Spend most of your time in Old Montreal
Old Montreal is the city’s historic neighborhood and easily one of its most popular tourist destinations—and with good reason. The cobblestoned streets and French Colonial architecture make this district unique in Canada, and even in North America more broadly. It’s a must-visit spot, but make sure that it’s not the only place that you see! There are plenty of other cool Montreal neighborhoods that you’ll want to explore while you’re here, including the Plateau, Mile End, Little Italy, and Griffintown.
Go for a buggy ride in Old Montreal
On that note, the horse-drawn carriages that you’ll find roaming the cobblestone streets of this historic district might add a bit of old-fashioned charm to the area, but we don’t recommend them. The conditions that the horses live and work in are not always apparent, especially during the hot summer months of tourist season. You can easily get around the beautiful neighborhood on foot, for free, and at your own pace.
Expect to pay with credit cards
Montreal thrives on its small, local businesses, and this adds character to the city. It also means that it’s important to carry cash on you at all times because many shops, cafés, and restaurants don’t accept credit cards (due to fees). Sometimes debit cards are also not accepted, so in a pinch, you might have to use a generic ATM in the restaurant to get cash—which will cost you extra. In particular, don’t expect to be able to use an American Express card at all. Beyond major grocery store or restaurant chains, the vast majority of businesses won’t accept it.
Buy maple syrup at a gift shop
Maple syrup and maple products are among the most common souvenirs that tourists like to gather while in Montreal, and as a result, you can find maple syrup lining several shelves in the city’s gift shops. But these products are often more expensive and not necessarily any different or better than what you can buy at a local market or grocery store. Depending on the time of year, you can also visit one of the many sugar shacks that are within a stone’s throw of Montreal and get some syrup, candies, baked goods, and other maple-inspired specialty products right from the source.
Linger on Rue Crescent
Unless you’re a university student or visiting Montreal solely for some nightlife, we generally recommend avoiding Rue Crescent altogether. You’ll find a lot of mainstream clubs and bars on this downtown stretch, but the main clientele you’ll see there are undergraduate students from the nearby universities. During the day, you could try a quick meal at Boustan, a beloved Lebanese fast-food place that happens to be on Crescent, but otherwise, there are plenty of more captivating and vibrant areas to explore—even in terms of nightlife.
Drive a car everywhere
Just as with any city, parking in Montreal can be a nightmare. This fact alone is a good enough reason to avoid making a car your primary means of getting around the city, along with perpetual construction sites and detours in the warmer months. Additionally, in a car, you’ll overlook most of the nooks and details that make Montreal a fun and fascinating city to explore: unexpected side streets, hidden murals, colorful little ice cream shops, the ruelles vertes or green alleyways that serve as mini public gardens, and architectural details that add to Montreal’s overall charm. The city is very walkable, and also well connected with cycling routes—getting around on foot or by bike are the best ways to experience the city, if possible. The public transportation system is very comprehensive too, and there are often fare deals offered over the weekends.
Talk about Quebec separatism
Whether you live somewhere in English-speaking Canada or hail from somewhere abroad, it’s unnecessary to bring up the topic of separatism or Quebec independence while you’re visiting Montreal. Although it’s not a hot-button issue in the country right now, it can sometimes lead to a tense conversation. It’s an issue that varies widely across generations and is shaped by politics, identity, history, personal opinions, education, immigration, and more—including where in the province people currently live or come from.
Eat only at chain restaurants (and bars!)
With so much to see and do in the city, you might be tempted to stick to familiar chain restaurants or the bars clustered along on the main streets. There are certainly plenty of great bars and restaurants on streets such as Saint-Denis and Saint-Laurent, but you’ll want to make sure that you try some of Montreal’s most iconic eats—from smoked meat sandwiches to bagels in the Mile End and so much more.
Limit your shopping to the malls
Similarly, while you’re in the city, you’ll definitely want to venture beyond familiar chain stores to do your shopping. Of course, there’s the massive interconnected mall complex of the Underground City that has all the major brands that you could possibly want, but you’ll also want to venture off the beaten tourist path and visit the boutiques and independent shops that line Avenue Mont-Royal and Saint-Denis through the Plateau, and Saint-Hubert in Villeray—for example.
Assume that you have to speak French (or English)
One of the characteristics that makes Montreal unique is in its linguistic landscape. Although its official language is French, in practice, the city functions fluidly between French and English—in addition to the many other immigrant languages that add more layers to the voices that you’ll hear in the streets. So, if you don’t know French or it’s gotten a bit rusty since middle school, don’t feel intimidated. At the same time, it’s polite to at least be able to handle greetings in French while you’re here. And in the same vein, if you do want to practice French, people are usually more than happy to do so.
Compare Québécois French to French from France
There are some significant differences between Québécois and the French that is spoken in France, from accent to grammar to slang. In many ways, Québécois is a unique iteration of French, shaped by layers of local history, culture, and even climate. While you might observe the distinctions with curiosity, it could be considered a bit rude to constantly draw comparisons with France French or keep a running commentary about the different accent(s), expressions, etc. Instead, appreciate Québécois for the rich and dynamic language that it is—and perhaps pick up some of its unique vocabulary!
Visit during winter
Like most cities in Canada, from Calgary out west to Halifax in the east, winters in Montreal are long, tough, and bitterly cold. Of course, if you love ice and snow or plan to pass through Montreal to go skiing at the nearby Mont-Tremblant, then it makes sense to visit the city in the depths of winter. There are also several festivals and events that visitors can enjoy during the cold season, including Igloofest or Montréal en Lumière. At the same time, however, if you truly want to experience the joie de vivre that the city has to offer, it might be better to plan a trip for between June and September.