One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in North America, Montreal, Canada is a destination filled with “wow” moments. I recently visited and was amazed by all the 376-year-old city had to offer. Here are seven of my favorite “wow” experiences in Montreal.
It’s said that explorer Jacques Cartier was so impressed by Montreal’s namesake that he named it Mont Royal or Royal Mountain, even though it is technically a 761-foot hill. Climb the steep stairs to the top for impressive views of the city, or walk, jog or picnic in the surrounding park.
Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect who also designed New York City’s Central Park, Parc du Mont-Royal features a lake and a space for puppet shows, dance performances, and live music. During the summer, you can rent rowboats or participate in organized hikes. In the winter, you can rent ice skates, snowshoes, sleds, and more.
Even if you can’t make it to the park, you can almost always see it thanks to the illuminated cross at the top. The cross, erected in 1924 to commemorate one placed there by city founder Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, can be seen for nearly 50 miles on a clear night.
Wandering Old Montreal
The site of the original city, Old Montreal (Vieux-Montreal) dates back to 1642 and boasts several attractions, including the Montreal Observation Wheel and Notre-Dame Basilica. As a result, its cobblestone streets are almost always packed with tourists strolling from shop to shop or one attraction to the next.
Plan your day accordingly. Go early to one of the popular museums like Point-a-Calliere Museum to see its Montreal archaeological exhibits or Chateau Ramezay to learn what life was like for the city’s settlers. Then, break for lunch at one of the area’s many sidewalk cafés.
I spent most of my time here at Place Jacques-Cartier, a marketplace in Montreal’s early days, where I watched street performers and found myself tempted by vendors selling ice cream and other treats. But, you could walk to nearby Old Port for a ride on the observation wheel instead.
Montreal Observation Wheel
At 197 feet, the equivalent of a 20-story building, the Montreal Observation Wheel towers over the Saint Lawrence River. It’s not the tallest observation wheel—that distinction goes to the High Roller in Las Vegas which stands an impressive 500 feet—but offers 360-degree views for more than 17 miles on a clear dayfrom its climate-controlled cabins.
I’ve been on the High Roller in Las Vegas, and I actually didn’t notice the difference in height between it and the Montreal Observation Wheel. It seemed just as high up to me when I was at the top, maybe because Montreal’s skyline doesn’t have quite as many high rises as Vegas.
The views from the observation wheel are amazing. Watch closely, and you may catch a glimpse of Cité Mémoire, a nighttime art project featuring historic figures projected on buildings, trees, and the ground.
Touring Notre-Dame Basilica
The first Gothic Revival-style church in Canada, the Notre-Dame Basilica sits next door to the Old Sulpician Seminary, the city’s oldest building. Step inside the basilica on a 20-minute guided tour for $6 CAD to see the stunning stained glass windows, royal blue ceiling adorned with gold stars, massive pipe organ, and ornately carved pulpit.
For a true “wow” experience, though, attend AURA, the basilica’s indoor light show set to orchestral music. General admission tickets begin at $24.50 CAD.
Can’t make it to the Notre-Dame Basilica? Go instead to St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal, which is topped with one of the world’s largest domes. Or, head to Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Others worth a look include St. Patrick’s Basilica, Christ Church Cathedral, and St. George’s Anglican Church.
Visit Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
As far as art museum’s go, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is one of the best in Canada. Not only does it showcase an extensive collection of Canadian works, it also houses pieces by Rembrandt, El Greco, Renoir, Cézanne, and Picasso. In addition, it has a collection of 18th century English porcelain, artifacts from World War I, furniture designed by Frank Gehry, and 3,000 Japanese incense boxes.
But what adds to the “wow” factor is the fact that the collections and discovery exhibitions are free for those ages 13 to 30. (Anyone age 31 and older pays $15 CAD.) The museum’s main gallery is also open until 9 p.m. on Wednesday, making it easier to see if you’re visiting for business or a conference.
Discovering Montreal Art Murals
Montreal’s street art is amazing, thanks in large part to Mural Fest. Since 2013, the festival has invited nationally- and internationally-acclaimed artists to paint specified buildings and walls along St. Laurent Boulevard and in the surrounding area. Some become permanent fixtures; most are painted over the next year.
Today, there are approximately 80 murals in the area. My favorites included a montage of cyclopoid creatures by artist Buff Monster and the Leonard Cohen portrait on the south façade of the Cooper Building.
You can download a free app to tour the art on your own, or do as I did and go with a guide from Spade & Palacio for the official Montreal Mural Tour. The two-hour tours cost $25 and generally include stops at 25 murals.
There’s almost always a festival to attend in Montreal. When I visited in July, I was able to see two performances at the Montreal International Jazz Festival: a ticketed show and a free concert by The War on Drugs. At the same time, the 10-day Montreal Circus Festival was underway, featuring tightrope walkers, trapeze artists, jugglers, clowns and more performing for free in the Quartier des Spectacles.
In the winter, don’t miss Igloofest, an outdoor music fest where attendees 18 and over dance on a bed of snow and take the chill off at bonfires.
Or, plan to visit in conjunction with what many consider Canada’s biggest event, the 70-lap Montreal Grand Prix. A slew of ticketed and free events surround the Formula 1 race, making it one of the most festive times to visit Montreal. Check out the live music and race cars at the Crescent Street Grand Prix Festival, historic F1 cars and Mercedes at Place F1 GP Canada, and exotic cars, Italian motorcycle, and DJs at Grand Prix Little Italy. All three are free. Be sure to check out these other great articles on Wander for more to do in the Quebec Province, which includes Montreal and Quebec City.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.