Most travelers who decide to brave Canada’s colder months head to Quebec City for the world’s largest winter carnival. Let them go; it’ll keep the crowds out of Montreal. There’s more than enough to celebrate in this diverse island city. In fact, Montreal hosts about 90 festivals a year, most of them in summer, when tourists take over and hotel rates triple. Winter is when the locals come out for Montréal en Lumière, a snowy Mardi Gras that kicks off Nuit Blanche and Fête des Neiges de Montréal, 4 weekends of tubing slides, dogsledding and other family-friendly outdoor fun.
What’s more, Montrealers have a secret for dealing with the chilly temperatures: RESO, the largest underground complex in the world. More than 20 miles of tunnels connect metro stations, shops, restaurants, hotels and more. It’s possible to go all day without needing your puffy coat, and since RESO is filled with community spaces, during winter it’s often the site of food fairs, film festivals and the latest pieces from Montreal’s art scene.
The first thing to do when you arrive in Montreal is throw out your compass. Here the St. Lawrence River is south; never mind that the main waterfront curves along the eastern edge of downtown. Most addresses run east (est) or west (ouest) according to this orientation, starting with Boulevard St-Laurent. Traditionally, the English lived in the “west” and the French in the “east”; in the past decades, however, French has become the dominant language and culture. But if you’re not up on your grammaire française, don’t despair; most Montrealers are bilingual.
When you’ve wrapped your head around the basic directions, reward yourself with a striped chocolate croissant at the patisserie Maison Christian Faure. Equally tempting are the rows of brightly colored macarons, loaves of freshly baked bread and bags of homemade maple marshmallows. Around the corner sits the Pointe-à-Callière Museum, devoted to Montreal’s history and archeology. The third floor affords panoramic views of the canal and downtown
For lunch, head to Olive + Gourmando. You’re bound to wait at least a few minutes for a table, but it’s more than worth it for the artisanal breads and organic veggies. Or nibble on flatbreads heaped with toppings, like asparagus and zucchini, or mango-and-yogurt salad, at rustic-chic Café Parvis. Don’t pass up a cup of locally roasted coffee after; it’s a great excuse for lingering under the greenery that artfully hangs from the ceiling.
Consider spending the afternoon wandering around the many art museums and galleries scattered throughout downtown. Heart sculptures mark the entrance to the beloved Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal. Showcasing more than 41,000 works in the permanent collection alone, it’s a great place to escape the cold. Or explore Le 2-22, a trendy arts building in the Quartier des Spectacles, Montreal’s entertainment and festival hub. You’ll find modern pieces in the Galerie Vox and art books in the Librairie Formats.
In the winter Montrealers stop surfing the St. Lawrence River in favor of cross-country skiing in Parc du Mont-Royal. Located in the Plateau area, the park is centered on Mont-Royal, the city’s large namesake hill (Montrealers insist it’s a mountain). There are about 10 miles of ski and snowshoe trails, as well as slopes for tobogganing. You can rent sports equipment and ice-skate at the Beaver Lake Pavilion. Don’t leave the city without gazing down on the snow-covered skyline from the Kondiaronk Lookout, near the summit.
However you decide to explore the park, you’re bound to work up an appetite. La Banquise is a family-owned institution that began as an ice-cream parlor, then became a 24-hour hot spot that dishes out more than 30 kinds of poutine topped with everything from bacon to guacamole. Although Montrealers are quick to tell you that poutine—fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds—is not the local specialty (it’s bagels, but more on that later), it’s hard to visit the region without taking at least one diet-dismissing bite.
If you haven’t spoiled your dinner, warm up over a massive bowl of steaming ramen at Kinoya Izakaya, a Japanese tapas joint with a cavelike interior. End the evening on-theme at the Big in Japan bar. Don’t confuse it with the restaurant of the same name. Anthony Bourdain made the latter famous in The Layover’s Montreal episode, but fewer people know about its counterpart “speakeasy.” The entrance is a gray door marked only by two small Japanese characters and the word BAR. For an extra kick, pair your cocktails with the spicy kimchi salsa. Candles line the curving glass tables, and the playlist jumps between French ballads and Sinatra.
You’ll find Montreal’s biggest food rivalry in Mile End, a once industrialized neighborhood now home to a Jewish community, artists and musicians. Locals and tourists fiercely debate the virtues of St-Viateur Bagel as opposed to Fairmount Bagel. They’re within walking distance of each other and the lines move quickly, so you can try both. Unlike those in the States, Montreal bagels are boiled in honey-sweetened water, served hot from a wood-fired oven and eaten whole with only a smattering of poppy or sesame seeds.
You can pick up a souvenir or two in the many shops that line Boulevard St-Laurent, one of Mile End’s central streets. At the “northern” end of the main drag, Style Labo sells vintage industrial furniture and an array of housewares. Farther “south” the owner of Monastiraki, a curiosity-shop-slash-art-gallery, encourages visitors to riffle through drawers stuffed with local magazines, black-and-white family photographs and concert posters. Reclaimed leather clutches and upcycled dresses are for sale at the women’s clothing boutique Citizen Vintage, while men can walk around the corner for designer flannel shirts and dip-dyed brogues at Clark Street Mercantile
Nearby, the recently opened Maison Sociale serves low-key French cuisine and elaborate cocktails. Wes Anderson’s 2014 film The Grand Budapest Hotel inspired the restaurant’s look, including the bar, which mimics a reservations desk. There’s also an open kitchen and in-house radio station. Consider ending your trip at Le Cagibi, a Mile End classic where you can order Russian tea cakes or chocolate scones with a pot of tea. In the evening catch a live music performance in the back room and dream of becoming a regular.