Summer time is travel time and since we love to explore new cities, we decided to visit Montreal, the “Paris of North America”. Canada is a great destination to explore in the summer, while it is warm enough to enjoy the street life and of course, the French food. There are many things to recommend the city; they clearly take summer seriously and there were no less than 3 international festivals running in addition the enthusiasm so clearly evident of the residents for the season. Now, before we dive in and tell you about things to do in Montreal in the summer, let’s cover the basics of how to get there, how to explore the city and where to stay. Also, make sure to red our piece on food, shopping and antiques in Montreal.
How to get to Montreal
From the continental US, you should be able to get to Montreal Piere Elliot Trudeau International Airport (YUL) with any major airline. If you live in the Northeastern part of the US, you might want to consider driving. Even from NYC it doesn’t even take you 6h to get there and if you live in Vermont or Maine, it’s even closer. Take note that car rentals in Canada are rather pricey and since the city is widespread, it pays to have a car with you.
In regard to location, you definitely want to be downtown or in the old port neighborhood of Montreal since you have most sights in walking distance and quick access to public transportation. Top five star hotels are the Ritz-Carlton and Hotel Le St-James. The most prominent hotel in town is the formidable Queen Elizabeth, but we stayed at the little boutique hotel Chez Swann after we read a review in the New York Times. It featured modern design, comfortable beds, local artwork, and great double showers. The breakfast was simple but it is served in a nice environment downstairs in the neighboring restaurant. While it doesn’t feature a pool or a gym, the concierge was always friendly and very helpful. The personal service was a noteworthy component of our stay; though we rarely spend a lot of time in the hotel, the flexibility and attentiveness of Chez Swann’s staff absolutely improved our experience. Located just a block away from the metro station Peel, it was also easy to get around. Whatever hotel you choose, rest assured that the outlets and country code are the same as in the US, so you won’t need any adapters.
Public Transportation & Navigation
The public transportation system in Montreal works rather well. Day passes run $9 and 3 Day Passes $18. Both are relatively inexpensive because they allow you to take any bus or train, including the airport express bus. However, one thing to consider is the lack of air conditioning in most buses, metros or stations. While it is probably not necessary in Montreal for 11 months out of the year, it get surprisingly hot and humid in the summer. Another great way to explore Montreal during the warmer months of the year is their Bixi bike system. Similar to other American and European cities, you can bike around town and drop off your bike at one of the numerous locations across the city. There are cell phone apps to help navigate the system, and it worked just fine on my Lumia 928. You even see availability of bikes at individual stations so you know if you can pick up or drop off a bike before you get there! Overall a great system and at $5 a day a real steal, which includes free rides up to 45 minutes (which is more than enough). While in town, I tested the capabilities of the maps features of the Lumia phone. Even with years of no-internet travel under our belt, it is simply no longer preferable to travel without some kind of on-the-go access, wouldn’t you agree? In order to keep the roaming charges at a minimum, I was really hoping that the offline maps feature of Nokia “Here” would prove to be a success. Unfortunately, the program has its limitations. First of all, it works perfectly fine if you have a specific address. Once you type it in, it will show you the route reliably. Sadly, it only offered public transportation support on major routes with internet access and even then it would often show us there was no means of public transportation, while the internet-required google maps would give us a route.
Also, when in offline mode it does not recognize many street names. For example when I typed in the name of our Hotel Chez Swann at the airport, it told me it could not find it. However, once I provided the address it worked. Surprisingly, the phone does not save this kind of information, meaning that it would find Hotel Chez Swann once we enable the internet connection but it wouldn’t find it once we had turned it off again. If you do not know the address of your destination but just the name, the only function that will help you in offline mode is a close by finder function in the “Here” app, which is pretty cool. You can just hold up your camera and it will tell you what restaurants, shops and stores are located in the near vicinity and you can quickly switch to a map view if you wish. One night, in a moment of indecisiveness over where to eat, we walked to a street known for it’s density of restaurants and were able to view the ratings of each establishment around us simultaneously, helping us to more quickly choose one. Overall, it is not a perfect offline maps function and I would always recommend to bring a real paper map as a backup. However, compared to google maps on android, it is very helpful because in offline mode google maps is pretty much useless. Also, I noticed that when I used the phone heavily, the batteries would die in the early evening after a long day, even though I had enabled all energy saving features and reduced the screen brightness to the lowest level. Cell phone batteries simply don’t have the capacity yet to enable travel-heavy use of their features all day without charging. On the flip side, when access was available, google maps outperformed Nokia Here because it found public transportation routes,while Nokia Here mostly did not. We quickly discovered that we could get by with two phones, one with limited online access and the other using WiFi wherever possible; thankfully, almost every where we went had some kind of WiFi we could use before setting off for our next destination.
Things to do in Montreal – Sights
Like most other cities, Montreal is a mix of old and new, dated and updated. New skyscrapers mix with the cobblestoned old town and the 70′s era former Olympic Park – an interesting blend of a city on the move. However, French European is an obvious influence throughout the city, with the French language the first to be spoken the city is rife with charm.
1. Old Port
In regard to architecture, most of the city resembles much more an American city than Paris, in my opinion. Streets are mostly organized in blocks and the skyscrapers dominate the skyline. Of course, you can also find some French style inspired immeubles and the Vieux Port (Old Port) has some charming buildings as well, but it’s more of a French flavor than a state of being.
2. Museum of Fine Arts
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has free admission to their permanent collections while tickets to special exhibitions will cost about $20-25. We visited the very first day and while it was a pleasant experience, it was nothing outstanding. The only thing I will keep in mind is the finely stitched shirt of Napoleon. The stitch density was incredible and the sleeves were shirred just like some Italians do it nowadays – funny how little details like that gained some popularity again today.
3. Botanical Gardens & Zoo
Some might be interested in seeing the home of the 1976 Summer Olympics. Architecturally, it certainly looks like it was built in the 1970′s and the concrete doesn’t age beautifully. For almost $20 you can reach the top of the tower for a city view, but frankly, it wasn’t worth it to us. Instead of making a separate trip out there, you should combine it with a visit at the exquisite botanical gardens. Although the admission of almost $30 per person is not inexpensive, but you get access to all the gardens (especially the Japanese, Chinese and First Nation gardens), see insects like butterflies and enjoy nature. Note, the Biodome (zoo) costs almost $20 per head.
5. Underground City
Since it gets so cold in the winter (-22ºF / -30ºC are normal) you can find an underground city with shopping malls and 20 mile of paths all underground so you can stroll around without being outside during the winter! Take refuge in the air conditioning, meanwhile, in the summer.
One of the great things to do in Montreal in the summer is to visit some of the great festivals. During our stay, we experienced the largest Jazz festival in the world with over 450 concerts all across the city in a little more than a week. The biggest open air stages we saw were located at Place des Arts, and while there were definitely some pricey concerts, the majority of them is free for you to enjoy. Even if you don’t seek out specific concerts, chances are you will hear some music when you dine at the patio of a restaurant close to a big square.
The Jazz Fesitval was definitely the largest festival during our stay in Montreal. It deserves mentioning that Jazz is very broadly interpreted by the artists and organizers, meaning you can find all kinds of music featured. of it. For example, one night we went to the concert of The Cat Empire, which I had never heard before and while I liked the experience I would not have described it Jazz, but their heavy use of brass probably qualified them. Overall, the “jazz” made the festival approachable for all kinds of music lovers, not just die-hard jazz fans. In any case, the live music events were a great time to test the capabilities of the Lumia 928. Just compare the the pictures of the Lumia to the Samsung S3- colors and sharpness are clearly better on the Lumia. The difference become even more apparent when using the video mode. The picture of the Lumia is smooth thanks to the image stabilization, the colors are bright and vivid with a good dynamic range and objects are sharp. The Samsung on the other hand had obvious problems. First of all, the video is rather shaky although I filmed them the same way under the same conditions, you can clearly see the lack of image stabilization.
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If you are a US resident, you may win a Nokia Lumia 928 if you participate in this short 3 minute survey about cell phones. I completed it myself and it really took me just under 3 minutes. The number of survey takers is very limited, so chances to win are rather good.
Apart from that, it clearly shows that the Samsung’s low light performance is inferior to the Lumia in terms of color, sharpness and overall look. Moreover, I was surprised by the sound of the Lumia which sounds much better than any built in microphone I have used so far, including my camera. Of course, it is not perfect, and the base is a bit to pronounced for my tastes but overall, it is a fantastic built-in microphone – but just here the difference for yourself. I was happy to have my Lumia with me – I’m much more likely to nicely capture events in which I don’t carry my big camera now, which is ideal when traveling.
While in Montreal, we learned about the Circus Festival which was mostly free but more often than not rather impressive. After this experience, it doesn’t surprise me that Cirque du Soleil was founded in Montreal. Apart from that, Montreal has a fireworks competition with various participating teams from around the world. When we were in town, a team from Hong Kong performed their show. Unfortunately, we only learned about the event while we were having dinner. Consequently, we were too far away to take nice pictures of it. This year, the competition started in June and will end in August, so if you are ever in Montreal, make sure to check the schedule for fireworks so you can enjoy the masterful performance up close. At the moment, Montreal is also hosting an African music festival, and apart from that you can experience so many others that it always pays to check the schedule before your visit.
7. Whitewater Rafting
There are not many large cities in which you can eat a fine French meal and then go whitewater rafting, but Montreal is one of them. We discovered the possibility by chance and since it was hot and humid we were game for it immediately, especially since we don’t take many nature-based trips. After a quick phone reservation at Rafting Montreal, we were all set. At about $50 per person it seemed rather reasonable for a 3 hour trip. Now, we just had to figure out how to get there. Public transportation, while easily available, isn’t always reliable when on a certain time table. Without a car, it is simply worth the $35 to take a cab to the meeting point (or $15 from the last metro station), given the distance outside the city. Once there, we were equipped with a paddle, helmet and life vest, we embarked on the St. Lawrence river to raft the Lachine Rapids. Overall we had fun, especially when jumping into the rapids and pulling people back into the boat. The time on the water was about 75 mins, with 30 mins on the rapids, so be prepared for a wait in the beginning to go through a basic security demonstration and again at the end to get back to the rafting office. For my taste, it could have been a little longer on the water, but overall we enjoyed it. If you go, make sure to bring sun screen, sandals, and sporting clothes. Altogether, I would definitely go rafting again – next time maybe in Colorado! Here you can get a few first hand impressions:
Overall, we had a very nice time in Montreal although it was a bit too hot and humid. If you are located in the Northeast of the US, I think it is a great place to visit by car over the weekend and although you are in French Canada, everybody is perfectly fluent in English. When you fly in, I think 3 days are all you need in Montreal and it always pays to checkout what festivals are going on at the time of your stay. Stay tuned for our other three pointers of things to do in Montreal: Food, Shopping & Antiques next week. Have you been to Montreal? What was on your list of things to do in and around Montreal?