Winter might not seem like the best time to visit Montreal, but there is a lot to be said for visiting this French Canadian city in winter. People who live in colder climates know how to get outdoors year-round; the sprawling underground city in Montreal makes it easy to stay out of the cold while getting about. Being outside in chillier temperatures makes it feel okay to indulge in all that very good food the city has to offer too.
Here are five ways families can make the most of a winter weekend in Montreal.
Make like a local and throw on a pair of ice skates. There are plenty of indoor and outdoor rinks from which to choose. Indoor, Atrium le 1000 is the namesake of the downtown office building it’s in (1000 rue De La Gauchetière Ouest). It’s small and has a different feel from your typical hockey rink. On a weekday when kids are in school it’s not busy and my 9-year-old thought it was a fun place to skate.
If the weather is right for outdoor skating, try the Natrel skating rink in the Old Town port. It’s scenic and you’ll find plenty of cafes where you can warm up with a glass of wine, microbrew or hot cocoa (or all three) afterward.
You’ll find “sugar shacks” all over the city selling every kind of maple-sugar product you can think (and a few that might surprise you). A favorite local treat is to pour syrup on a bed of crushed ice and let it sit for a few minutes while it freezes to a taffy-like consistency. Then they swirl on a stick to eat like a lollipop. It’s fun to watch them make it, but you have to really like maple!
Our favorite shack was on rue St. Catherine, across from the Hudson Bay Co. department store. They sold soft-serve vanilla ice cream with a ribbon of maple syrup running through it. Even in winter we went back a few times!
No matter the weather you’ll find tourists and locals walking, snowshoeing and Nordic skiing in Mont Royal, the hill that rises from the middle of the city. Climb to the peak (cross country for a steep, direct route or along paths for a longer, easier walk) and you’re greeted by panoramic views of the city. You can also check out Chalet Mont Royal, a 1930s stone building where carved squirrels watch from the rafters. In winter it’s nice to warm up in big wooden chairs by the large working fireplace.
Practical Stuff: Your kids will get wet frolicking here, so come prepared. There’s no metro close by but a bus runs from the Mont Royal stop to the park. There’s also a parking lot on the Chemin Remembrance. You can also take the easy way and hop a cab there.
Sure, it’s winter and you might just want to spend part of your days someplace warm and dry. We like the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History at Pointe-A-Calliere in the old town. There is an interactive pirate exhibit and archaeo-adventure activity specifically for kids. Don’t miss exploring the excavated ruins of old city downstairs or the movie the projects the history of the city (from its founding to the modern day) onto a wraparound screen and some of those ruins.
The Science Center and sprawling Biodome both get high marks for families with younger kids. Those with teens should check out its Fine Arts and Contemporary Arts museums, both are highly regarded and have a mix of permanent and rotating exhibits of Canadian and world art.
Montreal has several neighborhoods and avenues where people congregate to eat and shop, including the Old Town and stretches of Rue St. Denis and Blvd St. Laurent. Servers can speak with you in French or English. We didn’t encounter kids menus too often outside of brewpubs and diners but they’ll work with you to find something that appeals to your child. We sometimes ordered an appetizer for our daughter and some places did half portions.
Any neighborhood with a dining scene will have good French restaurants. We Googled and easily found a bistro near our hotel with good reviews and a casual enough vibe that we could dine with a kid.
Local must-try specialties include poutine (a plate of gravy and cheese-curd laden French Fries); smoked meat, which is Montreal deli food; and beavertails, freshly fried flat donuts that they cover with everything from nutella and bananas to chocolate and Reese’s Pieces. We liked the simple lemon-cinnamon-sugar one we got from a food truck.
Montreal also has a plethora of great indoor food markets in its residential neighborhoods. They sell meat, produce, charcuterie and cheese, maple products, French baked goods and prepared foods. We love the Atwater market for its excellent French patisserie, sandwiches, pizza and more. The Jean Talon market had an impressive cheese shop, Middle Eastern food, and impressive produce even in winter. These markets are more about shopping than dining, but we put together fun and varied picnic lunches at both.
Those tiny auberges in the Old Town are awfully charming, but save them for a romantic getaway a deux. With kids, the Hyatt Regency and Fairmont Queen Elizabeth are good bets for their central locations, indoor pools and reasonable winter rates. Both have metro stations, shops and dining nearby and connect to underground Montreal. The Hyatt has fairly big rooms and is part of the complex Jardin, which has a small super market, a wine store and patisseries for breakfast.
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Eileen is a journalist whose work has appeared in the HuffPost, U.S. News, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, Parents.com and many other publications. She has traveled on five continents, three of them with her daughter. She calls New York City home. You can read Eileen's blog at Familiesgotravel.com or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.
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