This Canadian Metropolis May Just Be North America’s Coolest City

There's nothing quite like Montreal's joie de vivre.

Montreal, I’ve tried to leave you. I really have. I’ve traveled the world and even lived in your arch-nemesis, Toronto. But no matter how far I roam, you keep pulling me back in.

There really is no place like you. Sure, you have adorable houses and cobblestone streets like Paris, but you’re gritty like New York (albeit less anxiety-inducing). With you, I can let my hair, and mustache, down. I can wake up late and go for some of the best croissants outside of Europe. I can dance like a hippie at Tam-Tams or Piknic Électronik. In summer, I can spontaneously bike around until I find a hopping terrasse, and when it gets cold, I can head inside to catch a drag show or snuggle up in a low-lit speakeasy. Any way you cut it, you and your French-Canadian joie de vivre are simply irresistable.

Montreal, je t’aime. Here's why.

beautiful townhouses on a tree-lined street
Plateau Mont-Royal is known for being laid-back and artsy. | PHOTO BY EVA BLUE, COURTESY OF TOURISME MONTREAL

There are dozens of unique neighborhoods to wander in

Montreal isn’t built for cars like other North American cities. Its massive parks, narrow streets, and lush green back alleys (or ruelles vertes) are meant to be strolled, and the entire city is easily accessed by metro.

So where's the best place to stay—or just walk around and take in the ambiance? Objectively declaring the coolest neighborhood in Montreal is a near-impossible task, but Plateau-Mont-Royal might just win the popular vote. Its colorful buildings—especially those around Square St. Louis—are just so damn beautiful. Plus, the Plateau is conveniently located near iconic delis, trendy cafes, the St. Laurent club strip, and the city’s prettiest parks including La Fontaine, Laurier, and the mountain.

For the city’s hottest restaurants and a spot on the water, Saint-Henri is where it’s at. Meanwhile, the Mile End (which is technically in the Plateau borough) isn’t as hip as it was back when Arcade Fire and Grimes were hanging out there, but it’s still a cool area to grab an Airbnb, and perfect for the ultimate carb crawl.

Still trying to decide where to stay in Montreal? Here’s a breakdown of the coolest neighborhoods according to a local (aka yours truly).

people lined up outside a bagel shop
Montreal's bagels can go head-to-head with New York's | PHOTO COURTESY OF LOCAL MONTREAL FOOD TOURS/TOURISME MONTREAL

Montreal's food scene might just be Canada's best

Surely you’ve heard of Montreal’s famous foods and perhaps even their famous rivalries—St. Viateur vs. Fairmount for bagels, Schwartz’s vs. The Main for smoked meat, La Banquise vs. Chez Claudette for poutine, Romados vs. Ma Poule Mouilée for Portuguese chicken—but there’s just so. Much. More.

There are your gluttonous classics like Anthony Bourdain-approved Au Pied du Cochon and Joe Beef. Then you’ve got Damas for exquisite Syrian, L’Express for fine French cuisine, and Sushi Momo for vegan sushi. There's also a fiercely competitive cheap(ish) eats scene including Arepera, Falafel Yoni, and Tacos Frida, and you'd be remiss not to try Montreal-style hot dogs (aka “steamies”) at the Montreal Pool Room, an old-school joint that dates back to 1912.

I could go on forever—but I'll leave the best picks to the experts, instead.

a bartender pouring drinks in a crowded bar
Bars like Milky Way get the party started. | MILKY WAY COCKTAILS

The fun doesn't stop after dark

Americans have long made pilgrimages to Montreal to party, from back in the Prohibition days when alcohol was illegal, to now, since the drinking age is 18. Rowdy tourists and the bachelor party crowd usually get their kicks downtown on Crescent and St. Catherine streets, or in touristy Old Montreal—but there are better places to have a night out.

You’ve got hip dives like Notre-Dame-des-Quilles with its indoor bowling alley, twinkly-light date spots like Le Majestique, speakeasies like Le Mal Nécessaire, breweries like Dieu du Ciel!, and classy wine bars like Pullman. Of course, there are also your clubs for a big night out like Apt. 200 and after-hours Stereo (temporarily closed).

So while I’m not going to tell you that you’re not going to have fun in the touristy areas, trust me: Montreal's best bars, speakeasies, and clubs are where you'll want to be when the sun goes down.

a person on a hammock near a lake
Montreal is one of Canada's greenest cities. | PHOTO BY CAROLINE PERRON, COURTESY OF TOURISME MONTREAL

Getting outdoors is part of the experience

Montreal’s got range: Despite being Canada’s second-largest city, it’s also the third greenest. (After all, in a country with literally dozens of beautiful natural wonders to check out, it’s important to stay competitive.) Along with moments spent leisurely wandering the aforementioned parks (plus Jarry, Jean-Drapeau, and dozens of other enormous green spaces not listed here), chances to escape to quiet, laid-back outdoor spaces are in no short supply.

In Saint-Henri, you can bike, canoe, or kayak along the Lachine Canal; in Verdun, you can stroll along the Wellington promenade or lounge on the shores of one of Montreal’s beaches (or have a unique urban beach experience at the Old Port); or head to the Jardin de Sculptures de Lachine to stroll or bike through an open-air art gallery.

people at a festival in front of a Ferris wheel
Get down (like, below zero) at Igloofest. | PHOTO BY CHARLES PROT, COURTESY OF TOURISME MONTREAL

The streets are filled with festivals and culture

There are some days where more than a dozen festivals are happening in Montreal and it’s impossible to choose which one to attend. You’ll give yourself FOMO just thinking about it.

In the summer, the world’s biggest artists play at Osheaga and its electronic younger sibling Île Soniq on Parc Jean-Drapeau, an island that’s easily accessible by bike or metro. Then you’ve got Just for Laughs and the Montreal Jazz Fest, two world-class festivals in Quartier des Spectacles, as well as Montreal’s Circus Festival and the MURAL graffiti festival. And the fun doesn’t stop in winter when the city turns out dozens of different exhibits at Nuit Blanche or the chilly outdoor dance party that is Igloofest.

Even aside from the festivals, there’s always something going on in Montreal. The PHI Centre has state-of-the-art interactive exhibits like The Infinite, a virtual tour of the International Space Station. You can get a taste of Montreal’s sin city roots with a cabaret at Chez Mado. If that isn’t enough to fill a week or three, check out the exhibits at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts or head to the east end for the Botanical Gardens, Olympic Stadium, Insectarium, Planetarium, or freshly-renovated Biodome, all of which you can find at Espace pour la Vie.

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Joel Balsam is a Canadian freelance journalist and guidebook author who writes for Lonely Planet, National Geographic, TIME, BBC Travel, and more. His home base is Montreal, but he can often be found tasting his way through a packed market somewhere.