Montreal is often described as a little bit of Paris in Canada (it's the second largest French speaking city in the world). If you can't swing that family trip to Europe this year, the Canadian city is a great alternative. When planning a trip to Montreal, consider the seasons. The city can get bitterly cold in winter, but it's prime time for winter sports in the surrounding areas. Every summer, crowds gather to attend the International Jazz Festival and the World Film Festival. You may want to time your trip to experience or avoid these popular events. The city has a good bus and metro system and you probably won't need to use your car much.
A sampling of things to see and do in Montreal
Explore the underground city. This 19 mile long network of passageways connects movie theaters, shops, restaurants, hotels, an ice rink and more. It's a lifesaver if you're visiting in the winter.
Visit the Churches: Montreal has many wonderful churches you can explore. Basilique Notre-Dame-de- Montreal is a must-see for it's wonderful stained glass windows, star- studded ceiling, and life-size carvings. If you can, attend Sunday mass in order to hear the enormous organ. Modest dress is requested. The Sailors Church was built to hold a statue of our Lady of Good Hope believed to rescue those in trouble at sea. 18th and 19th century sailors came to the chapel to leave ship lamps as thanks to the Lady. Today the ceiling of the chapel is hung with many of these lamps. St. Patrick's Basilica in downtown Montreal was described in our guidebook as one of the least toured churches in Montreal, but it was my personal favorite. It's hailed as one of the best examples of Gothic revival style in Canada. Among other wonderful details, you'll find dozens of oil paintings, a mosaic ceiling, and gorgeous stained glass windows.
Go to the Montreal World Trade Center: In this light filled space, you'll find a piece of the Berlin wall, shops, a food court, and a reflecting pool and fountain that make for great photo opportunities.
Try poutine and bagels: You'll see it listed on diner menus and at local fast food chains. Poutine is French fries with a sauce of cheese curds and gravy. Doesn't necessarily sound appetizing, but it's better than it sounds. Montreal is also known for having the best bagels in Canada, some say even better than New York City. One of the best places to try them is St. Viateur's Bagel, with three locations in Montreal.
Stroll around Place Jacques-Cartier: If you're here in the summer, this square at the heart of old Montreal is the place to be. You can eat at a sidewalk cafe, see local artists at work, visit the flower market, and watch strolling entertainers.
Visit the East End attractions: This is where some of the more kid-oriented activities are. The Biodome is an attempt to recreate four different ecosystems: The polar world, the St. Lawrence marine ecosystem, the Laurentian forest, and the tropical rainforest. You'll see a wide range of life in each of these ecosystems, including piranhas, sloths, porcupines, and penguins. Be aware that (just like in real life) temperatures fluctuate between the ecosystems, so have the kids dress in layers. Nearby is the Insectarium, which is a fabulous place to visit if you have a budding entomologist in your family. These people love bugs and their enthusiasm shines through. You'll find live bugs (among them bumblebees, beetles, tarantulas, colorful butterflies, giant walking sticks, and water bugs), as well as an impressive collection of mounted species. The Insectarium offers regular educational programs on everything from attracting butterflies to your yard to short talks about specific species. On the Insectarium website (listed below) you can print out educational scavenger hunt type activities if you think your kids will need a little encouragement to delve into the fascinating world of bugs.
If plants are more your style, don't miss the huge Montreal Botanical Garden on the grounds of the Insectarium (one admission pays for both). You'll find a bonsai collection, an arboretum with 7,000 (give or take) species of trees and shrubs, an interpretive path looping around a pond, a Japanese Garden, a Chinese Garden, greenhouses, and much, much more. A specific area is set aside for picnicking if you're so inclined. If you want to visit all three attractions, combination tickets are available. And if you want still more, you can visit the fourth nature museum in the area, the Montreal Planetarium.