Montreal in Winter is the place to be.
One of our goals is to spend more time in Canada and we are especially intrigued by Montreal. We are only about 2 hours from 2 different bridges into Canada: Niagara Falls to our West and near the Thousand Islands and Kingston, Ontario to our North.
My husband, Al, and I spent a fun extended weekend in Montreal in January 2020. We spent 4 days exploring the dual language city and were impressed by how hip the vibe was. Two months later, the covid pandemic spread to North America and the border between the U.S. and Canada closed for several years. We have yet to get back, but Montreal is high on our list to continue to explore.
Why Go to Montreal in the Winter?
Great question! I’ve always wanted to visit Montreal, but Montreal in Winter? I am NOT a cold weather gal. But Al surprised me with tickets to go see the first North American showing of the huge Imagine Van Gogh projection exhibit that was originally shown in France. I was so excited about seeing the exhibit I almost forgot we would be traveling north into the cold and snow. I say almost because after hearing Al’s plans, I ran to my computer to order warmer winter clothes and boots. I review Imagine Van Gogh in another article in this series, but let’s just say the exhibit was HUGE and incredible! If you have a chance to go to one of the immersive Van Gogh exhibits, I highly recommend it. You won’t regret it!
Al and I have a very fluid, bohemian travel style. We usually plan a trip around a particular reason, theme, or event, and often add on a few days on to a work trip. We then figure out the rest of the details as we go. We booked an AirBnB in Montreal proper and knew we were going to the Imagine Van Gogh exhibit. Otherwise, we were going to wing it once we got there- exploring and seeing what we could find once in the city. This gives us an enjoyable sense of discovery in the moment and helps us relax from all of the planning of our day to day lives.
We like Montreal because it is very hip. It has a college town vibe kind of like Boston. The city is bilingual. Many signs are in French, but people were mostly very friendly and helpfully switched into English when we looked confused trying to interpret a sign or menu. We did try out the subway, which only announces stops in French, so that was the biggest challenge. We diligently watched the map and counted stops in hopes we would get off at the right location because we couldn’t understand the announcements. It was rather amusing as we tried to problem solve our situation.
Our AirBnB was quaint, though we were surprised and challenged by it’s metal spiral staircase to get to the third floor apartment, especially after it snowed. That staircase was something you would not legally find in the U.S. Carrying our bags up and down was a workout! And we quickly noticed that Montreal uses very little salt or ice melt on the roads, sidewalks or stairs. So if you go in winter, be observant of where you walk so you don’t go sliding.
Montreal has fantastic restaurants, pubs and cafes. The French baked goods are to die for! The nice part about visiting the city in Winter is that there are few tourists. Service was laid back but effective, and we didn’t have to wait for seating anywhere we went.
As for exploring the city, we decided to walk the whole weekend except for one subway adventure. We stayed about 2 miles from downtown Montreal so it was very doable. That also kept us from worrying about moving our car around and interpreting parking rules. Many of the residential streets are narrow with mansard roof buildings. Downtown had an interesting mix of old and new architecture.
Our first stop was to the Arsenal Contemporary Art building to see the Imagine Van Gogh exhibit. I love seeing old buildings reused for interesting purposes. The Arsenal is a space that can hold larger art exhibits than a normal museum or gallery.
To our surprise, later that day, we happened upon the Barbie Expo, a large collection of hundreds of Barbie dolls dressed in couture fashion by many of the biggest designers in the world. The collection was there well before the Barbie movie came out and is quite impressive. Located inside the Les Cours Mont-Royal Shopping Center right on the hill of downtown Montreal, the exhibit is free to view. It also got us out of the cold for a bit, as the wind in Montreal can also be impressive.
Toward evening, we decided to wander down the hill to Old Montreal, or Vieux-Montréal, that bumps right up to the St. Lawrence River. And when we say old, it’s old. The city dates back to 1642. This is the most famous tourist section of Montreal. On the way, we found ourselves walking down an extra wide street that turned into a plaza. This is known as Place Jacques-Cartier, or Jacques Cartier Square in English, and was festively lit with white lights and snowflake sculptures. This display is an annual event called Luminothérapie, an illuminated display of cheerful Winter sculptures spanning several streets. The lights and sculptures were very pretty. We also saw various groups of college-aged students dressed up in costumes heading down the hill too, which we thought was rather curious and we will get to shortly.
Old Montreal is famous for the St. Paul Street Shops. St. Paul street is beautiful with its historic buildings and cobblestone roadway. It is a great place to browse or window shop. Old Montreal also has many restaurants and charming hotels, and is a great place to explore, even in winter.
Beyond St. Paul Street is the Old Port of Montreal. The Old Port of Montreal dates back as far as 1611, when records indicate the French began trading furs in the area. Some of the old shipping buildings have been turned into restaurants and shops. We chose to have dinner at a brewery that we happened upon as we wandered.
After dinner, we explored the rest of the Old Port. The Old Port is the home to one of the huge Eye Ferris Wheels, known as the La Grande Roue de Montréal. This was our first adventure riding an Eye ferris wheel. The wheel is massive and the view spectacular! The La Grande Roue de Montréal gave us a wonderful view of the St. Lawrence River, as well as an ice-skating park located almost immediately below us. The rink was crowded with skaters, but we happened to be in the Eye when they cleared the ice and brought out the Zamboni. The driver had fun driving around the rink cleaning the ice.
Looking out the other direction from the Eye, there seemed to be looking at the set up for a festival. We could see several stages and what looked like vendor booths and food trucks on one of the wide piers. There were bright lights staging the whole area, but no one was there. We were curious about what we were looking at so after exiting the Ferris wheel, we wandered over to the area. We soon came to ticket booths and a blocked off area. It was a night festival of some sort that hadn’t started yet. And as we poked around the walkway, we saw more and more people milling around in crazy costumes.
Well, it turns out we were early for one of Montreal’s famous winter rave parties. It’s known as Igloofest: Montreal’s Winter Electronic Music Festival on Jacques-Cartier Pier. It runs for 3 weekends in January and February. Thousands of people turn out to dance, eat and drink, and participate in what is fondly known as the tacky snowsuit contest (aka Halloween costumes plus warm boots). While we did not attend Igloofest directly, it was fun to discover and see people gather for some winter fun.
The next day, we got brave and took the subway from the stop near our AirBnB to Saint Helen’s Island, known in French as Île Sainte-Hélène and Parc Jean-Drapeau. The park marks the original grounds of the World’s Fair called Expo 67 hosted by Montreal in 1967. Our mission was to visit the Montreal Biosphere, a historic structure designed by Buckminster Fuller for the fair. The giant Bucky Ball covers what is now an environmental museum. Bucky Fuller is one of Al’s favorite figures in history so this was a very special opportunity for him to set foot on the grounds and soak in the energy of the place.
We did have to laugh though, because on our way over on the subway that morning we found ourselves in the midst of many families with small children bundled up in snowsuits and carrying sleds. What were we getting ourselves into? Well, we were on a roll. We found ourselves in the middle of another Montreal festival! This time we happened upon the Montreal Snow Festival, or Fête des Neiges de Montréal. As we got off the subway, all the families flocked to the right, so out of curiosity we wandered in that direction as well. Taking place over several weekends, the event included many fun winter activities, including sledding, hockey, ice sculpting, snowshoeing, ice climbing and much more. We saw many happy children, and parents who looked tired before they even got to the start of the place. We must admit, it looked like a lot of fun. We, however, were not dressed to have a day of wet, outdoor winter activities, and certainly didn’t expect to find ourselves in the midst of hundreds of families, so we quietly walked away from the festival grounds to a more peaceful part of the park.
A little way up the path, we came to our original destination of the day, the Biosphere. The museum was a wonderful place to learn about Expo 67, Bucky Fuller’s design for the sphere and building it housed, and to get an in-depth look at nature in and around Quebec province. We also took the elevator to the very top of the building which gives you a beautiful view of the St. Lawrence River, Parc Jean-Drapeau and Montreal proper. The museum staff were friendly and welcoming, so it was a very cool experience. By the end of our day, we looked as tired as the parents we saw at the Snow Festival.
We regretted that our weekend went by so fast and it was already time to head back to the U.S. We covered a lot of ground discovering Montreal in Winter. At the time, we definitely made it a priority to come back and explore more of the city. Now that the covid pandemic has subsided and the border is once again open, we are looking forward to going back. On our list to see next time, most likely in warmer weather, is McGill University, the Botanical Garden and the famous Notre Dame Basilica near the Old Port. Though we are also game to go back to Montreal in Winter. Montreal is a surprisingly fun, active city in Winter and we were impressed that people embraced the cold by celebrating right through the season. If you are looking for a fun getaway Montreal in Winter is a great, if unexpected, choice.
Click here to learn more about our other adventures in Montreal in winter.