This Canadian City Is Bursting With European Charm (Minus the Red-Eye)

Updated 04/19/19
Best Things to Do in Montreal
@audreyrivet

It's a crisp October morning in Montreal, and I can't help but feel a bizarre sense of deja vu. I hop over cobblestones, trying not to snag my loafers in the gaps, and jostle past a group of stylish women in wool coats chatting outside Olive et Gourmando, a bustling cafe in Old Montreal. Inside, French jazz drifts through the crowded space as locals sip their morning latte with a crumbling pastry in hand. It's a scene that transports me to the quaint streets of Paris or Toulouse—yet here I am, just an hour-and-a-half flight away from New York City.

 

Of course, Montrealers will likely cringe if you make comparisons between Quebec and France. Yes, Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city after Paris, and some of its architecture and customs have European roots, but the city has developed a distinct, unparalleled identity since it changed from a French to a British colony in 1763.

"I don't eat baguettes or drink wine every day," says Francoise, a Montreal local who is my tour guide for the day. "It's a North American lifestyle with a European flare—the two combine so well." 

Perhaps it's this combination that makes Montreal one of the best cities in the world for solo travelers. It gives visitors a chance to flex their French without pressure (most locals speak English, too), it's relatively safe, is surprisingly walkable, and adopts European cafe culture, so you won't feel awkward about drinking or dining solo. 

Whether you're itching for a European getaway and can't handle the red-eye or are thinking about taking your first solo trip, this is the city to see. Add these cafes, bars, and attractions to your list, stat. 

Check-In to Hotel William Gray

Best Things to Do in Montreal
@sophiemiura

It's best to base yourself in Old Montreal, the city's historic center, which is bustling with lively bars, restaurants, and museums. Hotel William Gray is located right in the heart of the quaint cobblestoned area and is a short walk from many of the top attractions. The hotel itself is vibrant yet refined: Picture serene white and gray rooms with textured concrete ceilings and a pop of mustard via a playful accent chair. 

There's much more to do at the hotel than rest your feet after a long day of exploring the city. Start your day with coffee at Cafe Olympico, a local institution that serves up some of the best brews in the city. Finish the day with a cocktail at sunset on Terrasse William Gray, the hotel's enviable rooftop bar. With panoramic views of Place Jacques-Cartier and the St. Lawrence River, it's the perfect way to toast a weekend well spent. 

Start the Day With a Montreal-Style Bagel

Best Things to Do in Montreal
@sophiemiura

I'm told there are two types of people in Montreal: those who buy their bagels at Fairmount and those who opt for rival St-Viateur. "It's like if you're a Coke or Pepsi person," Francoise explains. "You can answer the question right away." 

If you only have time to visit one bagel shop, head to St-Viateur, where the lines are shorter, and the bagels are five-star. Unlike New York–style bagels, sugar is added to the batter and they're rolled by hand and dipped in boiling water that contains honey. The result: slightly sweeter, doughy bagels. No trip to Montreal is complete without one. 

Indulge in Homemade Truffle Spaghetti at Foiegwa

Best Things to Do in Montreal
@sophiemiura

If you only have one meal in Montreal, it should be at Foiegwa. The Americanized French diner in Saint-Henri delivers on creative cuisine and decor. Designed by the Gauley Brothers, the interior is casual and welcoming yet undeniably cool. White tiles surround the intimate space, punctuated with round pendant lights and black-and-white portraits. It's an ideal spot to dine solo. Make a reservation for a spot at the counter or bar and watch the bustling street outside. 

Though we'd recommend sampling as much of the menu as possible, there are a few dishes that can't be missed. Foiegwa's homemade spaghetti with butter and black truffle, 64-degree egg yolk, and Parmigiano is the most-requested dish for good reason. Be sure to try the truffle and parmesan beef tartare, or if you'd rather a slightly smaller starter, opt for the chicken liver pate with walnut and prune brioche. Trust us, you'll want seconds. 

Detox at Bota Bota

Best Things to Do in Montreal
Bota Bota

Visiting Montreal in the cooler months doesn't mean you have to be confined indoors. Quite the opposite: Bota Bota, a Nordic-style spa housed in a converted ferry, is even more enchanting when the temperature drops. Located in the old port of Montreal, the floating spa contains saunas, steam rooms, hot tubs, cold baths, and more. Dedicate three hours to exploring the water circuit, which is open day and night. 

Be Transported Back in Time at Wilensky

Best Things to Do in Montreal
@sophiemiura

Montreal is known for its smoked meat, a kosher-style deli meat made by curing beef brisket with salt and spices. Head to Schwartz, the most popular and iconic purveyor, or Lester's, a local spot on Bernard Street that rarely has queues. Wilensky, a no-frills establishment since 1932, serves its legendary sandwich with slices of beef salami and bologna, cheese, and mustard on a sweet egg roll. It's a true local experience in Mile End. 

Sip Matcha at the Most Instagrammable Cafe in the City

You'll be hard-pressed to find a hint of white in Pastel Rita, a cool cafe, boutique, and artisan workshop in Mile End. Appareil Architecture, the creative force behind the project, has nailed the art of color blocking, combining bottle green, powder pink, and apricot with expertise. Order a matcha latte at the counter and sit back to appreciate the visual feast. 

Visit Outer Space at Phi Center

Phi Center is another ideal spot for solo travelers. The unique art, film, music, design, and technology space is an industry leader in Canada and a must-visit while you're in Old Montreal. Dedicate two hours to exploring the virtual reality exhibitions, which transport visitors through the galaxy, to foreign cities, and fantasy worlds with VR headsets. The standout exhibition is Spheres, a three-part journey through the solar system that explores the visuals, sounds, and phenomena of space. 

Order the Smoke Show at Atwater Cocktail Club

Best Things to Do in Montreal
Atwater

After dinner at Foiegwa, head to Atwater Cocktail Club, the restaurant's back-alley bar. Here, you'll find some of the most creative, inventive cocktails in Montreal. Jostle for a seat at the bar to watch the bartenders use blowtorches and smoke machines to create each drink.

Grab a Light Lunch at Un Po' Di Piu

Best Things to Do in Montreal
@sophiemiura

Located right in the heart of Old Montreal, Un Po' Di Piu is inspired by the relaxed Italian lifestyle, making it an ideal place to stop by for an aperitif and small plates, or settle in for a full lunch. Highlights on the menu include the bruschetta topped with mixed mushrooms and garlic mascarpone, and the tuna salad, a delightful combination of provolone, egg, fennel, and tuna that’s anything but simple. It’s also a top contender for old Montreal’s most Instagrammable venue—teal velvet banquettes, vintage light fixtures, and maroon marble tables make it seriously photogenic.

  

Sample Seasonal Fare at Bistrot La Fabrique

Credited with reviving the Montreal brunch scene, Bistrot La Fabrique is the kind of place that'll entice you back again and again. Chef Jean‑Baptiste Marchand works with local, seasonal fare, so the menu changes weekly. Expect creative modern French brunch dishes like french toast with rhubarb purée and banana cake with stewed deer, root vegetables in red wine, and egg. Don't skip the Maison Mimosa—it's zesty, tart, and delicious.

Related Stories