperatures in the -15 or -20 degree Celsius range are not uncommon. But the cold wasn’t going to deter me; as a matter of fact I wanted to explore Montreal specifically for its winter activities.

Beautiful lighting on Place Jacques Cartier

Beautiful lighting on Place Jacques Cartier

So in the middle of February of 2011 I headed off with Via Rail and rode in comfort to Montreal, which took about 5 hours from downtown to downtown. No hassles with airport security, and no stress due to road traffic, I was able to enjoy the leisurely ride, make use of the onboard Internet connection and arrived relaxed in Montreal. I was staying at the historic Auberge Bonaparte in Old Montreal where I got a personal tour of the restaurant and the rooftop terrace which provides a fabulous view of the Basilica of Notre Dame.

Auberge Bonaparte in Montreal

Auberge Bonaparte in Montreal

After a walk on beautifully illuminated Rue St-Paul and equally dressed up Place Jacques Cartier, my evening program included a visit to the Basilica of Notre Dame,  where I watched the show “And then there was light…” , an impressive multi-media show about the history of this outstanding cathedral.

The magnificent of the Basilica of Notre Dame

The magnificent interior of the Basilica of Notre Dame

As part of the “Montreal en Lumière” winter festival, I learned more about the city in an informative (and very tasty) culinary walking tour through Old Montreal  during which I got to taste foie gras, various Quebec cheeses and some of Quebec’s special maple syrup products. To work off some of these calories, I went snow-shoeing on Mont Royal with a guide from Les Amis de la Montagne. I had never snow-shoed before, and with all the information provided by the guide and a warming taste of mulled wine, it turned out to be an amazing afternoon.

Snow-shoeing on Mount Royal

Snow-shoeing on Mount Royal

Another physical activity I got to take pleasure in was skating on the Bassin Bonsecour right in the heart of Old Montreal. Despite the really cold weather (about -20 degrees), I thoroughly enjoyed the breathtaking view of Montreal’s skyline from the frozen waters in the Old Port. It was a bit chilly, but once I got going it was pure enjoyment and I didn’t even notice the cold weather.

Montreal's Marché Bonsecours

Montreal's Marché Bonsecours

To get to know the city better I also took a driving tour and my expert local guide Ronald took me to some of Montreal’s key sites: Jean Drapeau Island, the city’s impressive downtown area, the upscale Westmount neighbourhood and the colourful Plateau area where we ate some oven-fresh Montreal bagels. We also stopped off at the Jean Talon Market which was hosting a special food festival that promoted local Quebec food products.

Fresh produce at the Jean Talon Market

Fresh produce at the Jean Talon Market

Cultural activities were also included: at the Centre d’Histoire de Montreal I learned about the city’s history and enjoyed the special exhibition “Made in Montreal”.  I visited the historic Marché Bonsecours and explored the gallery inside the Café des Arts.

The Café des Arts inside the Marché Bonsecours

The Café des Arts inside the Marché Bonsecours

A visit to La Tohu exposed me to top-of-the-line international circus artists who displayed some mind-boggling talents. As the home of the Cirque du Soleil, Montreal is the world’s capital of circus arts and I had a great afternoon admiring talented circus artists from Russia, China, France, Kazakhstan, South Africa and Canada.

Montreal's La Tohu hosts great circus performances

Montreal's La Tohu hosts great circus performances

Naturally, culinary delights were also part of my Montreal winter experience. From multi-course gourmet meals at the Restaurant Bonaparte and Restaurant Ghandi in Old Montreal, to the lively atmosphere at Thursday’s on vibrant Crescent Street, to a nice lunch at the popular bakery-café Olive et Gourmando’s, a middle-eastern inspired lunch at Restaurant Rumi in Outremont, and dinner with some live jazz music at the Upstairs Jazz Club (which is really downstairs…), gastronomic enjoyment is never far away in Montreal.

A gourment meal at Restaurant Bonaparte

A gourmet meal at Restaurant Bonaparte

And I got to pamper myself a bit at the brand-new Bota Bota Spa sur l’Eau, which offers a wide variety of spa services in a former ferry boat with a breathtaking view over the St. Lawrence River – just what the doctor ordered on a cold winter day.

Magnificent architecture in downtown Montreal

Magnificent architecture in downtown Montreal

What I noticed most of all, was that the city was lively, no matter the time of day, and regardless of the weather. People were bundled up to brave the cold, but they were going out during the day and in the evening to enjoy themselves and meet with their friends. Montreal’s warm atmosphere even transcended the chilliness of the Canadian winter which makes it the perfect year-round getaway.

Montreal's Centre d'histoire is housed in a former fire hall

Montreal's Centre d'histoire is housed in a former fire hall

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