Get Cultured in Montréal

Content originally written for the Let’s Go: USA & Canada Guide by our researcher-writer, Daphne Thompson.

Marché Jean-Talon (Jean-Talon Market)

7070 Henri-Julien Ave.; (514) 937-7754;; open M-W 7am-6pm, Th-F 7am-8pm, Sa 7am-6pm, Su 7am-5pm

It’s understandable, given that Québec’s most famous gastronomical innovation is french fries topped with gravy and cheese curds, that your body might be in semi-open revolt after days of indulging in regional specialties. Do something nice for it and make the trip up to Marché Jean-Talon, a sprawling and historic public market with a Metro stop on the orange and blue lines. Year-round (walls are erected in the winter), area farmers, butchers, and fishmongers schlep in their freshest wares for surprisingly reasonable prices. Treat yourself to a basket of syrupy nectarines and remember what vitamins feel like, or buy some sweet Québec corn to grill at your hostel. Of course, if you’re in the market for the caloric, Jean-Talon has you covered too: fresh-fried calamari and apple butter crepes are also fine ways to fill up.  

Free; wheelchair accessible

Underground City (RÉSO)

Below downtown Montréal

When Canada’s notorious winters come around, Montrealers make like voles and burrow in the Underground City, a vast subterranean network comprising 20 miles of tunnels underneath the sidewalks of downtown. Unlike voles, though, they’ve filled their underground maze with all manner of shops, hotels, performing halls, and university buildings. Retail options are nothing extraordinary (though Squish, a store that only sells expensive gummy candy, is generous with the samples), but the year-round ice rink Atrium Le 1000 is a great way to embarrass yourself in front of commuters. In March, an art collective throws a festival showcasing the “cultural heritage” of the Underground City, while the Musée Grévin Montreal wax museum shows a different kind of art in the Eaton Center.   

Prices vary and hours vary; limited wheelchair accessibility

Basilique Notre-Dame (Notre-Dame Basilica)

110 Rue Notre-Dame O; (514) 842-2925;; open M-F 8am-4:30pm, Sa 8am-4pm, Su 12:30pm-4pm

Charging for entrance to a church? Seems pretty indulgent to me. (Reformation humor!) Still, you should resist the urge to nail 95 theses to the door of the Notre-Dame Basilica and just fork over the $6 CAD instead—you’ll be rewarded with a view of one of the flashiest places of worship we’ve ever seen, decked out in so much blue and gold it could have been designed by the Golden State Warriors. The basilica dates to the 1820s, but its most significant year was 1994, when it served as the site of Canadian icon Céline Dion’s wedding. Take the obligatory respectful lap as you wait for the free (with admission) tour to begin, and be sure to look up at the 24-carat gold stars hand-painted on the ceiling. If you just can’t get enough of our Lord and Savior, buy a ticket to the extremely ~extra~ light show that turns the basilica into the world’s holiest rave most evenings.

Admission $6 CAD; cash only; tours every 20min.; wheelchair accessible

Montréal Botanical Garden

4101 Rue Sherbrooke E; (514) 868-3000;; open daily 9am-6pm

Want to ponder both the plant world and the indefensible public infrastructure cost of hosting the Olympics? The botanical garden’s got you covered. Part of the Space for Life—the city’s four premier environmental museums—offers a sprawling array of botanical ecosystems with a view of the equally sprawling 1976 Olympic Park. Test the strength of your allergy medicine in a series of themed gardens (Chinese, Japanese, and First Nations), or photobomb a wedding photo shoot at the Flowery Brook. If you were a weird child, the Insectarium (included in the ticket price) has lots of dead bugs to look at, plus a vending machine offering kid favorites like shiitake turmeric crickets and lime grasshoppers. While the Biodome—the Olympic cycling facility-turned-zoo—is closed through the summer of 2019, you can buy admission to the nearby planetarium for less than the price of a separate ticket. Bring your student ID to knock a few bucks off the price.

Admission $20.50 CAD, students $15 CAD; check website for tour schedule; wheelchair accessible

Montréal Musée de Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts)

1380 Rue Sherbrooke O; (514) 285-2000;; open Tu-Su 10am-5pm

Trying to tackle the entire Museum of Fine Arts, a sprawling five-pavilion complex along Rue Sherbrooke, is a surefire way to develop an acute case of museum feet. Instead, consider choosing a few subject areas of interest—anthropomorphic furniture? Secular goldsmithery? Queer First Nations performance art?—and spend some quality time with them, guided by the museum’s accessible explications of most of the works. Here’s the good news: the permanent collection is free to visitors under age 30, so you can come back again and again. The museum’s featured exhibition, however, does come at an additional cost, so make your own value calculation there. For those on a schedule, the newly-opened Pavilion for Peace offers a condensed version of AP Art History in a tight 750 pieces, while a collection of subversive landscapes by Winnipeg artist Kent Monkman (aka Miss Chief Eagle Share Testickle) is a highlight of the contemporary floor.     

Permanent collection free, exhibitions $15 CAD under age 30; wheelchair accessible

Redpath Museum

859 Rue Sherbrooke O; (514) 398-4086;; open M-F 9am-5pm, Sa-Su 11am-5pm

It’s not fully clear whether this is a museum or the attic of an eccentric globetrotting uncle, and a partial inventor does nothing to clear it up: you’ll find (in no particular order, just like this museum) a monkey’s shrunken head, a sheath of human teeth, the 1989 Most Outstanding Exhibit at the Greater Miami Shell Show, one of two known labrador ducks in Canada, and a turtle called a stinkpot. Housed in a deceptively fancy building at McGill University, this combination natural history-ethnography-Egyptology museum has a decidedly eclectic vibe. It’s free and compact, so consider taking an hour out of your day to check out its bizarro offerings. Don’t miss the three human mummies, catalogued in way too much detail by the Indiana Joneses of McGill. (“Brain removal: trans-nasal craniotomy. Eyes: intact in orbits.”)

Free; not wheelchair accessible

Pointe-à-Callière Museum

350 Place Royale; (514) 872-9150;; open Tu-F 10am-5pm, Sa-Su 11am-5pm

It’s the rare museum that could also host an excellent rave, but Pointe-à-Callière—an archeology and history museum detailing Montréal’s earliest days—seems one pulsating soundtrack away from becoming the hottest club in town. For a museum ostensibly concerned with the very, very old (it’s sitting atop the ruins of the first French settlement in the city), its exhibitions are techy and cutting-edge: a dig site is lit up with neon to illustrate its original uses, and interactive games invite visitors to trade furs and put out fires like the settlers. Be sure to catch an introductory show in the immersive theater, where a 270-degree movie (like being hugged by an IMAX screen) traces the history of Montréal in 18 minutes. The current exhibit, on the women of ancient Egypt, boasts a remarkable collection of sarcophagi (and one horrifying mummified cat).

Admission $22 CAD, under age 30 $15 CAD; “Where Montréal Was Born” tour Tu-Su 2:30pm; wheelchair accessible

Parc du Mont-Royal (Mount Royal Park)

1260 Chemin Remembrance; (514) 843-8240;; open daily 6am-noon

Central Park? Sorry, I don’t know her—in Montréal, all roads lead to (or at least slope towards) the gargantuan and gorgeous Parc du Mont-Royal. Designed by go-to landscape guy Frederick Law Olmsted and inaugurated in 1876, the park covers nearly 700 acres in the center of Montréal. For the prettiest views of the city skyline (don’t believe the sales pitch from the Montréal Tower folks!), head to the Kondiaronk Belvedere, a popular lookout point that’s just a breezy 400 steps up the mountain. While you’re cursing yourself for having skipped leg day for your entire life, find solace in the fact that a breezy chalet with bathrooms and loungeable chairs awaits you at the top. On the eastern side of the mountain near the Sir George Etienne Cartier Monument (look for the winged statue), you’ll find a picturesque meadow ideal for picnicking. Come by on Sunday nights, though, for the Tam-Tam Jam—a 420-friendly mass dance party set to the irresistible beats of a hundred hand drums.   

Free; limited wheelchair accessibility

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