French street signs, menus, and flair rule in Montreal, the biggest city in Quebec province and the second largest in Canada. Founded by French Catholic missionaries in 1642, the City of Saints still retains Gallic flavor, despite the Brits being in charge since 1763. Think cobblestone streets in Vieux-Montreal (Old Montreal) plus Montmartre-style bistros and chic residents all over.
But good reasons to spend 24 hours (or heck, more) in the river city go far beyond the cliched “Paris of North America” comparisons. “It’s a city of creatives, artists, and musicians,” says Carrie McPherson, a local tour guide and style blogger. “People shop for vintage and wear local designers. We work to live, not the other way around.” Which means you day here will load you up on style, history, art, and delicious food. Here's our guide for the things to do in Montreal if you only have 24 hours.
9 a.m.: Vieux-Montreal wakes up slowly. If you’re bunking in the neighborhood, or nearby at a spot like the recently refreshed W Montreal on Square Victoria, take a short morning stroll through its cobblestone streets. You’ll pass moody gray stone buildings from the 17th through 19th century en route to breakfast at pastry palace Maison Christian Faure. Here, the eponymous French chef turns out candy-colored macarons, strong coffee, and Old World-meets-New World treats like brioche with Quebecois maple sugar. The digs mesh 21st-century sleek (clear Kartell Ghost chairs, mod white cabinets) with antique, exposed stone walls. Upstairs, there’s a pastry school for those really serious about sweets.
10 a.m.: Put what you’re seeing in context at the Pointe-à-Callière Museum, where exhibits on city history, archeology, and culture include a lower level starring the original stone foundations of the 17th-century French settlement. You’ll see remnants of an early cemetery and “Memory Collector,” a dreamy, contemplative sound and light display in the city’s original 19th-century sewer. A multi-media, bilingual show, “Generations MTL,” delves into Montreal’s storied past, including explaining why most people still speak Francais here. (Hint: The Brits wanted the Montréalais to remain loyal in case the American colonies rebelled, so they let them keep their religion and language.)
11 a.m.: Oui, the kitschy souvenir shops along Rue St. Paul Oeust (the main drag in Old Montreal), overwhelm with all their moose print socks, maple lollypops, and Montreal Canadians hockey jerseys. But the zone also buzzes with local stops like Denis Gagnon for high-concept, architectural womenswear, and Maison Espace Pepin, an Insta-worthy home emporium where thick stone walls set off pastel sofas, woven rattan chandeliers and made-in-Montreal goods like a pepper mill crafted from a recycled tree branch. And you can nab local foodie souvenirs including Cacao 70 hot chocolate mix and Les Minettes savory onion jam behind the charming mint-green façade of Le Petite Dep. “Dep is short for dépanneur, which literally means ‘something that gets you out of a jam,’ says McPherson. “They’re traditional Montreal corner stores, but in this case, it’s a fancy one.”
Noon.: Montreal gets props for its smoked meat, poutine (French fries in gravy with cheese curds), and bagels (try St.-Viateur’s honeyed, wood-fired Os at locations around town). But LOV Café’s bright location in the tony Golden Square Mile hood offers up healthful vegan and veggie fare. Best bites include zucchini noodles with tapioca “caviar” (you’ll swear it’s the real deal) and poutine with miso sauce and vegan mozzarella. The surrounds look as fresh as the food tastes: green-and-white striped chairs, fern frond-print wallpaper.
1:30 p.m.: Montreal gets its name from Mount Royal, the small mountain (about 764 feet high) just west of downtown. It’s a 45-minute walk or 30-minute cycle (rent wheels from the BIXI bike share) to the top within the 494-acre Parc Mont-Royal, where there’s a worth-the-effort city vista. In the winter (and brrr, winters are cold here), you can snowshoe or skate on Beaver Pond near the summit.
3 p.m.: Hop a ride share or Montreal’s easy-to-use subway (rubber tires make trains super quiet!) to Little Italy’s Marché Jean-Talon, the city’s largest indoor-outdoor market. It’s always bustling with vendors like La Boite du Huitres (Canadian oysters including big-as-your-hand Sea Angels) and Chocolats Privilège (try the dark chocolate truffle with Sichuan pepper or maple marshmallows). On weekends, expect a bounty of local fruits, veggies, and competing maple syrup sellers; you tell which products are local by the blue fleur de lis (Quebec’s symbol) signs.
6 p.m.: Back in the posh Golden Square Mile, note the portrait of the late local hero/ folk musician Leonard Cohen in the lobby of the swank Ritz-Carlton Montreal on your way into dinner at the in-house Maison Boulud. Dine inside by a dramatic, glassed-in fireplace or on a terrace overlooking the idyllic duck pond. French-Italian fare includes gnocchi with Quebec lobster or aged steak with an indulgent shave of truffle. (If you order the succulent duck confit, ask for a seat facing away from the pond.)
8 p.m.: Cirque de Soleil was founded in Quebec, and the kind of multi-media showmanship it rules shines after dark here. Through the end of August, the PY1 Pyramid in the riverside Old Port features way-out video, laser, and sound shows, and nighttime parties. Or wander the streets exploring local history and culture via Cité Memoire, a free app/program that projects funny, touching, and dreamy tableaux on the sides of buildings. Highlights include a satiric beaver puppet show delving into the city’s fur trade and 1960s love story set to Leonard Cohen music projected on a clock tower.
9:30 p.m.: Sip a nightcap near the gates of Chinatown at the cheekily named Bar Le Mal Nécessaire (translation: The Necessary Evil). Tiki spirits infuse the space and drinks like the Dirty South (cachaça, orgeat, and chicha morada) served in a coconut.
Where to Stay
The newly restored club level rooms at the skyscraping Le Centre Sheraton Montreal near the Bell Centre arena come with serene décor (checkered gray carpet, sculptural lamps) as well as access to a 37th-floor lounge for panoramic views at breakfast or cocktail hour. A happening rooftop bar and DJ in the lobby conjure a hipster, urbane vibe at the Renaissance Montreal Downtown. Rooms with graffiti art by local artists and mid-century inspired furniture up the appeal.