For those who want a cosmopolitan city with a unique French culture, but don't want to leave North America, solo travel in Montreal is a wonderful option.
Montreal is a city I am truly fond of. It's a typical destination for friends and family for a weekend getaway. Like New York, people return again and again to soak in the atmosphere and enjoy its many experiences.
French is the primary language but English is spoken at hotels, restaurants, museums, and other public places. About 12% of the population have English as their mother tongue and 55% of Montrealers are bilingual, making the city a cultural experience that's easy to manage.
Located on an island in the St. Lawrence River, you can expect to experience more French the farther east you go and more English the farther west you go. But, in the center, there's a good mixture of both. Boulevard Saint-Laurent, known as The Main, is considered the east-west divide in the city.
Why Go to Montreal?
- The Culture. From the very distinct Montreal architecture (everyone notices the outdoor, often spiral, staircases) to the joie de vivre shared through a passion for music, food, fashion, and festivals. Montreal is a fun city to explore.
- The Food! Whether it's bagels and Montreal smoked meat you're after, (Schwartz's is the classic destination for smoked meat), elegant French cuisine, or a vegan gastronomic delight, the city has what you want. See below for a list of recommended Montreal restaurants.
- Fashion. Montrealers, French and English, are fashionable. There is a strong fashion industry in the city which also means great shopping! Check out Poème on St. Laurent Blvd. where multiple designers show their wares.
- Festivals. The city is famous for its festivals, especially the Just for Laughs/Juste pour rire festival. As the founding city of Cirque de Soleil, it's not surprising that it also has a circus festival. Every week, from spring to fall, there's a festival. In the winter you can expect some as well, though not quite as frequently.
How to Get to Montreal
About an hour from the US border, the city is easily accessible by train, car, and, naturally, plane.
- Amtrak. It's about an 11-hour ride from New York City to Montreal by Amtrak but it takes you through gorgeous country along the Adirondack line.
- Via Rail. Multiple trains go from Toronto to Montreal daily. The trip is about five hours.
- Flights. Montreal is a 1 1/2-hour flight from New York City and just over an hour from Toronto. However, you need to account for the time getting from the airport in Dorval, just west of Montreal, into the city.
- Road trip. By car you can take as long as you want but the time is typically about the same as the train.
Solo Travel in Montreal: A Few Highlights
- Visit Old Montreal. Old Montreal and Old Quebec City are the closest you can get to Europe in North America. Old Montreal dates back to the 17th century with cobblestone streets and charming shops, cafes, and restaurants with terraces. Take a tour on a calèche, which is a horse-drawn carriage. Old Montreal stretches along the St. Lawrence River for more than 2.5 km and offers a variety of festivals, concerts, cruises, and excursions, an urban beach (Clock Tower Beach), the Montréal Science Centre, and even an IMAX theater.
- Go to the Mountain. Opposite to Old Montreal, which is on the waterfront, is Mount Royal, overlooking the city. It's a healthy walk of about an hour and a half that takes you through the city's financial district and McGill University (which is an interesting walk in itself) into glorious green space. Mount Royal Park is yet another park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the man behind New York's Central Park. It offers great views of the city, boating at Beaver Lake, bird watching, and a variety of winter activities if you're there in the cold weather.
- Hang Out on the Plateau. Formally known as Le Plateau Mont-Royal, this area of Montreal is artsy, full of restaurants, parks, and cafes. Public pianos are scattered around the area for anyone to play. It's the location for the Fringe Festival and Montreal Pop. Many of the restaurants on Prince-Arthur or Duluth are BYOW (Bring Your Own Wine). You just have to spend time there.
- Engage in Montreal's Bagel Wars. In my opinion, Montreal bagels are the best bagels in the world. The question is, are they better from Fairmount Bakery or St-Viateur Bagel? You need to taste both to decide. Fortunately, they are within a few blocks of each other in the Mile End section of the Plateau. Just be prepared to wait in line as they make bagels all day long and there are usually people waiting for them fresh from the wood-burning ovens. It's worth taking a Mile End food tour while you're there.
- Enjoy a “5 à 7”. In Montreal, “Cinq à Sept” is happy hour and, again, the plateau is the perfect place for it. There are great options throughout the area. If you want to focus in, try Mont-Royal Ave E. where Bily Kun and Plan B are within a block of each other.
- Look for the murals on St. Laurent Blvd. There are huge murals on buildings at every intersection. Go in June and see the walls get a makeover. Artists come from around the world to help redecorate this famous street. St. Laurent is a very long street so head for the intersection of St Laurent Blvd and Rachel Street.
- Montreal's Churches. With its French heritage, Catholicism runs deep in Montreal. Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, built in 1771, is in Old Montreal and also houses a museum dedicated to Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys, the founder of the Congregation, and the colony’s first teacher. She was canonized by the Vatican in 1982. The building of Notre-Dame Basilica of Montréal dates back to the 1820s, though it sits on a site of a parish church that dates to the 1600s. Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal sits, as one might expect, on top of Mount Royal looking over the city. Saint Joseph's Oratory is a pilgrimage site where many people climb the almost 400 steps on their knees.
- Montreal's Museums and Galleries. For history, go to Pointe-à-Callière and the Château Ramezay. There's also the Montreal Science Centre. For art, go to the Musee des beaux-arts de Montreal, the MAC which is the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, and many private galleries around the city. There's also the community run Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre and Museum on St. Laurent Blvd.
- Take in the Night Life. Montreal is alive and busy at night and, if you've read Solo Travel Safety: The Fundamentals for Safe Travel, you'll know that a public place is where I feel safest. While the Plateau is a worthwhile evening destination, St. Denis Street in the center of town has been the street for nightlife for decades. But local clubs are not the only option. There is the Place des Arts with performances year-round. For English theater check out Centaur Theatre Company. For feminist, English theater go to Imago, located on St. Laurent Blvd.
- PY1. This is a project by Guy Laliberté, the man behind Cirque du Soleil, and his new multimedia company Lune Rouge Entertainment. Called Through the Echoes, PY1 Pyramid combines laser projectors, moving set pieces, LED light fixtures, a massive screen and surround-sound speakers to involve the audience in a story that spans the creation of the universe to the present, and beyond.
Recommended Restaurants in Montreal
Restaurants in Montreal for Every Taste
- Le Bremner – Old Montreal spot, dark and romantic off a cobblestone street tucked into a basement. I'm not sure about full plant-based options as the menu is quite small, but it seems like the type of place that would be happy to whip something up custom. Excellent cocktail and wine lists.
- Le Select Bistro – On St. Laurent, old school classic French bistro. They bring a huge jar of the best pickles and mustard I’ve ever had to every table no matter what you order. You should be able to find the menu online and it’s quite extensive.
- Arthur’s Nosh Bar – A little out of the way (near Atwater market if I remember correctly) but definitely worth the trek. It's a casual lunch and brunch spot with a Jewish deli spin, and has lots of vegan options.
Vegan Restaurants in Montreal
Living a plant-based diet I wasn't sure how many restaurant options I'd have in Montreal. Here are three I went to and loved. There are others.
- LOV – The letters stand for Local, Organic, and Vegan. The food was great and they also have large communal tables if you feel like being social.
- Copper Branch – This is a quality, fast food restaurant with limited, casual dining. It' primarily a take-out joint but the food is of top quality and 100% plant-based. There are about a dozen locations in Montreal. They are franchising in and beyond the city so watch for them popping up elsewhere.
- Aux Vivres Plateau – This was Montreal's first vegan restaurant and it is now an institution in the city. It's located on the Plateau on St. Laurent Blvd as well as in Westmount on Sherbrooke Street West. In addition to the restaurants they have boutiques where they sell some of their products. Great food!