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My husband asked me what I wanted for my birthday this fall, and I immediately said, “I don’t want another thing, but I want a trip somewhere over a 3-day weekend.” I started looking for somewhere we could drive easily in a few hours and somewhere we hadn’t been. As much as we travel finding a driving distance destination we haven’t visited is nearly impossible. And truth be told, we have been to Montreal before, but only for one day in December when it was 15 degrees. We spent most of that day indoors. So Montreal was essentially a new city to explore, and we loved every minute.
Where Quebec City is old European charm, Montreal takes after the modern cities of Europe. It is a much more cosmopolitan city that still retains an old town and beautiful old churches, while embracing the new. Montreal is the largest city in the province of Quebec and definitely the easiest to navigate. English pops up much more frequently on signs and stores than anywhere else in Quebec. So if your French is a little rusty, this might be a great place to start your exploration of Quebec.
Top 5 things to do in Montreal
The name Montreal comes from Mont Royal, and this mountain dominates the Montreal skyline and can be seen from almost everywhere in Montreal. There are various parks and hiking trails on Mont Royal, but before you visit them go straight to Mont Royal Park. It is an easy walk from the parking lot even for little ones. From the Park you can get a panoramic view of city. It is truly a magnificent view.
My kids loved an old piano in the center of the terrace that they could play.
Plan on an hour or two
This is the oldest part of the city as its names suggests. Cobblestone streets, cafes, and pedestrians make you feel like you have stepped into an old European city. This corner of the city is large enough to explore on foot. Make sure to stop at Notre-Dame Basilica to see the breathtaking interior. Tours are $6 in cash.
Plan on an hour or two
This was a stop for the kids and the kids alone. In my family, my mom calls these events “a big ugly”!
I have never been a fan of zoos or anything that smells like a lot of animals. But of course I have kids who think animals are the best thing ever, so I do an animal “big ugly” at least once a year.
Now if you are someone who loves zoos, don’t let me dissuade you from going, my kids and husband said it was the coolest!
This Biodome allows you to see five different ecosystems that occur in the Americas. You can visit a forest, a tropical rain forest, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Labrador coast, and the sub-antarctic islands and see the animals that live in each one of these in their somewhat natural habitat.
My kids got a big kick out of the monkeys and tropical birds in the rain forest.
Plan on 2-3 hours depending on the level of animal craziness in your family.
There are a number of food markets in Montreal. We went to the Atwater market and wished we had gone to the Jean-Talon market as well. I love a food market! I like to see what stands the locals visit and then hightail it to those. I love the smells and colors and the chatter in different languages around me. The Atwater Market ranks up there with the best I have seen. The fruit made it stand out: beautiful bouquets of radishes, woven garlic, bright red and yellow peppers. Best of all there were samples at each fruit and vegetable stand! That kept my kids interested as they tried to find that stand with the best peaches or oranges.
Plan on at least an hour
Montreal Botanical Gardens-
I’m not sure how much your kids would enjoy this during the summer, but if you happen to be traveling in September or October this is a must see. The Montreal Botanical Gardens becomes a fairy land with Chinese lanterns covering the Chinese and Japanese Gardens. We were all enchanted.
For your little ones, there is plenty of room to run and explore.
Plan 2-3 hours.
tip-Go at dusk to get the best pictures
Outside of Montreal
There are many beautiful places to visit within a short drive of Montreal.
Chief among them is La Malbaie. This beautiful area has outdoor activities for the entire family. For a great guide to La Malbaie check out this page.
If you have never tasted poutine, this is the place for your first experience! Poutine is fries with cheese curds and gravy. Crazy sounding but so delicious. At La Banquise you can get so many more varieties like Greek-flavored, Mexican-flavored, or my favorite the Matty with bacon, onions, peppers and mushrooms. Your small ones will love the corn dogs called pogos.
The line was long both times we went so try to go a little after noon or before it. It is open 24/7 so you could try 3 am too.
Maison Christian Faure-
This bakery is located in Old Montreal and is worth a daily trip. I have never had a better croissant, no not even in France. But the palmiers are my very favorite, enormous, flaky, buttery, sweet–there are not enough descriptives for how amazing this is. Another favorite is the almond pain au chocolate. My middle son ate 4-5 in a 3-day weekend. Do yourself a favor and get multiples, you won’t be able to stop with one.
A gastropub with amazing food. There is plenty of space for a large family or group which makes it a rarity in this part of Montreal. The fish and chips are the standout here, but the nachos and grilled cheese are also great.
Before you go-
-Make sure your passport is valid- for the adults to be able to cross the border you will need a passport that hasn’t expired. Your children under the age of 16 only need a birth certificate, or an expired passport will work as well.
-Check your phone service- most US cell companies now cover Canada as if it is the US. We have T-mobile and nothing changes for us over the border with the exception of better service!
-Brush up on French- even though most everyone also speaks English in Montreal, it is always nice to be able to say Hello and Thank you. I believe these niceties go a long way.
-If you are flying- be prepared for long lines for passport control and customs. I have flown into Montreal a number of times and have never encountered anything but long, slow lines. I’m not sure why. Bring something to entertain the kids that you can grab quickly from your carry on.
-Visit in the spring or the fall- Montreal in the fall is beautiful with all the fall trees and clear weather. The spring must be just as beautiful with all those same trees leafing and coming to life. The other big reason to go then is that hotels are much less expensive, and it’s easier to find a vacancy.
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