Montreal is as close to Paris as you can get in North America. If you replace the Eiffel Tower with the Olympic Stadium, this is almost true: the French signs and delicious food welcome many visitors with a unique European flair. Even though it’s cold, Montreal is particularly beautiful in the winter. Thin layers of ice turn tree branches into fairy sculptures and the snow serves two purposes: covering up any mud or debris from the messy autumn rain, and making everything quiet and peaceful.
If you have a day to wander the streets in winter, you should definitely take it. Here’s the perfect walking path to take when you do. You might want to start out by paying the $10 for an unlimited day transit pass, so if you get tired of walking, you can hop a quick and easy metro back to your hotel or Airbnb.
Starting point: Jean Talon Market
The Marche Jean-Talon (take the metro to the Jean Talon stop to get yourself off on the right foot) is a long-established indoor/outdoor farmer’s market. In the winter, the outdoor booths close down and leave the indoor pathways and merchants intact. Start here from 7am onwards with some fresh croissants and fruit, or try the cheese samples at Fromagerie Hamel. If you want a more substantial breakfast, hit up Depanneur Le Pickup — they serve breakfast all day, although they are best known for their delicious vegan faux pulled-pork sandwiches, which I can recommend at any time of day.
Walk along Blvd St Laurent — it’s a little large and loud, but will shortly turn into a feisty street full of things to do. Have a look at all the typical Montreal architecture; it’s best known for triplexes with curving wrought-iron spiral staircases, which can be treacherous when they’re icy but are otherwise gorgeous to look at. At Fairmount, turn right for a small detour to Fairmount Bagel. Some people prefer St-Viateur, home of the famous “Montreal Bagel”. I think Fairmount is far superior, and they are open 24 hours, so if you’re seized with a craving later on, you can always revisit at 3 AM.
Fortified with your midmorning snack, keep walking up Fairmount to Jeanne Mance and turn left. After a few blocks, you’ll get to Parc Jeanne Mance. If you have kids, there is a spectacular playground that is still fun even in the winter. If you don’t, turn right and cross at the light towards the enormous monument to George-Etienne Cartier. In the summer, this area hosts the “tam tams”, the weekly Sunday drumming circle, but in the winter, it’s just a good spot to start your trek up Mont Royal. If you have hiking boots, you should be fine — you can also bring cross-country skis if you’re a fanatic, or a sled, and join the kids merrily zipping down the steep slopes. You can see the whole city from the top of the mountain. The paths are usually packed down, so you shouldn’t have any problems, but if the way seems impassable (or you’re done hiking), turn back around and cross Avenue du Parc.
Lunchtime and afternoon snack
For lunch, you have a few choices. If you want something light in a great atmosphere, walk north on Avenue Duluth to Cafe Santropol — they have good vegetarian options and all their sandwiches are made with fresh homemade bread. If you want to go where the locals go, walk north on Avenue Rachel (cutting through Parc Jeanne Mance) back up to St Laurent and go to Patati Patata. Squeeze into the tiny colorful diner for the best burgers and fries, with delectable poutine to warm up your insides. If you want a really substantial meal, continue walking east on Blvd St Laurent until you get to Main Deli Steak House, right across the street from overpacked Schwartz’s. If you want to try Montreal’s melt-in-your-mouth smoked meat sandwiches, here is your chance: it’s basically a giant heap of pastrami on rye bread, with delicious pickles and sometimes sauerkraut, depending on toppings. Whatever your choice, you should be set for a bit more walking.
Wherever you walk along Blvd St Laurent, make sure to keep looking up; the murals on large blank walls in this part of the city are spectacular. Montreal is full of artistic murals, and if you’re still playing Pokemon Go, a lot of them are Pokestops.
Continue until you get to Rue Saint Arthur. On the corner is the ornate cafe Juliette & Chocolat and, trust me, you need to go inside right now. Enjoy a wide range of chocolate-based desserts and snacks, or just have some gourmet hot chocolates (with whipped cream): you can get super dark (70%), Aztec (with warming spices), or the fantastic wood-smoked hot chocolate, which is heated over a wood fire and served with a tray of brownies topped with homemade grilled marshmallows.
Keep walking up Rue St Arthur to Parc Saint Louis. This pretty little park is surrounded by classic Plateau stonework architecture, painted in bright colors. The trees often have holiday lights, and local residents put up tasteful displays as well, so it can help drive away the cold winter night (or, let’s face it, afternoon, since it gets dark pretty early in the winter). Take a walk around the park.
If you’re hungry or just need to pop inside for a minute (and you don’t have any allergies), turn right on Rue St Denis and go to the Cat Cafe. Enjoy petting any of the eight cats adopted by the SPCA in their natural habitat of sitting on all the comfy chairs.
Head back outside and continue walking downhill along Rue St Denis towards the Old Port of Montreal, until you get to the Chapelle Notre Dame de Bon Secours. This 300-year-old church has a nautical theme and a saint’s tomb, and in December, there are many Christmas concerts of choral music. Turn right and walk along Rue St Paul, enjoying the view of Montreal’s oldest stone buildings on one side and the Fleuve St Laurent’s many ships on the other.
Turn right on Rue St Urbain and walk uphill towards Notre Dame Basilica. There are many small artisanal shops woven through the Old Port, and you can pop into any of them for beautiful souvenirs. When you get to the cathedral, you can take a guided tour, listen to a concert, or attend a Mass.
Dinnertime and after
Keep walking up St Urbain until you get to the tiny Chinatown. It’s only a couple blocks wide, so you can pick your pleasure — I’m a fan of Nudo for pho, or Restaurant Beijing for very tasty traditional Chinese. Afterwards, if you fancy a pint or two, walk up to Sherbrooke and turn left. A couple of blocks later, you’ll see Benelux, where you can sample some local craft beers.
After you eat, you have a few choices for ways to pass your evening. You can continue walking down Sherbrooke to Metcalfe, and walk to the Cinema Banque Scotia, end enjoy a snazzy IMAX 3D movie offering with super cushy seats. If you’d like some live music or other shows, walk the other way up Sherbrooke towards Saint-Dominique and turn left, heading for Cafe Campus. They have something happening every night of the week and regular shows of local and international bands. If you’re lucky enough to be in town during Nuit Blanche, you can find gallery shows, interactive art exhibits, street performances, and all kinds of food and drink all night long in the Festival District — although I warn you that everyone else also likes to partake in these activities, so often the streets are jam-packed. And finally, if you’re tired and you want to head home and collapse, go back downhill on St Laurent to the metro stop and find your way back to your hotel.