1. They actually celebrate winter full-on with one of the world’s largest winter festivals.
Every year for a few weeks in February, the city comes alive for Montréal en Lumière, a festival designed to bring Montrealers together to celebrate the beauty and joy of Montréal in winter. The city really covers all its bases: a grilled cheese bar, an erotic art exhibition, an “around the world” tea tasting, a live ice carving, an interpretive dance show, a performance by local electro-pop sensation FOXTROTT — you name it, it’s there.
Where else could you attend a piano concert wherein you lay face-up on your own giant bean bag and watch as images of the lights of aurora borealis sync up with the music and illuminate the ceiling above you?
2. They bust out all the stops for Nuit Blanche.
Though every night of Montréal en Lumière offers something unique and exciting, Nuit Blanche—the city’s all-nighter event—is the highlight of the festival. From six in the evening to six in the morning, almost every place in the city turns up and stays open.
You can navigate the event one of two ways: 1) meander around and duck inside when you see something that piques your interest or when the slush starts seeping through your shoes or 2) download the handy event app on your phone and create a game plan for everything you want to see and do.
In just one night, you can toboggan down a man-made slope in the festival square, dance to anime music in the street, attend an African music concert, don headphones and get wild at a silent rave, drink free cans of Coca Cola and watch people face-plant as they sled down a snowy slope in the middle of the street, take tango lessons, make your own maple popsicle by pouring hot maple syrup over a trough of shaved ice, and zip-line high above the crowd in the town square. The best part? Everything is free.
3. You’ll be inspired by how tough Montrealers are.
Besides the fact that it’s just an astonishing sight to watch locals maneuvering their bikes along icy roads or hopping over slush puddles as they jog through a snow-covered park, it’s also a total inspiration.
People in Montréal walk everywhere no matter the weather. Sure, they may be cowering their heads against the wind or pulling their scarves up to cover their faces, but they’re out there doing it. They layer up, strap on some boots, and get out there because they know a few snowflakes and the occasional gust of wind shouldn’t stop them from enjoying their city up-close. Watching everyone brave the sub-zero temperatures—with a good attitude, no less—made this SoCal girl feel like I could do it, too.
4. There are tons of cozy cafés to hide out in.
Even the grittiest, most rugged Montrealers need to step inside every so often to warm their frozen bodies with a fire and a hot drink. And the best places to seek respite from the cold are the cafés. There’s Café Parvis, which has big green plants in every corner and massive floor-to-ceiling windows perfect for watching the snow fall outside.
There’s also L’Escalier Montréal, where you can order a glass of wine and kick back in what looks and feels like a big cozy apartment — complete with live music and delicious vegetarian dishes.
Then there’s Tommy Café in the old town—jammed with students typing on laptops — where you can order a gluten-free cranberry muffin and latte to take upstairs and enjoy on the vintage couch. If you want a more rustic atmosphere, head to Olive et Gourmando and order one of their signature pastries. If you need something a bit heartier to warm up, check out Café Santropol, which is known for its thick, sky-high sandwiches and colorful, quirky decor.
5. The ice skating in Parc La Fontaine is as delightful as delightful gets.
The charm of winter is in full-force at Parc La Fontaine. What makes this skating experience unique is that you’re not doing circles around a big ice rink, cringing every time someone zips past and cuts you off—rather, you’re gliding along a frozen pond that winds gently in a giant S shape, surrounded by icicle-adorned trees.
6. Everything is less crowded.
This one goes without saying. Given that the number of music and art festivals Montreal hosts triples in the spring and summer months, the time between January to April feels relatively calm. Besides the obvious perks—like shorter waits to snag a plate of poutine at the famous La Banquise — there’s something magical about turning a corner to see an empty street covered in freshly fallen snow.
7. Mont Royal is a winter playground.
If walking in the frigid air to a heated cafe isn’t your idea of a thrilling outdoor activity, then Mont Royal is where you need to be. In the spring, summer, and early fall months, Mont Royal is one of the city’s largest green spaces, but come the first snowfall it transforms into an idyllic winter wonderland. At 764 feet high, it’s more of a hill and less of a mountain, but you can still toboggan, skate, cross-country ski, snowshoe, and cozy up for a ride in a horse-drawn carriage.
8. You don’t actually have to go outside if you don’t want to.
If I told you you could spend an entire day hopping from shopping to lunch to a movie and back to shopping—all without ever stepping foot outside—would you be terrified or intrigued? One of Montréal’s coolest and most convenient features is its channel of underground shopping malls complete with restaurants, bakeries, bars, cafes, markets, cinemas, stores, and access to the metro. If you’re in the mood to keep your knit beanie off and your coat unzipped, you can literally walk underground from one side of the city to the other—and check off your list of errands as you do.
9. The museums are on point.
Yes, the museums are open year-round, but there’s something wonderful about spending a freezing winter afternoon checking out a new exhibition. The MAC (the museum of contemporary art) has a series of constantly changing exhibitions, so you can see tons of things you never even knew you were intrigued by—everything from video projections of The National singing the same song over and over to giant swirling curtains and striking black and white photographs.
If you’re game for rolling up your sleeves and learning, there’s Pointe-à-Callière, Montréal’s Museum of Archaeology and History, where you can see and walk through preserved remains of the city’s original buildings.
10. There are tons of nearby ski slopes.
Montréal is the perfect base for exploring some of the region’s best ski mountains and resorts. Within just two hours in every direction, you can find fantastic ski slopes for every ability level — Mont Saint-Sauver, Mont Blanc, and Mont Olympia are just a few.