Montreal is not a pretty city in the winter — what city is? But look beyond its grey building exteriors and slushy streets and it’s a really fun city. It’s full of good things to eat, has lots of culture, and even in winter offers opportunities to get outside and move.
Here are all the things we squeezed in during a 2-night stay, many of which are available to do all year round.
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• Read more: Must-Try Food in Montreal
The Hyatt Regency, our favorite Montreal hotel.
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Top Things To Do With Kids in Montreal
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We had a patch of warm rainy weather during our visit, which kept us from trying any of the several outdoor rinks around the city.
So we walked through the Montreal Underground to the Le 1000 office building, which has a skating rink in its Atrium Le 1000 just above street level.
You do feel like you’re skating in an office building. But the atrium has nice light and it’s fun skating around the pillars on the rink.
On a weekday when Canadian kids are in school it isn’t very crowded. Tiny Traveler thought it was novel and said this was one of her favorite skating rinks (and we’ve tried a few).
There are lockers for your bags and shoes, and rentals are available.
Note: Resist your kids’ entreaties to buy one of the brightly colored slushies at the pizza place off the rink. It wasn’t actually slushy and was pretty bad.
Climb a Hill
The sun came out on the second morning we were there so we decided to climb Mont Royal, a large woodsy park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead.
You can take any of several leisurely circular trails to the top. Or you can go straight up a set of long stairs you’ll come across.
It was hard to sort out the easy trails with lots of snow on the ground so we took the direct route, which helped us to work off all the wintery food we’d been enjoying. Tiny Traveler enjoyed romping in the snow and didn’t bother with the paths.
At the top there is a large plateau with views of the city and the lovely Chalet Mont Royal, a 1930s stone building with a large fireplace and carved squirrels keeping an eye on things from the rafters. In winter it’s a nice place to warm up.
The squirrels in the park are very used to being fed and will skittishly walk up to you to see if you have food for them. Tiny Traveler had fun feeding them bits of the granola bar in her pocket. Though I have to admit that when we had 5 of them in a circle around us waiting for more treats it was a little freaky.
Note: There’s no metro stop close by but there’s a parking lot at the entrance on the Chemin Remembrance and a stop for the #11 bus that runs between there and the Mont Royal metro stop.
Ask your concierge about other buses that stop nearby. You can buy a ticket on the bus and transfer between bus and Metro for free.
Visit a Market
Montreal has several green markets where vendors sell a mix of prepared foods, sweets, maple products, bread, produce, meat, charcuterie and cheese. They are all a bit out of the way in residential areas, but are worth the Metro ride.
We visited Jean Talon and Atwater. They each focus more on shopping than dining but you can definitely put together a tasty lunch at either one.
Jean Talon has a excellent cheese shop, a stall with Middle Eastern and several stalls that sell maple syrup, sugar, candy and butter for you to bring home.
Atwater has a large French bakery upstairs with excellent croissants and a busy sandwich and pizza shop downstairs.
Note: If you visit Jean Talon walk down the Rue St. Hubert on the way to or from the Metro. It’s a shopping street with a glass arcade over the sidewalk, which is attractive and handy in bad weather.
The shops are down-market but there are some funky dress shops that make for good window shopping and Le Roi du Smoked Meat deli is there if you want to try this local specialty.
Eat some Maple Sugar
(actually, eat a lot of it)
In addition to the maple products at the Montreal green markets, you’ll see maple shacks set up on street corners around town selling more kinds of maple products than you can imagine.
The best one we found is across from the Hudson Bay Company on St. Catherine Street. They had very good soft-serve vanilla ice cream with a ribbon of maple syrup running through it.
Tiny Traveler and I bought one cone to share, fought over it and went back later to buy another one (and fought over it).
Here and at other maple stalls look for the tray of ice they all have. They pour a ribbon of maple syrup over the ice, let it crystalize and wrap it around a stick like cold maple toffee. You’ll see local people buying it for themselves and their kids, but I think you have to really like maple!
Attend a Festival
Montreal prides itself on the many festivals it hosts during the year. We discovered the Montreal Light Festival steps from our hotel (one of several reasons to choose the Hyatt Regency). It runs during February and March and usually coincides with winter break in the U.S. It varies from year to year but always features art, entertainment and food.
This year’s festival featured an above-street zip line, a super fast toboggan run, a Ferris wheel, lots of games, curling, an entertainment stage and Canadian foods like maple toffee and poutine.
Tiny Traveler’s favorite discover was the beaver tails (long flat donuts with toppings. She loved them with simple lemon, cinnamon and sugar, though they can get far more elaborate and gloppy). They also had bonfires where you could roast sausages and marshmallows.
We didn’t try the zip line but Rich and I loved the toboggan and Tiny Traveler liked making pictures on giant Light Bright boards. There were also light-based art installations around town (top). All the activities were free and we walked through a few times.
Visit a Museum
Montreal has several museums, but the most quintessentially local one is the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History at Pointe-A-Calliere in the old town.
The basement has ruins of older buildings and the exhibits celebrate the literal layers of Montreal history to be found at the site.
There is an excellent movie that projects the history of the city on to a wrap-around screen and ruins below it.
Since the native tribes in the area were similar to those wandering around New York state our visit dovetailed nicely with TT’s 4th grade history lessons. Plan on two hours here.
If your kids are too young for history or are more interested in other pursuits try the Montreal Science Centre, also on the waterfront or the sprawling Biodome with the adjacent insectarium and botanic garden. We have yet to get to either one but hear nothing but raves about both.
Tour Old Town Montreal
With the history you’ve just learned at the archeology museum in mind, take a stroll around the old town. It’s not as big or as abundantly charming as Quebec City’s old quarter, but it’s a fun place to seek out restaurants and window shop.
We had a busy 48 hours in this French Canadian city. Where would you start your weekend?