Montreal is one of those cities that you must grill a local about before choosing where to stay, because where you stay impacts hugely on your lasting impression of the place.
If you stay in the bowels of downtown, where most of the hotels are situated, and only hang around downtown, you’ll see the major sites and have a fun time, but you’ll leave thinking ‘well that was a nice city, but we’ve been there, we’ve done that, we don’t need to return.’ You’ve probably even bought the t-shirt, because it’s about the only thing in the parochial city centre mall with any appeal.
What you’ll discover if you ask a Quebecer is that the heart and soul of Montreal is to be found in the neighbourhoods in and around the Plateau Mont-Royal. Base yourself here and not only are you and the kids planning when you can return, you’re thinking of relocating to Mont Real, as the local French speakers call it, for good.
French is the first language here and culturally it’s very French too, but with a North American relaxed feel. Food, wine and coffee are taken very seriously, the egalitarian vibe is expressed in the numerous public art displays and festivals, but the style gene has been watered down. Women won’t suffer high heals just because they look good here.
You need to concentrate your search for accommodation around St-Viateur Street, Montreal’s version of London’s Westbourne Grove or Le Marais in Paris. Chi chi clothing boutiques and funky interior stores are interspersed with inviting pavement cafes and speciality food stores. There aren’t many hotels around here, but that’s not a problem. In this city a holiday rental works much better, especially with kids, and it’s cheaper too.
It works better, because Montreal is a city that you need to play at living in, rather than visiting. Food is a big part of that. You want to buy bagels for breakfast at the world-renowned St-Viateur bagel bakery, whose unique pretzel-style bagels are so sought after they are shipped across North America.
You want to do a snack stop at organic grocery store Bio Terre, which sells beautifully presented fruit, veg and prepared foods. Then there are all those great coffee shops and cafes (Schwartz Deli is a must for a smoked beef sandwich) and there are gourmet restaurants, such as the deservedly infamous Joe Beef, which actually welcome kids.
Aside from eating, it’s lovely to be able to pop out and take the children to the local park, or let them play out with the kids they get talking to in your street. You never know they might even practice their French with them. Work to your own schedule.
These two houses close to St Viateur make perfect family accommodation:
>> A four bedroom apartment rental, including a colourful child’s room full of toys; spacious open-plan living area and garden could easily be a forever home.
>> This three bedroom apartment rental is smaller as reflected in the price, but just as practical and inviting.
You could stay in this city a fortnight and still not run out of things to do. But these are the highlights:
Mount Royal is the park that the locals call the mountain as it towers above the city. Depending on the season, here you can skate, cross country ski, sledge, walk, cycle, go boating, explore the playground or go on a nature trail.
Espace pour la vie Montreal
This is an area given over to an insectarium, botanical garden, planetarium and biodome. If the sun is shining you could easily spend a day at the botanical gardens and insectarium. Children love wandering through the jungle filled hot houses, playing hide and seek and picnicing in the beautiful themed gardens, letting off steam in the play area and then watching millions of ants get on with their lives in their segmented nest in the insectarium.
The biodome is another day trip. Here you step inside the huge climate-controlled dome spheres and watch 4,500 creatures interact with each other in four perfectly recreated American ecosystems. Don’t miss out on penguin-feeding time.
At the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium, using the latest technology two unique shows take you out of this world and across the universe. One for older children.
The old city
Take a wonder through the old city and down to the port where up to six of you can board a quadricycle and attempt to simultaneously steer it and peddle it along the boardwalk.
Montreal’s Museum of Archaeology and History
Here you can take part in a simulated archaeological dig, but check the schedule for timings.
Igloofest, the Jazz Festival, Children’s Festival, BikeFest, Fireworks Festival … Barely a week goes by when there isn’t a festival going on somewhere in Montreal, and most of them, even those without children in the title, are family friendly. http://montreal.com/tourism/festivals/
Try to coincide your stay with one to really feel the vibe of this city. You’ll be itching to return to experience another!
Ciao Bambino’s stay was covered by HouseTrip. As always, our opinions are our own. Photos by Anna Tobin
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